Dean Knight is a regional stage actor in Richmond, Virginia with stories published in Lamplit Underground, Thirteen Myna Birds, the multi-media ongoing art project Body of Evidence and the short story collections Richmond Macabre, Volume II and Precognitive Universe of Emergent Desire.
IN THE GARDEN
Sunlight filled the hallway in jagged shafts, raking the bustling crowd. Teenage morning buzzed against the walls, down the halls, groggily shaking itself alive. A tight pack of girls strode down the center of the aisle, passing Mr. Riley, who stood at his post outside his classroom. The pack’s chatter grew low and quiet, and as they passed one of the girls was graceless enough to look back at Mr. Riley; she was immediately censored for the indiscretion, although re-absorbed soon enough, the slip forgotten or even implicitly condoned.
The usual commotion subsided somewhat after the pack of girls passed but there was a rumble of sorts, barely distinguishable from the general roar, coming from the back of the hallway. Riley looked down the hall to see in the distance Richard Jennings walking, alone, as though within a cone of alienation. Richard’s gait was always awkward and shambling in a way that suggested that he was not entirely in control of his body. The clothes he wore hung crookedly on him as though they were inching away from his body, reluctant to be implicated.
Today Riley watched Richard shamble down the hall in a bright red shirt and thought he is wearing it like it is a hump on his back, and the red is not right; somehow the way he is wearing it makes the entire color seem wrong, as though it should not exist. And every time I see him in the hallway he seems to be walking aslant, as though his body were edging away from itself. Richard was smiling today, if it could be called that—a kind of sick death’s head grimace that seemed plastered onto his face, and Riley inadvertently averted his eyes from Richard as he passed closer to him how often have I done that without even realizing I was doing it; now I am more aware, I am hyper-aware, I can smell things other people can’t, I can see things buried--
Riley shook his head smartly, as if to awake himself, as Richard passed on alone. He stretched a hand out to the doorframe and succumbed to memory: a year ago, a table at a painfully trendy restaurant, across from a young, increasingly nervous new teacher.
“Well, six years ago I was very sick—I was in bed for two weeks. It was July so school was out, and sometimes I felt as though I could die and sink away deep into my mattress a rotting corpse and no one would miss me, or find me even, until September, when Peterson would send someone to bang on my door, right?”
The reference to the principal was apparently a sign for the young woman to acknowledge recognition, and she did, nodding briefly with an anxious smile, her eyes darting about the room.
“I just watched television all the time—or really I just had it on all the time and my eyes would stare at it for a while and drift away for a while, and my brain would barely register the difference. But—and here’s the thing, see? When I would get out of bed, my feet would hit the floor in a different way, as though something inside of me was off, like my body had been readjusted within itself and was left slightly off-kilter. I would get up and stumble across the floor as though I were on different sized stilts, all akimbo. I’d lean against the bathroom threshold with my head hanging down, feeling my two disjointed selves clash within me. Can you understand that? Do you know what I mean?”
Riley’s amped, edged excitement was unnerving the woman almost completely, and somewhere within him he felt that, but he was going too fast to slow down. She could only muster a series of polite sounds, the barest of communication, but it was enough to keep Riley going.
“It was as though there was another me inside of me! As though my skeleton had somehow disgorged another, newer skeleton, and that new thing didn’t want to share my body but it had to, and I could feel it inside of me—but what was me? Do you see? Can I even say me? Are they both me? Ah—it was horrible, agonizing!
“I am not sure if I have really recovered. Yes, my body is back, I suppose—it eventually was slammed back into place, into one piece, a whole, if you can call it that—but the realization that it can happen, this kind of division or attempted division, this has permanently altered my consciousness. There is an I within my I and at one point the two were—misaligned?
“At points in those dreadful weeks I wanted violent death. Now, though, I aligns with I—if shakily—and ‘I’ walk around with a new consciousness of what ‘I’ is, what I am, and it is not altogether reassuring, I tell you!”
To that point his memory of the night was clear, all too much so, but after that the evening was blurry, a swirl of tension and alcohol. His face wrenched up while thinking of it, his free hand clenched into a fist. Richard’s alignment is out. I can see it, but I wonder what he feels about it or if he even realizes. Maybe he’s always been that way, maybe he thinks it’s normal, maybe he knows its not but he’s always been that way and cannot change it, and so he embraces it, with that devil-smile.
“Mr. Riley? Are you all right?”
From Angie’s journal:
“I wrote a poem for English class. It was homework. I had never written a poem before. I didn’t even have to do it, I could have written a one page essay instead, but I wrote the poem. I’m not sure why. I sat cross-legged on my bed and I just came up with some words and put them together. I think it was all right. Mr. Riley liked it; he gave me an A.
I think Mr. Riley likes me.
He shouldn’t. I have so many things inside me. I don’t want him to see them. Plus, he is my teacher and he is at least thirty years old. It isn’t right. But I have seen him looking at me and I have seen Jamey see him looking at me and it makes me uncomfortable and she makes me uncomfortable and sometimes I just want to go to the garden and cry and cry. I like going to the garden but it makes me sad sometimes. My favorite time is later afternoon, in the spring and summer, when the sun is not as strong as at mid-day but there is still light, and enough so that I can leave before night falls.
I went there today and I sat and thought about Mr. Riley. He was looking at me today during class and I don’t know if he wanted me to notice or not or if he should have been more careful or if he didn’t even care. Either way I was slow leaving class and he saw me again and I didn’t not look.
He asked me how I was getting along in class and there was a lizard in his voice. I told him I was doing fine I thought but what did he think. He said I was doing quite well and I didn’t hear the lizard. He said how he liked my poem a lot. A lot he said.
I said I had never written a poem before. He said I was good at it and I should write more sometime. I had to get to my next class. He smiled and nodded and said he would see me tomorrow, and I could hear the lizard again.”
Mr. Riley’s classroom was under control, barely, but a strong undercurrent of late May electricity and hormones crackled just below the calm. When the bell rang the current broke and the students madly dashed toward the door. Angie, among the last as usual, slowly made her way behind the pack. Mr. Riley said, too quietly, “Angie.”
Angie thought he doesn’t want to let the lizard out. She kept moving but looked in his direction, an awkward way of acknowledging what she shouldn’t, what she felt he didn’t deserve.
“Angie,” Mr. Riley said, at a regular volume, in a tightly controlled voice.
Angie stopped and looked not quite at him. The last of the rest of the students filed out, the final few, Jamey among them, darting eyes backward. Mr. Riley did not yet speak, but
I want to touch you. I know I know but. I am on the edge of an abyss. I will not touch you. I will not. But rather I would burn with you for you with you together. And I do not care what it would do to me to you to us. Us. At least there would be an us. At least I could stand in front of the demons of hell and say there is an us, some kind of untouched virginal holy us. But I would know I was in hell and I brought us both there.
“Angie. Do you know Richard Jennings?”
Angie still did not quite look at him, but looked up near him. “Yes—I think so.” An image of deviant electricity flashed through her mind, ending in a reddish shudder. Her arms clutched each other against her body tighter, squeezing her school books against her breasts, her fingers resting on the lettering on the cover of her notebook.
“I thought maybe the two of you might like to get together some time. He’s—I don’t know, a little awkward, I guess, and maybe it would be good for him to spend a little time with someone—with you, maybe.”
“Does…is he…writing a poem too?”
“What? Oh, ah, no, not that I know of.”
“Well…what should I help him with then?” Angie asked, at this point her eyes finally making contact with Mr. Riley’s face. “I was going to ask someone for help myself maybe, with Beowulf, it’s really hard. I don’t know how I could help him.”
Mr. Riley paused but only for a moment. “I was just thinking that maybe since you both were kind of alone, you might like to spend a little time together. You are—alone, right?” The words seem to hover shakily in the air, un-owned.
Angie unconsciously tightened her grip on her schoolbooks at her chest. “I have to get to next period,” she said in a voice that seemed small and far-away. Without actually moving she seemed to shrink into herself and away from Mr. Riley. A bell sounded.
“Sure, sure,” Mr. Riley said, his voice getting cheerier but more strained, scratchy. “But wouldn’t you like to maybe get together with him, just to try it out? I know this little restaurant that would be a nice place for you to go if you want—just an idea,” he added quickly, feeling his face begin to flush.
Angie started edging away from him, sideways towards the door. In a voice that was even more removed she murmured, “Well, I don’t know, I…”
“Hey, why not?” Mr. Riley interjected, almost desperately. Sweat started to trickle down his neck. “No harm, right? Just a couple people getting together, spending a little time together, right? Do you some good,” and with that Mr. Riley’s hands betrayed him and he hurriedly stuffed them into his pockets to grasp the lining. “What do you say?”
“…all right, I guess,” Angie barely uttered, in a choked voice, and for the first time today she looked, for an instant, at Mr. Riley’s face. Recoiling, she swerved around, bumping into the doorframe, and left the room hurriedly.
From Angie’s journal: “I am a virgin, and yet. I know what it means to have bones on you, in you, grinding against you while inside you. I know now what it means also when they say ‘bone tired’. My own bones are tired and they are cold, so cold. I have been up too late too many times, and the rising early every day. I can feel the bones around my eyes and they are old and tired.
“Sometimes I feel my bones grind against each other. It is a terrible feeling. Once I felt that while I was in the garden and so I ran out, I did not want that associated with my garden. If I have to experience that at least I want to separate it from the garden my garden my nice place my good place.
“I do not want to have bones at all. I want to be limp and spent—or rather I want to have never been spent, to have not been used, for that to have never been an option at all. People would say, ‘Angie, she’s not that—she is not. She doesn’t; she isn’t. There is no it at all with her’. And leave her alone.”
Richard looked around the restaurant. His eyes seemed to be trying to read the air and the walls. Angie watched him nervously. Her head from time to time darted to the side, as if to look through the wall to the outside. There were no windows near them. Angie was unsure whether to feel protected or imprisoned by this feature.
“Do you come here a lot?” Richard asked.
“No, I don’t.” Angie replied.
“It’s near your house though?”
“I guess so. But I didn’t know about it. I mean, until—until…”
“Until now?” Angie volunteered weakly.
Something in Richard’s eyes flamed up; he moved his vision around as if to douse the fire. He ended by staring at something in the distance. Angie’s mouth curled up tightly. After a few moments, she ventured,
“Do you…are you…” but trailed off.
Richard did not respond, but after another few moments turned to face her directly. Staring intensely into her eyes, he put his hand out towards her as though he wanted her to shake it. Angie, eyes widening, looked from his hand to his face with growing concern.
“Shake on it?” Richard inquired, with a conspiratorial air. Angie just looked back at him helplessly.
“Ah…on what?” she asked weakly.
“Pleased to meet you!” Richard enthused, in a voice loud enough to turn a couple of nearby heads their way briefly. “I’m Richard and you are Angie—Angela, I presume, is your full Christian name?”
“But this is in the way of a salute—to what is and what may be. Shake!” It was something like an order, and his hand remained out, hanging over the table.
Angie reached out cautiously and grasped his hand lightly. At full contact Richard closed his massive paw on top of hers and vigorously pumped it several times over the table then, still holding on, solemnly announced, “Acquaintances. Friends. And now,” he proposed as his index finger began caressing her wrist while their hands were still clasped in the handshake, “maybe something more?”
Angie stared at him, frozen. Her hand was still caught in his grasp, and she didn’t dare to try to pull it out. Her lips parted slightly but she made no sound, and had no idea what to say. Out of the corner of her eye she caught a movement that she could not fully see and felt trapped, caught within the grasp of Richard’s now sweaty palm. Growing agitated, she tried to wriggle out but Richard now did not even seem to be aware of her, his face was tilted upward and he was grinning in a way that Angie did not like at all. She exhaled, a sound like a anxious wave, and said,
“Is that him? Over there?”
Richard relaxed his grip but did not let go of her hand.
“Is what who? And where?”
A slender man in his early thirties walked into the main room of the restaurant. After a couple of searching glances about the room he sat and began to lightly drum his table with his fingers.
“That guy? What about him?”
“Nothing. Nothing.” Angie pulled her hand away and put it in her lap, safely encased in her other hand.
“Do you know him?”
“All right, no need to get upset. And I see you’ve gotten away from me, naughty!”
“Please,” Angie began, “I—I…” she trailed off, her eyes pointing down at the table.
The meal over, the aftermath hung in the space between them as an unanswered question. Angie had eaten little; Richard had cleaned his plate and ordered an additional appetizer, plus dessert. His eyes shone and bulged as though they had been fed, too. Angie looked at him as little as possible. From time to time, she looked about the room nervously, as though in search of someone. Richard had noticed, but somehow resolved the issue in his mind to his own satisfaction and was thus unaffected.
Angie started again as her eyes locked onto something in the distance, just out of Richard’s vision. Unnerved, she blurted out, “We have to go.”
Richard said, “Well, that makes sense. Our meal is finished!” He leaned back and thrust out his chest. Angie signaled clumsily for the waiter and paid him before Richard even realized; when he did, as Angie stood, he said, “Oh! Did you pay? Well—that means I’ll pay next time!”
Angie, shuddering, said, “We need to go. Now.” and motioned slightly for him to follow her as she strode toward the door. Richard, after a confused pause, stood and followed.
“Where is this?” asked Richard, looking around, his eyes blazing with curiosity and maybe something else mixed in. Angie’s mouth taut and tight, she seemed to be curling into herself as she surveyed her garden.
“This is mine,” she said in spite of herself, knowing it was ridiculous. The garden did not belong to her. But it was hers. “It’s mine, and I brought you here.”
Richard stepped toward her.
“You’re trespassing,” Angie said. Richard stopped. “But I brought you here,’ she continued. She was speaking to herself, it seemed, and as such Richard did not reply but remained motionless inside the garden, hovering in a field. “Yes,” she went on, “I brought you here and so it is all right.”
After a moment, Richard replied, “Yes, you brought me here.” After another few moments he said, “I’m all yours.”
Angie stiffened and her mouth curled. “No, that’s not it.”
“Why are we here?”
“To get away.”
“From what?” Richard asked, curious, but not moving or looking around. He stared at Angie.
“Him,” Angie repeated, less forcefully.
“Who?” Richard repeated, more forcefully.
Angie did not respond. Her eyes glazed and she almost fainted although her body made no movement.
“WHO?” Richard bellowed.
Angie scattered; she burst away from him farther into the garden with a whimper.
Richard, after a calming moment, without moving, projected his renewed question towards her: “Who?”
Angie said, “You know who.”
“No,” Richard replied evenly, taking several slow steps towards her so that he was standing near but at a respectful distance from her. “I don’t.”
A long pause hung between them but did not divide them. Richard waited.
Richard stirred. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“Isn’t he the one who brought us together, who…”
“I thought you wanted to go out with me,” Richard stated simply.
“What do you mean?” Richard asked.
Angie stood miserable, her head hanging. Her right hand started to shake uncontrollably, as though all the tension within her was manifesting itself inside that one body part.
“What do you mean?!?” Richard shot, harder and firmer than the previous time but without the bellowing, a firmly controlled question and implication.
Angie’s hand reached out to grasp the branch nearest her; her fingers draped a fading white flower and near-crushed it.
“Please stop,” she said slightly. Richard said nothing but his purpose was in the air between them, simmering. Her hand leaped back from the flower: a thorn had pricked her and a drop of blood surfaced on the flower, a trembling orb that held together for a moment and then smeared itself down the petal and dripped to the earth.
“Just please stop!” Angie cried. Richard stopped. The tension from his body released into the humid night air, crackling like electricity through the darkness.
Richard broke the silence quietly. “What did you mean? What does Mr. Riley have to do with this?”
Angie looked up and beyond Richard. A wind or a disturbance seethed through the trees. Something shifted.
“Is that him?” Angie whispered harshly.
Richard stared at her. “What? Is he following us?” He started to turn but she stopped him.
“I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t know.”
“But—why would he do that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe not.”
The garden was silent. As moments passed Richard watched Angie’s body gradually dissolve and then reconstitute itself, shakily, onto a stone bench that he had not seen before. The bench was large and seemed to emerge from the darkness of the garden, as though it had roots in its soil.
Richard surveyed the landscape around him in a visible attempt to command it without moving. Ascertaining something within his head, he nodded briefly to himself, and then turned back toward Angie and the bench and sat down in the center of the bench. Angie did not register his presence; she sat there uninterrupted and unresponsive; after re-creating herself on the bench her body began to fold into itself.
For the next three minutes Richard sat completely still and blank, as though the lights had been turned out inside of him. Then in the silence, broken only by the gentle rustle of a leaf, he returned to life, as if after a brief re-charge, quivering, his head turning toward Angie, who was crouched into herself with a haunted look in her eyes. He gazed at her, taking her in, noticing the way her hair hung limply but not unattractively against her shoulders, seeing the modest but distinct curve of her chest, and how her left arm, pale and delicate and pretty, slumped onto her thigh so carelessly it looked as if it were a discarded spare part. In an attempt to reclaim it, Richard slowly, tentatively, stretched out his hand toward her, and stealthily made contact, placing his hand gently on her forearm.
Angie’s body tensed up from within, a radiating pressure emanating from her gut and spreading throughout her whole body, but without causing a ripple on the surface, just a faint glint of electricity. Her head did not move, she made no sign of noticing Richard’s touch, but her lips trembled slightly. Her fear of what he might be thinking was balanced by being touched at what might be a simple awkward gesture of an awkward boy trying to help in a delicate situation.
Richard’s hand remained on her forearm motionless for several charged moments, and then Richard began to pet Angie slightly. As if sensing her coiling up at this he stopped, letting his hand rest for another few moments on her forearm. Then, when Angie and Richard had both been perfectly still for a timeless period, Richard’s hand slipped down her forearm and landed on her thigh, which it began to stroke and caress.
Angie whipped her head around at Richard, her face a frozen mask of pain. She stared accusingly, imploringly, outraged, at Richard, and saw in his face a strange, creepy grin, as if he were thinking I’ve comforted you now give yourself to me and she thought no no this is wrong and it contaminates my garden and she whipped her leg away from him, her whole body twisted around and she huddled to herself on the side of the bench shaking, saying, “no, no, no, that’s not it, that’s not it at all, that’s not right—no!”
Before Richard could tabulate and respond there was a rustling coming from somewhere just outside of the garden. Angie on hearing it leapt up and threw herself away from the bench, from the sound, from Richard. Richard, hearing it too, stood and glared all around him like a tiger defending uncertain territory. His lips bared back and his eyes bulged; his arms slowly spread out on either side of him and he began to slowly turn around in a teetering circle, strong but shaky, discordant.
“Hello?” he spoke, softly at first but with rising fire in his voice. “Hello? Who is there?” No response, but one quick rustle and twig break and what could have been a scurrying off. Richard’s face narrowed and darkened. “Who is it?” He looked over at Angie, who remained standing but hunched over, curled up into herself. After a reflective pause, he said, quietly, “Mr. Riley?” He stared into the darkening silence for another few moments, then spoke, with more authority, “Mr. Riley? Mr. Riley?”
Angie looked toward him with something like hope almost.
“MISTER RILEY?!?!” Richard roared into the night.
Angie stood inside the dead silence of a summer midnight in the garden, her face a shattered mosaic as though it had been ripped apart and pasted back together roughly. Her hand clenched a kitchen knife. In the center of the garden like the middle of an endless maze Angie stumbled and half-collapsed, her knee pressing the edge of her yellow dress into the soil.
Trickles of moisture dropped down her cheeks and touched the darkness of the night and of the earth. Spreading herself out on the ground she drew the blade of the knife roughly, shakily, across her left wrist and blood sprang out to join the tears. As she pulled the blade across her right wrist, flitting towards unconsciousness, she let out a mournful cry that scraped across the sky.
Refracted through the twinkling twilight and the blur of street lights and traffic lights and the moon Richard, his face marred and out of control, marched down the street in a caricature of military posture with a barely concealed gun in his hand in the pocket of his loose-fitting zip-up sweat-jacket. His mouth open, soundless rage spilled out into the air, bleeding into the atmosphere.
On Mr. Riley’s block, hospital lights blaring inside his head Angie’s head on the generic hospital pillow looking blankly at him, at the wall at nothing at no one then she turns away eyes still wide open tears trickling down the side of her face. Her mouth opens but nothing comes out. Back there Richard cannot see he is not there but he is his mind sees and rages red: smeared red throughout the night heading for the dawn.
Mr. Riley’s house is on the corner of the block. The shadows casting across the front of the house make it seem as though the windows are unseeing eyes. Richard lurched up to face the house. He drew the gun and pointed it at the house, a slight tremor running down the length of his arm.
The first bullet smashed one of the eye-windows, ripping into the quiet night. The second bullet slammed into the brick between the eyes. The third shattered the other window as confused, frightened noises started to be heard inside. Richard, his arm steady now, released a low, resounding laugh from the bottom of his stomach; his mouth curled into a leer. He muttered curses through the smile as he contemplated his next shot. A light went on inside the house and then quickly shut off. A crash was heard inside, followed by hurried footsteps and the sound of a voice speaking frantically.
Richard walked slowly toward the door and stopped just before the few steps up to the porch in the center of a brief period of silence, although the silence is that of something that is broken and lying in pieces. Then it was broken from within:
“Who is that?” asked a quivering voice.
“You know who it is,” Richard responded. After a shuffling moment,
“Is she…how is she…?”
Richard raised the gun and pulled the trigger. The fourth bullet crashed through the door. A siren spoke in the near distance, volume increasing. Richard stepped onto the porch.
“Richard!” cried Mr. Riley in a choked voice.
Richard kicked the door; it collapsed easily enough to reveal Mr. Riley ghostlike just inside. He held out his hands limply.
“Don’t,” Riley whispered. “I—I’ll leave, you’ll never see me again. Whatever you want. I’m sick, I know that—let me just get away.”
Richard took careful aim and shot Mr. Riley once in the stomach, throwing him to the floor. Richard watched stonily as Riley writhed atop a growing puddle of blood. Blue and red lights lit up the night but failed to illuminate Riley’s washed-out, pale face. From behind him, just outside the house, policemen shouted at Richard.
Richard stared down at Riley. Riley’s body was contorting itself on the floor as though something inside of it was trying to get out. Richard stared curiously at the struggle as the shouts from the policemen continued. A sad lopsided smile crept onto his face. He turned around to face the police and lifted the gun slowly, carelessly; a volley of bullets tore Richard’s body apart.