“Child in the Garden”

“It’s just a nightmare.”

“Perhaps that’s true, but things are rarely just things. Sometimes a cigar is not a cigar.”

Ralph looked up sharply, more irritated than he should have been. “What?”

“Nothing. A psychologist joke.”

“I thought you were just a counsellor, not a psychologist. Isn’t that what you said that first day?”

“Yes, that is what I said.” A chill entered the woman’s voice. “Now, may we return to the matter at hand? You were describing your nightmare.”

Ralph shrugged, “What’s the point? It’s always the same. It’s been the same since before I started seeing you. Nothing ever changes.”

“You can’t believe that, or there’s no hope for these sessions.”

“No, I didn’t mean….” Ralph paused, momentarily confused. “I said the nightmare never changes; that doesn’t mean…. Oh, forget it.” God damn it. The sessions had begun to upset him as much as the nightmares did.

The counsellor waved her skinny hand. “Okay, never mind the dream.” She placed a strange emphasis on the word dream. “How are you functioning in your regular life? Have you experienced any flashbacks since last we spoke?”

“No. Things have been good.” Good, of course, is a relative term.

“How is your son?”

Ralph tensed. “I told you: He will not enter into these conversations.”

She shrugged in an unprofessional gesture of frustration. “And how do you expect progress when you place limitations on these discussions? You cannot compartmentalize your life and hope for reintegration.”

“Lady, if I didn’t put up barriers, I wouldn’t function at all. That’s how I survive. Jesus, have you looked around lately?”

Her eyes grew as frosty as her voice. She glanced perfunctorily at her watch then chilled him with an icicle stare. “I believe that’s quite enough for today. I trust you can see yourself out.”

Ralph chuckled as he got up to leave. At some level, he realized that his behaviour was self-destructive, but it always amused him to get under her skin. Had he reflected on it, he would have also realized that his jabs were a puerile, but successful attempt at avoidance. There were places that Ralph simply did not want her to take him. Whenever she probed too deeply, he twisted like a pig stuck with a spear.

Ralph stepped from the makeshift office building into the twilight city. The streets were charcoaled grey under a thin layer of ash, and he felt the immediate, familiar assault on his lungs. He wanted to turn back inside just to breathe the conditioned air, but Peterkin would be home already, and Ralph knew he should return to the projects. He also knew, however, that there was an occasional midweek rations shipment that came to the central city distribution depot, and he was desperately short on provisions. The centre was only a few blocks away, so he turned and set off in that direction.

The damp ash made the concrete slick, and Ralph adopted the walk/shuffle that had become ubiquitous on the city streets. Had there been any humour left in the world, people might have smiled thinly at the unlikely comedic-tragic succession of dead-eyed figures acting out the choreography of a macabre dance—zombies on Soho. Except, of course, there was no Soho anymore, and the new medium of dance was brimstone and fire. The falling curtain was ash. The encore would be lung cancer.

Not the South Pacific paradise I read about as a kid, Ralph thought, and a cascade of remembrances rained darkly in his mind. He shook his head, trying to dispel the destructive images. They plagued him so frequently, they had taken on the aspect of a ritual. Thank god he had Peterkin.

“Hi, chief,” the man at the distribution centre greeted Ralph. He did not know Ralph’s name, nor did Ralph know his. Hardly anyone used names anymore. Humanity had become an indistinct smudge of misery, and names rang false—no more than echoes of everything that had been traded away. So Ralph was always either “captain” or “chief,” two cheerful, non-specific monikers unwittingly applied by a man happy to have a work placement that allowed him to bring relief to others. The therapist helped Ralph wrestle with the demons of his mind; this man appeased the demon of his belly. That demon always returned, but at least when it was fed its silence was absolute. Ralph could almost forgive the man the use of the word “chief,” but that simple appellation negated the half-hour Ralph had just spent with his therapist.

The man knew why Ralph was there, why anyone came there; however, he followed the protocol of his own ritual—something only he understood. He smiled and waited for Ralph to ask.

“Anything come in?”

“Sorry, cap. The cupboard’s bare.” Yet there was a conspiratorial glint in his eyes, and Ralph understood that the cupboard wasn’t completely bare—there was food to be had, only it had not been issued by the provisional government. Occasionally, there was a certain black market meat that could be obtained provided one was willing to sell one’s soul.

Ralph disregarded the silent invitation, nodded and turned to leave, then he paused and glanced back. “Thanks.”

The man’s face brightened, “Maybe next time.” The smile was infectious, and despite his earlier machinations, Ralph found his lips tracing a grin as he walked away.

 

He had walked a block towards Peterkin when he heard a nightmare voice from behind him. “Ralph, is that you?” At first, he thought he was suffering another of his episodes, but no, this was real—still the realm of nightmare but real none-the-less.

Once he recognized the voice and discounted the possibility of delusion, Ralph’s first impulse was to walk faster—to flee. The ash underfoot, however, made that impossible, and he did not welcome the humiliation of falling.

Falling…. Not like…no, not like that. Ralph shivered.

He stopped and turned.

“It is you.” The man stopped as well. He was thin, emaciated. Not so tall. A far cry from the boy that Ralph had known, yet there was still something familiar in the eyes.

“Yes, it’s me,” Ralph said. “Where’s your other half?” Pain etched sudden, dramatic lines on the other’s face. Ralph let the question drop.

“How are you?” The absurdity of the question made Ralph laugh. How am I? He was alive; they were all alive—almost all.   Satan had shaken loose the bond of atoms, but he had failed in his final retribution. For the present, he had failed. And there was Peterkin. At the end of it, at the beginning of it, there was Peterkin.

The man on the street smiled uncertainly at Ralph’s response, so incongruous with his expectations.

Ralph extended his hand, and they shook. “All things considered,” he said, “I’m fine. I have a son.” Perhaps it was an odd thing to say, so suddenly, devoid of context, but Ralph knew why he had said it. His conversation with this man had to be predicated upon that declaration.

And, he reminded himself, the person before him was a man, not the boy he’d known so long ago. The sins of the child should not be laid upon the adult, even when the opposite was so terribly true.

“Do you have time for a coffee?”

Ralph was startled, but quickly recognized the anachronism. Obviously, neither one of them could afford a coffee. “Steamed weed?”

This time they both laughed. “Good for…,” the man began to reply, then paused as if waiting for someone to complete the common expression.

“…what mists you,” Ralph finished.

They found a nearby shop, ordered drinks then sat facing one another across a worn tabletop.

For a while, they rallied with small talk—news of the shattered world that struggled to rebuild itself and inevitably fell into the same instinctual modes of self-immolation. The Sydney Doctrine had been ratified, essentially outlawing the use of thermo-nuclear weapons, but everyone knew that genie would not be forced back into the bottle. The wars in Central America continued. The word of the week was that a fish had been caught off the coast of Refuge City, but no one really believed that story. Rumours upon rumours. All they knew for truth was how the ash continued to fall, and the sun had little warmth in it.

Soon, though, that shallow well of topics ran dry, and the two sat in uncomfortable silence. Into that emptiness, the past began to flow, seeping through the porous walls of memory.

Finally, Ralph asked a second time, “Where’s your twin?”

That same flash of pain. “He’s dead.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.” Ralph knew it was wrong to ask, but the niceties no longer seemed that important. “How’d he die?”

“Suicide.” The single word fell heavily between them.

Of course it was suicide. Ralph had become accustomed to the idea. But for Peterkin, he would have gone that route himself. He wondered how many of them from the island had taken that way out.

As if reading his thoughts, the single twin asked, “Have you heard of any of the others?”

Ralph grimaced. “Why would…?” he began and then caught himself. He had been asked “of” not “from.” Ralph sighed; he knew he had to let that anger go. That’s what the therapy was all about, but before he could surrender the anger, he had to identify its source: he needed someone to blame.

At first, it had been easy to hate the other boys from the island, but the more time pulled him from the tragedy, the more difficult it became to place blame on a group of children. He grew to pity them, and himself not most of all, for he had not been driven to do all that they had done. Not all.

He shook his head, “No.”

The twin leaned forward. “I’ve heard things. Here and there.” Ralph nodded, feeling numb. “The chief was murdered a few years ago. At least, that’s what I was told: stabbed to death in a bar. He got what he deserved.”

The chief. The image of a child laying broken in the surf rose unbidden to Ralph’s mind. He gasped. No one deserves that, or if one does then we all do. He glanced down at his hands. “What about…Roger?” he heard himself rasp.

The twin flinched, as if the name itself inflicted pain. “He’s in New Hydra.” There was more; Ralph sensed it. He waited. “He’s running a company—CEO or something.” It was obviously painful to say it. The other story had an element of poetic justice—evidence that the world was righting itself. Roger finding success was simply wrong, and Ralph knew he would have a difficult time dealing with the unexpected and unwelcome news.

Ralph studied the twin for a moment. Was this really an accidental meeting? he wondered. Is this why he stopped me? To tell me these things?

“What about you?” Ralph asked. “Are you living in the city?” That same flinch, and there came no answer. Ralph glanced around the room, noting how much darker the day had become. Including his companion, he sat in the company of ghosts.

It was time to go.

The twin sensed it too. There was nothing to be gained from this meeting—no shared memory of youthful joy that they could draw on, nothing to counterbalance the world as it was.

Time to go.

Ralph needed to see his son.

Their farewell was brief and without emotion. Ralph hurried out the shop and almost welcomed the leaden streets beyond.

 

The shuffle home took Ralph less time than usual. He was driven to distance himself from the twin and the other ghosts awakened by their short conversation. A single twin, he wondered, are there phantom pains when one twin dies? Does the sense of being incomplete ever fade? As much as Ralph felt a need to escape, he was compelled by a more intense desire to reach home: He needed Peterkin. He needed his son to bring colour back into his existence.

When he reached the projects, however, Peterkin was not home, and there was no note to explain his absence. Emptiness hang thickly in their tiny refuge. Their apartment was small—two cramped bedrooms, a bathroom, an open space that functioned as kitchen and living room. There was no place where they could sit at a table and eat, but there was rarely any food anyway.

What made this tiny space endurable was one window that overlooked the green area in the centre of the project complex. Ralph had deluded himself into believing that it was a garden, even though the few plants growing there were stunted and only just hovered on this side of subsistence. Still, it was a protected area where children could gather to play safely even after darkness had fallen. Ralph spent many hours by that window, staring past the shadow veil of grey and losing himself in the innocent pastimes of the children who gathered below.

Ralph rummaged a meagre meal, then carried the food to the threadbare couch positioned before the window. When he looked below, he almost immediately spotted Peterkin at the far end of the enclosure. He was with two other boys.

Ralph let his head drift forward so that the glass cooled his brow. Peterkin was smiling as he spoke with the other boys, both near his own age of eleven years. No, one boy looked younger and stood a little apart from the other two. Their clothes were smeared by the ubiquitous ash. They must have been rolling in it to get as filthy as they appeared.

Ralph signed, Peterkin was his panacea. Ralph clung to the innocence of the boy like a castaway fanning the embers of a dying fire. His breath caught in his throat. Peterkin was such a small, small boy—just a littlun—a wholly inadequate premise for the redemption of a species, but such was the role that Ralph had thrust upon him. There he was; boney, narrow shoulders standing as a bulwark against the essential nature of humanity.

Ralph drew a long, shaking breath and blew it out between tense lips. The window fogged momentarily, obscuring his vision of the boys.

He remembered the day that Ann told him she was pregnant. She had cried, and Ralph had burned with an anger he could not understand. She had wanted to abort the child—kill it in the womb, an attitude that further enraged Ralph. He hated her for being careless enough to bring an innocent into that world, yet, paradoxically, the thought of killing another innocent drove him into a fury. Her determination to abort fueled his determination to save the fetus. It was this that drove them apart. She was more than happy to leave him and the child.

Ralph shook his head, dispelling the memory. Years had passed. It was done, and he had Peterkin.

The boys in the garden played a game that Ralph did not recognize. His son had picked up a sharpened stick and was waving it about. A remembrance stirred in Ralph and forced him to suppress a shudder. That damned meeting with the twin….

What game was this? What kind of play could be found in such a world? Ralph set aside the plate of food and stared below, seized by a sudden apprehension of what he might see. He noticed that he had begun to wring his hands and forced them flat on his thighs. The question rose again: What kind of play could be found in such a world?

Then, as he watched, Peterkin said something harsh to the younger boy. The exclamation was followed by a sudden strike with the stick, and his son’s target was driven down. The attack seemed without provocation. The third boy began laughing, enjoying the pain masking the face of the victim on the ground.

Ralph jerked back from the window. There was a momentary tableau where Peterkin stood above the injured boy, the stick held at the end of a bony arm, poised to inflict another blow. There was no anger, no viciousness. Peterkin seemed intrigued. He was exerting control over another living creature, and the sense of power fascinated him. Ralph felt momentarily transfixed with terror.

Then he turned from the window, unwilling to watch the scene play out. All the colour had drained from his face. With movements of wooden hopelessness, he arose and went silently to his bedroom. He closed the door behind him and lay down. He turned his face toward the wall, his back to the garden.

And he waited.

 

A black rain began and drove the boys inside. It washed the ash from the leaves, coating them with an obsidian sheen. Peterkin found the apartment empty, and not caring enough to look in on his father, went to his own bed and the satisfaction of sleep.

Hours later, Ralph rose in the darkness and made his way to Peterkin’s room. It was cold. Frail, artificial light filtered in through a grimy window, casting a Rorschach test pattern of blotches on the sleeping boy. The walls in the tiny room were unadorned, but Peterkin had lately taken to sketching strange, hollow-eyes figures on the plaster.

Ralph squeezed beside his son on the bed and reached an arm across the boy’s shoulders. Despite his new resolve, tears began to blur Ralph’s eyes, and he was forced to smother a cry. Peterkin was really such a small boy. Ralph knew it had been unfair to place so much on so tiny a figure, yet there had been nothing else to cling to. Civilization lay in ruin, and all that remained was his earnest hope in the innocence of a child.

Then that play in the garden…. Their tormenting of that boy…. Had they been about to chant? Had Ralph perceived movement at the periphery of the garden? Something circling the boys, waiting for an opportunity? He had seen all this before, and he finally understood how he had deluded himself—how a desperate hope had blinded him to the truth. Peterkin was no salvation, he was just another one of them. No more. No less.

How could Ralph have brought such a child into such a world? Ann had been right. They should have aborted their son.

Ralph lay still for some time then. He knew what had to be done, but it was pity, not hope that stayed his hand.

It was also pity that compelled him.

The tears flowed freely now, eroding the sorrow until resolve was laid bare. Ralph lifted Peterkin’s pillow from beneath his head, gently, so as not to wake him, then he lowered it back down and pressed tightly.

The boy only struggled for a little while.

Outside, the rain continued to fall.

 

Kenneth D. Reimer

 

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