Authors: S. Walden
“So what did you wanna do?”
“Strangle him,” she said before thinking. She slapped her hand over her mouth.
“There,” Jeremy replied triumphantly. “Now, if you wrote that down, and I found it, do you think I’d believe for a second you really wanted to kill that guy?”
“It’s not the same thing at all!” Regan cried. “Mine’s a figure of speech! You go on for pages and pages—”
“Wake up, Regan!” Jeremy shouted. “I’ve been dealing with bullying for years! You don’t think that warrants a lot of goddamn pages?”
She flinched then opened her mouth to argue. But there was nothing to say because he was right. His experiences warranted more than “a lot” of pages.
Jeremy tipped backwards until his butt hit the ground. He groaned softly as he stretched his legs in front of him.
A long bout of silence. Rustling leaves. Some bird conversations. Honking horn.
“I get it,” Regan said finally. “I understand.”
Hope. The first he’d felt it since he discovered his journal was missing. That seemed like ages ago. But there it was now—a tiny sprout still curled into itself, nestled snuggly in the soft, warm tissues of his heart. It wasn’t sure of opening completely. It needed more sunshine words from her lips—assurances that she trusted him.
“I would never do those things,” he whispered. A gentle lie. He realized he needed to treat her like a skittish horse. Lots of cooing and verbal petting.
She thought a moment, watching the ground as she drew crude stick figures in the dry dirt: one female, one male. She fought a gender battle in her heart—the feminine part of her wanted to trust him immediately. After all, she pitied him. But the masculine part of her fought against those supple emotions, demanding she scrutinize the evidence and keep feelings out of it.
She glanced at the journal once more, then at Jeremy who sat pulling weeds.
“Why not tell a therapist?” she offered. She immediately regretted the words.
Jeremy snorted but said nothing.
“I . . . I just mean, maybe they could help you work through some of this.” Her face burned.
Shut up, already.
“So telling someone all of this instead of writing it down would have changed what exactly?” he asked, looking straight into her eyes.
She wanted to blurt out, “I would have never read it! I wouldn’t be responsible! That’s what would have changed!” But she shook her head instead, keeping her mouth sealed shut.
He knew her thoughts.
“You didn’t have to read it, Regan. If you would have just minded your own business, then you wouldn’t be dealing with this enormous moral issue.” He paused a moment then added, “Moral issue that you completely made up, by the way. I’m not planning on shooting people. They were just words. Words don’t mean anything.”
“Words mean everything,” Regan countered. “What’s the point of them if they mean nothing?”
Jeremy chewed his lip.
“When my dad tells my mom he loves her, does that mean nothing?” Regan persisted.
Jeremy shrugged. “How should I know?”
“If I told you I trusted you completely, does that mean nothing?”
He had no choice but to shake his head.
“You filled an entire notebook with your thoughts and feelings about how those assholes treated you. The things they said to you. Their prejudice. Your hurt. Do your words and their words mean nothing?”
A strong wave of heat rippled through his muscles. She could have stopped at the “I trust you” argument.
He clenched his jaw and hung his head.
“Words matter,” she said decidedly.
“So what?” Jeremy said. “So now it’s my job to sit here and try to convince you with my words that these—” He waved his notebook in the air. “—don’t mean anything?”
“I don’t know.”
“What the fuck do you want from me?” he barked.
“I don’t want anything from you,” Regan shot back.
He knew he was making a mistake, but the anger rose up fresh—one very pissed off Lazarus whose bones still ached, whose knees buckled and jerked when he tried to walk.
Jeremy stumbled over his next words. “Y-you c-could have given . . . sh-should have left me . . . had no r-right . . . !”
He jumped off the ground and towered over her.
“You could have given it back! You could have left me alone!” he roared.
Regan scrambled backwards once more, grimacing at the feel of a sharp stick that pierced her right palm. She thought absurdly that he might hit her, and she thought even more absurdly that she’d deserve it—deserve to be punched in the face by a boy twice her size.
“I don’t think you’re a killer!” she cried.
He said nothing.
“I don’t,” she insisted. “I believe you.”
“Because you’re afraid of me,” he replied.
“No! No, I’m not!”
He looked at her, unconvinced.
“Well, you hovering over me like that doesn’t help,” she confessed.
He backed away.
“I know you would never hurt anyone,” Regan whispered, and despite the evidence, her brain began to believe it. Because she wanted it to. She felt her masculine side concede victory and recede into the depths, her feminine side crowned queen and conqueror.
Jeremy wasn’t angry because he’d been caught, she realized. He was angry because she violated him. She took his words when he never gave them to her. There. That made a lot of sense.
He studied her carefully. She stared back, unblinking, and he knew she told the truth. She made the decision to trust him. His heart faltered with the knowledge, shaking his sturdy resolve. He’d resolved long ago to kill. It was a just mission. It was the right thing to do. They deserved to die, and he deserved to take them out. But the look in her eyes forced him to ask a question he’d never entertained:
Are you sure?
Well, that pissed him off.
His muscles swelled and contracted at the image of a boy being pummeled over a scar. A fucking scar. He ripped in two as the image played on and on in a continual loop. Pudgy fist to his arm. Elbow to the thigh. Slaps and scratches to his face. Little boy fingernails were the worst—jagged and chewed—making the perfect razor-like weapons. He clung to the image as he split. Two people abiding in one man: gentle, quiet victim for her and justified vigilante for them. He had no choice but to swing on the pendulum—a dangerous ride that would challenge his sanity. Back and forth. Side to side. Victim. Vigilante. Victim. Vigilante.
Victim, for now.
He twisted his face in mock pain, watching her eyes soften with sympathy. He felt mildly sorry for her, staring at him with those doe-like eyes, sharing in his hurt and humiliation. He would never call her stupid. Naïve, yes. But never stupid. She trusted him, to her detriment, and that was the end goal.
“I’m sorry for tackling you like that,” he said.
“You scared me half to death,” she admitted.
“I can’t believe I did that. I’d never hurt you,” he replied. He wanted to believe it.
She smiled. “I believe you.”
He thought a moment. “Where did you find my journal?”
Regan blushed. “It fell out of your locker. You . . . you didn’t notice your locker didn’t shut all the way.”
“I-I closed it—” She dropped her voice to a low whisper. “—and kept your journal to give to you.”
“After you read it, of course,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” Regan replied.
Jeremy looked away, trying hard to push down the rising anger.
“Do you want me to walk you home?” he asked grudgingly.
“No. I’m hanging here for a while,” she replied.
“It’s a cool tree if you hadn’t noticed.” She pointed above her head.
He looked up. The branches stretched out almost horizontally, twisting and climbing in fat, crooked fingers. The leaves were still green, but fall hinted its imminent arrival. He couldn’t see it, but he could smell it.
“Yeah, it is,” he said.
She paused. “I don’t think it’s wise for you to keep that journal. I mean, I believe you when you say all that stuff about killing people is just a . . . I don’t know. Coping fantasy?” She looked up at him.
“But I found it, totally by mistake, and it freaked me out. I’m sure that would never happen again with someone else, but if I were you, I’d get rid of it.”
She was quiet, trying to shake the odd feeling that she was a conspirator in his plot to kill.
But I believe him
“Maybe I’ll rip out those pages,” he suggested.
She frowned as she nodded. Not a conspirator. No. Forever linked to him in an intimate way? Perhaps. They certainly shared one intense secret, and that formed the bond almost at once. She wasn’t sure what to do with that bond.
Are we friends now?
Does he even want to be friends?
“I feel weird leaving you here,” Jeremy said.
He wasn’t sure what else to say. “Goodbye” seemed too abrupt, yet he’d run out of words. He hadn’t spoken that much to a fellow classmate since Kevin. He didn’t even talk to Hannah that much. He was tired, drained of energy—that cajoling effort to convince her of his goodness. He couldn’t walk away on his own volition, though. He needed her permission.
“I’ll see you around, Jer,” she said.
And with that, she released him.
I worry sometimes that people will discover me, my plan. I worry more that they won’t believe me when I say it’s just a fantasy. I see my words betraying me—shedding their costume to reveal who I truly am: a killer. What would I do if anyone suspected me? Lie? I don’t think I’m a terrible liar. I think that’s innate in all of us. But could I lie under the pressure? I might fold. I might confess to everything—my plans, motivations, feelings. They may take pity on me. They may see that what I cooked up wasn’t so off the wall. It had merit. Reason. But that’s still not enough to let me go home afterwards. No. I wouldn’t be going home. I’d be going somewhere else—somewhere far away with people whose jobs it is to rework my brain. Try to make me “normal.” I can see myself strapped to an ancient table, dressed in white, biting down on a piece of leather. They cut open my head, tinker around, put me back together, and hope for the best. Seems unfair, really. Why aren’t my enemies’ brains being reworked? They’re the real problem, not me. But I’ve come to learn through reading too much news that it’s always the victim’s fault. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was wearing a suggestive skirt. They deserved it on some level. So I guess I deserve the bullying? I was in the wrong school at the wrong time? Gosh. And all my family had to do was move to another district . . .
He left Regan under the twisted, old oak and headed to his new home. Roy gave him the afternoon off to “get settled,” but there wasn’t much settling to do. He had a duffle bag and a book bag. That was it. He wasn’t sure where he would sleep tonight. He had no bed. No couch. He didn’t even own a sleeping bag. It was tossed out when he was young.
Roy handed over the apartment key and watched Jeremy climb the staircase that hugged the outer wall of the auto garage. He paused on the tiny porch that was recently swept. There was a welcome mat and a plant stand. With a plant on it. Jeremy looked down at his employer.
“Is this my responsibility?” he asked.
Roy smirked. “I told Carol not to bother, but she wanted the place to feel homey.”
Jeremy thought a moment. “Sooo, is this my responsibility?”
Roy rolled his eyes. “It’s a plant, Jer. You water it every now and then and let it do its thing.”
Jeremy nodded. “Thanks again,” he said softly, averting his eyes.
“Look at me like a man. Ain’t nothing to be ashamed of.”
That was debatable.
Jeremy turned his face and looked at Roy straight on. “Thank you.”
Surrogate grandfather. Employer. Now landlord. Roy was certainly racking up the titles—becoming inextricably connected to this lonely kid. And he didn’t mind it at all. He’d do anything for Jeremy because he loved him.
Jeremy stopped cold inside the apartment. And then his mouth dropped open. He wasn’t expecting any of it. Roy never once mentioned the place came furnished. Maybe it didn’t. Maybe he and Carol stayed up all last night fixing up the space just for him. He was flattered at the same time that crackling shame licked his skin. It burned bright on his face, and he was happy Roy wasn’t there to see it. He’d say something like, “Stop blushing like a girl. Be a man. It’s only a couch.”
He took an inventory of the room. The apartment was tiny: a living room dining room combo that housed a round table with four chairs—who would he invite over?—brown couch and matching club chair, and a flat screen TV. A TV! He never watched TV because he never had the opportunity. It was always glued to some fishing show, and one particularly brutal fight with his father taught him to never change the channel.
He walked over to the TV and reached out his hand, letting it glide slowly over the smooth plastic. He smiled, showing his teeth. He rarely smiled so big, and thought in that moment that an electronic device had way too much power over him. An unhealthy attachment was born, and he wondered how much damage forty-two inches of plastic pixels could inflict. He backed away reluctantly and turned around.
He noticed a throw blanket folded at the corner of the couch. Couch pillows. A compact coffee table with a candle in the center. Generic pictures of mountain ranges hung on the walls. Sheer curtains draped the window.
The excitement built despite his effort to control his emotions. He sprang to the kitchen and tore open the cupboards. Plates, bowls, glasses, pots, and pans. Utensils and potholders. Tea towels, for Christ’s sake! Carol even stocked the cabinet under the sink with dish detergent and other cleaning products. He paused in front of the fridge, hand poised.
“Just maybe,” he whispered, and opened the door.
Food. And lots of it. Tupperware containers marked with the days of the week. His dinners, courtesy of Carol. Milk. So much milk! He grabbed a carton and drank greedily, then carried the milk with him down a narrow hallway to his bedroom and bath. A bed. A nightstand with an ancient alarm clock. Bath towels and soap and a new razor. He felt spoiled in that moment. He felt what other kids must feel who get everything they want. He was one of them for the first time.
Roy cleared his throat. Jeremy whirled around.
“I won’t be coming in unannounced after today,” he said. “Just wanted to see that you’re settled.”
Jeremy bit his lip.
“Carol made you dinners for the rest of the week,” Roy went on. “To help with the transition.”
“Don’t get used to it, though. You’re responsible for all your utilities and food expenses.”
“You should have all the basics, though.”
Still more nodding.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Jeremy! Use your damn words!” Roy cried.
“You . . . you didn’t have to do all this,” Jeremy whispered.
“You know.” It was impossible for him to look at Roy. He hung his head and kicked at the carpet.
“Do what?” Roy repeated. “And stand up straight when you’re talking to me.”
Jeremy sighed. “Furnish this place,” he said, forcing his eyes to meet Roy’s. He knew his face was beet red.
“It’s been furnished,” Roy replied. “That’s how we’ve always rented it.”
Bullshit. Jeremy saw the latest tenants move out. They had a moving truck, and he watched them load piece after piece of large furniture items. He smiled then. Roy noticed.
“Go put that milk away,” Roy ordered. “Keep food in the kitchen and dining room, you hear?”
“And I don’t want dishes piling up in that sink. You’ve got hands and detergent. Use ’em.”
“And I expect a ‘thank you’ to my wife for all that cooking.”
“You got it.”
Roy hovered near the front door, his face registering an awkward pain as he battled the statements in his head. They were all emotional and sappy and unwarranted, and yet he felt justified in delivering at least one of them. The problem was deciding which would embarrass Jeremy the least.
, Jeremy thought desperately. He didn’t want to hear “Jeremy, you’re like a son to me” or “I love you, kid” or “What else do you need?” He couldn’t possibly need anything else. He was filled to the brim with all of Roy and Carol’s kindnesses—feeling drunk on a foreign feeling he could only identify as real love. But he did
need Roy to voice it. Those words would ruin everything.
“Well, you’re home now,” Roy said finally. He cleared his throat.
“That’s good, then,” Roy mumbled. He turned the doorknob, then paused. “There’s no Sunday dinner in there.” He pointed toward the kitchen.
“We eat at seven. Sharp.”
“Don’t be late.”
“I won’t. I swear.”
Now Roy averted his eyes. He opened the door and paused in the threshold.
“Be a good boy,” he said gruffly, and walked out.
Jeremy stood staring at the black door, replaying Roy’s words as he thought about his recent encounter with Regan. He tackled her to the ground.
Be a good boy.
He yelled at her.
Be a good boy.
He lied to her about his character, playing the pathetic victim so she would believe in his false innocence.
Be a good boy.
He planned to kill people.
Be a good boy.
“I can’t,” he confessed out loud. “I can’t, Roy. I’m sorry.”
He thought he should have heard an echo, resounding loud and menacing in his cavernous heart. He knew all the goodness left him the moment he uttered the words “I can’t” because he secretly meant “I won’t.”
He awoke in a panic. He swore she opened her mouth to someone. His days were numbered—the time
ticking ticking ticking
above his head, counting down to zero when the bomb would explode. He imagined S.W.A.T. teams bursting through every orifice of the apartment, shattering glass and splitting doors, slamming him to the ground and screaming in his face. He would hang his head in shame as they escorted him to the police car, unable to look at Roy and Carol. He could imagine their faces—shocked and horrified that they rented their apartment to a mass murderer.
“But he was such a good kid,” they’d say, unable to admit they’d been duped.
He jumped out of bed and hastily showered. He had to get to school early. He had to get her alone. He had to feel her out—see where her brain was. She had become his only liability, and he knew what they did to liabilities in the movies. They put them in a car, drove them out to the woods and left them there with a bullet in the backs of their heads. He could never put a bullet through hers, but then what would he do with her?
He didn’t trust her at all, and the more he thought about yesterday afternoon—tackling her to the ground and clamping his rough hand over her mouth—the more his vigilante side tossed and turned within his muscles. He was restless. He was wondering why Jeremy didn’t take care of the “Regan problem” when he had the chance.
You were too busy getting a hard-on
, the vigilante spat,
climbing all over her body like that.
Not true at all! He knew that wasn’t true. All he cared about was retrieving his journal. All he cared about was keeping the secret. All he cared about was lying to her over and over until she believed him. He couldn’t kill her. That wasn’t part of the plan.
, his vigilante said.
She stole your property. She read your words. She’s not innocent anymore.
Jeremy pulled on his shirt as he thought.
But she’s never abused me. She stuck up for me.
Wake up, you idiot! That was sixth grade! That bitch STOLE from you! Is that not a form of bullying? Intimidation? She took away your thoughts! She compromised you! She goes, just like the rest of them. End of story.
He laced up his boots.
I can’t hurt her. I can’t. But I can keep her happy. I can do that.
You’ll waste your time playing a lying game with her? Always watching your back? Worrying constantly that she may turn on you? Rat you out? Why? She doesn’t care about you at all.
He grimaced at the thought:
She doesn’t care about you.
“What are you doing to me?” he asked helplessly.
He didn’t wait for his vigilante to answer. He flew to school—crossing a busy intersection without looking, and inviting the angry blares of car horns. He threw his bike on the ground near the school. Locking it was unimportant.
He flung open the door and hurried inside. She wasn’t there.
“Regan,” he hissed under his breath.
He loitered about the hallways, moving slowly and restlessly, eyes glued to his combat boots. He hadn’t worn them for months, feeling they revealed too much about his aggressive nature—the one he was trying to keep hidden. But he slipped them on today with the understanding that he was going into battle—a new one—with a girl he could put over his knee and snap in two. He snorted at the irony. A little girl had all the power over him.
“Regan,” he breathed.
The more he said her name, the more his frustration grew. He thought it monstrously unfair that he was now in love with his enemy. She was, after all, his enemy. She became that as soon as she opened his journal. He fantasized for a moment about all the ways he could torture a confession out of her. It made no sense; she’d already confessed to reading his journal. What more did he need to know? And then it hit him. Right as she walked into the building, he realized what he wanted: her words. She stole all of his. It was only fair she give him hers. Maybe then he wouldn’t need to fear her next move because he’d have something on her, too. They’d be forced into a reluctant friendship built on tenuous trust. She would become his accomplice. No longer his adversary.
He breezed by her and muttered, “Stairwell.”
He continued down the hall, pushed open the door and waited beside empty stairs.
“One, two, three, four,” he whispered. “Five.”
The door opened slowly, and she peeked her head in. He grabbed her arm and yanked her under the stairs—a dark nook decorated with graffiti and dust cobwebs.
“Easy,” she barked, pulling on her arm.
He released her and mumbled an apology.
“What are we doing under here?” she asked.
“I figured you wouldn’t wanna be seen with me in public,” he replied. He raised an eyebrow.
“Ouch,” she said softly.