Monsters and Kings
Written by Rebecca Kirschbaum
The gentle town of Kingsburrow has a handful of stoplights, an unstimulated police force, and an elderly man who tiptoes out of his house every morning for a predictable stroll. On Main Street, there are a handful of unordinary buildings cloaked in unassuming shadows. The town is aged, overgrown with vines and shrubbery, filled with potholes and cracked cement. Grass and dandelions grow up through the cracks in the sidewalks. A few stone fences remain from the Civil War and they line the yards of the largest houses. Children often whack at the stones of the old fences with sticks they pull from old dogwood, oak, and maple trees.
Ironically, or maybe predictably, Kingsburrow is only known for its monsters.
A little after eight, the night descends into Kingsburrow and the lights of the stores begin to go out, one by one. Here, it might seem the most wretched of threats are the feral cats, who roam the broken sidewalks, seeking a miniature victim. Ask that old man on Maple Street, the one who sits on his porch, in his rocking chair. If you sit with him as he rocks, long into the night, you will notice he is at ease as he sips at the end of his pipe. He will tell you, “Lightning never strikes twice. This town’s as safe as it’s ever been.”
There are only two restaurants here. One is a burger joint that closes its doors at the first sign of darkness. The other stays open long after the children have gone to bed, and after the town has completely dimmed. Annie’s Barbecue, this restaurant has red, checkered curtains in the windows, and it employed beautiful Agatha Reynolds.
Agatha, the girl known for her angelic face, long locks of blonde hair, and body which curved generously in all the places most attractive to men.
Agatha’s parents are happy to talk about her, their only daughter. All one has to do is mention her name. Then, out will come the baby pictures, the papers etched with a toddler’s artistic scrawl, the certificates of achievement, the locks of white infant hair, and the sorrow.
Agatha’s mother once said in an interview. “That man is a monster, and I hope they catch him. He should be shot.”
Agatha’s mother looked like her child in that interview, only older, only with wrinkles around the eyes and mouth. Agatha’s mother had gray hair and her voice shook.
In that interview, Agatha’s mother spoke to a woman who looked very different from herself. The woman giving the interview wore stiletto heels, a face of thick make-up, false sympathy, and a designer suit. Agatha’s mother wore her best Sunday dress, minimal makeup purchased at the grocery store, and she spoke about Agatha in affectionate detail.
“I miss my baby,” Agatha’s mother said. “How could someone kill my girl?”
Agatha was working as a waitress at Annie’s when Gregory stalked into her life.
It was two in the afternoon on a Friday when Gregory was seated in Agatha’s section. The restaurant was empty and the sound of the door closing behind him echoed off of the empty tables. He was seated by a young hostess. He wore a simple, black t-shirt and jeans filled with holes. Other than his pants, Gregory was put together, well groomed. His brown hair reminded Agatha of tree bark, and his freckles reminded her of stars in the sky.
Gregory flashed a sincere, glorious smile at Agatha.
She politely said, “My name is Agatha. I’ll be your server, this afternoon. What can I get you to drink?”
Gregory grinned. “I know who you are, Agatha. I’ve seen you around.”
Why Agatha didn’t find his behavior strange, the people of Kingsburrow will never fully understand.
She brushed a sweaty string of hair from her brow. “What can I get you to drink?”
Gregory adjusted his watch and frowned at the menu, inspecting the drink selection as if his decision was one of great importance. After an eternity of contemplation, Gregory said, “Coffee. Black.”
Agatha promptly attended to his order and returned with coffee, fifteen minutes old. “Are you ready to order?”
Gregory folded his hands in his lap and hunched his shoulders in submission. “You seem sad. Are you having a bad day?”
Agatha was surprised at just how affected she was by his simple question. His sincerity caught her off guard. In fact, Gregory so upset her equilibrium Agatha felt she might start shaking, vomiting, or crying. She’d waited a very long time for someone to be concerned about the way she felt.
“No,” Agatha said, simply. “I’m not sad.”
Gregory shrugged and said, “I’ll take scrambled eggs.”
Fifteen minutes passed and Agatha retrieved his scrambled eggs from the window. She placed the plate in front of him, and she added a bottle of ketchup to the table. “Some people like ketchup with their eggs,” she said. “More people like it than you would think. So, just in case. Here you go.”
“Thank you,” Gregory said, untying his napkin and wrestling a fork from the mess. He tossed the napkin into his lap and looked deep into Agatha’s green, troubled eyes. “Why are you sad, Agatha?”
“I’m not.” Agatha tucked her pencil into her ponytail and placed her hand on her hip. “I’m not sad.”
Gregory shoveled a forkful of eggs into his mouth and Agatha noted just how barbaric he was in his eating habits. He spoke with his mouth full. “I think you are,” Gregory said, his mouth still filled with food. “I think you are sad, with a dash of miserable, peppered with hatred because you don’t understand why you feel this way. Am I right?”
“You talk funny,” Agatha said, simply, dodging his question. “I’ll be back to check on you later.”
Agatha, however, did not return to Gregory’s table. She was quivering so dramatically by the time she scurried away from his table, she thought she might actually faint. Gregory had affected her so profoundly, she felt ill. Agatha begged her manager to take the table so she could smoke a cigarette. “Charlene, I need a break. Bad. I need a cigarette. Take table twelve for me, will you? Please?’
Her manager, a chubby woman with a former drug habit, smacked her lips at Agatha in annoyance. At first, it seemed she opened her mouth, empty from years of meth use, to insist Agatha didn’t need a break. Something in Agatha’s expression, however, must have been convincing. Perhaps her face conveyed a desperation even the manager couldn’t dismiss. Or perhaps the manager noticed her pallor, the total void of color in Agatha’s face. Agatha was naturally pale, but rarely so ghostlike.
“Sure, whatever, honey,” the manager said in a throaty voice. “Take ten, if you want to. This guy’s sexy as shit, anyway. I’m still lookin for me a husband, you know.” The manager winked and laughed, blowing a raunchy breath into Agatha’s face. “Who knows, maybe you done me a favor.”
Agatha reached for the Marlboros in her apron and shrugged. “Who knows?” she repeated.
Servers weren’t allowed to go out front for their breaks. Even if they weren’t smokers, the rules said servers were to take their breaks in the break room or out back. Agatha took her break out by the dumpsters, and she was still shaking as she lifted a lighter to her last cigarette.
Why are you sad, Agatha?
They were simple words, really. She felt foolish for being so disarmed by a simple question. She sipped at the end of her cigarette, indulging the nicotine, attempting to calm the quivers assaulting her body.
She couldn’t stop shaking.
She was sad, really. How had he known? She was filled with inexplicable sadness and that generalized melancholy left her feeling very lonely.
She leaned against the dumpster and then, she slid down the dumpster until she was seated. The dumpster was cold behind her and the smell of rot and old food was stronger than the smell of her smoking cigarette. She gently tapped her head against the metal, hitting her head, lightly pounding away the tears in her eyes.
“I don’t know why I’m still so sad,” she muttered. “I just know that I am.”
She flicked a piece of gravel and watched it scuttle up ahead of her. She was sitting next to a pile of glass and she noticed it shimmered, even in the middle of a dreary, winter day. She poked the fire of her cigarette out in the middle of the pile of glass, and she stood up. She wiped furiously at her face and retied her apron. She looked at the door that led back into the restaurant and tried to work up the nerve to go back inside. She didn’t want to see the nice boy at her table. She wanted to hide right where she was, by the dumpsters.
Agatha stared as an old Ford bounded over the potholes of the service road. It was a rust-colored truck and it was in need of a muffler. The passenger side window had been shattered and a garbage bag was taped over the broken window. It flapped in the breeze.
Gregory left his truck running. His door squealed when he opened it, and he laughed at himself as he trotted up to Agatha. “I’m Gregory,” he said. “Gregory Anderson. And I’m sorry. I think I might have made you uncomfortable back there. I didn’t mean it.”
Gregory held his hand out.
Agatha was weary. She hesitated before reaching for him, but she finally accepted his hand, and she shook it. “Hi, again,” she said. “And you didn’t make me uncomfortable.”
Gregory didn’t take his hand back right away, and Agatha noticed his hands were soft, like he used moisturizer. More so, his hands were warm and Agatha was struck with the strangest notion: she didn’t want to give his hand back. Gregory and Agatha stared at their hands, which seemed locked in a passionate embrace, and neither of them moved to pull away. Finally, after a few minutes of staring,
Gregory smiled at Agatha. “You want to go somewhere with me, Agatha?”
Agatha looked back to the heavy metal door that led into the restaurant, where she needed to go. She needed to complete her shift. She shivered, thinking maybe she should have brought her coat with her to work. Some days she couldn’t feel the cold, no matter how cold it was. She hadn’t been cold when she’d left that morning and unfortunately now, she could feel her body again.
Her eyes flitted over the metal of the dumpsters, the miniature mountain of shattered glass at her feet, and finally, over the stars that were Gregory’s freckles.
After a moment of hesitation, she murmured, “Where?”
Gregory shrugged. “Don’t care,” he said. “Just on a drive.”
“Sure.” Agatha untied her apron and let it fall to the ground. She decided to make one of the first truly impulsive decisions of her life. She thought she would skip out on her shift and take off with this boy she truly knew little about. “I’ll go on a drive with you, Gregory Anderson.”
The passenger door was broken and it couldn’t be opened. Agatha would have to climb into the truck on the driver’s side. Gregory helped Agatha into the car and told her she should wear her seatbelt. Agatha didn’t want to wear her seatbelt, so she didn’t wear it. She turned around and watched the road move through the back window. She watched the restaurant disappear behind her, watched until she thought, It’s small. Smaller than me.
Agatha had always thought the world was very big, and that she was very small. For some reason, though, in that precise moment, Agatha didn’t feel so small. For once in a very long time, Agatha could look down at herself and think, I’m not so small because some things? Some things are smaller than me.
She looked over at Gregory who winked at her. There was something about him, Agatha suddenly realized, something about him made Agatha feel like, for a minute, they were the only two people that really mattered.
They were the only two people who mattered and thus, they weren’t small.
“We’re big,” Agatha said wistfully to Gregory. She kicked off her shoes, pulled off her damp socks, and placed her bare feet on the dashboard. She touched her big toes to the cold window pane. “Don’t you think? Right now, no one is looking, and no one is around. So, we’re alone and there’s no one to compare ourselves to. Right now, we’re big.”
It was starting to snow. Gregory laughed and turned on his windshield wipers, which were old and left the glass blurred with streaks. “Are you calling me fat, Miss Agatha?”
Agatha wrinkled her nose. “No,” she said simply. She realized she was leaving her footprints on his windshield. She pulled her feet down from the dashboard and tucked them underneath her. She watched Gregory, who put on his turn signal and turned down a back road. The backroad was white with snow and Agatha turned around to watch the tire tracks behind them.
“Where are we going?” she asked, finally.
“I figured we’d just take a drive until we found a place to stop,” Gregory said. He smiled and Agatha noticed the mischievousness there on his face. “How do you feel about trespassing?”
“I feel like it is illegal.” Agatha pulled her hairband from her ponytail and she ran her hands through her hair. She could feel the grease from the restaurant friers beneath her fingertips, and she thought her hair smelled like french fries. “Why do you ask?”
“Because there’s an old farm out here I like to go to sometimes. It’s pretty.”
Gregory slowed down when the snow began to fall harder. The flakes were so big and Agatha thought they should make noise when they hit the car. She thought it should sound as if the truck were being stoned. She thought the quiet was disorienting. The car slipped in the snow a little and, for a minute, Agatha thought the car might slide into an embankment.
“That thing you said about being big?” Gregory turned off the main road and the car bumped around so much, Agatha could tell they were driving on gravel. Gregory reached over and touched Agatha’s cheek, for just a minute. “That was eloquent. That’s the only word I can think to describe it with. It was eloquent.”
Agatha blushed. She touched her face where Gregory’s hand had been and she smiled, slightly. “Thanks,” she said.
Gregory pulled up to an old barn that was used for keeping tobacco. The barn leaned extremely to one side, and there were holes in the wood. The barn was framed in tall trees that spread their bare limbs across a sky. The sky was darkening more and more as the storm gained strength.
Gregory put the truck in park. Agatha put her shoes back on. Gregory helped Agatha crawl out of the truck and put his coat around her. “You should be wearing something on your arms,” he said. “You need a coat on, girl.”
“Maybe.” Agatha lifted the sleeve of his coat to her nose, and she inhaled a scent so spicy, she maybe could have eaten it. “Now you’re going to be cold,” she said.
Gregory shrugged and wrapped his arms around himself. His arms were bare, and Agatha noticed he had scars on his forearms. Agatha reached out and traced the scars with her fingers, moving from the bend in his elbow to his wrist. She didn’t say anything, but she looked at him. She looked at him differently. She looked to him for an explanation. Without her consent, her eyes widened in horror. It was strange to Agatha someone so who smiled so much could have done something so horrific as attempt suicide.
“I’m an existentialist,” he said, simply.
He smiled at her, and he gently pulled away from her inquiring fingers. Agatha wanted to tell him she had just realized she found him brave, that to her, the scars we honorable badges which conveyed fearlessness, strength, and control. Instead, she shrugged.
Agatha followed Gregory to the edge of a cliff.
Her lips parted in awe as she stared down at Kingsburrow. She traced the edges of the town with her eyes, taking in the sparkle of a hundred tiny lights below. Agatha noticed many things about the view. Above all, she noticed that below, the buildings and houses were small.
“That’s pretty,” she murmured.
“That’s what I thought, too.” Gregory wasn’t looking at the town, however. Instead, he seemed to be quite taken with Agatha. If you had asked him, he might have said her face didn’t quite hold the darkness it had held that afternoon. She smiled down at the town and she held her head up. Her back was straighter and snowflakes were caught in her hair. “You don’t look sad, right now.”
Agatha turned to Gregory. She nodded. “I’m not feeling sad right now,” she said.
Agatha allowed her impulses to lead her. She kissed Gregory, indulging the warmth that passed from his lips to hers.
“I wanted to say something to you earlier.” Gregory moved her hair from her face. “I wanted to say, I understand,” he murmured. “I understand sadness. I’ve been there, too. And I, I just thought I should say that. Because when I was there, I just wanted to hear someone say that. I wanted someone to say they got it, that they knew what I was going through.”
Agatha wasn’t sure what to say, so she plopped down where she stood. She felt the bite of the cold beneath her and the wet of the snow shimmied through the fibers of her pants. She could feel the dampness collecting against her thighs.
“I don’t understand what I’m going through,” she said. “So I can’t really expect anyone else to.” She carved her name into the snow and she stared at it. Blades of grass poked up through her name. “All I know is, I hate everything, everyone. Everything is scary and everything seems bad. Evil.”
Gregory asked in a very low, quiet voice, “Do I seem evil to you, Agatha?”
Agatha looked to Gregory, slightly alarmed. “Why would you seem evil to me?”
“Life is suffering,” Gregory said. He moved until their shoulders touched. “I believe that. I heard that one time. I’m not sure where I heard it. I looked it up, though. Buddhists believe that. Are you a Buddhist, Agatha?”
Agatha snorted. She went to laugh, but then she met Gregory’s eyes. She noticed his eyes were serious. “No,” she said. She noticed a thin string of brown running through snow and she reached for it. She pulled a short piece of twine forth from the snow. It left a short line behind.
“I am, I think.” Gregory squinted down at the town, as if he were trying to focus in on one of the buildings. “Whatever that means.”
Agatha didn’t want to talk religion. She handed him the twine. “Make me a bracelet,” she said. “Will you? Do you know how to tie a knot?”
Gregory accepted the twine and began to twist it beneath his fingers. “I’m not crazy,” Gregory insisted. “I just believe in all that. I believe life is suffering. Then I believe you die, and then you come back to life, and then you suffer some more. I do. I believe that.” Gregory stopped talking to sneak a peak at Agatha. “Is that so crazy?”
Agatha shrugged. “Who knows what crazy is anymore?” she said. “The whole damn world is crazy. If you are crazy, you’re not that different. You’ll fit right in with everyone else.”
Gregory finished twisting and twirling the twine in his hands. He held up the twine to show Agatha what he had created. It was a noose. A very small noose. “That’s all I knew how to make,” he said, apologetically. “I guess that’s probably creepy.”
Agatha offered Gregory her wrist. “Not that creepy,” she said. “I’ll wear it.”
“They make these on old western movies. That’s how I learned. I just watched the same scene over and over.” Gregory attached the noose to Agatha’s wrist. He stared at her dainty wrist for a minute, and then he raised it to his lips. He kissed her wrist, and he kissed the noose. “It looks cute on you,” he said, finally.
Agatha ran her hand along her bracelet and nodded. “I like it,” she said. They were quiet for a minute, and then she said, “Some time, will you teach me to make a noose, too?”
Gregory smiled and took her hand into his.
Rebecca Kirschbaum is a playwright, a screenwriter, and a fiction writer. She graduated from Cleveland State University with her MFA. Now, she writes indie movies, and helped with the writing of a few Cleveland films: Candace, The Neighborhood Watch, and Chasing Death. Her play, Plumbing, was seen as a staged reading at Roar! Festival in San Antonio and Diversionary Theatre’s Open Mondays in San Diego. In college, she worked and blogged for PBS in Cleveland.