The Light of Dennis Knopf
Heather J. Brewer
“Denny, you beautiful boy, come to momma. That's it. Look, Harry! Look! He's walking! Our Denny's taking his first steps!” Dennis’s mother squealed in delight. Her arms stretched out to her thirteen-month-old son, her fingers bending and unbending, beckoning him to her. She was a thin woman with a pretty face and hair so silky soft that Dennis took to cuddling with it as she lay beside him at night. There was hardly a moment when they did not touch; still as close as they’d been when he called her womb home. But perfection rarely lasts, even when seen in the form of a mother’s love.
“That's it, baby. Come to...no, Denny! Stay out of the sunlight!” The seemingly harmless beams of light, speckled with dust particles and giving the room a golden tinge, tore through the toddler’s skin, burning his young flesh. Falling to the ground as his father beat out the flames, Dennis screamed as only a child in pain and horror can. He looked up to see flames, smoke and his mother, horrified at the sight of him. She sat and stared, unable to move and weeping uncontrollably for the freak she had borne.
Dennis’s screams woke him from his nightmares. They were the same every night, but always terrifying, always real. There was no sense in having the dreams analyzed. They were pure. They were raw. The basic need for one’s mother in moments of pain or doubt. But Dennis hadn’t seen his mother or touched her silken tresses in over twenty years. He was a man now. And it was time to let things go.
His cries echoed through the tunnel, the sound of passing traffic overhead muffling it a bit, but only slightly. With a sigh, He sat up and looked to the end of the tunnel. It was early afternoon. The light always looked slightly used by around two o’clock and the rush hour traffic above was a dead give away. The grass at the end of the tunnel looked warm and inviting and Dennis wished, not for the first time, that he could run his hands through that soft grass and lie down on its warm bed, gazing up at that fiery sphere.
He’d never seen the sun. Not in his twenty-five years of life. He’d witnessed the evidence of it, of course—the hint of shadow on the hospital floor, the small lines of light through the window blinds, but not once had he gazed up at the warm majesty of the daystar. To do so would mean death, as Dennis was born with an unusual condition, making it impossible for his skin to come in direct contact with sunlight. He was diagnosed with extreme photosensitivity, which was an easy way for confounded doctors to label his hair and skin catching fire whenever exposed to the sun. There were no pills they could give him, no miracle injections. No amount of SPF could shield him. He was doomed and even the doctors agreed that it was just a matter of time.
When he left the doctors and their bullshit theories behind at Saint John's Medical Center, he quickly learned that he could walk around in the shade and on cloudy days without any damage. So much for thousands of dollars spent on quality medical care. They called it a hospital, but they couldn't fool Dennis. It was a lab and he was no more than a guinea pig.
But learning when he could move around during the day and when he couldn’t were hard lessons with large price tags. Over fifty percent of his body was covered with scar tissue from his earlier excursions into the light. But his face was left almost blemish free. A smooth crescent shape scar curled above his left eyebrow, a piece of artistry he achieved by trying to peer around window blinds at a group of boys playing kickball when he was nine. It was later, at the age of twelve, that he gave up gazing at the outside world and receded into the darkness. Only when he’d run from the hospital three years ago and curled up in a tunnel much like this one, did he see sunshine.
He remembered that day perfectly. He’d run away in the night, refusing to be poked or prodded anymore and found his way to the tunnel, and fell into a deep, strangely restful slumber. When he opened his eyes, he was facing the northernmost end of the tunnel. The glare of sunlight was on the sidewalk and at first he was filled with the confusion of forgetting where he was, of how he had come to this place. Confusion gave way to the panic of realization. Then his eyes recognized the light for what it was and panic gave way to elation. He wasn’t ashamed to say he cried. But whether it was for freedom or fear, he did not know.
The sunglasses he wore almost constantly covered his pale green eyes. Their dark tint protected his too sensitive pupils from the harshness of light. Just looking at the warm grass was already making his eyes ache. Sliding his shades back on, he stood and brushed the dirt of the tunnel from his faded black trench coat, a gift to him from a homeless man who often shared his sleeping quarters. In just under two years, he'd become Dennis’s savior and only friend. He answered only to the name Fletcher—whether that was his real name or not, his first or his last name, Dennis could not say. He knew only that Fletcher claimed to have been a stock broker who couldn't take the stress of Wall Street. Whether Dennis believed his story or not didn’t matter. Fletcher had befriended him with more kindness than he’d ever known and not once did he bat an eyelash at Dennis’s scarred form.
On numerous occasions, Fletcher tried to coax him into the light, disbelieving Dennis’s story of the strange illness that made a prisoner of him. “Come on, Denny boy! The sunshine will do you some good—warm your bones and tan your hide a bit.”
“Don't call me that.” Dennis was sitting as he always did, with his chin resting on his knees. “My mother called me that.”
Fletcher had heard many sorrow-wrought tales about Dennis’s mother and wondered along with him what had become of the woman who'd handed that bandaged toddler to doctors he did not know and walked briskly from that hospital, that laboratory, without blinking an eye—too easily leaving her only son with strangers who treated him like some side-show freak. His voice became soft and understanding. “Sorry, Dennis. Listen, I really think this 'condition' you've rambled on about for the past six months is all in your head—something those goddamn doctors came up with just to keep you in that lab. Some sun would do you good, boy.”
Dennis looked up at those pleading eyes and wanted too terribly to comply with his request, to run in the sun, to feel its warmth on his face without a searing pain, his arms outspread. To be free of the darkness, embracing the light with all of his being. It was a dream he both fantasized about and feared.
Trying to explain why his mother's first child was stillborn, Dennis’s grandmother had told him years before that people were born from a spiritual place of light and that sometimes a baby is born without that special spark. The light, she claimed, was the source of all being and that from which life springs forth. For lack of a better word, the light was God and God was the light. When he asked her what becomes of the babies born without the light, for Dennis was an unusual child, even at the age of five, she simply replied, “Those babies find the light once again in eternal rest, Dennis.” He knew she was speaking of both he and the brother he would never have. Some people said his grandmother was crazy, that she lost her mind to senility years ago. He was five years old when that conversation occurred and had wanted to die ever since.
But death terrified him. How was he to know if the light would accept him into its warm arms and recognize him as its own? What if the light shunned him as everyone but Fletcher has shunned him? It was too great a risk. Better to sulk in the shadows in pain and regret, alone in freakish misery.
“Give me your hand, Fletcher.” Before his sentence was complete, Fletcher had opened his hand and held it out to Dennis, as if by helping him to stand he would help him get just that much closer to the sun. With a sigh, Dennis plucked a hair from his head and placed it in Fletcher’s palm. “Walk into the light. You'll see what would become of me.”
Fletcher furrowed his brow, sure that this time he’d get Dennis even an inch closer to reality. Moments after walking into the sunlight the hair in his palm caught fire and was gone in a flash, leaving only a thin line of ash where the hair had lay. He said nothing, but looked back at his friend and choked back tears of pity that he knew Dennis could not bear to see fall. Fletcher never asked him to approach the light again.
Dennis’s now shaded eyes made their way back to the warm grass at the end of the tunnel. Fletcher should be by anytime. He knew Dennis only moved around at night and in about four hours the sun would set and he would seek a new hiding place from his disease, his worst fear. Then he’d rest and before he knew it, the sun would rise again. The terrible, wretched, beautiful sun.
“Dennis.” Fletcher’s footfalls approached from the opposite end of the tunnel that he was watching, his voice hesitant yet warm. Dennis turned his head and nodded in greeting, noting the brown paper bag in his left hand. Fletcher dropped it in his lap and squatted beside him, gesturing to the bag. “Brought you some donuts, my friend. Thought you might be hungry.”
“Thanks, Fletch.” The donuts were stale and sticky, but he devoured three of them before attempting conversation. “You look nice. Cleaner. What gives?” Dennis rested his head against the cool metal ridges of the tunnel's wall and gazed once more at the warm grass. It moved lazily in the summer breeze, as if beckoning to him. He looked away, directing his attention to Fletcher, who was rambling about something. It was beginning to upset him, whatever it was, so Dennis forced himself to listen more attentively and tried hard to ignore the calls of the warm blades of grass just outside his reach.
“There! That's exactly what I'm trying to tell you, Dennis. You don't listen to a word I say. You want to be my friend and I've tried to be yours, but it's not helping either of us for you to daydream and mope! For once, listen to me, would you?” His face was flushed with irritation and although Dennis cared deeply for him and wanted to hear his every word, he could not fully ignore the voice of the sun-drenched lawn. Fletcher raised his voice further and the sound of his frustration echoed out into the world. Dennis heard very little of his complaints. “...decided...can't make it this way...”
The grass stretched to the left and then quickly to the right.
“...going back to Wall Street...”
Thin, long blades shimmered in the light of the sun.
“...come with me, Dennis...”
Beckoning. Pleading. If he listened closely, he could almost hear its voice beckoning him into the forbidden.
“No! I won't do it! You can't make me!” Dennis clutched his ears as the scream tore from his throat. He pulled himself quickly to his feet and huddled against the wall, squeezing his eyes shut until he saw only red streaks amidst the darkness behind his closed eyelids. Resisting the call of the sunlight was almost too much to bear.
Fletcher stared at him, misreading his terror, and spoke what Dennis knew to be his last words to his scarred friend. “It was nice knowing you, Dennis.” He could feel Fletcher’s eyes on him even as his footsteps receded from the tunnel and knew that he was truly alone now.
Withdrawing the picture of Kira from its rightful place, Dennis gazed on the six year old version of his older sister, wondering once more what her thoughts were when the picture was taken. Her blonde hair curled in natural ringlets. Her skin was browned from the summer sun. Holding the photo close to his face, he could see the reflection of the glorious sun in her eyes and though he found himself envious of her, he loved her even more for possessing the ability that he did not. There was no mistaking that Kira was borne from the Light.
Dennis relaxed his aching head against the cold metal wall of the tunnel. His whispered memories of the book his grandmother had so cherished echo into the cooling air. “In the beginning the world was cursed with a veil of darkness. And God spoke into the darkness and created the light. He saw that the light was good and divided the two, calling the light day and the darkness night.” God had separated the two—light and dark. Why? Was the darkness too horrible for even God to love? Was Dennis borne from darkness because he was not borne from light? If the light was good, did that make the darkness evil? Was he borne of evil things?
A hole in the tunnel’s wall painted a small circle of light on the cement to his right. He gazed up at the opening, allowing tears drip from his tired eyes. “God, my god, why hast thou forsaken me?” He wanted him to answer, waited for it. Just as he tore his gaze from the aperture of light, Dennis received one.
A sudden gust of wind whipped through the tunnel and ripped the photo of Kira from his grasp, carrying it to the far end of the tunnel. He bolted after it as fast as his legs would move, but just as he reached out to grasp his precious sister the wind wound up again—mocking him by carrying it ten feet outside into the glaring sun. Dennis hesitated and looked to the ground outside. He could see the light receding as a large cloud covered the sun, shading the area just outside the tunnel. He bolted from his prison and dove toward his most treasured belonging. He had to save her. She was all he had left.
Dennis hit the ground with a thud and stretched his arm forward, grabbing the photo from where it lay. There was a break in the clouds then, but his body was protected by the shade of the large, leafy oak. He sighed and willed himself to bolt once again as soon as the clouds returned. One leaf shattered his divine safeguard—a minor imperfection in the way he lay, with his arm outstretched at just the wrong angle. A beam of light ripped through his skin, searing him with its brilliant heat. Dennis beat at the flames with his other arm, never releasing his photo of Kira. His arm throbbed with pain. Panic engulfed him. How would he get back to the tunnel? Wait another two hours and risk losing the protection of the tree's shadow?
Another cloud darkened the ground and Dennis ran toward the tunnel. He could feel the light getting closer as the cloud peeled slowly away from the sun. It was nearing his feet, that light, and he could hear the grass mocking him from where Kira's photo had lay.
Its laughter followed him as he stumbled closer to the tunnel's opening. Closer. Five feet. Three feet. He threw his body forward and landed just inside the tunnel. Looking back, he watched the last of the cloud peel away. The sun’s light enveloped the grass once more.
Dennis looked at the crumpled photograph in his left hand. He'd crushed it in his panic, adding more wrinkles to its already damaged appearance. Holding it close to his tear-stained face, he could still make out the light in Kira's eyes. Full of envy and regret, he wept, ignoring the cruel laughter of the grass outside.
He must have dozed for a time, but it couldn't have been long—the sun's warmth was still embracing much of the outside world. He’d almost forgotten about losing the picture, but glancing the new wrinkles in her perfect, six year old face reminded him. As he lay there, curled on his side and staring at the only girl he’d ever loved, his isolation was sealed. Dennis had no one. Fletcher was forever gone, determined to rejoin a world that had abandoned him just as surely as Dennis’s mother had abandoned him. Dennis’s grandmother had passed on long ago, leaving him to parents that could not or would not understand him. He hadn’t seen Kira since only days after his arrival at Saint John's Medical Center—the lab where they kept people like myself who belong nowhere but circus side-shows and crazy houses. She’d forgotten him by now. Her brother. The freak. All he had was the darkness to embrace him and the call of the warm grass outside his tunnel.
He looked outside of the tunnel at the only evidence to him that the sun existed. It was making the grass shine in places and Dennis sighed in frustration. The only thing left for him was to lie in the warm grass, to feel the sun on his face, to perish at the hands of the great and terrible light. As if at his will, the grass started talking again.
“Shut up.” He tried to block the voices out. The tears were streaming down his face and his sobs were making it difficult to breathe.
What was left but this for him? Fletcher was gone. His father was gone. He had no one and nothing. Dennis sat up. It was no longer the grass speaking in whispers. It was a different voice, the grass—yes, but also the sun. He was losing his mind. But what had his grandmother said? The light was God and God was the light. Was it God? Was God beckoning to him from outside the tunnel?
Dennis started to laugh, but his tears would not cease. A bizarre mixture of joy and terror swept through him. He could feel his grasp on reality slipping. And then he heard his mother's voice, mixed in with the grass. Calling. Beckoning.
Dennis screamed. His lungs released all the air they held to propel his scream to someone—anyone—to help this poor, helpless freak of nature. He gulped more air in and screamed again. He cried and laughed and screamed until at last he passed out.
In his unconscious state he dreamt of a phoenix that was afraid to be borne again. It lay in a heap of ashes and bone and refused to rise from the flames. Dennis wept for the sadness of the whole thing and something nudged his dreaming mind, but he couldn’t recall what he'd been thinking of before he came to look on the phoenix. The bird turned into his mother next, but spoke with Fletcher’s voice. “Crash and burn, Denny- boy. Crash and burn.” He woke up with a start.
His throat was raw and sore. The memory of the taunting sunlight came flooding back in his wakefulness. He stared at the grass outside, which now said nothing. “I know you hear me. Crazy or not, I've heard you.” Standing, he walked to the end of the tunnel and smiled at the grass. He laughed again and his hands shook with the insanity of it all. “It's over now. You've won.” Dennis spoke to no one, yet to everyone he’d ever known—his mother, father, his dear sister, his only friend. His only listener was the warm light that danced from grass blade to grass blade, its shining significance an open invitation.
All his life a great and terrible fear had consumed Dennis, but at that moment he felt no fear, no unspeakable terror—only a resolving, unflinching relief. He looked at the grass once more and, challenged it to speak. “Crash and burn, baby.”
With joyous abandon Dennis ran from the darkness and into the sunlight. Flinging his sunglasses from his face, he threw his arms wide and embraced the light with his entire being. Flames flew from his torso and spread behind him as he ran. They seemed wings of fire. His hair became a blaze of tresses. The clothes he wore melted from his form and he was naked in the sun, running as he'd dreamt of for what seemed like an eternity. He was reborn—a child returning to the womb. A phoenix rising from the ashes of his past. A grin was frozen on his enflamed face as he opened his tear-filled eyes and gazed upon the beautiful, perfect sun. It was more wonderful than he ever imagined. Never before had there been a more blissful moment. The light knew him to be its own and welcomed him into its heat. It knew him. It loved him. At last, he was no longer alone.
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