“So you want to know the darkest place in my heart? That’s how this works right?” A penetrating work of fiction that explores the distressing realities associated with childhood trauma…
by: Martin Toman ((Header art by Jerry Uelsmann.))
The lake lay still under the sky. Trees crowded the shore, closing in on the water. In heavy rain, when the water level rose, the roots of the shoreline trees would disappear. Flood debris would catch on their submerged fingers, only to wash away in the next storm. A thin pier reached out from the edge of the lake, water lapping at the pylons, grey timber of the decking perched above the surface. The deep water was clean but swirled dark with sediment.
Robert sat with the boy. Their legs dangled over the edge of the pier into the void, their shoes almost disturbing the surface. Robert leaned over his knees to look into the water. It reflected his face, and in the golden light of the autumn afternoon he could make out his features. He smiled, and his teeth, yellowed by time and caffeine, pearled in the dark eddies. Robert looked across at the boy. Pale blue eyes staring across the lake into the forest, a fine featured face framed by straight blonde hair. Despite the warmth of the air the boy wore long sleeve shirt to his wrists.
Thin green reflections of trees lay across the lake. The still air stirred only the slightest distortions on the surface. From time to time swooping cormorants plunged head first into the water, and the impact would spread wide whooping circles to the shore. When the ripples spread to the edges the reflected trees would wave their arms at the sky.
The boy was like so many others that Robert had worked with. They were described in various ways, but in the end they were all the same. Young men, with problems: mental illness, sexual abuse, substance abuse, histories of criminal activity, suicide attempts. Every few weeks another individual would arrive, and another, and so on. The camp by the lake was privately run and expensive. There was a waiting list. The young men could leave whenever they wanted, but the camp sold the belief that things could change.
Robert had read the boy’s file. Seventeen years old. Criminal convictions, but no violence. Four years of varied substance abuse. A habit of leaving his home for weeks only to show up in a cell or a hospital. School truancy and failure. The boy had listed his interests as reading and drawing, but looking at his face Robert could see nothing beyond his blank expression.
The boy turned to him, and stared into his face. His irises were so pale as to almost merge with the sclera. Robert felt as if the boy was looking straight through him, as if he didn’t exist and the trees on the opposite shore were visible, unobstructed by his shape.
Then the boy spoke:
“So you want to know the darkest place in my heart? That’s how this works right? I’m meant to bleed it all out and that’s how the healing starts?”
A smile that didn’t reach past his lips barely changed the boy’s expression. There was a pause. Robert went to reply but at that moment a cormorant dove into the water near them, and disappeared under the surface. Thick concentric ripples followed from the hole it made in the water, and then it reappeared, a few metres closer to the pier. The boy spoke again.
“I remember the moment that I saw him for the second time. It probably sounds funny that I can’t remember the first time, but I remember thinking that I had seen him earlier, so he was somehow familiar and that made it easier for him I suppose. He looked at me and smiled. Green parka. Beard. Brown shirt. Not very tall for an adult. Small eyes. I was alone. It was early.
It was school holidays. I was eleven years old. Bored I guess. It was winter, the kind of weather where you can’t see your friends every day, ‘cause you just get sick of each other and there are only so many different things you can do inside. I used to ask my mother if she could drop me at the mall on the way to work when I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go. Because my mom started early I used to get there before the shops opened. I’d walk around, looking into the shuttered doorways, looking at the books in the display windows at the bookshop. I’d buy some junk food from the supermarket and wait. When the stores would open I would visit my favorites, read some books without buying them, and maybe go to the library and then catch a bus home.
So that day I was waiting outside the bookshop. When he smiled at me I smiled back. People were around. It wasn’t like there was nobody there, but no one noticed an older guy and a boy. Maybe we looked like father and son. I dunno.
He only ever spoke to me once, and this was what he said:
Do you want to have a good time?
I don’t know why I went with him. I’ve thought and thought about it. It was like I was waiting for something to happen, and then there he was. I didn’t think, I just did it. I followed him out of the mall onto the bridge that spanned the carpark. There were people crossing it, all walking to the mall as I trailed him. We were the only ones walking the other way, going in the wrong direction. It was cold outside. I remember that the jacket I was wearing was thin, and as I pulled the sleeves over my hands his hand closed over mine. He held it tight. His fingers had much darker hair than my Dad’s.
He took me to his car, it was one of those orange Toyota things that looked like it was trying to be European but wasn’t. You don’t see them much anymore. It was old even then. He didn’t say anything to me, but when he opened the door I stepped into the passenger seat and he drove. I didn’t remember feeling anything. It was like I was dreaming but I was awake. No fear, or alarm or excitement or anything. No sense of danger. And no thinking. I just remember details. Where he parked. What he smelt like. The texture of the car upholstery. The small tear in the roof lining near the dome light.
Then he drove me back to the mall. I walked straight to the bus station. At home I had a shower and changed into my pyjamas and made a toasted ham and cheese sandwich in the jaffle maker. Cheese and butter dripped out of the machine as it cooked. When I bit into it some melted cheese shot into my mouth and then something happened. Vomit was on my hands, the plate, my lap, the sofa. I reached up to wipe my mouth and nose and felt snot and tears. On my face, on my lips.
By the time my mother came home I made sure everything was clean and dry. I cleaned the sofa cushions and put them in front of the heater. The vomit didn’t leave a mark unless you knew where to look. The clothes I had been wearing were washed and dried and then I put them back on again. Even the underpants. I didn’t tell anyone. I never saw the man again.”
The boy stopped speaking. The late afternoon was turning dusk. The autumn air felt perceptibly thinner as the heat had leached out of the day, leaving a crispness. The lake was illuminated by the pale end of day blue sky, the skin of the water brighter than the darkening land. Small ripples silently lipped the shore. Birds skimmed the atmosphere of the water, sniping the hovering insects that persisted in the twilight.
“So that started it?”
The boy smiled. “I still like going to bookshops, flicking through the pages. Wondering what will happen at the end.”
The next day the boy was missing. His bed had been slept in, but his bag, phone and wallet were left in his room. He had been accounted for at the midnight and 3am checks, but at 6am, when the sky had just started to glimmer pale, his room was empty. Robert and the other staff checked the camp buildings, and then started searching the lake shore.
It was Robert who found his clothes. Folded neatly on the edge of the pier, where they had been sitting. The boy had arranged them next to his shoes. In his mind’s eye he imagined the boy gently lowering himself, naked and pale, the heels of his hands pressed hard into the rough timber boards, the dark water slipping over his ankles and hips, the shock of the cold shrinking his lungs as he slid into the depths, and then the darkness, deep and forever down.
The police were called, then the parents.
Years later Robert still dreamt about the body. When the boy was found he was bobbing face down in the shallows far from the pier. His skin was white, so pale that the marks that he had made on himself looked mauve black. He had only been in the water for a few hours, but his lips were blue darkened and livid, as if bruised. The thick sediment of the lake had gathered in his hair and the creases of his body, like shaded charcoal. A strand of reed had caught between his toes and trailed away. His eyes were still open, but had darkened in the lake, the irises blue against the watery white orbs.
In years to come, as the dreams of the boy and his pale skin faded into the void, Robert would lie awake in the darkness. The camp buildings outside his cottage continued to house young men, all busily burning the matches of their last chances. He would stare at the rough timber ceiling, the blankets pulled to his chin, straining to hear anything other than the beating of his own heart. When the wind was high he could hear the trees swaying in the dark, the waves breaking upon the pier. But on still nights, with the trees standing sentinel at the shoreline, he couldn’t even hear a ripple.
Martin Toman spends his working hours teaching Literature and daydreams of writing it. Martin has been published online and in print, in both fiction and non-fiction publications. He writes short stories in between marking essays. He lives with his people in a treehouse overlooking Melbourne, Australia, is handy with a chainsaw, and can repair bicycles.