When Margaret told him, Jonathan remembered the dugouts. Their smell. The mud that pinched your skin when it dried. The must of decaying leaves. He didn't know why he remembered them. It didn't make sense, but then nothing made sense.
“They were girls,” she said, “young girls.”
It was Thursday afternoon, and he had a sudden feeling of vertigo, as if everything had shifted down and sideways and then come to rest. If he took a step, he would miss his footing.
Margaret told him how she had found the pictures on Rob's computer. She hadn't been snooping, she said, although it wouldn't have mattered if she had been. Rob had moved out two months ago. She needed the contracts from the last two quarters for the accountant—Rob ran a small plumbing and electrical company called Rob's Pipe and Socket. Jonathan pictured the logo: Rob in capital letters over an x made by a pipe wrench and a lightning bolt.
“His desktop was a mess,” Margaret said. “You know how he is.”
“I was just opening folders at random.” She described clicking on Work2 and then Documents and then Clients and then New Folder and then New Folder again. “I don't know why. I thought he might have forgotten to name it. It was full of JPEGs. You can see the thumbnails before you open the files. They...”
Her words were spare, exact, hedged against pain, against the hysteria that throbbed in her precision. He could tell that she had rehearsed them, repeated them to herself in an empty room until they became real and true, until she made them into testimony. She had cut them down to just enough, no more than needed to be said, and part of that just enough were the details: The names of the folders. The girls. Some of them were clothed. A few partially. A handful not at all. She noticed that a lot of them wore their hair in braids. She counted 319 pictures in total. These were facts, these were solid, a substance that had weight, that had heft that he felt as she passed them to him one by one.
“I thought you should know,” she said.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Someone needs to tell your parents,” she said, “before the police...”
“Yes,” he said
“Thank you,” he said again.
When he hung up, he was surprised that his first response wasn't disbelief, only that sudden unbalancing, that reorientation that left him drifting through the rooms of the house, hovering, unmoored, until he touched down in the dirt and leaves of the dugouts.
They were Jamie Sterling's idea. Jamie was one of a handful of kids, Andrew Lucas, Brent Carson, Mickey Holm, and the Berrick brothers, whose houses, like Jonathon and Rob's, backed onto the ravines. In Owen Sound, a ridge runs along the west side of the sound, parallel to the water, and they all lived on top of it, on the edges of a rough semi-circle that ancient streams had carved into the slope. Where the sunny expanse of their backyards stopped, and their green lawns ended in a weedy fringe and a curtain of leaves, the land fell away into shade and a closed off stillness, and Jonathan followed it: Trees grew there. They had long trunks. Tall and smooth. And branches that started too high up to reach. Jordan, the middle Berrick brother, could shimmy up the skinny ones, but Jonathan's parents said he was half monkey. The tall trees with long trunks blocked the sunlight and the sound of the town, creating a separate space, a columned silence set apart from the streets and cul de sacs around it.
The boys could walk easily along of the tops of the ridges between the ravines, and in their muddy bottoms, but they had to grab onto trees or roots to climb the slopes and dig their hands and heels into the dirt to control their descents. They loved the fearful, whooping exhilaration of sliding down an almost vertical incline greased with damp leaves, skidding their feet ahead of their half-falling bodies, and making a hard, satisfying landing in the dirt. They did it one summer until they wore tracks in the slopes and ground mud permanently into the seats of their pants. It was how Mickey Holm broke his leg. He caught a foot on a root, flipped over head first, cartwheeled and folded it awkwardly under him. He tried to stand up and couldn't. They had to get his father. He slung Mickey over his shoulders, held him on with one hand, and used the other to pull himself up the slope to their backyard. No one told them that they had to be more careful, less reckless, but they knew, and they were, warning each other with serious voices, for a little while.
Unless they brought them to settle a dispute, or dragged them by the hand to show them what they had built, or, frantic, racing ahead, led them right to where Mickey was lying and trying not to cry, no grownups went there, not even to walk their dogs. The ravines belonged to the boys. They played hide and seek, king of the hill and war in them. They competed to see who could jump over the widest parts of the stream that ran through the deepest ravine, gathered in small pools, and slipped away, quick and silent and clear, before winding through a spongy meadow that was half marsh, and disappearing into a storm sewer. One time, Andrew Lucas missed a jump and sank up to his armpits in the shoal of mud under the bank in the meadow. When they pulled him out, he was covered in black muck that stank of rot. His mother made him strip down to his underwear on the lawn and sprayed him off with the hose before she let him in the house. The cold water pulled his skin tight over his ribs. He squealed and ran in circles like it was a game, and she yelled at him to knock it off, and he did, but they could tell that she was only pretending to be mad. Later that summer, they pushed an old log across the stream and used it as a bridge.
Sometimes, they would crawl up the slopes and spy on their own houses from the shelter of the trees. They watched their mothers, their sisters sunbathing, their fathers mowing their lawns, as single people when they thought they were alone. They looked disarmed, different than the boys were used to, a little like strangers, and the boys felt like they were doing something illicit, dangerous. Jonathan remembers spying on his father. He was reading a magazine on the back deck. He turned the pages and let a hand dangle and swing. He traced loose, distracted patterns on the planks with his fingertips. He seemed smaller somehow. It was hot. Sweat spread in patches from his armpits, darkened a line where his gut folded into his rib cage. Jonathon watched him for half an hour, luxuriating in the difficult prickling sensation of something like guilt, before sliding back into the cool silence of the ravine.
Sometimes, they created elaborate fantasies, mixing together their favorite TV shows, movies and books, mapping an imagined geography, Castle Grey Skull, Tatooine, and Minas Tirith, over the real one. But most of the time, they built forts. When they were younger, these were simple structures, sticks leaned against trees, low loose walls made of rocks and mounded dirt, screens of dead branches stabbed into the ground. When they got older, they borrowed their fathers' tools and built platforms where the trunks were close together.
Jamie Sterling always took the lead. He was bad in school, and every year his teachers debated holding him back, but he loved to make things, and he was good at it. He took out books from the public library, old Scouts manuals with plans for lean-tos and tree houses in them, and big, hardcover books about castles and fortifications with two-page, full color illustrations. He always had the best ideas. He showed them what a Quinsy was, and they built one one winter. They used it as a hideout until a pair of warm days caved in the roof. He would go into the ravines alone to work on their latest fort, and he would stay after they got bored and wandered off or went home. He liked to see things finished.
When Jamie was twelve, he got into Vietnam. Before that, he had been into the middle ages, and he had made swords and plywood shields and tried to build a catapult. Before that, it was Voltron, and he still had the full set of robots that fit together to make the super robot Voltron in his room. They all got into Vietnam. They watched Platoon, and talked about Charlie and Hueys, and debated whether M16s were better than AK47s. But Jamie took it further than the rest of them. He recorded episodes of Tour of Duty, the TV show based on Platoon, and re-watched them on the combination TV/VCR his grandparents gave him for Christmas. He bought the Platoon video game, and played it so much that he could repeat the route through the jungle level, “down, left, down, right, up...,” from memory. He got the idea for the dugouts from the second episode of Tour of Duty, the one in which the squad discovers a tunnel complex under a Vietnamese village. The tunnel rats they send in find bedrooms, offices, storerooms, armories, even a mess hall, a whole, second, invisible village carved out of the earth.
When Andrew Lucas and Jonathon found him, he had already drawn out a tunnel and a round room with his shovel on the floor of the driest ravine, and started to dig. They got their own shovels and helped him. They were getting too old for forts. They were at that stage when they were trying to escape childhood by rejecting things they used to love, but this felt different than the wood platforms or the Quinsy, it felt bigger, more permanent, more serious, and the work was harder. They dug down at least four feet, until the sides came to their shoulders, and, in Calum Berrick's case, to his eyebrows. They hacked through roots and levered free rocks. Their hands blistered. Their backs hurt in a pleasant, reassuring way, and they periodically straightened up and stretched like they had seen their fathers stretch when doing yard work. In a few days, they had a trench leading to a round hole the size of a family tent. They made a roof by laying down logs and thick branches, and then cedar boughs, marsh grass and plastic they scrounged from Brent Carson's garage. They piled the dirt they had dug out on top of this, and covered it with dead leaves for camouflage. When they were done, it was a low, symmetrical mound in the ravine floor that was wider at one end. It didn't look like much, but they climbed into the opening at the end of the tunnel and it was close and dark and real. They had to crouch and grope their way forward. The sides brushed their shoulders. And then it opened into the room.
There was enough space for all of them to sit in a circle. They dug seats out of the walls and covered them with garbage bags. Jamie opened a smoke hole in the roof and built a fire pit out of stones in the middle of the room. Even he knew better than to start a real fire so close to the beams of the roof, so he stuck candles on the stones. The flames half-lit their faces when they leaned forward, and filled their contours with shadows. Just being in the dugout felt private, conspiratorial, like they were doing something wrong, and getting away with it.
It was the last fort they built together. Jamie kept working on it, regularly at first, and then fitfully, when the mood took him, well into his teens, building more tunnels and smaller rooms, repairing the sections of roof that collapsed over the winters. The rest of them stopped helping him. But they didn't stop coming. It was the one place they could count on being alone.
Calum and Jamie stole porno mags from the bottom of the stacks in their fathers' closets and hid them in a hole in the wall. The boys took them out and passed them around. They inspected the pictures. They talked about sex. They talked about blowjobs. Do they actually blow? Calum said they did. He blew on his hand, changing the intensity of his breath and the shape of his mouth. He looked focused and a bit confused, like he was trying to solve a difficult problem. He was a literalist. He liked building models with tiny pieces that he needed tweezers for and that took days to glue together. His room was filled with replicas of battleships and famous buildings that his mother yelled at them not to touch. Calum stopped passing the magazine. He turned it one way and then the other. He was looking at a picture of a woman getting fucked from behind. The man and the woman were both standing up and the woman was facing the camera. The boys could see the man's head over her shoulder, and his hands grabbing her hips and breasts—“tits” they liked to say. Her legs were spread, showing her shaved genitals, and Calum was looking at them closely. “There must be a hole for it to come out of once it goes in,” he said. They argued about this. Jonathan, whose parents had given him an elaborate talk and a copy of The Joy of Sex, said it wasn't possible. But the boys wouldn't listen to him. They didn't want clear, sanitized facts. They wanted the magnetic experience of revulsion, not lessons, and Calum was adamant. He swore he could see the penis coming back out. Standing in the kitchen, staring out across the deck into the backyard (how long has he been standing here staring like this?), Jonathan feels again the atmosphere of confusion and arousal, the discomfort of hiding the erection that rubbed against his jeans, and the frustration that they wouldn't listen. He hears Calum saying “look” like he is pointing to a map.
They drank beer they paid older teenagers to buy for them. They smoked pot they bought themselves, plugging the hole in the roof to keep the smoke from getting out. Jonathan's childhood memories of the ravines are precise and clear. His teenage memories are blurred, smudged by substances, a restless anxiety, too-loud voices, shoving that was starting to move past play into the edgy toughness of boys trying to be men.
What Jonathan thinks about now is Rob. Not Rob the way their parents knew him, not Rob who needed glasses to read, who was good at board games, and who was three years younger than Jonathan and needed to be protected from him. He thinks of Rob the way he was with other kids, away from adults, in the intimate spaces of childhood. Rob as himself in the ravines.
He was a part of a group of younger brothers, Jordan and Mark Berrick, Steven Lucas, and Will Holm, who formed a smaller, looser knit analogue to Jonathan's circle of friends. They tagged along in ones and twos, whining to be included. Sometimes they were. More often, they weren't, and, when they weren't, they hung around out of reach and complained. It wasn't fair, they said. The older kids didn't own it. They weren't the boss. Sometimes they formed a small gang and staged raids on the ravines, creeping down from a backyard, breaking things, knocking over forts, scattering and running like mad when the older boys went after them. Some days, these raids would evolve into games of war with bases, sides and battle lines.
Rob was always at the head of the younger kids. He complained the loudest, the most fiercely, refusing to accept the rules of childhood, their unfairness. He organized the raids. He convinced his friends to stake out a portion of ridge as their own and defend it. He didn't like to run. He wanted to stand up for himself, to fight, and he often did. He couldn't win, and he never won, but that didn't stop him. He was short for his age and pudgy, one of those kids whose bellies are a hard, round curve, and whose arms and legs look too short for their frames. He turned red and wild when he got angry. His freckles stood out like bruises, and he forgot that he was small and fat.
Jonathan remembers: They were having a fight with clods of dirt. The summer had dried the stream to a trickle and baked the exposed mud until it cracked into fist sized squares. They gathered these by the armload and carried them back to their bases. They were like snowballs, but harder, heavier in the hand, bursting into puffs of dust on impact, and more satisfying. At first, they threw them at each others' feet, yelling “Grenade!,” imagining the dust was smoke, but then Mickey hit Jordan Berrick in the face. He said it was an accident, but no one believed him, and the fight got serious. They started throwing them hard, to hurt, and right at each other.
When Jonathan hit Rob, Rob was looking over the top of a ridge. Jonathan could see Rob's head and shoulders. He crouched behind a tree. He waited until Rob turned, and then nailed him right on the top of the head. He shouldn't have done it, and he knew that. Even in the middle of the fight, they were aiming at each others' bodies, avoiding their heads and faces. But he did it anyway. He can't remember why, but he remembers that it was a perfect shot, from sixty feet away at least, long and arching and precise. He remembers the feel of it leaving his hand and watching the high, breathless flight.
Rob never saw who threw it. His head jerked from the impact. The dried mud exploded in a spray of grit. And he went stiff with rage.
He got so angry that he broke a shard of glass out of an old window that someone had tossed into the ravines. It was the length of his forearm, curved and wickedly sharp along the edges, like a knife an exotic bad guy uses in a movie, the kind he pulls with a sadistic flourish on Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger in the climatic fight scene.
He chased the older boys, swinging the shard in wide, clumsy arcs. He was going to get them. He was going to fucking kill them.
They scattered, laughing, scrambling out of the way and taunting him. They yelled “Spaz!” They jumped and winced with real terror when he got too close. It was a game, a good one because it was cut with fear as sharp as the glass.
Mickey threw the first clod. Rob was going after Jamie, and Mickey hit him right in the small of the back as hard as he could. Rob seized like he'd been shocked, and whipped around, but Mickey was already darting away. The rest of them joined in, forming a loose circle around Rob, throwing when his back was turned, and then dodging and running. They wouldn't have done it normally. It wasn't fair. The six of them against Rob. Hitting when his back was turned. But the shard suspended the usual rules. And his wild rage. And the thrill of throwing and hitting. And of pushing him further.
Rob was wearing a blue baseball jersey and black track pants. The dried mud left light brown marks where it landed. Jonathan hears the projectiles striking flesh. The hardsoft thud. The bruising sound. The dust stuck to Rob's face and bled down his cheeks.
Rob lunged and tripped. He caught himself with his free hand, holding the glass up, and rushed again. His face was streaked and purple. He started making a hard, high keening noise, an animal noise, the wrenched howl of frustration and fury that would not fit into words, and that collapsed into gasps before starting again.
Jonathan can see him: flailing, hysterical, overcome by and impotent with rage.
Rob stumbled, tried to right himself, but couldn't because he was holding the shard like a glass of water, and went down. It hit a rock and shattered.
They pounced on him.
They pinned his arms and legs and started to talk about what to do with him, how to punish him for being a little shit, how to teach him a lesson. Mickey wanted to beat his ass. Jamie was already trying to give him an Indian burn. Calum took charge. He said one punch in the arm from each of them was fair. Mickey argued for two, but Calum said one. There was a sense that things had already gone too far, and the rest of them agreed.
They held him down and took turns. Rob fought them the whole time. Jonathan remembers: the feel of holding him, the hot, solid flesh of his right arm, and the ease with which they held him. Jonathan relaxed, let Rob flex and struggle, gave him room to fight, maybe hope, and then clamped down. There was the frisson of shame and the vicious, detached joy of strength and then it was his turn.
None of them worried about Rob telling, not even Jonathan, not when they were holding and hitting him or when they let him up and he ran home. They did things there that they weren't supposed to, that they wouldn't do elsewhere, beyond the shade of the trees, beyond the high, steep slopes, and the stillness that closed out the world, and no one told. Rob wouldn't tell. And he didn't tell. That was the understanding. That was what made the ravines special. No one ever told.
Jonathan and Rob were never close. There was the age gap (3 years), but that was the smallest of the differences that divided them. Jonathan liked books and Rob liked sports. Rob played basketball on the driveway in the summer and in rec leagues in the winter. Jonathan did well in school and Rob struggled. They both liked video games, and they played them together, but always against each other, in long sessions, arguing about whose turn it was, who cheated to get a high score, or who got to play which Street Fighter character (both of them wanted Blanka because of his Beast Roll), and who won mattered.
In high school, Rob started skateboarding and smoking pot. He lost a lot of weight, and wore baggy clothes that showed off how thin he was. The pot gave him a hard, wet cough. He started dealing drugs, mostly pot and hash, to his friends, and then, according to him, more seriously. When Jonathan came back from university, they would climb down into the ravines and smoke Rob's pot. Rob had a good spot, a couple of logs around a fire pit next to the dugouts. Jamie had stopped repairing them years ago and the dugouts had collapsed into holes filled with leaves, rotting branches and plastic. There was a place under one of the beams and a decaying tarp where Rob hid his stash so that their parents wouldn't find it if they searched his room. He kept it in an old tackle box, filling the lure compartments with neat, saran wrapped bundles of bud.
Rob knew everyone now, and he liked to talk about the people he knew, people in Owen Sound who Jonathan had never heard of and who all had nicknames—Dirty, Sketchy Steve, Tripper. He talked tough and knowledgeable. He called Jonathan “Bud.” Jonathan heard his own voice get rougher, his sentences get shorter, fill up with monosyllables.
When he graduated from high school, Rob started a general contracting course at Georgian College in Owen Sound. He did it because their parents said he had to do something. He dropped out in November. That spring, he hitch hiked out west. He made it as far as Banff and then doubled back to Calgary when he couldn't find anywhere to stay. Then Edmonton. For a couple of years, he lived in a house with half-a-dozen other burnouts and sold drugs to the oil workers down from Fort Mac. Then he smartened up and got his shit together. He started framing houses in the suburbs going up around the city. He got new roommates and the names of his friends changed. Then his electrician's ticket at The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. His apprenticeship. The frustration of working for other people. Then Margaret. Rob's Pipe and Socket. A house in a suburb he had helped to build. The kids. The frustration of other people working for him.
At first, Rob came back a few times a year, staying in his old room until it felt like he'd never left, and then only at Christmas, and, once he had the kids, for a week every second year. Sometimes Jonathan saw him. Sometimes they missed each other. Mostly they talked on the phone. Like the visits, the calls got less frequent, more abbreviated and perfunctory. The truth was that Jonathan didn't know Rob, what he was doing, what he was making of himself and his life any more. Not really. Not in the ways that mattered. And he knew that he didn't. But he still imagined Rob going on like he had since childhood, changing in a predictable pattern, following an obvious trajectory, fitting more closely the less he heard from him into who Jonathan thought he was.
Margaret is right. He has to tell his parents.
Resting his hands on the counter, Jonathan remembers a headline from the day before: “Woman Charged After Striking and Killing Dog.” The details of the story have stayed with him: A middle aged woman hit a man walking his dog. It happened at stop sign at a suburban intersection. She waved them across and then ran them down. The man got out of the way, but the dog didn't.
Jonathan can see her behind the wheel. She raises her hand. The gesture is curt, polite but brisk, as if she is in a hurry. And then the car jumps, accelerates into the suspended moment of disbelief: It is happening and the man doesn't yet know it is happening. He can't let himself. And then he is starting to understand, but too slowly, because these things don't happen. Not here. Not to him.
Jonathan can see her, but he can't see her face, and, like the man, he doesn't understand. He doesn't understand why she did it any more than he understands why he threw the clod. He can't touch that moment before its long and hanging flight. Or maybe he can: Sometimes you want to hurt someone. Sometimes you hurt them.
The Rusty Toque. His stories have appeared in The Danforth Review, Filling Station, and The Puritan. His story “Cara’s Men (As Told to You in Confidence)” was nominated for the Journey Prize by The Danforth Review.