We Tried so Hard
'My name is Allison, and my son was convicted for the rape of three women,' the woman said, perched on her chair like a potato, legs not quite reaching the ground. She had dark circles around her eyes, which she cast down when she spoke.
I waited for the mumbled response from the group, syllables drawn out like children saying good morning to a school teacher.
'Good evening Allison, we are sorry for your loss.'
My lips moved in synch with the others (to avoid another stare from the facilitator), but I made no sound. I wasn't sorry for her loss. I felt for the three women whose lives would never be the same, but for her son? No.
'Allison,' the facilitator asked, 'would you like to share your story?'
He phrased it as a question, as though we had a choice. My therapist emphatically encouraged attendance. Tell our story, ask for forgiveness, and all ours and our children's sins would be absolved. Bible basher’s always ran these things. We sat in a dimly lit community theatre hall that felt like a bloated confession booth. I couldn’t tell if the candles were for effect or the result of an unpaid electricity bill.
'I always told him I loved him, tried to teach him how to be a gentleman,' the woman said.
I'm sure she did, the type of gentleman who believes women should be seen and not heard. That’s why he carried the gaffer tape.
'We paid for him to attend the best schools, we valued his education, you know?'
The facilitator nodded away like a drinking bird, the others murmured their assent.
'We raised him in a home of faith.'
That should be enough for the tick of approval. Real top-notch parenting, raise them to value an institution that covered up, encouraged and institutionalised rape for centuries.
'Isaac fell into the wrong crowd.'
She lowered her voice. 'They were taking… drugs.'
I mean, please. After everything he did, that's what she worried most about? Drugs didn't make your son hold a knife to those women's throats, didn't make him slap them in the face, over and over again.
'Let us take a moment,' the facilitator interjected, 'and direct our thoughts and prayers to Allison's son.'
I took a quick glance around the circle of chairs, everyone else stared at the ground in reflection or prayer, except for a man across to my right. Built like a fridge, a splash of orange hair lit up against his pale skin. His grey eyes sought mine. He had a certain animal magnetism that some women would find irresistible. My stomach convulsed and I had to look away.
'Are there any questions, or reflections for Allison from the group?' the facilitator asked. A young man with close cropped hair and muscles hidden beneath a button-up shirt, he could have been in the army, or a new age priest.
My arm creaked up, rusted from disuse.
'I was wondering, at any point in your evidently dedicated raising of your boy, did you teach him the concept of consent?'
The woman reddened, and the facilitator shot me a look, flexed his biceps across his chest. I dare say he performed extra counselling after class. He’d landed in the middle of divorcee city, with a better female to male ratio than most nightclubs.
'Well, not directly, per se,' she said, stuttering. 'But we raised him to be a gentleman.'
Yes, you said that already. And what a gentleman he was.
The facilitator thanked Allison for sharing before I could say anymore.
A silver-haired man with skin like pork crackling spoke next. He could have been anywhere from forty to seventy. Golfer or fisher, I figured.
'My name is Tim, and I'd like to talk about my daughter, Tiffany.'
Tiffany? He did not look like the father of a Tiffany. Maybe he had a porn star wife. First time we’d heard a story about a girl. I sensed a current of energy run through the group. A deviant daughter? That’s next level fucked up.
'Tiff was a good kid, always eager to help. When she was three, she almost burnt the house down trying to cook us bacon and eggs for breakfast at five in the morning.'
Another sob story, I could feel it.
'She helped out the other kids at school, especially the weak—she’d stand up to the bullies. When she joined the army after school, I begged her to change her mind. I told her the military is the bully, they don't need your help.'
He had that right.
'She wouldn't listen,' he paused, gathered himself. 'She did three tours of Iraq. The last one broke her.'
I felt his pain. Violence begets violence. I would know.
'When she came back, she was never the same. Jumpy. On edge. She slept with her gun under her pillow.
'One day, she was up the street getting a coffee. An old car backfired as it turned right at the traffic lights. Tiff saw a man on the other side of the road reach for a gun. She didn't see anything else. Pulled out her Browning 9mm and shot him in the chest. It was only afterwards she saw the uniform. A cop, jumpy enough himself to reach for his weapon.''
His voice faltered. 'She's serving fifteen years non-parole. Her life is over.'
Poor Tim, his grief was understandable. But he needed to hear the truth.
A few sniffles broke the silence. I coughed, my arm already vertical. Looser, muscle memory taking over.
The facilitator’s voice sounded resigned. He didn't want me to speak, but I couldn’t stay silent. Not anymore.
'Thanks for sharing Tim, that's a tough break. Why do you really think she joined the military?'
'Well, I don't know. I guess she was looking for purpose, trying to figure her life out.'
'Can I ask—your job—it keep you away from home often?'
'I'm skipper of a fishing trawler, we could be out there for months.'
The facilitator watched with concern.
'I'm only stating the obvious, but we’re role models for our kids. Your daughter—Tiff—grows up watching you travel away from home for long periods, coming back with tales of excitement and adventure. Seems like she was trying to follow in your footsteps.'
Tim's face dropped, I could see the realisation flooding his brain. I could have said more, but I needed to save my ammo. Bigger fish to fry.
‘OK, thank you for sharing, Tim,’ the facilitator said in a strained voice. ‘We’ve got time for a couple more. Any volunteers?’
No one moved. Lips sealed shut, hands tucked away. The truth is a scary beast.
The facilitator searched for eyes not yet averted.
‘Josh,’ he said, the ginger fridge caught in the headlights. ‘Would you like to share with the group?’
Josh shifted his weight, and the wooden chair underneath him groaned in response. He pulled his lips together in a tight smile and nodded.
‘My name is Josh, and I would like to share a story about my son, Fabian.’
Fabian? I covered my mouth to suppress a snort of laughter.
‘Good evening Josh, we are sorry for your loss,’ the group replied.
Josh ran a hand across the stubble on his chin before continuing.
‘I won’t bore you with the details of his childhood. Fabian seemed like a normal enough kid to me. Bit quiet, not many friends. I was the same. Growing up as a bloodnut… it’s not easy.’
I saw a few sympathetic smiles, a couple of nodding heads.
‘I blame myself. I tried to involve him in outdoor activities—hiking, hunting, spear fishing, but he wasn’t interested. I couldn’t reach him. I bought him one of those video game consoles for his twelfth birthday, to try and cheer him up after no one showed up to his birthday party. He worked out how to download whatever game he wanted from the internet. Those games he played…’ Josh trailed off, shook his head. ‘I’d never seen such violence before.’
You slaughtered innocent animals for pleasure, dickhead.
‘Fabian started to change, and we couldn’t stop it. I caught him one time out back. He had a rat tied to a garden stake, and had built a little fire underneath. The rat was squealing, a horrible sound. Fabian’s eyes were just, blank, you know?’
Thought you weren’t going to bore us with the details, Josh? I had to give him credit though, the rat story was gold.
‘Me and my wife…’ he paused, rolled a silver wedding band around his finger and shot a glance up above. To the heavens.
‘We tried so hard. So, goddamn hard. One evening, I came home after work, and as soon as I opened the front door, I knew something was wrong. There was a quietness, a stillness. A space no longer filled. I made my way to the kitchen, hoping against hope.’
He shut his eyes, as if reliving the trauma in his mind. The group, a captive audience, couldn’t tear their eyes away. I’d never seen a better actor.
‘I could hear Fabian’s television on through the ceiling. Muffled gun shots, screams. When I found my wife, lying in a pool of blood, I couldn’t even recognise her. Her face… gone. She was gone.’
Josh let out a sob as he finished his story, and I wondered if a part of that was genuine. Then I saw the slit of his eye dance around the room, like a stage performer gauging the audience’s reaction.
‘That must have been hard, Josh,’ the facilitator said, ‘We’re here for you. Are there any reflections for Josh?’
I waited a minute, let the anger settle in my stomach. A few wiped away tears, others still bowed in prayer. The facilitator narrowed his eyes when he saw my hand creep up again.
‘I wanted to thank Josh for sharing such a harrowing tale. I can only imagine what you went through. Can I ask what happened to Fabian?’
‘Thank you,’ Josh replied. He sounded surprised. ‘Fabian was arrested and tried as a minor. He’s in juvie, they’ll transfer him to the adult prison once he turns 18.’
I nodded my head with all the solemness as I could muster. ‘Scott?’ I asked the facilitator, addressing him by name. ‘Would it be alright if I share my story next?’
The facilitator glanced at the clock, 8:55. He had a choice to make. Only five minutes until the scheduled finish time, my story would push well into overtime. But if he didn’t let me speak now, I’d be back next week, and I might ruin another class for him.
‘OK,’ he said, nodding. He glanced back at the clock once more before leaving the stage to me.
'Hello, my name is Jane, and I would like to share about my son, Dylan.'
Josh’s eyes flicked up as I said my name, and sharpened when I mentioned my son’s.
‘I’ve come here to speak the truth, the whole point of this exercise, right?’ I asked, directing my question to the facilitator, but making sure I hit eye contact with everyone. ‘It won’t be pretty, and a lot of you won’t agree with my actions. But if the truth can’t save us, I don’t know what can.’
'Dylan came late—two and a half weeks after I was due—they dragged him kicking and screaming into the world. Like he knew what lay ahead. The nurses had to pry him off the cord, he wouldn’t let them cut it.’
I dreamt about those tiny hands—such strength—for years to come.
'Dylan was such a gentle boy, he played nicely with the other children, listened to his mother and his teachers. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. I was convinced I’d been sent an angel. I should have known; angels are sent to fight off demons, but I couldn’t see mine at the time.’
I paused to assess the group, most looked bored. Only the facilitator and Josh seemed to pay attention.
‘But as Dylan became older, his kindness grew into timidness. Little things scared him, like the clang of a saucepan dropped in the cupboard, a dog barking. He wet the bed, wet his pants.’
Josh stared at me, his face empty. A tiny flicker danced across his eyes, a memory perhaps, a whisper from the unconscious.
'By the time Dylan turned five,' I continued, 'I realised the man I married, the father of my child, was not the man I thought he was. The love had trickled away. I clung to nostalgia and dreams of the happy family I never had.'
They lapped it up. A juicy soap opera with darkness on the horizon.
'My husband first hit me when Dylan was seven. Dylan saw the bruise the next day and asked what happened to me. I told him I walked into street sign.’
‘He broke my arm with a rolling pin when Dylan was ten, and I told him I fell down the stairs. Dylan wasn’t stupid. He knew. Every time I lied, he cried a little more.’
My voice broke, memories swirled through my mind. Our crystal vase flying in slow motion at my head. Dylan cowering under the dining table as my husband smashed our television against the wall. Dylan with a damp cloth, wiping the discharge from my swollen eye so I could see his handsome face.
I took a deep breath, looked back up at the room. Their eyes had softened. One of the women wiped a tear from beneath her sunglasses. Even the facilitator stopped staring at the clock. One person stood out from the group like a dog turd in a cookie jar. Josh glowed with a sheen of pink amongst the gloom.
‘Dylan started acting out at school. Swore at the teachers, fought with other kids. His grades dropped—I thought the report cards he brought home were for the wrong child. I didn’t know what to do. I came close to leaving, had my bag packed and everything. But where the fuck could I go? I had no family, no friends either by this stage—my husband made sure of that.’
‘Why didn’t you go to the police?’ a man sitting opposite asked.
‘If you grew up like I did, you don’t run to the cops. You sort your own shit out.
‘But I couldn’t sort my shit out. I made a mess of it all. Pride, ego, stupidity—call it what you want, I kept myself and my son inside a volcano on the brink of eruption. I failed him.’
I paused, tried to swallow past the lump in my throat the size of a grapefruit.
‘I find myself coming back to what Josh said before; “We tried so hard.” It’s what we tell ourselves each night before sleep—if we’re granted any—it’s what we tell our family, our friends, the police when they come calling. It’s bullshit. If we tried a bit harder none of us would be here right now.’
‘One day, I woke up to the brightest light my I’d ever seen. I thought I was in heaven. I knew I should be happy, but I couldn’t stop crying, I’d left my son behind. When I opened my mouth to speak no sound came out, and I caught sight of a blue hose sticking out of my throat. My head was so swollen I couldn’t breathe through my mouth, so they had to cut a hole in my neck to let the air in and out. A nurse appeared—told me I was in the intensive care unit at St. George Hospital. Another week passed before I became conscious enough to understand what happened. I’d been in a coma for three weeks after someone bashed the living shit out of me. I had no memory of it. Post traumatic amnesia, apparently.
‘A police officer told me my son had been arrested, scheduled to be tried for attempted murder. I couldn’t work it out, how could they arrest my son? It didn’t make sense. When the court case arrived, my husband testified against our son. I wanted to defend him, but I couldn’t. My memory hadn’t come back, and I refused to lie. Still refuse to.’
I looked up into the blackness behind the stage, thought I saw a flicker of light amongst the gloom. I glanced at the faces of the group, transfixed. I had them in the palm of my hand. I hoped it would be enough, for later.
‘What I came to realise, as will you, my husband could sell fire extinguishers to the devil. I’ve been trying to unravel his stories for the last four years, and they led me to this spot right here,’ I said, tapping the wooden floor with my foot. The sound echoed throughout the hall, and a shadow emerged from behind the stage curtains.
‘I spent two years in reconstructive plastic surgery, thousands of dollars on private investigators, tried to trawl my mind for the memories hidden below.’
I stood from my chair, legs trembling, and tapped the side of my head.
‘They came back.’
Oh, they came back. The floodgates opened, violent memories surged past my defences, near crippled me.
‘This man here,’ I said, pointing my finger at Josh—red as a beetroot and with eyes like a bull, ‘Bashed me near to death with a frying pan in our kitchen, and blamed our son for his evil.’
I felt a wave roll over me as I let the words out. It left me light headed, and I had to curl my toes against the floor to stay upright.
‘Josh here—or should I say Jarrod—as I know him,’ I said, now addressing him directly, ‘Fucked up. You made two major mistakes.’
He glared back at me, his pink skin glistened with sweat, as if caught under the stage’s spotlight. The others stared at him too.
‘The first mistake; you didn’t finish the job. You thought I’d run and hide. You underestimated me, like you have for the last 18 years. You even posted your wedding pictures to your new wife on Facebook. What is she, like 25?
‘The part I didn’t understand, is why you would come to something like this?’ I continued, waved my arm at the group. The facilitator looked about to shit his pants.
‘For sympathy? To wash away the guilt? Nah, I know you better than that. Let me guess, you’re bored of your new wife already, and thought this sounded like an easy pick up joint. A sob story like yours is worth its weight in gold to grieving, lonely widows.’
The shadow crept down off the stage, slid closer.
‘Look at my face,’ I said to Jarrod, and the group swung their eyes back to me. ‘It’s packed full of silicone, titanium, and a toxic soup of chemicals. But truth is what binds it all together, stops me falling apart, helps me survive. You’ll never get that.’
My heart hammered against my chest. Jarrod stood up from his chair, a smirk plastered across his face.
‘Nice story, bitch,’ he said. ‘You forgot though. What was my second mistake?’
‘Dylan was granted early release from juvenile detention five days ago. If you gave a shit about him, you would have known that.’
His smirk fell, uncertainty whipped across his face. The shadow behind him covered the last few steps in an instant. I heard a noise like the flick of a rubber band, and watched the tip of a spear emerge through Jarrod’s chest, a blossom of red radiating out from its tip. He toppled forwards, like a felled tree. I heard screams, but all I could focus on was the shadow who had emerged in the space my husband left behind. Under the light he looked younger than I remembered, still just a boy. The spear gun fell from his hands, clattered against the ground. Those sitting on either side jumped out of their chairs, shrieks echoed through the hall. I opened my arms, tears streaming down my cheeks. Dylan stepped into the circle, edged around his fallen father and let out a gasp of air as I squeezed him. I felt his hands on my back, their strength energising me.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket, opened the sound recording app and pressed record.
‘Jarrod,’ I said.
He lay face down on the wooden floor, the spear lodged in his back like a flagpole. I rolled him onto his side with Dylan’s help. His breaths, soggy wheezes, sounded water-logged. His eyes registered me kneeling beside him.
‘I’m dying,’ he said, and it came out more like a question.
A sour smell like rotting vegetables and vinegar hit my throat as I opened my mouth to speak. ‘Yes, you are.’
His fight ebbedThe fight was leaving him. The anger, rage and ego that had destroyed our lives seeped out in his blood. Stripped him back to the man I had first met, the man I had fallen in love with two decades ago.
‘Jarrod, you have a choice. You can die right here—and send our son back to prison, for the better part of his life. Or you can tell the truth. Clear his name and give him a chance.
‘Jarrod,’ I said, a tremble in my voice, ‘Who beat me in the kitchen of our house. Who left me for dead with my face smashed in and my brain swollen against my skull?’
A sigh escaped his lips, his chest barely rose.
I watched him grimace as he took his next breath, sucked in all the air he could. I held my phone next to his lips.
He fell silent, the trueness of his last breath a cold kiss upon my cheek.
I heard sirens wail, not far away. I stood, my legs wobbled, head fluttered. I stumbled over to the speargun on the floor and picked it up, the handle still slick with sweat. I wiped it on my shirt, then made sure to touch every part of the weapon with my fingers, and dry fired the weapon twice.
I turned to the group of parents huddled against the wall, fear in their eyes. ‘I’m sorry you had to witness that. Please—hear me out. I know violence has already torn apart your lives, taken your children from you. When they ask you what happened, I need you to tell them it was me. Because that’s the truth. I pulled that trigger.’
I screamed above the sirens. ‘I fucking pulled that trigger.’
I held Dylan against me as the doors burst open, whispered into his ear.