The late autumn sun hung in a washed-out sorrowful sky, scattering pale memories of summer over the recently flooded playground.
“I want to hide this time!” Robin declared, waving me over to the slides and telling me to count to one hundred.
It was 1989, we were eleven years old and Robin was my best friend in the whole world. Being exceptionally good at hide and seek, it was often quite a challenge to find him, and that day was no exception, for it felt as though no time had passed at all before the whistle was blowing at the end of recess and he was still nowhere to be seen.
As we lined up to head back inside, I remember staring at the ground, at the black stinking mud caked around the bottom of my shoes. I still figured Robin would appear at any moment; after all, the whistle had been really loud, so he must have heard it. But during roll call, when Ms Lawson called Robin’s name, I lifted my hand as high as it would go, explaining how we’d been playing hide and seek, but that I’d never found him. That he hadn’t come back inside after recess had ended.
“He’s really good at hide and seek though,” I said. “He probably didn’t hear the whistle because he was concentrating. Do you want me to go look for him?”
Ms Lawson shook her head, giving me a grateful smile, “No, Daniel, that’s okay, I’ll just finish up here and then I’ll get someone to go take a look. I’m sure he’s around somewhere.”
I smiled back, unsure, for it was like I could smell the wrongness in the air. It was only afterwards, while staring at the floor again, that I noticed my fingernails were packed full of the same black mud that was caked around the bottom of my shoes. That’s weird, I thought, a rush of nervous unease shivering my arms. And that’s all the warning I got before I’m gagging and heaving and my desk was covered in vomit and everyone was screaming.
Ninety minutes later, the air turned cold and a breeze picked up, sending whirls of leaves skittering along the asphalt. And while uniformed crime scene officers were taping off the playground, a large group of volunteers gathered in the gym hall to help the Sheriff with a grid search through town. Apparently a powerful storm was brewing to the east, so the race was now on to find Robin before it broke.
Under thick clouds foaming with liquid light, a nice policewoman sat me down to ask questions. She seemed particularly interested in exactly where I last saw Robin, but even when pressed, recess now seemed more like an emulsified dream, as though I’d been staring at the sun through a smoke-filled room, eyes red and itching, my vision scattered with tiny black holes.
However, what I did remember, came back in sickening flashes. The bright yellow swing set by the fence. The smell of dirt and shit and rusted metal. A startling pain in my wrists and fingers, along with a hissing feeling that unfolded from my groin and ended in my jaw.
I could feel the policewoman’s stare, her gaze soft yet intense. But I felt crucified by my shyness, dwarfed by the immensity of the moment, my thoughts like campfire smoke blowing in the wind.
Another hour slipped away and by this time Mom had driven me home. I remember sitting out on our front porch, the scent of unburst rainclouds in the air, clutching my knees to my chest and watching the storm front roll across the sky like a wave, the dark clouds reminding me of a congealed yellow blanket—ashen, bruised, like jaundice—stretching out as far as I could see, obscuring any sort of light that might have tried to seep through. My nostrils flared at the change in the air, the taste of lightning seeking the distant horizon.
I think it was the arrival of twilight. Triggering my anxiety. As though within the fading of the light there lingered an inherent danger. So I slowed my breathing—inhaling so deep I blurred around the edges—but still, the air felt slick, as though it was coated in grease. It made me want to throw up again.
The rain, when it came, was like a heavy curtain of rage, so thick it hardly seemed to be falling at all. Then the wind picked up, nascent and wild, howling in across the plains, a hundred square miles of vast empty fields doing little to stop its destructive power. And so it was no great surprise that by nightfall it was already thought to be too dangerous to continue, at which point the Sheriff called everyone back to the station.
Through the glistening black maelstrom, I watched the large convoy of vehicles roaring past the end of our driveway, back towards town, gravel and mud flickering in the headlights—broken promises littering the ground like road kill. But I stood my ground, as if I was lost in the midst of a vigil, my nose pressed against the one large window that overlooked the road. I was only eleven years old—all fragile, undeveloped tissue, paper-thin sense of self, hollow bones that rattled as the storm shook the house—I didn’t understand why no one had found him. I didn’t feel quite so innocent anymore.
But something didn’t feel right either. The world was too loud, too bright, like hot wax on young skin. Yet at the exact same time, everything was fractured and numb, the flutter of my thoughts like a black cloud of flies, bewildered and confused. I was aware of the storm, of course I was—the shocks of thunder were setting my teeth humming—but I was also aware of the dogs barking next door, Mom crying in the kitchen, the angle of light falling across the hallway floor, the endless static wash of the radio blending with the full-throated singing of the rain outside. It was a profound awareness of being, complete with wild notes of hysteria, like I was lost inside a ruinous wonderland, a fairytale in retrograde.
By the time I got to bed, the pain in my fingers had spread to my knuckles, while a whole succession of purple bruises were rising to the surface of my forearms. The air was redolent of sadness and ruin, and for a moment—as though from the touch of novocaine—I went under, underneath the veil. It felt like combing through grains of sand, grasping at wisps of the past and glimmers of the deep inside.
I hugged myself into a small curve and cried myself to sleep.
That night, I had dreams of ice-cold water running down my face. A wet mouth. Lips touching mine. Feelings that I couldn’t translate into any sort of useful language. Leaves covered my eyes—dark earth compacted into mud, pressing me down—the kind of weight that twists and perverts, my ribcage buckling from the pressure. But I also remember the feeling of surrender, of comfort, as though I was reassured by the knowledge that every part of my body would be loved by the soil that reclaimed it.
Day two and bad news travelled fast. Local TV and radio outlets had reporters out all over town, but there was still no word. Overnight, some trees had come down in the forest, while the rainstorm washed the sidewalks clean. Floodwaters now blocked the roads—hampering the search yet again—while the electricity was out for half the town. After lunch, the Sheriff put out a statement saying the heavy rain had wiped out crucial evidence. Daylight bled out of the sky and at some point I fell asleep without meaning to, curled up on the floor in our front room, Mom fretting about in the background.
As I slept, I watched the way the sunlight brushed his cheeks. The way the leaves swayed around us. How my fingers stroked his hair, my skin on his skin. The sound he made, like a kitten mewling. A rush of heat. The forest in the background, burning—the smoke-filled daylight stretching over all the lies I told myself during the waking hours.
And when I awoke, I remembered. Last summer, Robin and me, up in the hills, running between ash and hemlock, eyes squinted tight against the glare. His love aching in the back of my throat like thirst. Like the smell of candle smoke in church. The slippery tension of thwarted longing. My face was pale, it must have been—fresh milk against the sky—and from the other side, a silhouette against the deep blue, my hackles up, ears stretched back, eyes flaring wide. A predator smelling the air.
Day three and the sun rose like a purple bruise across the world. I caught the dawn light as it broke over me. Shattering. Hiding pieces of it in my pockets and under my bed. In the dark at the back of my wardrobe.
School was cancelled once again and there was still no sign of Robin.
By this point, the story had gone national, and the sheer amount of TV trucks in town was reaching ridiculous and overwhelming levels. But they kept on coming, because people were saying that it was weird. That little boys don’t just disappear from recess at school with absolutely no evidence.
I remember standing at the end of our driveway, gripping Mom’s hand as she talked to a reporter, my hair being flung backwards by the gusty autumn wind. Above us, the clouds were still oily with rain—the sky spitting green and yellow light into our eyes—the wind so strong that I could feel the cold air penetrating every small hole between each stitch of my jumper. Meanwhile, my right hand was in my mouth, teeth ripping cuticles, chewing on nails, blood dripping on the asphalt like a sacrifice.
While we were stood there, I realised I felt empty inside, like I only existed in third person, behind glass, vaguely outlined in pencil. In the distance, I could hear a police radio crackling, radiating malevolence, like I’d just walked over an open grave. I dropped Mom’s hand and turned and ran. I thought perhaps I might never stop running.
That third night I had black tidal dreams. Vast wings of darkness, unfolding, blossoming like cosmic trails through the night—clouds like ripples spreading outward on the surface of a pond. Like a finger swirling the sky. Like when you touch the water that lies in the hollow of a fallen tree and the world slips out of alignment. And when I awoke, my body felt empty, like an abandoned seed husk, my shoulders fragile and distorted, like they’d been broken on the inside.
But that was it. After three days there were no more leads. Nobody ever saw Robin again. Weeks of silence. Months of nightmares gradually being swept away by the sound of my steadying heartbeat. I tried to act strong for Mom, but I often cried when I was alone, all too aware of my salty taste, like sea air encrusted on a rusty nail.
Throughout the following year, school added new security and built brand new fences all around the grounds. Parents fetched their kids from the bus. No one was walking home alone. No child was walking anywhere alone. Way off in the distance, sirens wailed like dying birds, and the noise, however faint, always set my teeth on edge.
Over time, the news cycles returned to normal, kids stopped mentioning his name in halls, and his family moved away from town. Many times now I’ve pictured his parents packing up his tiny bedroom. Stuffed animals. School art projects. Framed photographs. Dressing-up clothes. The embarrassingly large wooden sword that I made him.
As for me, Robin’s absence was like a stained glass window, changing the presence of the light around me. I emerged from the hollows that he left behind, but by then it was too late, the world had shifted spectrum, the weight of it sitting heavier on my skin. Soon, all that was left of him were the rain-washed “Missing” posters spread around town. Stains of streaky ink on rotting paper. The face of my only friend, eroding, crumbling, fading from existence.
Sometimes, I saw a strange light coming from his mouth. From inside the poster. From the deepest, darkest part of him. Like he was burning away. Like he was screaming.
A year went past and I was tired. I was always tired back then, despite living through an endless night. Twelve years old, caustic and thin, waiting for the bus, smoking the cigarette I stole from Mom that morning. We’d grown apart, Mom and me, the line between us now as thin as the cobwebs in the hedge behind me. And of course, just beyond that hedge, lay the vast swathe of fields—the borderland between the wrath of nature and the ridiculous arrogance of mankind—a horizontal nightmare so flat and lonely that it had its own terrible sort of gravity. And so the barns, the power lines, the sky, the clouds and the wind all got sucked down into the dirt until nothing was left but the horizon, breaking the world in two. Out there, that was lonely country. Neglected. Overlooked. A desolate remnant of a fractured dream. Ceded to the ancient gods whose names were spoken only in the wretched hours of the night. They might have worn their claim like an ill-fitting crown, but still, we all knew it to be true—lines on a map didn’t mean a thing out there.
At school, I think my grief often showed itself as violence. Rule breaking. Acting out. Teachers started using words like difficult and temperamental. And of course, all this ran in opposition to how a young boy was meant to behave. School only wanted the acceptable parts of me showing. Which was fair enough, I suppose. Besides, by this point, I was actually pretty scared of my anger—of where it might lead if I ever gave it too much room to breathe—that one day, it might erupt outward in a wave of seriously brutal proportions, that it might finally be the thing to send me tumbling over that ledge that people sometimes talk about in books or movies. Sometimes, I saw that ledge inside my dreams, but by then, it was too late, I’d already jumped, I was already falling.
I think I’d been falling for a while.
So I ended up going to therapy. And it was in that small, oppressive room, staring vacant and hurt at the wall, that I always wondered what was wrong with me. Because I spoke little—aggressively little, already sliding into that vast unmapped silence that would later turn into an ocean. Which must have been frustrating for everyone involved, but in sensitive child therapy, the interrogative model is forbidden, so we proceeded slowly, carefully—but even then, it often felt like I was ripping at the seams—my dreams leaking out of me, my thoughts leaving cracks in the walls.
We didn’t talk about Robin. Not at first. We talked about my hobbies, the kind of music that I liked, my favourite books, my unusual capacity for violence.
I can’t remember if I answered truthfully.
But slowly, over the next few months, I opened up. About the painful intensity of my emotions. The overwhelming waves of darkness. The deep sadness that was balled up in my stomach like a snarl of old string.
But no matter how bad it got, I never told him that I still saw Robin in my dreams, inside the old storm drain in the woods, covered in feathers, bruised like an old peach, skin turning blue under my hands.
"Shut up," I would snap, at the memories, at the dreams.
But inside my head, every time I closed my eyes, the pages kept turning, unmoved, unrepentant, like some sort of relentlessly morbid picture book.
I can see them now.
Robin’s eyes, bulging, confused. My fingers, wrapped around his throat. Twisting. As hard as I could. Wringing out his small neck like a wet towel. Pushing down on his windpipe. Until I heard a crack. Until everything was still and quiet.