Joyland

Toronto |

Heart Lake

by Rudrapriya Rathore

Honorable Mention, 2017 Open Border Fiction Prize

The police told us it wasn’t our fault. They gathered us up, all of us except Jonathan, and put us in a little room off Principal Coleman’s office and asked us questions about everything that had happened that winter. Who’d had arguments with whom, what we did when we hung out together, whose houses we’d been to. Then they talked to our teachers and parents and siblings, and even a couple of Dave’s friends from nearby schools—he called it the spiral, the way they looked for info in ever-widening circles from the center of the crime—but we knew they wouldn’t find anything out. Nothing that could explain it was visible to anyone. It had started brewing under the surface months earlier, in September, as soon as the red front doors opened for senior year. That was when talk first began going around school about Jamie Singh.

He’d been at Heart Lake longer than any of us, because his parents had made some kind of deal with the Brampton education board, and he was as much a part of the place as the vandalized bathrooms. Loitering in the back field at lunch all winter, kicking chunks of ice against the brick building until they shattered. In January sunshine, the shards burst up glinting around his boots. That, we thought, was why he did it—because he liked how it looked.

Once in awhile he’d whoop, whether out of happiness or pain no one knew, and one of us playing hockey on the frozen field would war cry Snotty Singh until all the others joined in. There was no hate in that, or in the way we stick-hunted and bashed the ungloved fingers that looked bluest on the makeshift rink. That was just how it was.

The day he went into the woods with Jonathan, light burned off the snow into our eyes. We had music class after lunch. We’d just gotten a new teacher, Ms. Reid, and we hated her because she let Jamie howl along to the instruments. He couldn’t play anything, and they didn’t know what else to do with him. The year before, he’d broken a violin and put a stick through one of the drums, and all of us heard Principal Coleman ranting in his office about how we just couldn’t afford to let him touch anything expensive anymore.

So Jamie was put in a chair over in the flute section. A mistake, because those girls inched away from his spit-slinging until they were huddled up looking disgusted near the saxophones and Jamie was going on like a demented dog, sheet music crumpled uselessly in his hands.

We hadn’t minded him much before that year. It was because of the singing that the jokes got bad. Get that fucker a muzzle and an electric collar, Dave would start off, or I’m getting a shotgun. It didn’t help that Jamie was a chronic nose-picker and had a finger glued to his nostril most hours of the day. Some perverse pottery he made, rubbing his snot in his palms before sticking it under the closest desk. Have you discovered the sculpture section of our school gallery? Dave sometimes said in a snobby accent. The new kid stuck sitting beside Jamie that year would shake his head, and Dave would gesture, smirking, to where an upside-down Stonehenge of crusty Singh-snot and old gum had been rubbing against the kid’s knees all day.

Jamie was OK if you talked to him alone. He’d tell you about how his mom was going to bring samosas to the next hockey game, or that his sister was already practicing to put on a modern Indian dance piece for the talent show at the end of the year. A phlegmy croak lived in his voice all year, whether it was thirty above or thirty below, and you could hear it from the other end of a classroom, broken up by his high-pitched giggle. Nearly twenty years old, his bushy brows steepled in perpetual eagerness, he was like one of our younger brothers—irritating, sure, but nothing to build up any rage over.

***

We found out about the Johnny Cash obsession when Jonathan got involved. The name must’ve sparked something in him, because Jamie starting burbling those songs non-stop, filling in the lyrics he didn’t know by clapping his meaty hands. No one really remembers how the two started hanging around each other, or around us. It was part of the strangeness of that year, the calls of Johnny wait up and Johnny hold on that started following the group around. Your mutt’s back, Dave would snark under his breath, but the rest of us said nothing, realizing more or less at the same time that it was convenient for someone like Jamie to permanently occupy the bottom rung of our social ladder, because then none of us would have to worry about landing there ourselves.

At the edge of the back field near the treeline, Dave handed out smokes. In exchange for this daily ritual, we tolerated his insults. Sometimes he had weed and we watched as he rolled, slicked the joint shut with his tongue and gave it a flick. He wasn’t athletic or strong, but he was tall and blond and he had money, which was enough to crown him our king. As much as we used Jamie to carry the burden of our friendship, our jokes piling up and sliding off his clueless back, we used Dave too. His money made room for us to be like the teenagers we watched on TV, just like how Jamie’s flaccid face made room for us to feel cool.

Jonathan was the only one with guts enough to piss Dave off. He’d blended in for all these years, dark haired and scrawny, and the only thing we knew was that he couldn’t stay out after school and never got a ride anywhere from his parents. They were strict. Didn’t give him much money, and sent him to school with these dry chicken sandwiches he’d chew and chew on forever until he could finally force them down his gullet. It gave him this look of concentration, like he was always thinking. Dave’s bashings were an everyday occurrence, but most of us couldn’t endure them without a grimace. Jonathan didn’t so much as blink or turn red. Just stood there with his hands by his sides, one clutching a sandwich, his jaw working away.

He and Jamie walked around together in the halls, the latter jabbering on about his CD collection or how his dad was going to get him guitar lessons. They bussed home in the same direction. One sharp shut up from Jonathan could silence Jamie like a mute button, and for a month, it was peaceful that way, the two locked into some kind of understanding.

Jamie became a fixture at the edge of our lunchtime group, kicking ice around while the others bragged about girls they pretended to have touched. At some point, Jonathan tried to teach him how to use a lighter and we watched Jamie set fire—just briefly—to the thick tuft of hair hanging over his eyebrows. Dave leaped at the opportunity and managed to land a few solid smacks on Jamie’s head. After that, someone always said Careful, coolie, when Jamie reached out to light our smokes. There was a stupid glee in his face that he couldn’t shake. A look that shouted his willing subservience.

And then there was a video. Something Jamie’s mom or dad must have taken on a phone of a heavy body bouncing to Ring of Fire’s mariachi beat. Fried snacks laid out on the coffee table and everything. Perfect for curryboy, Dave laughed, Singing Singh’s theme song. Eating that, he’s got to have a ring of fire at both ends. Jamie just grinned, pride plastered all over his face. On the small screen, he air-guitared close and tight to his breastbone, grunting, and the camera panned out. There in the badly lit corner was Jonathan, sitting on a paisley couch, holding a plate of something. His stare as blank as if he were home alone watching TV.

Look at you, one of the Singhs! Dave had at it, practically twitching with excitement. Part of the family, eh Jonathan? They paying you? They paying you in curry to look after the retard? We snickered dutifully. Jonathan looked at him like you might look at a scuffle happening down the street. With interest but no personal investment. Won’t be no curry at my house next week, so I guess you don’t wanna come, right?

Just around the corner was Dave’s legendary birthday party, which had been thrown the same way every year since middle school: in his suburban mansion, without parents, and with enough booze to make you blind as a bat, man. It didn’t need to be said that Jamie wasn’t invited. He stood flicking the tab of Dave’s lighter and moving a suck of air from one cheek to the other. Something or someone had given him permission to grow a miserably uneven beard that he scratched at with the focus of a child at a scab.

***

The night arrived on the heels of a white-out. Early February blizzards weren’t out of the ordinary, but this one turned into ice rain halfway through and back into snow an hour later. The roads grew a sheet of ice and then one of powder, and new icicles hung off branches like wind chimes. Billboards and street signs grew glossy and impossible to read under lamplight. Still, people showed up, their parents crawling cautiously up the driveway, making arrangements to come back the next morning.

There were no girls, we quickly found out. This was more devastating to Dave than anyone else. He stalked around the house, slamming his beer down on every surface and telling people to stay out of his room. While we mixed liquors at random and dared each other to drink the slop, the snow continued to fall outside and the house filled up with empty cups and plates.

Close to midnight, there was a commotion by the front door. Dave’s spotty dog barked up a riot. Dave had three or four cousins strategically invited by his parents floating around to keep an eye on us, but they were nowhere in sight. Next thing we knew, Jamie stood in front of us with snowflakes in his beard, fists clenched, grinning like a madman.

Jonathan and Dave faced each other on the front porch as the Singh van backed out of the driveway. The silence gave way to viciousness as soon as its lights turned onto the road. No retards in my house. Jonathan moved his face as though to smile and said, How come you’re inside, then? We looked at each other out of the corners of our eyes. You and your old currywife get the hell out or I’m calling the cops, Dave spat. Oh, pull your head out of your ass, Jonathan said, pushing past him to nod at us. I have pills, he threw over his shoulder at Dave, as if it was an afterthought. Just like that, Johnny knew he’d won.

We tore into the flimsy little baggies. It took forty-five minutes of sitting around arguing over the last of the booze to feel anything, and by then it hardly mattered because we were smashed enough to give Jamie a couple. They hardly did anything aside from make us tired, but we leaned on each other, pointing at empty air and yelling Did you see that? as though we were hallucinating.

In the house was a room with workout machines and a TV, and another with a home theatre system—nirvana to kids with no curfew. We pissed in bathrooms with mats that felt softer than our beds and peered into a massive guinea pig cage upstairs. Out on the porch, everyone talked and smoked through a milky blur.

My folks hate me, Jonathan said from somewhere in the haze. There, out in the snow where no one could really see each other’s faces, it would have been alright to open his sadness and keep it deep inside a dirty pocket everyone shared but never had to talk about. We all had something broken like that, a thing that created misery so particular that the only thing worse than anyone knowing about it was no one knowing, ever. It would have been enough even for him to know we’d heard him, but we were drunk and Dave said, Yeah, shithead, can you blame them? and we laughed. Someone wondered if Jamie was alone inside, and Jonathan, along with the rest of us, stamped the snow off his feet to look for him.

Upstairs, next to the empty guinea pig cage, was a construction-paper note about not opening its little door, please and thank you. Next to the cage sat Jamie, weeping, and next to him was a little pool of vomit.

He’d just wanted to pet it, he said over and over.Pet it. Just wanted to pet it. It turned into a song, pet-it pet-it pet-it, and we turned over cushions and crouched to peer under furniture in rhythm to it. Curryboy strikes again, Dave muttered, shoving his hand behind the sofa. My sister’s going to kill me. The pig’s gonna freeze in a pipe somewhere. Pigsicle’s gonna melt and stink up the house in the spring.

Someone opened the door that went down into the basement. The dog slunk in, ears back and hackles up. Oh shit, began Dave, but it was already happening: a little mop of fur flew out from behind the piano and made a break for the stairs in a flurry of squeaks, and the dog leaped after it.

It was quick. Jamie’s acne-flecked cheeks hung loose beneath his hands, a wail like a siren issuing from his body. Dave stood gobsmacked before springing forward to yank the dog up by his collar. We approached the spot in a huddle, all of us curious except for Jonathan and Jamie. Splayed, the pig looked bigger than before. It was like a hastily opened sheet of butcher paper, all the meat on display. Seemed impossible to have unwound its parts so quickly, and yet there they were. All pigsecrets made clear.

When we found the sense to pull away, we helped Dave find a bag and some carpet cleaner. We shook our heads and apologized and some of us patted Jamie on the back, quickly hating the way he perked up at this shred of attention. Jonathan came out of the bathroom looking pale. That’s disgusting, he said, even though he hadn’t really looked. By morning, when we climbed into our family minivans feeling drowsy and dehydrated, someone had pulled an ottoman over the stain.

***

Seems funny now that Jonathan had told us he was going to do it. He said, I’m going to kill him. That fucker is getting on my nerves.

It was true he’d gotten colder, if that was possible, more reclusive, meaner. Jamie had been clinging to him worse than ever since Dave walked around the school saying Curryboy killed my guinea pig and telling everyone how his sister wouldn’t even look at him anymore. Jonathan snapped at Jamie more often, stole more pills, and zoned out quickly, letting cigarettes burn down to ash in his fingers before he could remember to smoke them.

One afternoon we saw Jamie kicking away hard at the ice in the schoolyard. His face was clenched, snot frozen in the sparse hairs under his nose. He mumbled under his breath as he bashed his foot over and over. Jonathan was already out near the woods. Passing by, we got close enough to make out that Jamie was crying, slamming that ice so hard it bounced off the wall and flew out of sight. The sole of his boot had peeled and his wet sock showed holes, the toes underneath surely blue from bashing if not from the cold. Jamie, we called. Stop it. Jamie. Finally, someone yelled Jasminder! and he looked up. Had everyone known his real name? The police asked us this later. We said yes. It was what they used afterwards, on the notice they sent home with each kid and during the assembly and on the news. Jasminder Singh: student, brother, friend.

We smoked Dave’s joint that hour. Jonathan’s greasy hair stuck to his forehead and he didn’t say a word until the bell was about to ring. Then he started bragging about how he could kill someone with no weapons.I wouldn’t need a gun, he said, stone-faced. I wouldn’t even need a knife.

Prove it , Dave said, and the two of them went further into the trees to be sure teachers couldn’t see. Jamie eventually came across the frozen field, stumbling over his boot-flap, and trailed behind them.

The rest of us went to class, thinking they’d follow in a minute. It didn’t seem that strange, and anyway it was too cold to stay out and skip class. Dave told us that Jonathan took his belt off and put it around his own neck. I’d do it like this, he said. Do you trust me? he asked Dave, and Dave said Yes. He tightened it around Dave’s neck and told him to tap on his leg when he couldn’t breathe anymore. After a few seconds, Dave tapped and Jonathan let go.

Then he turned to Jamie. Do you trust me? he said, and Jamie, sniveling, desperate, said Yes. Jonathan put the belt around his neck and pulled, and when Jamie tapped, he pretended he didn’t feel it. He laughed and Dave laughed and Dave said they were just fooling around, scaring him, teaching him a lesson. Afterwards, Dave said he only ran off because he saw Jamie use his own bulk to wrestle Jonathan to the ground. He figured they would both be fine. He figured he shouldn’t be late to class.

We didn’t see Jonathan say, Let me up and I’ll let you go, and we didn’t see Jamie let him up only to be belted around the neck even harder, so that his knees gave out. We didn’t see the blood dribble out of his mouth as he coughed, mingling with the mucous frozen in his scabby beard. We couldn’t say how long it went on, or how heavy he felt when they carted the stretcher out to get him after. But we saw Jonathan come into Ms. Reid’s music class a little late, and he looked as blank as always. Cold, pale, and a little high, that was all.

Snotty Singh coming? we asked him.

Yeah , he said, he’s coming.