Fiction · 10/14/2009

May This Strap Restrain You

It started so easily, a single October second, the movement of tendons and bones that felt habitual within Thomas’s hands, not theft but an action without judgment, nothing more than the transfer of metal and leather from one dark place to another. It was something others could have done at no expense, the kind of thing Thomas had seen done a thousand times without the stitches of regret he now felt. Like when Charlotte had scratched a mosquito bite and scarred herself, but told their mother she’d been cut by bullies with pocketknives. Or the time Dahlia had eaten the last of Charlotte’s Halloween candy, knowing full well that Charlotte had been saving her cherry Pez packets at the very bottom of her trick-or-treat bag.

This had started with a taunt — this had started with pride. Come on, Thomas. Or are you scared? They had chided him, goading him as they always had into following them when they knew he couldn’t, but he was older now, old enough to go. We won’t tell mom and dad, but you might. Come on, Thomas, be brave now. Don’t be a tattletale like you always are.

And so he had followed them, Dahlia and Charlotte, out the window and down the smooth bare tree limbs, onto their bikes and he on Charlotte’s rear-tire pegs, the chill of motion blowing the autumn night under his jacket and down his spine. Charlotte pedaled faster, keeping time with Dahlia’s whirring spokes, and soon there it was, Sycamore Lane, the signpost staining a misgiving into his heart that deepened once they had pedaled further and he saw the dilapidated structure itself.

The Sycamore Hills Asylum — its remnants still stood although the operation had long since been abandoned, once lobotomies were outmoded and even electroconvulsive therapy had become a treatment of the past. The “shocker” remedy, Thomas heard Charlotte and Dahlia call it, as they whispered in their room after their parents had gone to bed, his ear to the door, breath held to a standstill. He knew they had seen the tables, the wristbands, the shackles left behind, on the occasions that they’d snuck out of the house and into the abandoned building. His interest in tagging along had always burned as a smarting curiosity, but now, now that he’d grown a little, and now that he was standing in front of the structure — its façade even more imposing in the full moonlight — he no longer understood why he had wanted to come.

Looking back, he knew he’d taken it just get it over with — to prove to his sisters that he too was fearless, and to hasten away from the asylum in the wind-burned night, for the safety of his quilted bed. They had gone inside, they had seen the tables. He had stood motionless, staring at their decaying fabrics and rusted metals, until his eyes settled on a restraining strap, hanging slack from the edge of one corroded table. His breath caught then, suspended as if upon a fulcrum inside the walls of his small, shuddering chest, and then he’d seized the strap, its leather pulling easily away from the table, and stuffed it into his coat pocket. His sisters had watched him with gleaming eyes, Dahlia nodding her approval, and then they’d hurried from the building and jumped back on their bikes, the night trailing their wheels like phantoms.

He had kept it, crammed between the mattress and the box spring, its metal buckles, he was sure, grating away the lining of his mattress pad. He felt each part through the thick foam of his bed — the half-rotten leather, the corrugated clasps, the roughened edges meant to grip the cot-like table. Each piece of hardware, every stitch through the strap’s worn fabric filled the corners of the bedroom, but Thomas refused to touch the strap again, to let his fingers crawl down the bed lining toward the stolen strip, just inches beneath his pillow. He understood now the consequence it had brought.

+

It only took a week for Thomas to first feel the effect of what he’d done, during the second nuclear detonation drill that his school administered. Duck and cover exercises, Crittendon Elementary was calling them, and he didn’t quite understand the purpose — hiding under a desk with heads covered wouldn’t save them, nothing would, but he followed orders anyway, not wanting his name on the blackboard. An alarm bell sounded the drill, and Thomas scrambled beneath a table bearing microscopes and preserved amphibians, all of which would be destroyed as well, if a nuclear cloud ever bloomed above their school. Thomas expected to be alone, but once he pushed past the tablecloth, a faint gasp escaped his mouth when he found Arthur Dayton there as well, crouched low and picking the rubber sole from his shoe, a boy he’d never talked to but who had always seemed friendly.

What’s your name? Arthur asked, even though there were only forty children in their entire class, but Thomas disguised his hurt by replying in kind.

Arthur was funny, making jokes about the duck and cover drills that made Thomas giggle out loud before covering his mouth in shame, hoping he would not get in trouble. Arthur said his family had a bomb shelter in their cellar, stocked with a two-year supply of water and dehydrated food, and flares and candles and extra clothing for every type of weather. They had sweaters, snow boots, extra Hanes t-shirts, mittens. Arthur invited Thomas to come over to see it sometime, the shelter was full of all kinds of neat things, and they could walk down to the trading card shop afterward, if Thomas liked baseball cards. Thomas said his favorite player was Hank Aaron, and Arthur agreed. Thomas’s chest wavered then, just as it had when he pulled the strap from Sycamore Hills — upon Arthur’s voice, its upward lilt of agreement, and the way his eyes burned still-green through the table’s cloaking shadow.

And it was that palpitation, a cadenced trembling, that Thomas felt grow into a rapid-fire symphony within his ribcage when he was falling asleep that night, his eyes wide open, his head muddled and swimming, the strap resting immobile under the mattress beneath him. His breath caught in his chest, the same choked humming he’d felt in the asylum and there beneath the table, faltering inside Arthur’s watchful glance, and the weight of that likeness bore down upon his ribs then, stealing his breath almost entirely. The strap lay inert, static inside cloth and fabric, and Thomas let his fingers creep steadily down the mattress, to make contact, to apologize. But his chest moved, a thudding metronome, and Thomas pulled his hand away, tucked it securely beneath his pillow as the vibrations invaded his body, ran the length of his extremities and into the inner recesses of his brain, a sensation that might have been inexplicable, had it not so clearly begun with Arthur.

+

Thomas felt himself changing, and he could not undo it. And this, he now knew, was the consequence. It was the burden that followed him, the reparation he would make, the outcome of so many sins — pride and greed, and now lust — that would pursue him for retribution. He wished now, with every fiber of his small being, that he could put the strap back. That he could remove the leather belt from beneath his mattress, that he could maneuver the bicycle spokes backward in time, that he could return the metal buckles to their rightful place.

But he could not, he knew. Even if he climbed out alone, withstood the midnight air whistling past his ears in banshee screams, even if he restored the strap, better suited now for ghosts, the damage was irrevocably done.

Dahlia mentioned it only once, their mother in the kitchen washing dishes, and Charlotte smirking there beside her sister, a wordless taunt across the table. Whatever happened to your strap, Thomas? Did you tie up some poor kitten or squirrel? And he’d looked away, slid from his seat, had taken his plate into the kitchen to be cleaned.

Arthur asked him at school, while he sat on the school swing set alone, would he still come over to see the shelter, remember they had talked about that? But Thomas only shook his head, feigned ignorance and walked away across the playground, pretended Arthur had imagined the conversation, that they’d never spoken. And in his desk chair that afternoon, his eyes on his notebook while Arthur sustained furtive glances across the aisle, Thomas refused to look up, declined to acknowledge what he knew was in the periphery, impossible. He would live with this, until the strap disintegrated in its own decay, until there never was a drill in which Arthur had made him laugh.

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Anne Valente’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in PANK, Monkeybicycle, The Emprise Review, Fiction Weekly and Keyhole, among others. She is also the assistant editor of Storyglossia.