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THE glowing tube in the fixture above Jake’s head bathed his cubicle in a green-tinged hue. The fluorescents wouldn’t be so bad except for the intermittent buzzing noises they emitted. The same moment the telephone rang, the light flickered for a few seconds. Ghostly intervention or electronic glitch—he didn’t know which, but he was used to it by now. Jake reached over and picked up the phone after the second ring.

“Social Services, Jake Wharton.” Gruff, tired.

“Oh, hey babe,” he said. Relieved, smiling. It was Lara. He glanced over a precarious pile of green file folders toward a framed photo of the two of them, taken last year at Canada’s Wonderland. Like the rest of the items on his desk, the picture could stand to be dusted.

She wanted to know if he was up for drinks with their next-door neighbours Fausto and Reg after tonight’s meeting. Jake thought it best to decline.

“There’s a new guy in group who is turning out to be a real asshole,” he explained. These meetings were draining and Jake often came out of them depressed and moody. He liked those guys well enough—the first male couple he’d really gotten to know—but he had a feeling later tonight he might not be the best company.

“You go ahead. I’ll probably hit the sack early. It’s been a week.” He promised to keep the bed warm for her, then ended the call. With him out of the picture, maybe they’d end up at that male peeler bar again. Jake found the idea of male strippers hard to comprehend. He couldn’t imagine himself on a stage jiggling his buttocks, he knew that much. He didn’t even especially care to watch women do it either, to be honest.

It was five-thirty. In another hour, he had his weekly counselling session with the sex-offenders group. Some Friday night.

Jake surveyed his desk: an inbox stacked with white papers, imprinted with black lettering like swarms of tiny black ants. Every stapled set of sheets required a piece of him in some form or another. Casework that needed updating, sorting—echoes of people’s pain to somehow convert into tidy reportage and shovel back into musty folders. Each one bore a man’s name written with a black Sharpie and—because therapy wasn’t equally successful with all offenders—some were much thicker than others. Half the crap on paper also had to be typed into the fucking computer. Jake hated it.

Jake wasn’t looking forward to leading tonight’s session. His distinct lack of enthusiasm was thanks to Steve Woodruff, whose folder sat at the top of the pile. Steve anally raped a woman he met at a nightclub one weekend three years ago. It had been his first offense—as far as the authorities knew. Just recently out of jail, tonight would be Steve’s third session of court-mandated group therapy. Already, he delighted in riling and antagonizing the others. His first session he seemed drunk, though Jake couldn’t prove it. The next week, he issued a racial slur to the man sitting next to him and later made a lewd comment about another man’s daughter, almost causing a pair of fist fights. Jake felt the urge to punch Steve’s face himself, to wipe away a perpetual smirk.

Over Jake’s head, the fluorescent flickered again. He ran fingers through long black hair. He felt older than his thirty-three years. He’d been running the sex-offenders group for the past three years but it seemed like longer. Before Steve’s arrival, Jake felt the group had finally reached a certain level of serenity—as much as that was possible among a gang of eight men of whose sole common denominator was the fact that they’d sexually forced themselves on others.

He’d had to deal with jackasses before, nature of the job—but Jake felt ground down lately. He hoped he had it in him to wrangle with this dick Steve, to defuse him somehow. The guy possessed a sly, devious intelligence—and disruptions like his could have a poisonous effect on this sort of group. Some of the guys had been in the program for two years, had not re-offended and were getting ready to graduate. I don’t want anyone to screw this up for them, Jake thought. He wondered if he should consider returning to his previous field of expertise, crisis counselling for suicidal youth. Or maybe he just needed a vacation—some place quiet, where no one had any problems.

The joys of social work. At least he wasn’t involved in the initial intake work for sexual offenders in the therapy program. That involved confirmation of their attraction to sexual violence or underage victims by placing a ringed device at the base of the men’s penises, then measuring the blood flow to their members while showing them snuff images and kiddie porn, and playing them audio tapes of women screaming or the voices of young children. Yes, his job could be worse.

But they were successful at least part of the time; had the stats to prove it. He’d personally seen more than one profound transformation—and more than one lapse with tragic consequences. Some days he was moved by the thought of helping people change for the better. Other days it was just a job, and a really draining one at that.

• • •

“How do you think it made your daughter feel when she was alone with you, and you touched her where you did?” Jake posed his question to Roger Collins, who sat across the semi-circle of folding chairs, in the basement of the Catholic church that donated their meeting space. Jake affected an inquisitive but neutral tone. “Try to put yourself in her shoes,” he added, prodding Roger forward. The thirty-something fidgeted in his metal folding chair, causing it to creak nervously. He opened and then closed his mouth, pushing stringy black hair back over a sweating forehead and adjusting thick, black-framed glasses. Roger had spent three years genitally fondling his daughter, who was now twelve. He ceased once she started to menstruate—and she confided in her gym teacher after starting to cry in the middle of her first sex-ed class.

Roger’s tone was tentative. “I love Sarah. She’s still my little baby,” he said. “I never actually hurt her. I thought we could make each other feel good in a way that wasn’t…” He paused. “Complicated…” he added, trailing off.

“But Roger, Sarah has missed the rest of the school year. She may not have said anything at the time, but that doesn’t mean that you didn’t hurt her. Wouldn’t you agree?” Though Roger had made progress in individual therapy and was no longer denying what he’d done, this was the first time he’d spoken up in group.

The bespectacled man stayed stock still, completely mum. Over in a corner, Jake’s boss Herschel Weiss scratched his beard and made a few scribbles in his notepad. Herschel sat in on the counselling sessions at least once a month, sometimes accompanied by a parole officer or the woman from the victim-advocate office. Most of the men were used to speaking up about their actions in front of others; according to the dictates of the program, eschewing secrecy was an important part of the treatment process.

Sitting next to Jake, Desmond Jones spoke up. A very tall man with dreadlocks tucked up inside a black woolen tam, he cut an imposing figure even when seated. In contrast to Roger’s stuttering chirp, Desmond’s deep voice was measured.

“Roge, you weren’t even thinking about how your child felt, man. When you hurt her, you were only thinking of yourself. Like you were on a train headed straight for her, like she was tied up on the track. What you need to learn now”—he paused to cock his head at Roger and smile—“is how to stop the train before it’s too late.”

It was hard to believe Desmond was only twenty-two. His calm demeanour made him seem like the “gentle giant” of the group. But Jake was sure that in Desmond’s past, that same quiet self-assurance and magnetic personality had been a powerful tool to win the confidence of young boys. Desmond and Roger were the only two child abusers in the group; the other six men preyed on adults. Jake was reasonably confident about Desmond’s future; on Roger though, the jury was still out.

Roger looked Desmond in the eye and sparked a thin smile before looking down at the floor and sinking into his chair. Steve Woodruff turned abruptly toward him, his posture electric. Steve was lean with blond hair and a very trim beard; his blue eyes narrowed, making them seem almost black.

“I know what it feels like to get fucked,” Steve spat at Roger. “It hurts. You bleed. How can you pretend that it didn’t hurt your daughter? Just how disgusting are you?” He stared Roger down, poised spring-like on his seat’s edge.

Roger sputtered. “I… I… I… never did that to her!”

“But you would have started to soon if she hadn’t ratted you out—and you’ll always be waiting for your chance now, right?” Steve let the suggestion hover in the air. “You’ll never change,” he pronounced, looking away from the group and toward the black wooden door that marked the room’s exit. From around the circle of seated men there were grunts of agreement.

Roger sank back further into his chair, crumpling into himself.

When Jake turned to speak to Steve, his professional calm had disappeared. “And Steve, how do you think the woman you assaulted felt while you were violating her?” he asked pointedly.

“Not as bad as when it happened to me,” Steve snarled in retort. According to his file, there was no history of sexual abuse in his own childhood—but Steve had claimed during his intake assessment he was raped in prison by a gang of men. Steve looked Jake directly in the eye, his facial expression somewhere between a self-satisfied smile and a confrontational leer.

“She had a nervous breakdown, Steve. She had tremors and diarrhea for a year straight. You took something away from her, Steve, and you didn’t even know her name.” Jake’s face was bright red. In the far corner of the room, Herschel stared.

Steve’s eyes never left Jake’s. “Her name was Liz, Jake. Just like your wife’s name is Lara.” Steve smiled, then looked around the room at the other men in a circle around him.

Jake was startled into a moment of silence, after which he brought the meeting to a close. He left the room, and the other men quickly followed suit, a few of them pulling cigarette packs out of their pockets as they evacuated their subterranean surroundings.

Minutes later, Herschel barged into the men’s room, where Jake stood at a floor-length urinal relieving himself. The dimly lit basement restroom was grimed with age. Dank and musty already, the air filled with the sound and scent of splashed-upon mothballs.

“Jake, what the fuck was that? You know how to do this. If your temper ever comes into play, you’ve lost control. You were right to confront someone who tries to deny his culpability, but you have to do it calmly.”

More social-worker bullshit. I hate this crap, Jake thought. He shook off, zipped up and then walked over to wash his hands in the yellowish, cracked sink.

“I’ll keep it in check.”

“You better, Jake. I had confidence in you when you first took over the group, but I don’t know what’s up with you lately…”

“Did you hear how he brought up Lara? He also mentioned he knew I live in Little Italy during our one-on-one last week. He’s trying to spook me.”

“Jake, there are ways to deal with intimidation tactics—rational ways. You know this,” Herschel replied. “I’m worried you might need to take a bit of a break. I’ve talked with Maureen Dixon about it.” Herschel’s supervisor, the district manager.

Jake was silent.

“We’ll talk again Monday morning.” He patted Jake’s shoulder twice and exited the can. Jake heard Herschel’s footsteps recede as his boss walked down the hall and started to ascend the staircase.

• • •

The carpaccio was moist and salty. “You gotta try this,” Jake said, pushing the appetizer plate in Lara’s direction. He watched as she speared a slice of the meat with her fork and brought it to her lips. “Tasty,” she concurred with a nod and a smile, helping herself to another piece.

Jake thought Lara was more beautiful now than she was when they had first met six years ago. Curly, red hair framed her lightly freckled skin, her face graced with expressive, thoughtful eyes. Behind her, just beyond on Marinella’s sidewalk patio, the springtime, lunch-hour bustle of their lively neighbourhood was on parade. An old Italian man shuffled along the street with slow determination and a well-worn smile on his face, propelled forward by a hand-carved wooden cane. A plaid-jacketed kid with a fauxhawk and an iPod maneuvered past him with a look of impatience on her face.

Jake’s nostrils widened at the earthy smell of the wild mushroom risotto that sat in front of him, its steam rising toward his face. Caught up in his surroundings, he hadn’t even noticed at first when their entrees had arrived. The service here was discreet and efficient; he looked down and noticed that his wine glass had also been filled.

A quiet day hanging around the house together yesterday had done wonders for his mood. They had slept in, done the Toronto Star crossword in bed together, and then sat on the front porch during an unexpected rainstorm. For the first time in ages he’d been able to relax.

Lara waved in his face to pull him out of his reverie. “If you’re sure you don’t want to come this time, I’ll probably sleep over at Dad’s. He’ll want to stay up late watching TV or playing cards, I’m sure. I’m off tomorrow anyway.” She worked four days a week as a literacy educator at a community centre, and always had Mondays off.

Lara saw her dad in Guelph for dinner every other Sunday. A rough-hewn man who’d spent forty years working at a refrigerator and freezer plant before retiring last year, he had raised Lara on his own—with some help from his own mother and two sisters—after Mrs Biscombe was killed by a drunk driver when Lara was eight. He was fiercely protective of Lara, and she was devoted to him as well. Thinking back to his work for the first time all weekend, Jake wished all fathers and daughters could have the sort of relationship that Lara had with her dad. Though Mike had been suspicious of Jake at first—accusing him of being a biker because he wore his hair long—he warmed to him eventually.

“Give your dad a hug for me,” he said, reaching over to steal a bite of her lasagna. When Lara spoke, her quiet voice was drowned out by a honking horn followed by the clank of the bell on the passing streetcar.

“Have you thought any more about the trip to Cuba?” Friday night, their neighbours Fausto and Reg had talked to her about the possibility of a trip to Havana. They wanted to see the historic city before Castro’s death. “Obama’s gonna swoop in and change everything,” Reg had declared. Fausto spoke Italian and thought he could fake his way through enough Spanish for them to move beyond the usual tourist sites and see the “real” Havana as experienced by locals. Jake thought Fausto’s conception of the trip was overly ambitious—but had to admit he never would have thought of doing this himself. Lara seemed to feed off of the couple’s energy and stimulation. They both always seemed inspired—and in contrast, Jake felt flat.

“Could be a good idea,” he told her. “I’ll have a talk with Reg about it later tonight.” Reg was the more stoic of the two men, and he was a social worker too—Jake had always found that he could relate to him better than Fausto.

“You should give them a call tonight. Or call Jorge and go see a movie or something.”

Jake agreed that he’d find a way to occupy himself for the evening. “I haven’t hung with Jorge in weeks,” he conceded.

He still hadn’t mentioned Steve’s outburst or his talk with Herschel—he didn’t want to worry her, and he was trying not to think about it. But he knew she could sense things weren’t getting any better at work. She just didn’t know he might end up with lots of time for a vacation whether he liked it or not.

Lara went inside to use the washroom while Jake put the bill on his Visa. Downing the last swallow of his now-lukewarm latte, he glanced out to the street. In the Starbucks directly across the road, Steve Woodruff sat in the front window staring back at him. In one hand he held a Frappucino; in the other, a cell phone. As Lara came back outside to join him, Jake felt his Blackberry vibrate in his pants pocket.

His insides turned cold but Jake did not acknowledge the pulsing as it repeated against his thigh. He held Lara’s hand as they walked down College Street, not looking back. When they stopped at the corner traffic light, he reached into his pocket with his other hand and discreetly held down the top button to put the device into sleep mode.

Jake saw Lara off to the train station, kissed her goodbye and watched as the green commuter train pulled out of the station, its oddly shaped cars like bullets traveling in slow motion.

He spent the next hour walking home slowly. His eyes focused on the sidewalk as he moved north on University Avenue, mid-afternoon sun bearing down on his shoulders. Nearing College Street, his eyes drew upward as he approached the Hydro building, a rectangular monolith whose entire surface was comprised of giant sheets of mirrored glass. Its faceless architecture chilled him, and he cast his eyes downward again as he rounded the corner.

Forty minutes later, Jake entered the side door of their house and made his way to the bedroom. He doffed his sweat-soaked clothes and put on a pair of PJs to lounge in. He then reached into the pocket of his jeans and took out his Blackberry. A single message waited. He retrieved it.

“What, you never call me anymore?” a boisterous, Portuguese-accented voice called out into his ear. It was Jorge, his bud from the pool hall up the street. “I ran into Lara at the grocery last Monday… she said I oughta give you a call this weekend…” Jake saved the message without listening to the rest of it and decided not to return the call. Despite his promise to Lara, he didn’t speak to anyone else for the rest of the day, choosing instead the more low-key company of a couple of cans of Pabst and reruns of Quincy M.E. and Columbo on the oldies cable channel. He went to bed early for the third night in a row. As expected, sleep came quickly.

• • •

After hours of slumber, Jake found himself slowly roused by sensations of pleasure—a low flame that started in his testes and pulled upward, buzzing warmly through his groin as he lay on his back. Through lazy eyelids, he gazed upon Lara, naked, as she slid onto his erect shaft and enveloped him within her. Still in a fog of sleep, he smiled an almost drunken smile. Lara leaned forward and started to grind her hips up and down, taking him inside her more deeply. Her small breasts swayed. He could smell her, and it made him harder. She smiled as he began to strain inside her, then raised her head upward, closing her eyes and slowly running her index and middle fingers along either side of her wet exposed clit.

But when she looked back down the smile had turned into a mean sneer. Continuing to move up and down against him, Lara started to snort with disgust. Her laughter grew until it filled the room, mocking him. Jake felt confusion and shame. As she pointed at his face and shrieked even louder, he swiftly raised his left fist and struck her hard. He felt and heard the cartilage in her nose snap as his knuckles connected with her face.

Lara leaned forward, then froze, a glazed look of mute shock spreading across her face. Both her nostrils instantly reddened; blood began to spurt from her nose in a quickening drip. The red liquid poured out of each nostril, conjoining into a single stream that poured directly onto the thick black hairs of Jake’s chest, matting them as if it were oil paint.

Jake trembled as he lay on his side and began to weep in silence. He had never raised a hand to Lara in real life—he rarely even raised his voice to her. He couldn’t imagine hurting her physically—but this wasn’t the first time he’d had this puzzling dream. One thing was different though—the look on her face before she began to howl in laughter. It was identical to the hateful leer he’d seen on Steve Woodruff’s face two nights earlier. Tears trickled from his left eye over his nose and dripped onto the sheet and he began to shake his head and rock his body from side to side, now sobbing aloud and getting louder. He realized he was completely alone and it didn’t matter how much noise he made.

His heart pounded in his ears and he felt like he might lose control of his bowels. Jake cried until his face and throat hurt, then picked up the phone to call in sick. Talking to rapists was just not an option today. In fact, he wondered if he could ever do it again.

• • •

After sleeping in late, Jake brewed a pot of organic coffee. For the time being, he tried not to think about work—he knew he’d have some explaining to do with Herschel, and he wasn’t completely sure what to say. Never mind the question of his future at the agency, but he’d also be missing half of his one-on-one sessions with the offenders, which were scheduled for today and tomorrow.

Sitting at the wooden kitchen table Lara’s dad had made, he let his mind wander and allowed the nutty aroma wafting up from his mug to tweak his nostrils awake. Through the window into the backyard, he saw his neighbour Fausto crouched down in the yard next door. Tying the sash on his navy housecoat, Jake got up and went outside. As he approached, he could see sweat glistening atop the large man’s balding head.

Fausto was a freelance editor with a flexible schedule, which allowed him to pick the tomatoes in his garden whenever he pleased. He placed the ripe, red one in his hand into the wooden basket that sat next to him. Wiping his hand on an oversized orange t-shirt, he stood up to shake Jake’s hand.

“How’s it going, Jake?”

“I’ve been better. Taking a mental-health day. Work’s been getting me down.”

“Yeah, I’ve gotten that sense. You need a job like mine. My biggest client is a law firm that specializes in homeless clients. I help people, but without getting my hands dirty, sitting alone in my den.” A smile crossed his round face.

Jake changed the subject. “Lara says you’ve been doing a lot of planning for this Cuba trip.”

“Well, I’ve been spending more non-billable hours than I should looking up information on Havana online. Did you know there’s more than one Havana?”

Jake gave him a quizzical look.

“You learn these things when you do Internet research,” Fausto continued, warming to his subject. “As one might suspect, there’s a city in Florida named after Cuba’s capital. But the one that surprised me was Havana, Arkansas.”

Jake smirked in surprise, wondering if there might also be a Havana, PEI, as well.

“There are 392 people in Havana, Arkansas—and not one of them is black. In the heart of the Deep South. I’m not sure how safe we’d be visiting there.”

Jake wasn’t sure if Fausto was referring to being gay—or the fact that his partner Reg was of African descent. He simply nodded. He wasn’t sure what to say next, but was rescued by a loud rapping that sounded like it was coming from his own front door.

“Got to run, big guy. Talk to you again soon.”

Jake re-entered the house and headed toward the front door. He stepped out onto the front porch. Steve Woodruff sat a few feet away in Lara’s wicker chair.

Steve stood, seeming woozy and unsteady on his feet. “You sure walk slow,” he said. Jake noticed a few splotches of blood at the bottom on the Steve’s untucked shirt and on the front of his corduroy pants. One was shaped like a kidney.

Jake stared at him wordlessly, as the smell of liquor wafted toward him. He twitched, his face reddening with anger.

“I followed you home from the train station yesterday,” Steve explained. “Didn’t think you’d ever get here. I’m a sneaky bastard, huh?”

“Why are you here, Steve?”

He made a show of looking at his watch. “I didn’t want to be late for my eleven o’clock.” He hiccupped, then belched. “You told us that we’re never going to get better if we don’t get responsible, remember?” The drunk raised one exaggerated eyebrow like a sideshow mime then burst out laughing.

Jake waited for Steve’s manic guffaw to subside. Then he spoke in a tranquil calibre, as if counselling a man standing outside a skyscraper’s windowsill to come back inside. Except he felt as if he were the man on the ledge himself.

“Steve, you don’t have to report in today. I called in sick to the office. Didn’t Genevieve call this morning to let you know?” Steve had remarked on the friendliness of their departmental secretary before. “She’ll reschedule you for later in the week. Nothing to worry about.”

“I haven’t been home all morning. And I wasn’t at my shit job either.” Steve responded to the kinder-sounding fake Jake by affecting a sing-sing tone in his own voice: “Not at home, not at work! Nowhere to be found!” He listed forward for a moment before recapturing his balance. Steve stared into Jake’s eyes without blinking, then spoke again.

“I followed Roger home Friday night after group.” Steve put one hand into his pants pocket. “And I went to visit the pedophile this morning too.”

Steve’s tone hardened. “I wanted him to know what it feels like… I didn’t want to have to deal with his screams though, so I hit him in the head first. With this,” he said, pulling a short black revolver out of his pocket. You dirty fucking faggot rapist, Jake thought reflexively, all his sensitivity training out the window. He gazed at Steve as neutrally as he could manage, and waited.

Steve held the weapon up with the barrel in his hand rather than aiming it. With his other hand, he gestured toward the handle of the gun. “See, no blood. I only hit him hard enough to knock him out.” he said. “This one’s for little Sarah, I told him.”

Steve continued to stare at the revolver in his hand as if dazzled by it, until he was interrupted by a voice from behind him. Lara stood behind them on the steps of the porch.

“Steve, what are you doing here?” she asked.

Jake and Steve both said her name at the same time.

“Lara,” Steve repeated. “I’m going back to jail.” Steve lowered the gun to his side. His body quivered into a drunken crying jag. Lara stared at him in silence.

“I need to go back in,” he said to her with finality. “Help me?”

He dropped the gun. It hit the grey painted planks of the floor with a heavy thud, but did not go off. Steve stretched his arms out to Lara. She approached Steve and placed one arm around his sodden, convulsing frame. After a long minute, she sat him down in her chair. Lara took her cell out of her pocket and phoned 911.

• • •

The cop car had pulled away a few minutes earlier. Jake recounted Steve’s confession to the officers, and one of them sent an ambulance to pick up Roger Collins and take him to the hospital. “Roger had been making a lot of progress before now,” Jake told the officers. Neither seemed interested.

Lara stepped onto the front porch from the house. She sat next to Jake on the steps, setting a red knapsack down beside her. He took her hand, solid where his was limp.

“How do you know Steve Woodruff?” he asked her.

“He bags groceries at the No Frills. I had no idea he was one of your clients.” She paused. “I’ve talked to him while cashing out a few times. He seemed really sweet.”

Jake turned away.

“He asked me out on a date.”

“That scumbag. What did you say?”

“It was nice to get the attention.”

Jake squeezed Lara’s hand and then stroked her cheek. “Lara, Hersch wants me to take some time off. Do you still want to take that trip to—”

“We need time apart.” She faced him. “We haven’t made love in months—or had a real conversation in longer. We’re going through the motions—and you haven’t even noticed.” Jake was unresponsive.

“I’m going to back to Dad’s. I’ve taken the rest of the week off work. Call you after that.” Picking up her knapsack, she stepped off the porch and walked away.

Jake watched as Laura moved down the street and out of sight. He got up, went in the house, walked into the bedroom and closed the door. He removed his clothes and lay on the bed. “Fuck,” he said, and waited for the tears to come.


Shawn Syms’ short stories, journalism, poetry, criticism and other writing have been published over the past 25 years in more than 50 publications. His debut story collection, NOTHING LOOKS FAMILIAR was published in 2014 by Arsenal Pulp Press) A Journey Prize finalist, he is also the editor of Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline (Enfield & Wizenty, 2013).

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LF #051 © Shawn Syms. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, October 2013. Images from The Noun Project.


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by shawn syms