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Jerry Southerland

jerry southerland
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Estimated reading time — 19 minutes

I have sat with the knowledge of that night for ever such a long time now. I have flirted with the idea of telling someone – maybe the police – or confiding in a counselor, but I know it will do little good. They would think me mad, even my wife would think me mad. No, I will not speak aloud what I witnessed all those years ago, for that would breathe life into the memory and make it tangible. However, I know that I cannot allow it to bounce around in my head any longer. For my own sanity, or perhaps to prove to myself just how insane I sound, I will commit it to paper.

It is my hope that with this private confession, I will finally be able to make some sense of what I experienced all those years ago through those impressionable teenage eyes. More importantly, it is my hope that I will finally be able to let go of the memory – to banish it, along with the recurring intrusive thoughts, to some faraway corner of my mind where it will not be able to slither back behind my eyes whenever I hear about another bear attack on the news.

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The year was 2004, and I was barely fourteen years old. Nokia mobile phones – ‘bricks’ as they are now affectionately called – were still considered cool, and George W. Bush would soon be sworn in for a second term, much to the approval of my parents. I had grown up in America, but my father’s company had relocated to Canada shortly before my eleventh birthday and subsequently my father had moved us all up there in order to keep his position. It was a modest home in a modest town, nothing of particular note. Sprawling forests and flowing mountains were something that took a bit of getting used to, but it is, as they often say, amazing how fast one adapts to new changes in one’s life circumstances.

The local school I attended was equally modest, however I had not adapted as well to my new school environment as I had my new home environment. Quite the contrary, I felt distinctly alienated from my Canadian peers along with a profound sense of disconnect that was only heightened, naturally, by the nebulous nature of those early teenage years.

As you can imagine I was a quiet kid and kept my head down. I avoided fights and confrontation in general to the best of my ability and had a small group of friends. I wasn’t really picked on per se – my position in the hierarchical atmosphere at middle school would more accurately be described as one of near non-existence. I certainly felt as if I didn’t exist a lot of the time.

It was another frosty albeit sunny winter morning when my English teacher, in that movie-like fashion which, in hindsight, I think is rather cruel, inducted a new kid by having him stand in front of the class and introduce himself. The morning glow was oozing through the windows, pouring into the space he was standing, and I recognised him as the kid from the new family that had moved onto our street the week prior.

Jerry Southerland was his name, and he was scrawny, even by the standards of fourteen-year-olds. What struck me immediately, before he came over and sat down beside me, were his eyes. The smooth bronze haze streaking through the window illuminated one side of his face, wherein sat a vibrant blue, but on the other side, I could just about make out a strange hazel colour that looked closer to an off-yellow. ‘Heterochromia,’ he would later proudly tell me as we cycled our bikes back home, poorly assembling the word as if he had only ever read it on paper and never said it aloud. My mother told me that it must be hereditary, as they had noticed the very same in his parents when they had gone round to introduce themselves.

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I learnt a great deal about Jerry over the coming months. He and his parents had moved houses many times. Jerry explained his parents had a job that necessitated constant relocation and as a result, this was the eighth school he had attended. As you can imagine, I sympathized. I knew how hard it was to move once, so I could scarcely fathom how difficult it must be to have to relocate so often.

In lieu of this surprising commonality, as well has the fact that he only lived down the road from me, we quickly became close friends. It made me feel a little less disconnected, knowing that there was someone else who was in a similar situation to me. When you got past his initial shyness, there was a bright quirky individual to be discovered, one who really seemed to shine the more you got to know him.

Not everyone shared my fondness for Jerry though. Jerry had a stutter. It was exacerbated by stress and anxiety, so naturally I barely noticed it when we would hang out together. But at school, it was a different story. This aspect of him, along with his eyes, made him easy pickings for those then-arbiters of unnecessary cruelty – bullies.

Merely being the new kid was enough to draw unwanted attention in that regard, but with his idiosyncrasies and somewhat unusual appearance, he might as well have had a target painted on his back. Kids can be incredibly cruel creatures. I think we forget, as we get older and bullying gives way to careful politeness and measured words, just how cruel we can be to one another.

I did my best to limit the amount of abuse Jerry received from some of those other children, but on the most part I was quite powerless to stop it. No, in truth, I like to think I was powerless, but in reality, I was just a coward. I could have stood up for him – I could have done, if I had really wanted to. But I was too concerned with not appearing weak in front of the other kids. I was left alone for the most part, and I wanted it to stay that way. I always rationalized that Jerry brought the abuse on himself, that if he just stopped acting weird, people wouldn’t pick on him. But it was never his fault.

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It’s funny – writing that out just now was the first time I ever admitted that to myself. For how many years have I idly justified my neglect? Real friends stand up for each other no matter what, and in the back of my mind, I always knew that. I suppose that must be, at least in part, why I feel responsible for what happened. Maybe if I’d just stood up for him, helped him with the bullying, maybe that day would have never come to pass. I digress.

Despite thinking the world of him, I did, by increments at first imperceptible, begin to notice odd things about Jerry – little things. They weren’t things that jump out at you, and I’m not talking about his stutter or his heterochromia, they were the sorts of things you’d only begin to notice by spending a lot of time with someone.

It was normal, I suppose, for a scrawny kid like him to have a small appetite, he never did any sports after all. But after a while it began to occur to me that I would never see him eat at all. He’d drink water and juice and fizzy drinks just like all the other kids, but I had never actually seen him eat anything. I thought it was funny at first, until I started watching him in the lunchroom as he sat across from me and complained about homework. He would push his food around his plate, take a drink, push his food around his plate some more, and then when everyone else was done he’d go and dump his tray into the bin.

I asked him about it of course, but he just said he was never hungry, or that he hated the school meals, or that he’d had a big breakfast, or any other perfectly reasonable excuse. I didn’t push him about it – he already had enough on his mind with the bullying to worry about his only friend scrutinizing his eating habits. Still, it niggled at the back of my mind, and I could not unsee it once I started to notice it.

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On one occasion, I think it was on a bank holiday weekend, my mother had cooked up a batch of delicious homemade brownies and she had insisted that Jerry have one. I watched, with sudden fascination, as Jerry, clearly embarrassed about turning down the offer, laboriously ate one. He made a big show of liking it too, and I felt quite stupid for overthinking his refusal to eat school lunches. That was, however, until I passed by the bathroom later that day, and heard him throwing up. When I asked him about it, he said he had suddenly come down with something and had to go home. He was off sick for a whole week after that, I think. It’s harder to remember some parts, it was so long ago.

He always had a fascination with astronomy – I do remember that much. In almost all of our classes together, he would be off somewhere else, and had a particular penchant for staring out the window, a habit that the teachers quickly caught onto with some irritation. I once asked him what he was looking at. What, exactly, was so interesting about the fields and the woods that we saw every day? I was fast becoming sick of them, so I couldn’t fathom what it was about them that had him so enraptured. He shook his head at me and smiled, he said he wasn’t looking at the fields or the woods, he was looking at the sky, at the clouds and the stars.

True to his word, his attention would be drawn to the window even as the sunny autumn evenings turned to dark winter nights. A daydreamer, the teachers would say, off with the fairies. Despite his apparent lack of interest however, he always somehow managed to outscore most of the class, something which didn’t do him any favors when it came to his popularity. I suppose there’s nothing weird about that, really.

When he wasn’t staring out the window, he was doodling. I would catch him doing it out of the corner of my eye. It was actually very distracting, but I never had a go at him for it since he seemed to get so much enjoyment out of it. Often, it would be a collection of bizarre looking creatures and symbols. The symbols were kind of like hieroglyphs, and his notebooks would be filled with them. They had an odd sort of structure to them, and he would always write them from left to right, rather than right to left.

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I jokingly mentioned it to his parents when they were round during the Christmas break, that he seemed to have his own little language, and they had looked quite concerned. By the time we went back to school after the break, he had a brand-new notebook, and I never saw him draw one of those little symbols again. Once again, there’s nothing particularly strange about that. His parents probably just wanted him to focus on his studies and told him not to doodle in classes anymore.

There was a moment that I couldn’t explain away though, and even then I can only say that now with the liberty of hindsight. It happened after the Easter break, a month or so before the summer holidays. Jerry wasn’t a very athletic kid. In fact, he never took part in any sport. He would always have a letter from his parents explaining why. Innocuous reasons, like an in-grown toenail or a chest infection. There was always something though. Everyone just assumed that he was a sickly kid – he certainly looked the part.

It was of no surprise, then, that the first time I ever saw him actually get hurt was not during sports or rough games in the playground, but one time after school when I saw him getting roughed up by some of the other kids. I am ashamed to admit, as I’m sure you will have no trouble believing, that I pretended not to see it happen until they had all left, wherein I emerged from my hiding spot and asked him what happened and if he was okay. He had assured me he was fine, but he was stuttering badly, and I knew that he felt deeply humiliated.

With a quivering hand, he wiped his bloodied lip and then, looking at his hand in horror, turned quickly away from me, flicking the blood onto the grass and sucking his lip. I assumed he was just ashamed to let me see how beat up he had gotten, and when he turned back around, he had sucked the cut dry and was eager to get back home.

I agreed, wanting nothing more than to climb into bed and try to forget my cowardice, but something possessed me to look back – to look at where he had flicked the blood. I’m not sure what it was that compelled me to pause in that half-second before I went to follow him, maybe it was the culmination of all that I have mentioned already, or maybe it was less than that, something unconscious.

Whatever the reason, I cast my eyes back, down to the spot where I had seen him flick the blood from his lip, and there on the ground, half hidden in the grass, an ugly yellow smear, the same off-yellow as his eye. It wasn’t vomit and it certainly wasn’t blood. I don’t know why I said nothing. I should have said something. Maybe if I had said something then, he would have opened up to me. Perhaps he might have even told me everything. I wasn’t to know – I was only a kid. I was only fourteen. I wasn’t to know.

That year that I spent with Jerry had also been somewhat of an introduction to the world of girls. In particular, I had grown very close to a girl with whom I shared my science classes. Her name was Rachael Dennis, and I suppose you could say she was my first real crush, the first one that was reciprocal anyway. Sitting beside her in class lead to hanging out with her at lunch breaks, and eventually to spending time with her out of classes.

It was such an innocent little thing, but we had our teenage hearts fluttering all the same. I had gotten a new Nokia that Christmas, and we would text all the time. I even introduced her to Jerry, and the three of us ended up hanging out a lot, even though I was able to make less and less time for Jerry. That’s how it is at that age, one little heartthrob and suddenly it’s the only thing you can think about – your friends all suddenly fade into the distance for a while.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one who had an interest in Rachael. It just so happened that one of the worst of the bullies, Ted Carterdale, who everyone just called Carter, also had an eye for Rachael. I never knew about this, of course, until Rachael had called me one day after class and warned me that she had overheard Carter and his friends talking about how they had something big planned for me after school. She then admitted that Carter had asked her out before, and that she had turned him down. I had never questioned the sneering looks I had gotten from him and his friends when I was with Rachael, I had always just assumed they were aimed at Jerry.

I suppose that’s the other reason why I feel guilty about what happened. If I had known about Carter beforehand, and if I had kept Jerry out of it, maybe it never would have happened the way it did. But I was a coward, and, knowing full well that Carter and his buddies had something planned for me, I convinced Jerry to come back with me that night instead of staying for his extra study classes that his parents were making him attend. That was the night that it happened.

Perhaps I’m simply tiptoeing around it now, I’ve done it enough already with all these needless details, but I might as well describe how unsettling that journey back was, if only to put off revisiting that horrifying memory a little longer.

Everything about that evening, from the heavy mist that had rolled in from the valley, to the unusually dark overcast sky, to the oddly deserted bike trail journey back – which usually had at least a few other cyclists besides us – was wrong. It was as if some unseen hand was smothering the whole countryside, warping it into preternatural oblivion. Abeyance. Twilight.

I suppose it’s all well and good to make these observations in hindsight, especially considering I was on edge from the call I had gotten from Rachael, but I cannot stress enough how alien everything seemed that evening. Almost as strongly as the memory itself, the setting of the memory is burned into my mind. I have goosebumps from the mere recollection. The emotions I felt then are all coming back to me so vividly now. I probably shouldn’t have written this; I don’t see what good it’ll do.

I just took a moment where I deliberated stopping, but I have work tomorrow, and I quickly realised that I will never sleep if I don’t finish this now that all the memories are fast returning. That’s reason enough – that has to be reason enough. I’ll write it down only once – once, and then I’ll delete this and never think of it again.

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It happened on the bridge. There was this old stone bridge that connected the denser populated centre of town with the more residential countryside streets. A small, gently winding river severed the two and acted as a sort of threshold between my school and home environment. It was as much in my mind anyway, so when I found this threshold suddenly blocked by the one person I didn’t want to see, you can imagine how far my heart sank. There they were – Carter and two of his buddies – three unlawful gatekeepers.

I remember him telling us to relax, and that he just wanted to tell me that I should stay away from Rachael, and then he stepped aside to let us through. I believed him, half because I was naïve, and half because I was afraid, and so we cycled onto the bridge, and then, naturally, two more of his buddies appeared from some hiding spot behind us and we were trapped. I thought I recognised them as the same ones who I had seen beating up Jerry after school, but it wasn’t easy to tell through the rapidly thickening valley mist and dwindling evening light.

When I saw them taking out baseball bats from behind some of the rocks, I desperately yelled for help even though I knew immediately that it would be fruitless – we were at the furthest point from both the town centre and the residential housing. I shakily told them they’d get expelled, but Carter just laughed and said he didn’t care. After all, there were only a couple of weeks left of the school year, and then we’d all be moving to high school. ‘Besides,’ he said, ‘you were robbed, we had nothing to do with it’.

I wish Jerry hadn’t stood up for me. After all, they only seemed to be interesting in me, and I knew I didn’t deserve it, but I was grateful all the same when he did. He was stuttering horribly, but still managed to wrestle out a warning for them to stay back. They all laughed at him of course, doing even more exaggerated impressions of his stutter that they had done in school.

I barely made any effort to defend myself, I simply accepted the beating and tried to not anger them any further. The pain was intense, far greater than I had ever imagined from seeing people getting hit in movies and shrugging it off. When you’re hit with a solid object in real life, the pain takes your breath away.

Still, the adrenaline took some of the edge off, and after one of the blows connected with my head, I couldn’t feel a great deal more of anything. Jerry, on the other hand, fought valiantly. I think he may have even knocked one of the other boys to the ground. I had never seen him stick up for himself before, but that night he swallowed his fear and did for me what he could never do for himself.

I already know what you’re thinking. You needn’t bother – I know I was a coward. I know I could have done something, anything, to draw their attention to me, but I didn’t. I simply laid there, bleeding in quiet relief as they turned their attention to Jerry. Carter and his buddies in particular seemed to be in some sort of frenzy, beating Jerry over and over with those baseball bats, even after he was convulsing on the ground.

The other two boys – the ones who had beaten up Jerry before – they ran away after seeing how far Carter and his buddies were going. I heard Jerry’s bones snapping. I tried to shout at them to stop, but I was too injured, or too scared. All I could do was watch in horror as they slowly killed him, one blow at a time. Strangely, in that moment, I thought not of Jerry, but of his parents. These boys were killing their son, and I was just watching.

Jerry was not moving anymore. He lay there, curled up, still as death. Even Carter’s buddies were getting nervous now, like they were only just then realising what they had done. Carter though – he told them to help him throw us over the bridge to make it look like an accident. As they made their way towards me, I remember thinking, for perhaps the first time in my life, that I didn’t care what happened to me. They had killed Jerry, and it was all my fault. That’s all I could think in the moment while my mind was still swimming from the head injury. I suppose that was the reason why, when I saw Jerry’s body begin to twitch violently, unnaturally, that I thought I was seeing things.

The three boys had been walking towards me, so they didn’t see it at first, but after a few moments they heard it, and they turned. They stood there in muted silence the entire time. I couldn’t see Jerry anymore; I could only see the backs of their shoes shrouded by that thick white mist. I heard Jerry though – I heard what those boys were seeing. Sickening wet snapping sounds, like bones breaking, but with a force that I could feel vibrate through the stone bridge beneath me. A rhythmic popping, as if some joint or ligament was being repeatedly dislocated and then forced back into place. And then, quietly, almost imperceptible at first, a low whining sound, like a dog pining for its owner, only the pitch was all wrong – deeper and modulating in intensity, seemingly spurred on every time there was another crack of bone or pop of twisting cartilage. And then… silence – hushed and blanketed by that valley mist, that unseen hand. Silence – until one of the boys finally screamed and turned to run.

I couldn’t tell you exactly what happened during the commotion. All I knew in the moment was that same movement of dragging myself along the ground. Slowly, methodically, dragging myself away from whatever was happening. The screams – screams that would echo in my mind for decades after – did not seem real to me at all. They were not the high-pitched screams of the girls at school whenever a spider was discovered in class. They were not even like the exaggerated, out of control screams in horror films. These were far more primal – guttural, like the cries I would occasionally hear at night coming from a bird caught and played with by some stray cat. I’ve blanked most of it out, I think. I honestly couldn’t describe exactly what was going on in that moment, only that when I finally staggered to my feet some distance away, silence had once again fallen across the valley.

I could have just stumbled away, you know, I didn’t have to turn around. I could have just stumbled away and let it have been a bear attack or a mugging or whatever the media decided it would be, and I could have just believed that and gone on with my life. But no, I had to turn around – of course I had to turn around. That curiosity, the same curiosity that had drawn my eyes to that yellow smear on the ground; that same slithering primal compulsion that had been the justification for so many a foolish act, pushing me, beckoning me, even in my semi-delirious shock-ridden state, to look. I was curious, and I knew that I had to turn, and so I turned, and I knew that I had to look, and so I looked, and I saw.

He was looking at me, I think. It was hard to tell, it was hard to tell because of the mist, I think, but I could feel his gaze, I could feel it instinctually through the electrified hairs on the back of my neck. Its outline was all blurry and a lot of him was mercifully obscured by that ghost-white haze which was now so thick that I could barely make out the remains of the three boys scattered about. There had only been three of them, but I saw over a dozen solid masses about the bridge. I told myself it was a bear, but it wasn’t a bear. It wasn’t a bear because bears aren’t that shape. The legs were all wrong, they seemed to divide where the knee should be. Arched – the whole shape of him was arched in a way that defied reason or logic. Why would anyone – anything, need to be that shape?

It seemed almost as if it had been conceived and drawn by a child. Absently, without any thought for how it might operate under the laws of nature. A doodle – something that should never leave the confines of the notebooks of bored middle-school students. It was not possible – it was not possible for a living creature to be that twisted, that elongated. I couldn’t work out where he began and where he ended, or if there even was a beginning and an end, and he was looking down at me – looking down at me with two off-yellow eyes. He was looking at me and not moving. So still, it had been so still. Like a picture. Even the stoic stone bridge seemed to shimmer against the mist, but that thing – that thing was looking at me, gazing at me. And that thing was not moving. Not breathing. Not anything.

In the moment I don’t think I registered consciously that I was looking at Jerry. In that split second that could have been a moment or an eternity, my mind simply did not allow me to accept what I was seeing. It had been Carter carrying one of his friends, or a wild animal, or some delirious hallucination brought on by head trauma. What else could explain that impossible outline, that impossible shape?

I had to get away, I had to get help for Jerry. It was this thought that allowed me to finally tear my eyes away, and I turned and staggered up the path as fast as I could, the adrenaline pumping through me so viciously that I didn’t even realise my arm was broken or my head was bleeding until I reached my doorstep and my mother yelped in panic at my bloody visage. I must have seemed like some sort of spectre. She would later tell me that I had been in shock, and that’s why I had been so calm.

As you can imagine, a lot happened in the immediate weeks afterwards. A police investigation was carried out and I was asked lots of questions, first by softly spoken police officers from the local department, then by harsher spoken officers from the city. They wouldn’t tell me much, and although I tried to tell them about what I had seen in the mist, they were quick to placate me and lead me away from the subject.

Apparently, it was natural to imagine certain things in order to deal with trauma. A therapist diagnosed me with PTSD, and I was put on medication. It had been all over the news up and down the country. A terrible tragedy, three boys savaged by a bear on their way back from school. Unfortunately, not at all unheard of in Canada. I had been examined after the incident, so the police knew that my injuries were a result of blunt trauma and not a bear attack, but this was never mentioned in the news coverage. It had never been public knowledge and I suppose my parents had decided to keep it that way so that I wouldn’t be badgered by the press too much.

My face was nevertheless still plastered across the news stations as a heroic survivor who had managed to run away and get help. Again, not strictly speaking wrong, but I had gone to get help for Jerry, not for Carter and his two friends. They had not found Jerry or any evidence of Jerry where the other boys had been found, and by the time I convinced the police to go round to Jerry’s house, it was too late. The house was abandoned. Jerry Southerland, along with his parents, had vanished.

The police assured me they would look into it, but as the weeks slipped by into months and the months slipped by into years, the police eventually told me that they were closing their investigations. Many families had moved because of increasing concerns around child safety, they said. Although the timing was unusual, the Southerland’s were known to move around a lot, and they had been well within their right to do so, they said. I don’t know if they were lying or hiding something or simply thought me insane. I suppose there’s no use in trying to figure it out now.

For a long, long time I let myself believe that story on the news. It was easier than you might think. The boys had been killed by a bear and what I saw in the mist was simply a hallucination brought about by physical and psychological trauma. Jerry somehow made it back home a short time after I did, and his parents decided to move that same night. It all made sense really, so long as you didn’t think about it too hard. It helped that everyone else believed it too.

The PTSD diagnosis and the pills made me feel like everything, even what I had seen, was perfectly normal. It hadn’t been real. It had been a bear. Jerry hadn’t been killed. It wasn’t my fault. All of those rational thoughts worked very well for me, for a while. The whole thing had even brought Rachael and I closer together, and since Carter was out of the picture, there was nothing stopping us from getting together officially. I never told her though, not even after I married her. It was only a couple of months ago, after I saw another bear attack on the news – another group of middle-school boys savaged – that I started to really think about what happened back in 2005 for the first time with a fresh mind.

I kept pushing it away, but those long-buried memories, once they began to resurface, came like a torrent, intruding in my every quiet moment, flitting behind my eyes in as I lay awake beside my wife each night. Eventually, I had to admit defeat. I knew what I had seen, and I knew that all those seemingly inconsequential peculiarities I had ignored or explained away over the year that I had known him were not just a series innocent little teenage idiosyncrasies. I knew – I know – that something wasn’t right about Jerry Southerland.

Bear attacks are an unfortunate commonality in Canada, but those three boys weren’t mauled to death by a bear. And I remember, every time I hear about another bear attack on the news, I remember that impossible twisted thing I saw standing in the mist, gazing silently into me.

God help me, I must be mad. I had to chuckle just now – I really did. I can’t believe I just wrote all that nonsense down. Rachael is pregnant and we will soon have a little one of our own, and here I am writing down half-baked theories about my old classmates in the middle of the night like some sort of lunatic. I love Rachael, and soon we will be having a child. That’s real – that’s reality; not this nonsense. I’m going to delete this now and go and climb into bed with my wife. When I get up for work tomorrow, I will never think of that night again.

I’m sorry Jerry, forgive me.

Credit : James Quinn

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