The months after we returned from Central Australia passed quickly. They were filled with activities and events that kept us busy until Christmas. It was cold, wet and windy when we arrived back. That was hard to take after the glorious days we had enjoyed during the trip, but then spring suddenly arrived and the weather cleared.
Our part of Australia is famous for its "four-seasons-in-one-day" climate. Our springtime weather is usually unpredictable, but I love that time of the year. There is an amazing sense of renewal as trees regain their foliage and gardens wake from their winter slumber. That spring was warm and sunny. The drone of mowers filled the air and the smell of clipped grass wafted in the breeze. Everyone in our neighbourhood was trying to keep up with lawns growing at the speed of an express train.
Zoë and I grew closer as time went by. My family loved her and she spent a lot of time at our place. Zoë was an only child, and I was very relieved to find that her parents, Peter and Jill Denton, approved of me. Our parents allowed us the freedom to make our own decisions in our relationship, but at the same time made it clear how they expected us to behave. We respected that, and I don't think we ever disappointed them. The teasing from Travis and Brett eventually tapered off, especially after Brett and Clare started seeing a lot of each other.
Simon's fourteenth birthday was in early October, and Travis' sixteenth was the following day, so, as we did every year, we organised a joint party for them. However, Susan, Travis' mum, was about to turn 35. Since her birthday was only four days after his, we decided to make the party a surprise for her. It worked perfectly. Susan even prepared food for the occasion without having an inkling that it was actually her party.
When we sprang the surprise, she threatened Travis with all sorts of dire consequences for fooling her.
'You just wait until all the witnesses have left!'
Travis tried to smooth-talk her. 'How about I make it up to you by becoming your chauffeur? I need someone with me so I get some hours up on my learner's permit.'
That was greeted with a shocked silence…until everyone cracked up when Brett remarked drily, 'Well, Susan, you've always said Travis was trying to drive you up the wall. Now he's got a real chance!'
We had exams in the second half of November. Brett—as usual—aced his, and Zoë did nearly as well. Clare, Travis and I all passed comfortably, so we were all relieved and happy. Brett's sister Naomi turned ten early in December, and Brett's sixteenth birthday was exactly a week later, so that meant another party. It also meant another learner's permit, but Brett never got into the scrapes that Travis did, so we didn't hold the same fears for him. I couldn't believe there were so many birthdays so close together. I seemed to be spending all my money buying presents.
School finished for the year a few days before Christmas. The Year 10s got together to have a kind of "final fling", because the next year we would be starting our Victorian Certificate of Education studies and we expected to be working too hard to have much time for social activities.
Christmas came and went, and Zoë's parents invited me to spend the New Year weekend with them at Seaspray, on the Ninety Mile Beach. We had a great time. The weather was fine and hot, so we spent most of the time in the ocean.
Zoë and I watched the New Year's Eve celebrations from a vantage point on the sand dunes. At midnight there was a spectacular fireworks display. I entertained Zoë with stories my grandparents had told me of cracker night and bonfires—tales that featured skyrockets, pinwheels, Tom Thumbs, jumping jacks and threepenny bungers. It must have been fun; even the names sounded exciting. Unfortunately, too many people lost fingers or their eyesight, so since the 1970s only licensed pyrotechnicians had been able to buy and use most fireworks. The rest of us had to be content with public displays like the one we saw at Seaspray.
Offshore, the lights of several of the Bass Strait oil rigs were visible in the distance. Above us, the stars were bright and we were able to pick out the distinctive Southern Cross and several other constellations. I don't think it matched the magic of the evening at Uluru, but it was special nevertheless.
Travis, Brett and I had always spent January together. The long summer days were perfect for swimming and riding, and we usually did lots of both. It was different that year, since Brett had Clare and I had Zoë to spend time with. I wondered how it would work out, but we ended up doing stuff together as a group. Travis didn't have a girlfriend—I don't think he stopped clowning around long enough for a girl to get to know him—so we always included him in whatever we were doing.
We decided to celebrate Zoë's sixteenth birthday by having a banquet at one of the Chinese restaurants. We pooled our resources and found we had enough to invite all of our parents. I don't remember who thought of it, but the idea was to let our mums and dads know how much we appreciated them. Clare's dad reckoned we must be the only teens in existence who actually liked their parents. He made fun of us, but the grin on his face all evening betrayed his pride.
The new school year started, and so did the pressure of work. Right from the start we had heaps of homework and we were expected to work more independently than in previous years. The first term ended early, so that the school holidays would coincide with the Commonwealth Games, which were held in Melbourne. We mostly ignored the Games, relieved to have a break after a heavy start to the year. We had expected to work harder in our first VCE year, but the reality was still rather a shock.
The Monster's trial took place during the week leading up to the holidays, and I was the main witness. I was nervous before my day in court. I couldn't get it out of my mind. I kept wondering how I would react to seeing him again.
It was hard to remain calm under the defence barrister's questioning. There was too much evidence for him to deny that The Monster had had sex with me, so he tried to prove that it was consensual. He suggested that I hadn't been kidnapped but had gone willingly to the farmhouse. The prosecution, however, was able to prove that my blood had been found on the floor of The Monster's van, and that residue of capsicum spray had been found on my clothes. Doctor Emery gave evidence regarding my weakened physical condition at the time I was hospitalised, and testified that my injuries—documented in graphic photographs—could not have been self-inflicted.
The forensic evidence and sworn testimony sealed The Monster's fate and the jury took only a couple of hours to find him guilty. His past had caught up with him at last. He was sentenced to twenty years' jail and his name was placed on the Victorian sex offender register. As an ex-prison officer and child rapist he had to be housed in a special facility. Child molesters are not generally welcomed by other prisoners, and the authorities feared that he wouldn't live to serve his sentence if he was placed in an ordinary prison.
Although the trial went well, and the outcome was good, it nevertheless troubled me. Reliving the ordeal—even if only verbally—was stressful. Seeing The Monster sitting in court was unsettling. He sat impassively, not showing any emotion. He didn't even react when the judge sentenced him. He stared at me the whole time I was giving my evidence. I knew he was no longer a physical threat, but that rattled me. Every time I looked towards him I expected him to break out in his evil smile. Had he done so I think I would have broken down. That ugly face, the face that I had seen at such close quarters so many times, was still intimidating—even at several metres' distance.
I was relieved when it was over. I was looking forward to getting on with the rest of my life. As it turned out, however, that wouldn't be easy.
My troubles began the first weekend of the holidays, right after the trial. The Monday was a public holiday—Labour Day—and my family decided to spend the long weekend with my grandparents. Zoë and I had previously made plans to go to Buchan with her parents to tour the caves.
We left Sale on the Saturday morning. Zoë had obtained her learner's permit after her birthday, and her dad let her drive part of the way. Her mother and I climbed into the back seat of the car and made a big show out of fastening our seat belts.
'We should have brought crash helmets,' Jill said.
'Mmm, that might have been a good idea. Do you think we should cover our eyes?'
'Oh, belt up, you two!' came from the front as Zoë adjusted the driver's seat and the rear-view mirrors.
'We have,' her mother said innocently.
'MUM! Stop it! I'm trying to concentrate.'
Jill looked at me with a wry grin. 'I think I've been told,' she mouthed to me.
I sank down in the seat and covered my face with my hands. I didn't want Zoë to see that I was trying not to laugh. Her mother was as big a stirrer as Travis.
Zoë drove to Bairnsdale and then her father took over. We left the Princes Highway there, and Zoë felt a little uncomfortable on the narrower country road. Her mum moved to the front seat and Zoë hopped in the back with me for the rest of the trip. We took a break at Bruthen for a few minutes after someone remembered we hadn't removed Zoë's "L" plates from the front and back of the car. Since it's illegal to display them unless a learner is actually driving, we were relieved that we hadn't been pulled over by the police.
We arrived in Buchan by lunchtime. Peter had booked a three-bedroom cabin near the Caves Reserve. We found it easily, and I helped him unload the car while Jill and Zoë prepared sandwiches and put the kettle on. We took our time to settle in and have lunch since the next tour of Royal Cave wasn't until three o'clock. We planned to see Fairy Cave the following day.
I had found out in Central Australia that Zoë was afraid of heights. She discovered at Buchan that I was claustrophobic. I was a little apprehensive about going into the caves. I didn't like confined spaces, and I had seen documentaries about caving that left me believing that all caves had low ceilings and narrow passages. I'd not told Zoë or her parents, but as we waited in line to pay our admission fee my nerves began to get the better of me. Zoë quickly picked up my fear, and that reminded me why I found her so special. I don't know how she did it, but she seemed to know me better than I knew myself. She hugged me and whispered reassurances in my ear. She had been to the caves a couple of years earlier and was sure I would live through the experience. I need not have worried; Royal Cave was a little damp, but it wasn't anything like those I had seen in the documentaries. Its large caverns were high and spacious and its passages were wide and well lit. The stalagmites and stalactites had taken on all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes, and the rock formations were fascinating. Spotlights and backlighting showed off everything beautifully.
After dinner we had a game of Scrabble which, much to Peter's disgust, Jill won. He claimed to have never beaten her at anything, which caused Zoë and her mum to laugh their heads off. Peter managed to look affronted, but he couldn't help chuckling as he got up to put the kettle on. He gave me a wink, as if we were in a conspiracy together.
Over a cup of tea and lamingtons we talked about the trial. The Dentons had been there, but they wanted my personal take on it. They were interested to know how it had affected me, and whether I felt I would finally be able to put the kidnapping to rest. We got right down to specifics—including what I thought of The Monster. I discovered that my feelings had changed in the months since my kidnapping. At that time I had been angry; I had hated the man and what he'd done to me. At the trial he had scared me. Yet, that night, under Peter and Jill's gentle guidance, I found that all I could feel was pity. He was sick, and he needed help.
It was a really good conversation. Peter and Jill had always put me at ease, and they were easy to talk to. Their sympathetic questioning helped me to understand my feelings, and to put the whole episode in perspective. When I went to sleep that night I was confident that I had beaten The Monster and that the kidnapping and abuse were history. I was wrong.
I was having a bad dream. I was hurt badly. I was being carried in someone's strong arms to the hospital. Only I wasn't taken to hospital; I was thrown into the back of an old van and driven on a long journey. When the van finally stopped I was pulled out of the vehicle and dragged into a building. I heard a door open and I was pushed roughly. I stumbled into a room and fell on the floor. I blacked out.
I was hurting all over, hungry and cold. There was a man standing over me, regarding me with eyes that seemed to look right through me; his lips formed into an evil grin. He had a round face with a huge scar on his cheek. I tried to pull my arm over my eyes to shut out the horrible sight, but I couldn't move. I blacked out again.
The next time I saw the man he was naked, and aroused. Roughly, he turned me onto my stomach and handcuffed me to the bed. I screamed…
'Michael…' In the distance someone was speaking my name, softly and lovingly.
'Michael!' There it was again, but more urgent.
Someone was on my bed, shaking me. A pair of arms snaked around me, trying to hold me. I struggled to get free. I have to get out of here!
Then…the voice again. 'Michael!' It was beginning to sound anxious. 'Michael! Michael, wake up! You're safe here.'
I shook my head, trying to collect my thoughts. Where am I? In my mind I was back in that farmhouse and The Monster was abusing me again. I have to get out!
No! Wait! The voice…it sounded familiar. Zoë!
I opened my eyes and, still half asleep, struggled to sit up. 'Zoë?'
She pushed me back down. 'Yep, it's me. You were screaming. You must have been having a nightmare.'
'Oh, blimey!' I remembered we were at Buchan with her parents. 'Did I wake everyone?'
'Yes, but don't worry about that,' a voice said from the door. Zoë's mum came into the room. 'Are you okay now?'
'I think so. Sorry to wake you.'
'No problem,' she said, placing her hand on my forehead. 'No fever, so it probably was a nightmare. You sounded really distressed. Think you'll be all right?'
She took my hand. 'Oh, Michael, you're shaking like a leaf.'
She was right. Zoë was caressing my arm. Her presence was reassuring, but I was still feeling agitated. My heart was thumping in my chest, and my hands were sweaty.
Jill looked from me to her daughter and back. She looked thoughtful, as if she was trying to decide something. Finally, she spoke again. 'Zoë, I think you'd better stay with Michael till morning. He could do with some loving right now—and don't take that the wrong way, okay?' She raised her eyebrows at both of us.
'Mum, I know what you mean,' Zoë said gently. 'Thank you,' she added, then grinned. 'And don't worry, we'll behave.'
'Thank you.' Jill kissed us both. 'Goodnight again.' The light in the living area clicked off as she returned to her room.
Zoë lifted the doona and slipped into bed beside me. Her soft body lying against mine and her gentle arms wrapping me in a warm hug were comforting. Neither of us spoke; words weren't necessary. It was enough that she was there.
The nightmare had brought unwelcome visitors—memories that I thought I had put behind me. What does it mean? Is this what Doctor Cazelaar warned me about? We had such a great talk before everyone went to bed…why did I end up having a nightmare? Will it happen again? What do I do now? Questions and random thoughts raced through my mind.
Somehow, Zoë knew. 'Try to go to sleep, Michael. We can deal with it in the morning.' She kissed my cheek. 'Goodnight.'
She hugged me again and I kissed her goodnight. She was right. I didn't need to try to understand right then and there. Being in her arms helped me to calm down. Gradually the stress lessened. I relaxed and drifted off to sleep.
When I next opened my eyes it was daylight and Zoë was lying on her side watching me, a smile playing on her lips.
'What?' I asked.
'I was enjoying watching you sleep. You looked so peaceful.'
'Well, that's a change from last night!'
She leaned over and kissed me, then laid her head on my chest. She wrapped her free arm around me, wordlessly showing her concern. My arms automatically encircled and hugged her. Her body felt soft and warm against mine, and that was more than a little erotic. I couldn't allow my thoughts to wander in that direction, though. Although our parents gave us a lot of freedom, they didn't normally allow us to be in the same bed. We both knew that if we let our hormones take over we would deeply disappoint our elders. Not only that, it would also mean that we'd failed to meet the standards we had set for ourselves. I knew neither of us wanted that.
I decided to start again. 'Good morning, Beautiful!'
Zoë giggled. 'Flattery will get you everywhere, but good morning to you, too.' She lifted hear head and kissed me again.
'Mmm, it's really nice to have you here and to get a wake-up kiss, but it's kind of tempting. I think we'd better get out of bed before I do something we'll both regret.'
Reluctantly, after several more kisses—just to make sure I was awake, Zoë claimed—we parted to shower and get dressed.
'Morning, Jill,' I said as I stepped into the kitchen a little later.
'Hey, Michael! How are you feeling now?' She gave me a hug and a peck on the cheek. She stood with her hands on my shoulders, waiting for my answer.
'I'm not sure.' I was confused. 'I thought everything was fine, especially after we talked last night. But that nightmare really scared me. It was the same one I had when I was in hospital, waking from the coma.' I burst into tears, and Jill held me tight. She rubbed my back, comforting me just like my own mother would have.
Over the next three months I descended into my own personal hell. It was devastating for me and for everyone around me. Somehow, I made it through the remainder of that weekend at Buchan, but once I was back home things went from bad to worse. I felt restless and troubled, but I couldn't figure out what was wrong. I was listless and always tired, but my sleep patterns were completely disrupted. I'd sleep for a few hours and then I'd wake up and spend the rest of the night tossing and turning. The nightmares—always the same—became more frequent and I'd wake up screaming. Mum sat with me dozens of times, comforting me as I tried to get back to sleep. The family must have thought I'd decided that if I couldn't sleep, no one else in the house would either.
Doctor Cazelaar believed I had developed post traumatic stress disorder and major depression. He thought that the stress of the trial, followed soon after by the fear I had experienced at the cave, had triggered their onset. He set up weekly counselling sessions that included cognitive-behaviour therapy. The idea was to change my thought patterns and beliefs, and thus my behaviour. Success would depend on my commitment and participation, and I would have to be open and honest. I wanted to get out of the disaster that my life had become, so I tried hard. The doctor's humour and his gentle, caring manner put me at ease. I felt secure while I was with him—not threatened like I did around some people. I'd go home after each session feeling much more optimistic. Over the next few days, however, the doubts and fears would return. By the time of my next appointment I'd be feeling terrible again. The doctor prescribed a medication that was supposed to help the PTSD as well as the depression. It helped a bit but I still found it hard to get through each day.
After a few sessions with little improvement, Doctor Cazelaar was concerned. My family was frantic. I had become sullen and withdrawn, and it was nearly impossible to hold a conversation with me. My friends had trouble coming to grips with the change in me. Most of them were unable to understand what had happened and didn't know what to do with me.
I just wasn't able to climb out of the hole I'd fallen into. I became more and more despondent. One negative emotion seemed to feed off another. My inability to cope with the depression—let alone do anything about it—made me even more depressed. I was confused and angry. My sense of humour deserted me, and things that previously would have made me howl with laughter evoked no emotion at all. I took refuge in the little, day-to-day, routine things. Taking one thing and one day at a time, I managed. Just. Anything unexpected or out of the ordinary threw me into a spin.
My life had been turned upside down, and it felt like the whole world was out of control. Sometimes I thought I was caught up in a tornado that refused to die out—battering and buffeting and tossing me all over the place. At other times it was a hurricane. The wind would blow hard in one direction, and then all would be calm in the eye of the storm. For a while I would hope that it was all over…until the storm moved on and the wind began to blow the opposite way. My hopes would be dashed to pieces and I would fall down again. Most of the time I felt like I was surrounded by a dense fog, with a very limited field of vision. It was like walking around with my eyes focused on my feet, so that I could see myself walking, yet didn't have any idea where I was going. Sometimes I couldn't even see my feet. At other times I felt weighed down by an enormous load on my back. I heard that someone had described depression as a black dog. I knew what he meant. I reckoned I had a whole pack of black dogs hunting me.
Almost imperceptibly I spiralled down into an ever-blacker state.
I shut myself in my bedroom for hours on end. I would sit at my desk and stare out the window at the old oak tree in the middle of our back yard. I watched its leaves fall as autumn passed. It gave me a perverse kind of satisfaction the day I realised that it was an apt metaphor for the way my life was falling apart. When I didn't feel like looking out, I would look inward. I'd lie on my bed staring at the ceiling, my mind blank. Sometimes I'd curl into a ball under the doona, wishing the world would just go away.
Zoë sat with me for many of those hours. Having her there was a comfort, but my emotional roller coaster must have made it really hard for her. One day I would be happy to have her there and we'd talk and even share a laugh or two. The next day I'd be brooding and angry, and she would leave in tears. When Zoë wasn't with me, often Travis would be, or Brett and Clare. They learned to visit singly or in pairs. Any more made me feel that they were crowding me. Somehow they managed to put up with my ups and downs, my to-ing and fro-ing.
At school I kept to myself and nearly everyone avoided me. That deepened the depression, because I knew I was turning them away but I couldn't do anything about it. Brett and Travis tried to include me in whatever they were up to, but my heart just wasn't in it most of the time. I don't know how she did it, but Zoë stuck with me, even though it must have seemed that I was trying hard to make her hate me.
The spiral plunged ever lower. It was odd, but at some point I began to actually enjoy my depression, and no longer tried to get out of it. I think I began to wear it like one wears an old raincoat—you don't like it much because it's bulky and makes movement awkward, but it's familiar and gives you the impression that you're wrapped up in a safe cocoon.
Mum's birthday was early in May. Mother's Day came about ten days later and my birthday the day after that. I managed to join in the family celebrations for Mum, and even bought gifts for her. It was a different matter on my own birthday. It was my sixteenth. Normally that would have called for a celebration because it meant I was old enough to get my learner's permit. Travis, Brett and Clare, Zoë and my family tried hard to make it a special day. For me all it meant was that I was another notch closer to oblivion.
As winter approached and the days grew shorter, my sense of hopelessness grew deeper. My self-esteem was shot to pieces and I had no self-respect. In fact, I think I actually hated myself by that stage. Certainly I had convinced myself that no one cared about me. I was positive that I wouldn't be missed if I wasn't around. The black dog had almost won.
The final straw came with our mid-year exams early in June. I'd been struggling to keep up with my work because of the tiredness and lack of motivation, and it was hard to study because I had trouble concentrating. I began to feel more and more helpless, and school and study began to seem pointless. By the time the exams were complete I was certain that I had failed them all.
The last exam was on Thursday 8 June. The following Monday the nation would celebrate Queen Elizabeth II's official birthday with a public holiday. Dad, Mum and Simon decided to spend the long weekend visiting my grandparents again. They asked me to go with them, but I couldn't. My grandparents knew about my depression but they hadn't experienced it first-hand. I don't know why, but I wanted to spare them that. Perhaps, deep down, I wanted to believe that there was someone who still loved me. I felt that if they saw me in my depressed and sullen state they would hate me like everyone else did.
There was an additional reason for my wanting to stay home—I had a plan forming in my mind. A plan that would solve all of my problems in one fell swoop.
Kellie didn't go with Dad and Mum, either. She went to Melbourne for the weekend. She was preparing for her trip to Japan, and her boyfriend had promised to take her shopping for stuff she couldn't buy locally.
I sat at my desk and sobbed. I had reached the end of my tether. The black dog was stalking me and I was sick of trying to fight it. I no longer had the will to live. I felt worthless, helpless and hopeless.
I looked out at the old oak tree. It had lost all of its leaves in the autumn, and was completely bare—like my soul.
Memories came flooding back of all the happy times that tree represented. Travis, Brett and I had spent hours climbing in its solid, spreading boughs. One summer we'd built a secret fort high in its branches. From there we spied on our neighbourhood, secure in the knowledge that the tree's thick foliage hid us. Every autumn there would be a carpet of acorns on the ground. We fired them from our shanghais, using empty soft drink cans as targets. Dad made a swing from a couple of ropes and a wooden seat and we boys held competitions to see who could swing the highest. Everyone else gave up after Travis reached a point where he was able to let go of the swing and grab hold of a higher branch. There was a gasp from all of us watching when the swing returned without Travis. That soon turned to laughter and stirring when we had to fetch a ladder to get him down.
I thought of all the time Zoë and I had spent under that tree over the summer. Its shade was inviting on a hot day and it became our favourite spot. Sitting on the ground, with our backs against the huge trunk, we talked for hours on end. Sometimes we sat there in silence, simply enjoying each other's company.
I sighed. She was gone. All of them were gone. I had pushed them away. The deeper I'd fallen into depression, the further I'd retreated from everyone around me. Even Monty, our family's loveable and affectionate black cocker spaniel, could no longer get through to me.
The memories brought a renewed flood of tears, and I sat there and howled. I was glad everyone was away. I needed to be alone. By the time they got back it would be over.
Eventually I pulled myself together enough to finish the note I was writing. I signed it, "Love, Michael," and put the pen down.
I picked up the rope I had ready and left my room. I felt numb. It was like I was on autopilot; without needing to think, I followed the plan I had worked out earlier. I walked out to the oak tree, on the way collecting an old bar stool from the garage. I climbed onto the stool and threw the rope over a branch. The tears were falling again, nearly blinding me, but it would be over soon and the pain would be gone. I'd made a noose at one end of the rope. I adjusted it to the right height and tied the other end of the rope to a nearby branch. I opened the noose and pushed my head through it. I checked for the hundredth time that the slipknot would work properly. I paused. Do I really want to do this? The fog in my brain was so dense that I couldn't think clearly enough to answer myself. All I knew was that the pain had become unbearable and there was only one way to stop it. I kicked the stool away and felt the knot tighten around my neck as the weight of my body pulled on it.
I heard a scream, 'Michael! NO! Noooooo!' There was more shouting. Someone was running. Then the world faded into blackness.