The Woods, Page 3Harlan Coben
There was a time when Professor Lucy Gold, PhD in both English and psychology, loved office hours.
It was a chance to sit one-on-one with students and really get to know them. She loved when the quiet ones who sat in the back with their heads down, taking notes as though it were dictation, the ones who had their hair hanging in front of their faces like a protective curtain, when they arrived at her door and raised their eyes and told her what was in their hearts.
But most of the time, like now, the students who showed up were the brown nosers, the ones who felt that their grade should depend solely on their outward enthusiasm, that the more face time they got, the higher the grade, as though being an extrovert was not rewarded enough in this country.
"Professor Gold," the girl named Sylvia Potter said. Lucy imagined her a little younger, in middle school. She would have been the annoying girl who arrived the morning of a big test whining that she was going to fail and then ended up being the first one done, smugly handing in her A-plus paper early, and using the rest of the class time to put reinforcements in her notebook.
"When you were reading that passage from Yeats in class today, I mean, I was so moved. Between the actual words and the way you can use your voice, you know, like a professional actress. . . "
Lucy Gold was tempted to say, "Do me a favor, just bake me some brownies," but she kept the smile on instead. No easy task. She glanced at her watch and then felt like crap for doing that. Sylvia was a student trying her best. That was all. We all find our ways to cope, to adapt and survive. Sylvia's way was probably wiser and less self-destructive than most.
"I loved writing that journal piece too," she said.
"I'm glad. " "Mine was about. . . well, my first time, if you know what I mean. . . " Lucy nodded. "We're keeping them confidential and anonymous, remember?" "Oh, right. " She glanced down now. Lucy wondered about that. Sylvia never looked down. "Maybe after I read them all," Lucy said, "if you want, we can talk about yours. In private. "
Her head was still down.
The girl's voice was very soft. "Okay. "
Office hours were over. Lucy wanted to get home. She tried not to sound halfhearted when she asked, "Do you want to talk about it now?"
Sylvia's head was still down.
"Okay then," Lucy said, making a production of looking at her watch. "I have a staff meeting in ten minutes. "
Sylvia stood. "Thank you for meeting with me. "
"My pleasure, Sylvia. "
Sylvia looked as if she wanted to say something more. But she didn't. Five minutes later, Lucy stood at her window and looked down at the quad. Sylvia walked out the door, wiped her face, set the head high, forced up a smile. She started walk-skipping across campus. Lucy watched her wave at her fellow students, fall in with a group, and blend with the others until Sylvia became an indistinct part of the mass.
Lucy turned away. She caught her reflection in the mirror and did not like what she saw. Had that girl been calling out for help?
Probably, Luce, and you didn't answer. Nice work, superstar.
She sat at her desk and opened the bottom drawer. The vodka was there. Vodka was good. You didn't smell vodka.
Her office door opened. The guy who entered had long black hair tucked behind his ears and several earrings. He was unshaven, fashionably so, handsome in an aging-boy-band way. He had the silver stud in his chin, a look that always detracted, low pants barely held up by a studded belt, and a tattoo on the neck that said, "Breed Often. "
"You," the guy said, gunning his best smile in her direction, "look immensely doable. "
"Thanks, Lonnie. "
"Nah, I mean it. Immensely doable. "
Lonnie Berger was her TA, though he was her age. He was permanently caught in that education trap, getting a new degree, hanging on campus, the tell tale sign of age around the eyes. Lonnie was getting tired of the PC sexual crap on campus, so he was going out of his way to push that boundary and hit on every woman he could.
"You should wear something that shows a little more cleavage, maybe one of those new push-up bras," Lonnie added. "Might make the boys pay more attention in class. "
"Yeah, that's what I want. "
"Seriously, chief, when was the last time you got some?"
"It's been eight months, six days, and about", Lucy checked her watch "four hours. "
He laughed. "You're playing me, right?"
She just stared at him.
"I printed out the journals," he said.
The confidential, anonymous journals.
She was teaching a class that the university had dubbed Creative Reasoning, a combination of cutting-edge psychological trauma with creative writing and philosophy. Truth be told, Lucy loved it. Current assignment: Each student was supposed to write on a traumatic event in their lives, something that they would not normally share with any one. No names were to be used. No grades given. If the anonymous student gave permission on the bottom of the page, Lucy might read a few out loud to the class for the purpose of discussion, again keeping the author anonymous.
"Did you start reading them?" she asked.
Lonnie nodded and sat in the seat that Sylvia had occupied a few minutes ago. He threw his feet up on the desk. "The usual," he said. "Bad erotica?" "I'd say more like soft porn. " "What's the difference?" "Damned if I know. Did I tell you about my new chick?"
"I'm serious. A waitress. Hottest piece of ass I've ever dated. "
"And I want to hear this because?"
"Yeah," Lucy said. "That must be it. Give me the journals, will you?"
Lonnie handed her a few. They both started digging in. Five minutes later, Lonnie shook his head.
Lucy said, "What?"
"How old are most of these kids?" Lonnie asked. "Maybe twenty, right?"
"And their sexual escapades always last, like, two hours?"
Lucy smiled. "Active imagination. "
"Did guys last that long when you were young?"
"They don't last that long now," she said.
Lonnie arched an eyebrow. "That's because you're so hot. They can't control themselves. It's your fault, really. " "Hmm. " She tapped the pencil's eraser against her lower lip. "That's not the first time you've used that line, is it?" "You think I need a new one? How about: "This has never happened to me before, I swear'?"
Lucy made a buzzing sound. "Sorry, try again. "
They went back to reading. Lonnie whistled and shook his head.
"Maybe we just grew up in the wrong era. "
"Luce?" He looked over the paper. "You really need to get some. "
"I'm willing to help, you know. No strings attached. "
"What about Ms. Delectable Waitress?"
"We're not exclusive. "
"I see. "
"So what I'm suggesting here is purely a physical thing. A mutual pipe cleaning, if you catch my drift. "
"Shush, I'm reading. "
He caught the hint. Half an hour later, Lonnie sat forward and looked at her.
"Read this one," he said.
"Just read it, okay?"
She shrugged, put down the journal she'd been reading, yet another story of a girl who'd gotten drunk with her new boyfriend and ended up in a threesome. Lucy had read lots of stories of threesomes. None seemed to happen without alcoholic involvement.
But a minute later she forgot all about that. She forgot that she lived alone or that she had no real family left and that she was a college professor or that she was in her office overlooking the quad or that Lonnie was still sitting in front of her. Lucy Gold was gone. And in her place was a younger woman, a girl reall
y, with a different name, a girl on the verge of adulthood but still so very much a girl:
This happened when I was seventeen. I was at summer camp. I worked there as a CIT. That stands for Counselor In Training. It wasn't hard for me to get the job because my dad owned the place. . .
Lucy stopped. She looked at the front sheet. There was no name, of course. The students e-mailed the papers in. Lonnie had printed them out. There was supposed to be no way to know who sent what paper. It was part of the comfort. You didn't even have to risk having your finger prints on it. You just hit the anonymous Send button:
It was the best summer of my life. At least it was until that final night. Even now I know I will never know a time like it. Weird right? But I know. I know that I will never, ever, be that happy again. Not ever. My smile is different now. It is sadder, like it is broken and can't be fixed.
I loved a boy that summer. I will call him P for this story. He was a year older than me and a junior counselor. His whole family was at the camp. His sister worked there and his father was the camp doctor. But I barely noticed them because the moment I met P, I felt my stomach clench. I know what you're thinking. It was just a dumb summer romance. But it wasn't. And now I'm scared I will never love someone like I loved him. That sounds silly. That is what everyone thinks. Maybe they are right. I don't know. I am still so young. But it doesn't feel like that. It feels like I had one chance at happiness and I blew it.
A hole in Lucy's heart started opening, expanding.
One night we went into the woods. We weren't supposed to.
There were strict rules about it. Nobody knew those rules better than me. I had been spending summers here since I was nine. That was when my dad bought the camp. But P was on "night" duty. And because my dad owned the camp, I had full access. Smart, right? Two kids in love who were supposed to guard the other campers? Give me a break!
He didn't want to go because he thought he should keep watch, but hey, I knew how to entice him. I regret that now, of course. But I did it. So we headed into the woods, just the two of us. Alone. The woods are huge. If you make a wrong turn, you can get lost in there forever. I had heard tales of children going out there and never coming back. Some say they still wander around, living like animals. Some say they died or worse. Well, you know how it is with campfire stories.
I used to laugh at stories like that. I never got scared of them.
Now I shudder at the thought.
We kept walking. I knew the way. P was holding my hand.
The woods were so dark. You can't see more than ten feet in front of you. We heard a rustling noise and realized that's someone was in the woods. I froze, but I remember P smiling in the dark and shaking his head in a funny way. You see, the only reason campers met up in the woods was, well, it was a coed camp. There was a boys' side and a girls' side and this finger of the woods stood between them. You figure it out.
P sighed. "We better check it out," he said. Or something like that. I don't remember his exact words.
But I didn't want to. I wanted to be alone with him.
My flashlight was out of batteries. I can still remember how fast my heart was beating as we stepped into the trees. There I was in the dark, holding hands with the guy I loved. He would touch me and I would just melt. You know that feeling? When you can't stand to be away from a guy for even five minutes. When you put everything in context of him. You do something, anything really, and you wonder, "What would he think about that?" It is a crazy feeling. It is wonderful but it also hurts. You are so vulnerable and raw that it's scary.
"Shh,"he whispers. "Just stop. "
We do. We stop.
P pulls me behind a tree. He cups my face in both of his hands.
He has big hands and I love the way that feels. He tilts my face up and then he kisses me. I feel it everywhere, a fluttering that begins in the center of my heart and then spreads. He takes his hand away from my face. He puts it on my rib cage, right next to my breast. I start to anticipate. I groan out loud.
We kept kissing. It was so passionate. We couldn't get close enough to each other. Every part of me felt on fire. He moved his hand under my shirt. I won't say more about that. I forgot about the rustling in the woods. But now I know. We should have contacted someone. We should have stopped them from going deeper in the woods. But we didn't. We made love instead.
I was so lost in us, in what we were doing, that at first I didn't even hear the screams. I don't think P did either.
But the screams kept coming and you know how people describe near-death experiences? That was what it was like, but kinda in reverse. It was like we were both headed for some wonderful light and the screams were like a rope that was trying to pull us back, even though we didn't want to go back.
He stopped kissing me. And here is the terrible thing.
He never kissed me again.
Lucy turned the page, but there were no more. She snapped her head up. "Where's the rest?"
"That's it. You said to send it in parts, remember? That's all there is. "
She looked at the pages again.
"You okay, Luce?"
"You're good with computers, aren't you, Lonnie?"
He arched the eyebrow again. "I'm better with da ladies. "
"Do I look like I'm in the mood?"
"Okay, okay, yeah, I'm good with computers. Why?"
"I need to find out who wrote this. "
"I need," she repeated, "to find out who wrote this. "
He met her eye. He studied her face for a second. She knew what he wanted to say. It betrayed everything that they were about. They had read horrible stories in here, one this year about father-daughter incest even, and they had never tried to track the person down.
Lonnie said, "Do you want to tell me what this is about?"
"But you want me to break all the confidences we've ever set up here?" "Yes. " "That bad?" She just looked at him. "Ah, what the hell," Lonnie said. "I'll see what I can do. "