Issue 35, Final Fringe

Secrets and Lies

by Kelly Sundberg Issue 24 11.01.2010

Because this is a story I don’t often tell, it sticks to me like mud.  I was nearly abducted when I was sixteen.  The details to this near-abduction are long, and the end is unsatisfying with no resolution. I haven’t told this story many times. There’s an air of untruth to it, a sense of hyperbole, and I wonder if people will doubt its authenticity.

It’s lodged somewhere in what I call the well of untold stories.  The well is full of stories that are either too far-fetched or too shameful to repeat.  The problem with these stories is that they’re the stories I want to tell the most.  But I don’t want to be doubted, and I don’t want to be judged.  I’m both a doubter and a judger, myself, so I don’t always trust people and their intentions.  My well of untold stories is a burden; I feel this compulsion to tell everyone everything.  It’s a nasty little compulsion.  No one likes the person who tells all, and I do want to be liked.  I have to work at curbing my tongue, at reining in my stories.  I’ve developed an awareness of the eyes; eyes say everything.  Someone can be nodding and smiling, but if their eyes are cold, it’s time to change the subject.

Now, I only tell true stories, but I used to tell untrue stories.  I used to be a liar.

Maybe that’s why I never told my mother how close I was to being abducted.  I never hesitated to tell her the truth that meant nothing to me, but I couldn’t stand to tell her something so horrible and not be believed, so instead, I said nothing.  It was around that time that I created my well.  I started carrying these stories beneath my rib cage in a physical manifestation that was somewhat like grief—a constant fluttering hummingbird’s heart.

Lies are a burden, but the truth can be a burden too.  What do I tell when I can’t tell the truth?  I guess I just shouldn’t say anything.  I guess that’s what shrinks are for, but blurting out all of my shameful tales to a shrink has never really made me feel better.  Shrinks have adopted poses of implacability. They never lean forward or look interested.  Looking interested can be dangerous, because that’s akin to looking shocked.  I once had a shrink tell me: “There is nothing you can say that would shock me,” and I found this strangely comforting, but I still censored myself.  I didn’t tell him everything, and I cried in the car on the way home.

That same shrink, a round man with a beard who wore sweater vests, would write things down, but casually, and I always wondered if he was secretly writing a to-do list.  To Do: Buy milk, Pay the cable bill, Cut back on bagel consumption, Stop listening to losers for a living.  I would have rather had someone weep with me and rail against this big ugly world than look indifferent.

I would have rather told my story to my mother than a shrink, but it was hard to break the silence when I hadn’t told her the full truth in years.  Yes mother, I believe in god (just not yours).  Yes mother, I exercise (infrequently).  Yes mother, I’m happy (most of the time).

If I could tell my mother the full story, I would tell her this:

I am sixteen in Salmon, Idaho, possibly the quietest town in the universe.  It is May, and the town has just found out that we are to receive our first chain restaurant—a Subway sandwich shop—and while my father laments the end of our culture, I am excited at the prospect of some life in this small town with one stoplight and dusty roads.  Salmon is perched on the edge of a river in a wide, deep valley surrounded by mountains, and the only roads extending through town are small two-lane highways that wind over steep mountain passes in the high mountain desert and are punctuated by ghost towns with names like Leadore and Gilmore—or some other type of ore—a remnant from the promise of gold.

Salmon is so isolated that we live under the shadow of a nuclear power plant, one of the few places in the country that creates its own nuclear waste.  When I was in the fourth grade, there was a scare at the plant, and we were warned not to drink the water.  This was before the whole bottled water trend, so the local Budweiser distributer donated water in beer bottles for the schools.  At home, we were told to boil our water for 20 minutes, but when I was thirsty at school, I would pop the top off a Bud and swig cold water from the brown bottle; it was the best water I had ever tasted.  At home, the water was tepid, and my parents joked that it might make us glow in the dark.  I lay in bed at night waving my hands in front of my face looking for a hint of light coming from my fingertips, but there was nothing, and I fell into the deep, dreamless sleep of childhood.

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Kelly Sundberg

Kelly Sundberg

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Kelly Sundberg grew up in a remote, one-stoplight town sloped up against the mountains of Idaho.  Living in her husband’s home state of West Virginia has further deepened her attraction to stories about small communities with a complex, often uneasy connection with the surrounding landscape and each other.  She is currently pursuing her MFA in nonfiction at West Virginia University where she also teaches composition.