The summer I turned twelve, James and I would go down to the pier and smoke cigarettes and drink from beer bottles left out under the docks. The beer was warm and piss-like, but we didn’t know any better then, had never tasted a cold beer, the shock of it. Those early drinks, it was like blood flowing right down my throat, the same temperature, if not warmer. We’d break the bottles and use the bottoms as amber colored lenses to the world, the water and buildings tinted brown and gold.
I saw my first Playboy that summer, my first view of fleshy pink and full breasts. My friends and I would all laugh nervously, our hips angled away to hide our unstoppable erections, the sight of skin below the neck like second base to our blank palettes.
That was the year they pulled the bodies from the lake, seven in all, all dragged up with that giant hook, as though the whole show of it were some fishing spoof. The first few brought screams and the vague splashing of vomit on the rocky banks, but as the summer dragged on, the men dragged longer on their cigarettes and did no more than point and nod, some shaking their heads as though to say, they’d’ve thrown it back if they could. It wasn’t one worth keeping.
After the first body was found, my parents forbade me from going to the pier. James and I would sneak out on our Schwinn ten-speeds, I with a Ken Griffey Jr. card flapping on my back tire, James with an Ace of diamonds, dirty and clay-colored so that the red looked burnt, the edges singed. The pier was only ten minutes by pedal, and we’d hop off, our bikes still rolling and crashing into the piles of rotting planks scattered along the yard.
The town wasn’t really a fishing town, but in the summer, no one would have thought it was anything else. The bay was spotted with white and blue boats, some new and almost offensive in their waxy shines, others dirty and low in the water, their sails sagging as though tired. The water was subtly pushed and pulled by the tide, full of salt and seaweed. Yet it’s name was Marchfields Lake, and I often forgot I was less than two miles from the fullness of the ocean, that the horizon line in front of me did not end there, but stretched out beyond.
Yellow tape still danced in the breeze over by the side dock where they’d dragged out the first body, a boy no older than we were, someone I’d noticed in church when his mother snapped her fingers at him to wake up. I hadn’t been there, but someone told me his eyes had been wide open and muddy looking, as though he’d sucked in the water and it’d starting staining him from the inside out.
I’d never swam in the bay there, but had tasted it, filled my mouth after my first sip of warm beer, and I couldn’t imagine swallowing either of them that way, knowing I had no choice but to breathe it in and take it down.
That is if he’d even drowned at all. The police didn’t know what was going on with the first body, or the second or the third. It wasn’t until after the fifth that they started imposing a town curfew, closing the pier an hour before sundown and all the restaurants on The Walk, our sorry excuse of a boardwalk, with three restaurants in all and an arcade that only had one working ski ball machine and one of those claw games with stuffed lobsters for prizes.
The week after they found the first, James dared us—Randy, Nelson, and me—to touch the yellow tape, the possibly blood-stained rocks that lined that particular part of the bay, water lapping at the edge spooking us with its subtle splashes, like someone was sneaking up from behind.
James and I had campouts in his backyard, sometimes with Randy and Nelson, flashlights under our chins, telling tales of who would be next. At that point, we had no idea how close we would get to it all. No idea the summer it would become, that there would be six more of them, all the same sickening purple color, our amber tinted glasses not strong enough to block them out.
When the third body was found, James got the idea to try to catch the guy. Or girl. Whoever was doing the dumping. We started The Watch the night before the fourth body was found, the divers pulling him up the next morning, a college kid home for the summer, all the policeman unsteady in the rocking boats, pointing importantly, as though it mattered.
We’d snuck back to the dock, had been there, our parents thinking we were asleep in our sleeping bags, our cheeks pink from being overly warm and safe, unlike the purple sack of a body that would be pulled up in front of us. We’d pedaled down to the docks, took turns watching the water lapping the rocks, the wind just lifting the remaining few inches of yellow tape from the First. We’d all fallen asleep before any body, any discovery or crime. We woke with the sun and pedaled as fast as we could back to our empty tent, but our parents had been waiting for us, their arms crossed across their chests, faces pulled tight from anger. They’d all dropped to their knees though when we’d pulled up. Mine cried and took me in their arms, saying they’d kill me as they kissed me and didn’t let me go.
We were at the arcade the day they pulled out Becca Lynn, Nelson’s older sister. Some kid smacking gum ran in and told us all to come, that they’d found another. The man behind the counter waved his hand as though swatting at a fly, and no one but us moved. We flew. We ran as fast as our legs could take us without wheels underneath them.
Her head was still underwater, the two divers trying to pull her legs up into the boat. Her white blouse, now slightly beige from the dirty water, was see-through, but that didn’t matter, since it had come undone at some point. Her nipples were purple, that same sickening purple as her lips when they finally got her head up and as the rest of the bodies had been, and I was ashamed to feel the pull in my groin, the sight still too much to resist.
She’d been the dream girl, of all of us, and Nelson let us have our fantasies, rolling his eyes or wringing his hands uncomfortably when we talked in too much detail. At our age, any girl with breasts automatically became bathroom material, but Becca Lynn was more than that. She knew all our names, smiled at us, tousled our hair. She’d even given us packs of gum and cigarettes, hidden them under rocks with little notes like, for my boys or love Becca Lynn. We’d played entire games based on the chance of winning her as a prize, games from tag or Go Fish all entered into with the faint fake glimmer of Becca Lynn on our arm.
James claimed he’d seen her naked, had snuck out one night and stood under her bedroom window and watched her undress. He reported that her breasts were milky white and supple, adjectives I knew I’d just learned from the month’s Playboy and had no doubt he had as well. But I let James have his bragging rights.
Now that we were both looking at her, now that the playing fields were even, I couldn’t help but be glad that, if it were true, I’d never seen what James had. Never seen Becca Lynn’s body when it had been warm and flowing creamy pink, that I could look at her now with no real idea of what she could have been.
Even though our campouts had been banned, we kept The Watch active. Our methodical flashlight code from window to window, bike to bike, two flashes for drop, one for pedal faster or go, got us out of our houses and onto the street at night. The town was small enough that the stoplights were pulled, the streets left dark and empty after eleven, especially after Becca Lynn, once the curfew laid its heavy hand on the fears of all the parents.
We rode by the only light blinking, which came from the broken sign of the arcade, the letters that would let it make sense blacked out and sagging.
A few days after Nelson’s sister was pulled from the murky waters, we met at the docks, our sweat mixing with the sputterings of rain, the sky crying for us so we didn’t have to embarrass our twelve year old selves with tears.
We let our bikes fall and stood there, Randy, Nelson, and James in their bathing suits, full-faced snorkel masks hanging from arms. The water at the docks was blocked off from swimming; the town had shut it down years ago because of pollution. Even the divers who pulled the bodies out were covered from head to foot, their bodies completely in black as though it weren’t just a uniform but a protection against letting whatever was out there, in.
We’d snuck out before, drank warm beer, stole our fathers’ Playboys, but never had we swam in the forbidden waters. Never had we thought it a sign of rebellion worth pursuing. Tonight, still, it was not rebellion that drove us, but heroism, mystery, and childish curiosity.
James pulled his shoes off, and touched his toes to the water, as though testing it. Nelson had come only after repeated flashings into his bedroom window, his eyes heavy and black underneath. He came through the front door, not down the terrace as usual; his parents hadn’t left their room in days, he’d said. He had no need to hide.
Randy pulled his shirt off, his shoes kicked to the side, his socks bunched up on the ground looking like soft rocks in the darkness.
I stood fully clothed, my goggles bouncing against my pants from the slight shake of my body. The night was warm. I was the only one who had brought regular goggles. The thought of the dirty water, tainted, intruding into my nostrils made me gag, and I thought I would be sick on the shore, even before there was anything to see.
James was the first in the water, the first in everything, the idea man, the reason we were here. The bodies couldn’t really be to blame because, without James, we’d still be in our beds at home—Nelson in his too quiet house and me in my bed with a comic book, Randy doing the same in his.
James ran back after the first wave hit him, a small smack at his shins that splashed up on his chest.
“It’s not too cold,” he called, his skin looking eerily blue without any bright lights around, like he too was being pulled from beneath the surface.
Soon I was the only one on the shore. I’d kicked off my shoes and moved so my feet were in the water, my toes wiggling into the mush of earth beneath them.
James and Randy took turns diving down, the water shallow so that they could wave their fingertips above the surface while they stood on tiptoe.
“We’re going out further,” James called, the sound seeming further away than they were, Randy and Nelson saying nothing but swimming after him.
A single light on the dock above our heads swayed and spread its light like a drunken moon bobbing on the water. I could just make out the shapes of limbs, the origin of the splashes. I stepped in up to my thighs, the water warm and nice, the lake in late August like a bath, my pants billowing out around my skinny legs.
They moved out of reach of the lamp’s light, and I was left alone in the water, wading and waiting, now up to my chest. I imagined them finding something, a body, pulling it to shore. What would we do then? How would we turn it in without our parent’s wrath, the town frowning on our late night escapade?
They were playing now, the echoes of Marco, Polo as steady as the water on the rocks. And then only the Marcos, the at first calm calls and then the frantic, cracked voice, a mix of Nelson and Randy, and nothing in return.
I felt myself swimming though I know I made no decision to. I reached Nelson as he came up for air and dove back down, his foot jamming into my chin, my goggles almost knocked off.
“We lost James,” Randy said on his next breath, his masked eyes back in the water, his body floating on top as though lifeless. Everything was an outline, the air too dark to give anything full shape. “He went down and didn’t come up,” he finished when he resurfaced.
I put my goggles on and lowered my head into the water, my hand plugging my nose. The water was impenetrable. The darkness looked like the swirls in my mom’s coffee when she added her cream, except darker and scarier and more empty. Everything that brushed my arm could have been James, or a fish, or another body waiting to be found.
After what had to be at least five minutes, I started to panic. Nelson was crying. Randy floated on his back to catch his breath. My side was starting to hurt. I dove down once more, not bothering to plug my nose. My clothes made me heavy and clumsy. I flailed my arms around me under water. I went deeper and spun some more. I felt a hand, and then an arm, and then a shoulder. I didn’t know which way was up, but I grabbed on to what I hoped was James and kicked my legs, my entire body feeling as though it would explode before I could reach the surface, my lungs burning. Even more than saving James, I wanted to get to the top before my body sucked in, before I was forced to drink in the darkness around me.
“I got him!” I called when I broke through, the air feeling too cold on my face so that my first breath was short and left me gasping.
Randy flailed himself off his back and helped me paddle to shore. James’ body wasn’t purple but felt as though it were a sack full of water. Randy and I lugged him up out of the lake. I noticed his arms and legs bleeding where we cut him against the rocks. The rain was gone now, but I wished it would come back, wash away the blood and dirt that made James look like some sort of creature from the water.
His stomach looked bloated and I pushed on it out of instinct, thinking it would deflate like a balloon. Water dribbled out of his mouth, his eyes partly open and showing only the whites. Nobody knew what to do without him there to tell us.
“Go get somebody.” I screamed it, my voice shrill and girly, not authoritative and confident. “Nelson, go!”
He stared at me wide-eyed but then scrambled to his feet, leaving his bike and running.
Randy and I sat there and waited and stared at the bobbing light turning James’ skin orange.
They closed the dock and the boardwalk for a week to revamp it, to draw the residents back to that part of town. Two more bodies were found, but we disbanded The Watch and didn’t follow the news. James came home from the hospital on the day they found the last one. None of us visited him. Nelson’s parents had put their house on the market and already moved him to his grandmother’s in Melville, an hour away.
Randy and I saw each other at church, and sometimes outside when we went out, but we didn’t say much. There was nothing to say.
I walked down the boulevard the day before school started back, for the grand reopening of The Walk. The boats had, for the most part, cleared out, the sails pulled down on the ones that were left. There was no breeze, no real ripple in the water. The arcade lights were fixed but the ski ball machine was now broken and I spent the afternoon wasting tokens on two-ball games.
I couldn’t imagine starting junior high, walking into those halls alone, the space full but unknown. James and I had planned on walking together, entering those doors with practiced smiles. He’d told me to make mine look more genuine, less rehearsed, to try more of a smirk, but with charm.
I stopped at James’ on the way home and stood outside. His window was open. I started to call up to him, but I’d heard he couldn’t hear anything or respond. That he’d spent too long under the murky water to come up whole. When the ambulance arrived and they started pumping his chest, breathing into his mouth, I remembered I could have done that, could have started something that would have helped. But his lips had been slimy with spit and murk, curled at one side like our practice grins, and Randy had been vomiting behind me on the rocks and crying, and there’d been no one there to remind me of what I knew.
I wondered if he’d seen something under there that made him gasp, forced him to fill his lungs with what too many that summer had. If he—we—had been what the others had been, stupid kids too curious for our own good. If there was no evil-doer, no killer dropping bodies to the bottom.
The investigation had died down. It was to go down in history as just one of those summers, one of those freak chains of events that was never to be explained. The air didn’t smell of salt or fish like it sometimes did in the height of summer. The leaves were still green but some had fallen already, as though they couldn’t wait.