This is a sample of a story from "The Stones of Riverton," a collection of linked stories published by Down East Books. The stories are inspired by cemetery markers in a small Maine town.
The Lord’s Child
When I think back to that day, I can’t help but consider the “what-ifs.” What if it had been raining that morning or if one of the three of us had been sick or stuck to home due to some parental demand. What if we’d gone to a different swimming hole or had a flat tire on the way. It’s stupid to consider any of that. It happened, and there’s no way to undo it. Even after twenty years, the images are only a little faded. It’s like a watercolor now, with each moment bleeding into the next. Until the one moment where everything becomes brutally sharp.
That day, the one that moved us from childhood to the other side of it, had started as our summers always had since we’d been old enough to run without a hand to control us. School had ended for the year and we were like escapees the way we pedaled our bikes through town, weaving around honking cars and startled shoppers. We laughed and waved back but kept pedaling until we got to the mill road where we dropped our bikes and ran.
Our skinny legs were like windmills, like pistons the way they pounded the field and sent rabbits and rodents and all kinds of bugs flying and jumping to clear the way. It was the freedom that let us run like that, freedom from school mostly but also from time. Hot summer days stretched out as far as we could see, and we raced into them, molting our shirts and our pants and our sneakers, tripping over each other, ignoring the stumps of rye grass that stabbed at the bottoms of our feet and caught in the clefts of our toes. We were free and still years away from working the fields, or the woods, or the mill with its whistle that told folk when to wake and when to eat. But that day our only job was to cannonball off the ledge into our favorite swimming hole, to be the first to scream up at the sky and claim the rights of “Boss” for the summer.
Because I had grown some over the winter, I was a whole leg-length ahead of Ricky who was two strides ahead of Mavi who was swearing at a pant leg that wouldn’t let go. Her long orange curls were stuck to her freckled face, and she kept flicking her head so she could see. She was cursing in that way she always did: loud and with no apology. She cursed the pants and us and even her mother until she finally rolled on the ground and kicked the “stupid-ass, pig-fucking, shit-sucking” pants off.
By the time we got to the river, Mavi was way behind. She was a strong girl, usually the one in front, but she hadn’t grown as much as Ricky and me, hadn’t developed the lengthy stride that had been gifted to us seemingly overnight. I could still hear her swearing even from up front, mostly swearing at us by then, something about how she’d still be the boss no matter what, and how she’d beat the crap out of us if we thought different. I knew that last part to be the God’s honest truth. She was a far better scrapper than us boys, and she never shied away from proving it with fists and even feet, if need be.
I got to the bank first and caught the edge with the toes of my right foot, pushing off and launching high, pulling my legs into a full tuck, throwing my head back and screaming up at the sky, “I’m the Boss!” The air—God, I can feel it still, so warm and clean—poured through my hair and over my skin and I catapulted into it, feeling winter and school and parents peel off me like dead leaves or old skin. It was like that for three perfect seconds, just the way it’s supposed to be for me and my two best friends on the first day of our tenth summer. I remember those seconds well, maybe because they were the last good ones of that summer. They felt longer than the bulk of all the seconds that had led up to them, as if the wind and the sun and the shedding of winter held nearly as much time as the winter itself. I can see myself now from the outside, smiling and so full of possibility, a watercolor-memory of a happy day.
But it’s the next second that altered that. I looked down. and then I was out of the tuck, pedaling backward, trying to move against the air, trying to reverse my fall and crawl back over all those seconds so I wouldn’t connect with the pale-blue fleshy thing that floated right there, right in the middle of our favorite swimming hole, in the exact spot where I was about to be.
At this point, my memories are in pieces, like snapshots separated by blackness.
-I’m in the water. The body is next to me, drifting close. I kick at it and it its gives in like soft dough.
-Its head tilts and a sheet of dark hair parts exposing one white eye that bulges through blue and veiny skin.
-I freeze with fear and sink. My body has forgotten how to work. The air comes out of me in tiny bubbles.
-A hand grabs my wrist and yanks until my foot is freed from a tree limb at the bottom.
-I’m lying on the large rock at the edge of the river where Ricky has pulled me. I’m spitting out water and sucking in air.
-Mavi is above us on the bank, horrified, staring out at the small body with one leg tethered by the branches of a fallen tree.
-Then she’s gone, running up to the mill for help.
And that’s all I remember until the next day.
Even after all this time, those snapshots are still there. Mavi remembers more than me, although we rarely speak of it. I suppose we’ll keep remembering it until the day we stop remembering everything. For me, the images come back with no reason or warning. I’ll be doing some mundane task like mowing the field or splitting wood, and suddenly I’ll get a flash of it: the whitish eye looking out from under dark wet hair, or the blue arm that kept drifting back and forth with the current, or the stream of bubbles that came out of me while I could do nothing beyond watching them make a dotted trail to the surface. I can see it all, even when I’m trying not to.
It was a few days before we knew the identity of the body. We learned the sad truth when the three of us bought a Coke to share at Babs’ Luncheonette. There was a stack of the weekly paper, The Franklin Journal, next to the register. Mavi nearly dropped the unopened bottle when we saw it.
RETARDED BOY FOUND DEAD IN RIVER was the headline.
“Oh my god,” I said. “That body I kicked was Donnie Hickey.”
“And they called him retarded,” Mavi said. “That ain’t right.”
Even ten-year-old kids knew that “retarded” was a bad word to use for Donnie. “Special” was the one we’d been taught. But there it was in bold black ink, the very word that would have gotten my mouth slapped. The three of us went through our pockets and put together the fifteen cents we needed, and with the paper tucked into my shirt, I led the others back to my family’s farm and up into the woods to our treehouse. We spread the pages out on the weathered planks and read it together.
“Doesn’t that mean murder?” Ricky said when we got to the part that mentioned foul play.
“Can’t be,” Mavi said. “Who would wanna kill Donnie? He was just a little kid.”
Donnie had been two years older than us, but we understood Mavi’s meaning. He’d been like a five-year-old, the way he talked in partial words and giggled at pretty much everything. I tried to remember when I’d seen him last. He hadn’t been in school the past couple years, not since his folks had pulled him out. The last time was probably the Easter Egg Hunt at the church. I remembered him being there, because it was unusual for a Hickey to be at one of the church events. They didn’t come into town much, usually just stuck to themselves and the others from Happy Valley. But apparently his folks had thought he should experience some things that the valley didn’t offer, so they’d brought him in. He was the only one who hadn’t found a single egg that day, and it had made him sad which made some of us feel sad too. My dad had suggested that maybe I’d like to give him one of mine since I’d found so many. He was right to suggest it and I’d done it, although reluctantly.
“It says they won’t know for sure until they do that auto-p-sy thing,” I said. “It can’t be murder, though. Nobody’d kill Donnie.”
We read the whole story again, and by the end it seemed that maybe someone had.