A short story written for my creative writing course in 2005. Request permission to reprint through the contact page.
Keeping silent proved to be more difficult than I thought possible. Really, how difficult can it be to say nothing. I didn’t realize then, as I do now, that my conscience is a strong influence that will not be suppressed. Believe me I tried to ignore it.
The gusting wind blew restlessly, strong in one direction, then in another, as Jessie and I walked to the park to meet Wally. Usually, on a Saturday afternoon, there were kids dangling all over the dome shaped monkey bars, some having a secret club meeting at the top. Parents would be pushing their preschoolers on the kiddie swings, toting strollers with babies as well. A group game of ground tag would be ensuing on the play equipment. But, today it was empty, likely due to the sharp, biting wind. I noticed there were numerous weeds, dandelions, clover, and twitch grass that had cropped up all over the park since I’d last been there. Across the park, we could see Wally twisting himself back and forth on the swing, making a rocking semi-circle with his body. He occasionally kicked at the dirt, abruptly jerking the chain links of the swing chaotically. He was staring at his feet, his fitted black ball cap covering his eyes. We stopped a few feet from him and stood in awkward silence. My hair blew furtively, and my efforts to get it under control were futile, as another sudden gust would upset it.
“Uhh, umm,” Jessie cleared her throat.
Wally startled. “Uh, hi. Are…are we all still in agreement?” He averted his eyes to stare at the dirt again, his hands firmly tucked in his jean pockets, tightly clenched.
“It could ruin our reputations,” whispered Jessie, covering her mouth with her hand, eyes wide.
“For those of us who have one,” he said sarcastically, while he gave a harsh kick at the dirt. “I’ve been thinking about it alot, and I think it’s for the best,” he continued. “No one else knows but us. No one else has to ever know what really happened.”
Jessie nodded in agreement, glancing around as she had been ever since we had arrived at the park. I knew she was concerned with who might be seeing us with Wally. He wasn’t very popular.
The wind settled momentarily, then gusted throwing my hair in every direction. I scooped it back with my hands, then held it in one hand firmly. With a knot in my chest and my heart thumping I blurted, “I keep seeing his face.” They both turned their eyes directly on me for the first time and looked at me intensely. A wisp of hair broke free, and it withstood my efforts to recapture it.
“No one will understand,” Jessie said emphatically. “We’ll be branded murderers.”
“I’ll be assumed guilty, if we tell. Nothing will happen to you girls. Just me.”
Fighting tears I said, “I don’t want anyone to know either. It’s too terrible. I just feel so bad about the whole thing.” I dropped my hair. Instantly, it was wild again, flying in my face without reprieve.
Wally stood and stuck his finger in my face saying, “If you tell, anyone, it will be worse for you. I can guarantee that!” He had stated this slowly and deliberately, poking me in the chest.
Even though Wally was acting threatening, I wasn’t afraid of him. He was just upset. I felt bad for him too, and I didn’t want to hurt anyone else. I sighed deeply, nodding slightly.
“Good,” he said with relief. “See ya around. Best we don’t talk unless necessary,” he added over his shoulder. He kicked at the overgrowth of weeds and wild plants in his path as he trudged away. The long stems caught on the cuffs of his pants, pulling at them.
At school, Monday morning, the halls were buzzing with the newest gossip. I slipped to my locker, avoiding eye contact with those I passed. My hands were numb and cold despite the warmth of the day. The inside of my stomach was churning, empty though, as my appetite was lacking.
“Hey, Trish, where were you Friday night?”
My gut tightened like a vice, as I turned to face Tracey Fischer. Even though we had lockers side by side she rarely bothered to lower herself to speak to me, so this took me off guard. “Uh, I uh,…, I was tired after work, so, I uh, went home.”
“Bummer. You missed a great dance.” With an excited glint in her eye, she added, “You know that guy who disappeared – Andrew. They’re going to dredge the lake for his body.”
“Oh,” I said, knowing I was turning white as a sheet.
“Everyone’s saying somebody killed him. Do you think it could be true?”
“I don’t know, maybe,” I said vaguely.
“See, ya later,” she said as she turned away from me abruptly to greet her friends, and I took the opportunity to slip away. Class was no better. Everyone was fixated on the disappearance of Andrew – even if they didn’t know him.
My eyes were glued to the back of Brent’s head as I waited for class to start. I didn’t get my dance with Brent, I thought with a twinge of disappointment. This disappointment flushed to shame as I reminded myself that he was Andrew’s best friend. What a selfish thought. He must be terribly upset. I didn’t know Brent very well, but I had noticed that he was nice to everybody. All around him, people were asking him questions about Andrew. I wanted to disappear.
My mind became tuned to the hum of the aquarium in the Science classroom, tuning out the conversation around me. The hum occasionally intensified as the motor worked harder to filter the accumulation of dirt and excrement in the tank. The fish were pecking at the surface, looking for any bit of food they could find. Even after just being fed they flitted around nipping and pecking for any little morsel. The nausea rose in me as I stared at the floating plants in the tank. I jumped up from my seat and left the room swiftly. I would think of an explanation later.
In the washroom, I sat down on a toilet in a stall with the door bolted and let myself cry. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I couldn’t sleep because Andrew’s face haunted me every time I closed my eyes. Panic stricken, coughing, sputtering, he sunk under the lake’s surface and resurfaced again and again. Too far to reach in time. Screaming and gasping for air. Tangled in the weeds. In his wet, heavy clothes. Too drunk to swim.
A few days earlier on the day of the dance, Jessie and I had been paired with Brent and Andrew to do group work in fourth period History class. I hadn’t talked to either of them until then, but I knew who they were. We had just started grade nine a few weeks ago, and I wasn’t very forward. I had decided that Andrew had good hair. There was natural curl that was medium length, not long enough to be curly, but long enough to be wavey. It was several shades of sun-bleached blonde. His whole face lit up when he smiled. I had even noticed the slightly chipped front tooth before Jessie asked about it, and he told her it was an old hockey injury. He had a vibrant laugh and seemed to chuckle after everything he said.
“You girls going to the dance?” Andrew asked, with a tinge of excitement, leaning forward on his chair.
“Yeah, after work,” Jessie chimed. “We both just started working at the mall.”She was sitting back, casually, with one leg crossed over the other. Her foot was bobbing rapidly, and her words flew out at great speed.
“Cool,” he said, raising his eyebrows and widening his eyes. “Brenty Boy has to work too. He’s going to miss the pre-dance fun,” Andrew laughed heartily as he kicked Brent’s foot under the desks. Brent gave him a kick back, and Andrew winced with a fake chuckle.
“What do you mean?” Jessie asked, her interest was piqued with the suggestion of something mischievous.
“This guy I know is getting me a 46er of vodka,” he said with enthusiasm, eyes twinkling.
“Oh yeah,” Jessie said, trying to sound cool, even though she was oblivious to the significance of it’s size.
“Did you sign in late?” Brent directed toward me. I had been watching Andrew talk. He had such a vibrant manner of speaking that was appealing – so full of excitement for life. Brent’s question brought me back to reality.
“Yeah, we signed in for nine-thirty,” I answered.
“Save me a dance,” he said sincerely, his statement interrupted by the end of day bell.
As they gathered their books and haphazardly pushed the desks back into their single-file row positions, Andrew added with a smirk, “Save me one too girls.” He slung his backpack over his shoulder and zipped out of the room behind Brent. I was definitely going to dance with this guy.
After my bout of sickness in the washroom, I went to the pay phone to call Jessie and Wally. Neither was at school, and I was ill with the threat of discovery. I needed to talk to them – there was no one else. There was no answer at Jessie’s, and the phone rang several times before Wally answered. “Hello,” he said dully.
“Hi, it’s Trisha.”
“Did you hear about the lake?” I asked in a hushed tone because I didn’t want the girl on the phone next to me to hear.
“I heard. It’s nothing to worry about. Nobody knows anything.”
“They know someone was getting him a 46er.”
“Someone, not me.”
“I overheard someone say it was you.”
“They’re all speculating. They don’t know for sure. Just stay quiet.”
After hanging up the phone, I dashed through the double doors leading to the stairwell. I ducked under the stairs into the dark and held my breath, willing away the tears. My eyes watered and I dabbed them carefully with the sleeve of my sweater. I was being careful not to smudge my makeup. An occasional sob escaped, despite my efforts to cover my mouth and hold it in. These moments were becoming more frequent.
At supper that night, just before my mother served dessert, the phone rang. My mother started toward the phone, then stopped and said the machine could get it. She didn’t want to interrupt family time. As she cut the cake, we heard, “Phyllis, it’s Mary. We just heard the boy’s been found. He was in the lake, just off the dock at the Point. He was all tangled in the weeds. Call me,” she blurted and there was a click.
“That’s terrible,” my mother said, as she placed a piece of cake in front of me.
I attempted to eat my dessert. The white whipped topping was deceptively appealing, but as my first bite revealed, the layers underneath were terrible. Whatever had gone wrong in the cooking, had created an unappetizing bitterness. I tried to swallow a bite, but it was sour in my mouth. I couldn’t swallow.
I tried calling Wally several times that evening. Jessie and I both felt uneasy not getting an answer at his house. That night I dreamed of weeds growing and crawling up the sides of my bed, wrapping themselves around my arms and legs. They were tightening and pulling me apart. Then I saw a glimpse of a still, lifeless face in the water, which I though was my own; but then the lake water rippled and when it settled I realized it wasn’t my reflection at all – it was Wally’s.
The next morning, at school, the halls were buzzing. “What’s new?” I thought. I made my way to my locker, avoiding the clusters of gossipers. While opening my combo lock someone abruptly grabbed my arm, scaring the crap out of me. It was only Jessie. I sighed in relief, but then noticed she was shaking and fighting tears. She pulled me through the double doors to the nearest stairwell and pulled me under the covered stairs. There was cleaning equipment stored there that hadn’t been used in a long time. Huddled behind the equipment, the stench of mildew was strong.
“Wally’s dead,” she cried, breaking into tears.
“What?” I said numbly.
“He hanged himself – in his room, last night. His parents came home and he had hanged himself in his room – with a hose.” She added this last detail with despair.
Just then we heard the doors open on the floor above and footsteps on the stairs. “He must have killed him. Why else would he kill himself?”
“Consumed with guilt,” the other responded.
“Got to be. It’s the only logical explanation. If it wasn’t his fault, he would have come forward before.” This last comment fading as they disappeared through the doors to the level one hall.
“I think we should tell the truth,” I said.
“After that?” she questioned in disbelief. “You think we should just throw ourselves to the vultures? No one is going to believe us now. They’ll all think the same thing.” I remained silent as she continued. “Just because he cracked, doesn’t mean we have to.”
“I know we didn’t really know him, but he seemed to be a nice guy.”
“I feel bad, but I don’t want to destroy my reputation.”
“Your reputation. Always your reputation.”
“Yours too,” Jessie retorted. “Listen, noone knows we were there. We’re in the clear.”
“My conscience isn’t.”
“Deal with it, Trisha. We’re not telling,” she said firmly, no longer crying. “Okay?” She repeated herself again when I didn’t answer.
“Okay,” I agreed with exasperation.
That night at the mall, I was wandering around the discount store while on my break. I looked up to see Brent browsing the same aisle. “Hi,” he said with a smirk.
“Hi,” I returned, uncomfortably. I’d been avoiding contact with him ever since the night of the dance. “How…how are you doing?”
He paused, taking a breath before answering, swallowing and looking around awkwardly. “I keep thinking that it wouldn’t have happened if I had been with him.”
“You can’t blame yourself. You didn’t know anything was going to happen.”
“We used to do everything together, but I got this job and couldn’t. Maybe if I hadn’t gotten the job…”
“I’m sorry, but that sounds ridiculous,” I interrupted. “You shouldn’t be blaming yourself.” My voice cracked with emotion and Brent looked at me quizzically. I swallowed hard and forced a smile.
“It’s all so overwhelming. Andrew and then Wally. Stuff like that doesn’t usually happen around her.”
“I still can’t believe it. Sometimes I feel angry at Andrew. Then at Wally. Why were they so stupid? If I’d been there, I could have prevented all this.”
“You don’t know that,” I whispered.
“You don’t know that.”
After an awkward moment of silence, he said lightly, “You didn’t come to the dance. I was looking for you.”
“Oh, I didn’t make it.”
“Well, don’t forget you still owe me one. See ya later.” He smiled as he turned and walked up the store aisle.
I made it through the days following Wally’s death in a numbed state. The second tragedy was too much for me. Like Brent, I was consumed by rationalizing my part in Andrew’s death, and now Wally’s death too. It wasn’t my fault, but it was my fault.
I ask myself how things would be different if I had gone to the dance, instead of with the guys who were feeling a little too good. I criticize myself for suggesting we go to the dock. In my thoughts, I chastize Andrew and Wally for horsing around. I ask myself why we didn’t get Andrew out the of water right after he fell in. We were just kidding when we wouldn’t help him climb the side of the ladderless dock. We didn’t mean for him to swim out further. That was his choice. The image I see of him in my mind, over and over again, struggling in the weeds, will haunt me forever. There were quiet bubbles on the surface after he slid into the blackness of the water, then silence. Jessie and I were holding each other and crying hysterically. Wally broke the 46er on the dock and repeated obscenities, over and over. After a few minutes that seemed like an eternity, Wally grabbed my arm.
“Let’s go. We have to get out of here. Now!” he urged.
“What are we going to do?” I asked, in a horrified daze.
“Nobody knows,” he said. “Let’s go!”
“We can’t just…” I started, but he cut me off.
“We can and we will,” he barked firmly. “Otherwise, we’ll be in trouble with the cops.”
“It’s okay Trisha,” Jessie prompted, assessing the situation with a new soberness. “We didn’t do it. He swam out himself. No one needs to know we were here.”
I realized what they were saying was true, and I didn’t want any trouble. It would be easy to walk away – or so I thought at the time.
Andrew’s funeral was first and everyone in our class would be there, so Jessie and I felt it would be suspicious if we didn’t go. We walked into the church in silence. Thankful it wasn’t going to be open casket, we slipped into a back row near the door, just in case we felt the need to bolt. There was a woman playing a piano softly in the background as people entered. It was a modern gospel church that had cushioned metal chairs and modern surroundings. After hymn singing and preaching, Brent got up to deliver the eulogy. This I hadn’t anticipated, but, it made perfect sense of course, as he was Andrew’s best friend. I couldn’t focus on his words. I kept seeing the dock, the weeds, Andrew struggling, and the still water after he went under and the bubbling stopped.
After Brent finished, the minister took his place at the pulpit. “This has been a tragedy for Andrew’s family, his friends, his hockey team, and his peers. His parents would like to allow some time for those who knew Andrew to speak about what it was like to know him. If you would like to say something, please come forward.”
At first noone moved, but then one guy from his hockey team got up and told a funny story about a hockey game. In one of their first games together, when they was just peewees, Andrew panicked and sat on the puck during a play and got his first penalty. After that there was another and another. People had so many little stories about the vibrancy of his life. Finally, there was a lull and the minister asked if there was anyone else who would like to speak. The sanctuary was quiet and his pause seemed eternal. I had been shifting nervously in my seat, such that Jessie was glancing at me periodically. My breathing increased as my heart thumped in my chest. As I slid forward in my seat, Jessie grabbed my arm. I turned my head and stared into her eyes. She loosened her grip, her eyes brimming with tears. Then I began walking to the front. No matter what people thought of me, Jessie, or Wally, the truth was long overdue.