Back then the pond looked okay to swim in, and it never really was, but we still did, me and the other boys. The ice would melt in the springtime and on a day when the sun came out and there wasn’t a trace of snow left, we would all gather around. We didn’t even have to say it, we just knew we would. All the boys in the neighborhood, it was like the pond was calling to us. The older ones would tow the younger ones along, kicking and screaming—they’d heard the stories.
We would gather around at the edges, looking down and puffing our chests out. Once they got there the younger ones wouldn’t cry anymore—they knew what would happen if they did, and nobody wanted to get pushed in. Some boys would hum to themselves but the others hated that because we thought it might call them up from underwater. Whoever they were. We sometimes felt their strong fingers on our calves, when we let ourselves wade up to our necks. The older boys said to never go far enough that you can’t touch the ground anymore. Our mothers forbade us from doing it at all. The factory was pouring something in the water that made your skin feel slick and sticky afterwards.
But then that summer there was a boy called Jack Hadley. He didn’t believe in the stories. His mother and little sister were making dinner at home while he went out exploring. His sister called him “Jackie” but he’d pinch her if she did it in front of anyone else. Jack liked swimming and when he showed up at the pond, one of the boys dared him to go first. He’d never been in before. He was a new kid trying to prove himself.
We were impressed. He didn’t even wince from the cold water, and he wasn’t ashamed to strip to his boxers in front of everyone. He had one curly hair on his chest, and was skinny enough that you could see his ribs. He went calf-high, knee-high, waist-high. His legs looked like bendy straws. Nobody had ever been that far into the pond alone. By now you were supposed to call on someone else to join, and he would call another, until all of you were in. But Jackie was alone. He pushed a floating can aside and pretended to smoke on one of the reeds for our entertainment.
“What do you all look so scared for?”
He twisted a reed into a gun and aimed it at my chest. We locked eyes. There was silence.
He pretended to shoot me and even though I wished I hadn’t, I jumped. A bird flew away with a twittering disapproval. I felt the others’ eyes on me. I was torn between telling him not to go any further, and proving that I didn’t care about him, didn’t care about the gun or any of it. I wasn’t a baby.
“I dare you to go out to your neck”. I regretted the words as soon as I said them because his expression had already accepted the dare before he could. All the boys bit their breaths back. He walked backwards, facing me. He went elbow-deep, nipple-deep, shoulder-deep. He was going too fast. The pond looked like it was breathing hard. Like a woman in porn. Each of us started to feel a shard of ice burrow deep into our hearts.
The word burst out of the boy beside me.
I echoed it with my own weak “stop,” as another step had him up to his ears.
Jackie started laughing, and was still laughing when the pond water started to seep into his mouth. His mouth got bigger and bigger, like his jaw was unhinged. Like a reverse fountain, like pulling a plug. His mouth was still laughing when his eyes started to panic. When his face changed colour. His mouth was wide when the water went up his nose and poured into his ears. Then he disappeared with a little pop, leaving a pretend reed-gun behind.
Jackie’s mom and sister moved away. They made a grave for him but the truth is nobody took the body out of the pond. Nobody could dare to drag along the bottom to see what’s in there. It took them a week to get us to even admit that we’d seen Jack the day he went missing. I told my Mother over and over that I was the one who killed Jack but when I tried to speak my voice collapsed. No sound came out. My mother begged me to speak. Couldn’t I become a little clearer? Couldn’t I just tell her somehow what happened? Couldn’t I stop being so angry all the time?
When winter fell I went back to the pond for the first time. I walked out onto the ice, cleared a patch of snow and looked down. I could see straight to the bottom through the green murk. I lay on my stomach and finally spoke, but all the words that came out were not what I wanted to say. I heard myself, and realised I couldn’t connect a meaning to a word anymore. When I spoke, sentences came out like [apple] snow. Machine. I. quiver. [HELP] no less than . golf . falling. The more I spoke the less sense it made. The more I spoke the more I tasted blood.
Jackie floated up to the surface eventually, like I’d known he would, and we lay face to face, staring at each other through the ice. His skin was bloated and his hair moved like the weeds at the bottom of the pond. His mouth was still unhinged in a grotesque smile. A beer label had attached itself to his thigh. He was so beautiful. And marred. I pressed myself against the ice and hoped to warm it enough that I would sink through. They found me almost frozen and unconscious, with raw knuckles from trying to punch my way through to him. They told my Mother I’d been in a fight. When I spoke, it was with someone else’s voice.
Artwork by Rosanna Jones “Body Part II”