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Stories

Rising Bodies

Spring has arrived, and on its tails we spot daisies, rain showers, and dead bodies floating to the surface. That is, if you’re a rather unlucky girl with an eye for corpses. New fiction by Dennis Mahoney.

Spring popped like soda cans. Smells emerged: dirt, water, embryonic mold. People underdressed. No one felt as naked as they ought to be. Women showered, lingered in their mirrors, brushing, rinsing, comfortable and nude. Babies scoffed at diapers. Fathers tumbled after them, wishing they remembered how it was when nothing was embarrassing.

Discarded Christmas trees, buried at the curbs of squat suburban houses, reappeared like skeletons in melt. Snow gave way to dirt gave way to junk. Yellow-orange trucks with tanks and spinning brushes scoured streets and gutters, swallowed trash, buffed the roads a clean, dusty gray. Nearly everyone forgot how permanent and endless winter had seemed a month before.

Greg was underwater. It was 10 a.m. on Saturday, March 23rd, when 8-year-old Alicia Tool saw his old, rubber boot bobbing in the water. His body was upside-down. The reservoir had bubbled in the thaw and Greg McEwan, friendless resident of 7 Water Way, had risen from the bottom, buoyed by a forked, oaken log, his ankle fitted in the crook. At first Alicia thought the boot was just a boot, the log an ordinary log, and Greg McEwan’s body a peculiar trick of light beneath the water. Even before she felt the dumb, mirrored sadness of the body, she was crying. Then she ran for home.

The log collided with a floe. The ankle jostled loose. Greg McEwan sank a second time to where he’d first intended, having risen accidentally to show what he had done.

His body wasn’t found until the dawn of April Fool’s. When they finally dragged him up, the boatman at the helm had just declared, ‘The biggest fish I ever caught was 37 pounds.’ On seeing what the nets had grabbed, he quietly removed his hat. He slapped it on his knee. ‘Jesus Christ,’ he said. ‘I wish I hadn’t said that.’


* * *


The search began the morning of the sighting. Nobody was certain it was true. With bodies, though, you beat the drum. Alicia Tool was waiting with her mother at the reservoir when Sheriff Riddle and a somber pair of deputies arrived. Riddle sent the deputies to scan along the shore, warning that the footing wasn’t good. ‘Keep a berth,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to send you back with frozen feet. And listen. If you see it, don’t go shouting up the valley there’s a body in the water.’ The deputies descended.

Riddle met Alicia and her mother up the hill. Alicia Tool was little, almost frail. The sockets of her eyes were dented in her face, as if with hammers. Her mother’s face was tired, rubbed around the edges. She was pretty in the way of certain paintings. In the colors, in the proper kind of light, there were subtleties that brought it all together.

Sheriff Riddle, 6-foot-4, immense, convinced Alicia he was small enough to trust. He introduced himself. He squatted down and smiled. She could look him in the eye. Alicia told him what she’d seen. She cried again on mentioning the boot. Riddle wondered. Had the boot been on a body? Where’d the body gone? Who was unaccounted for?


* * *


The deputies, frequently mistaken for a couple of brothers who despised one another, stood along the water’s edge, staring at the reservoir. Their uniforms were sandy beige, trimmed with black and white: the color of geese. Their hair was short. Their hands were scrubbed red. Tom and Dick. Tom was better with drunks and teens—there wasn’t a high-school kid alive who’d listen to a Deputy Dick. Names aside, Dick was Tom’s superior. Neither man, however, was adroit at fishing bodies out of water. Nor, it seemed, at finding them.

When Riddle finished talking to the girl, her mother brought her up the hill. She didn’t want Alicia seeing corpses. She didn’t want to see a corpse herself. They waited near the cars, backs toward the water, facing off toward the woods. They didn’t turn when Deputy Tom yelled up to Riddle, ‘I don’t see a thing!’

Deputy Dick was unperturbed. ‘You ain’t looking right,’ he said.

‘How many bodies you seen today?’ said Tom.

‘None.’

‘That’s what I’m saying.’

‘At least I’m looking right.’ The men were side by side, staring off identically, frozen with inertia.


* * *


Weeks before his body floated up, Greg McEwan woke and made the bed. His bones ached, more than cold. He felt his hair. It hovered on his head, resisted combs and brushes, vanished in the way a fog will disappear beneath a warm, morning sun. A normal dawn for Greg McEwan: oats and maple, water, coffee. Staring at the wall. The sound of creaking wood. The ricochet of joints. Agony is nothing going on.

For days he’d had a vision. Not a dream, not a memory. A bright, recurring nightmare in the middle of the day. He’d be standing wide-awake, in the shower, at the fridge, and suddenly he’d see it. He wouldn’t really see it, but he knew that it was happening. He saw it like you see the snow, even with the curtains drawn. Throngs of happy children circling his legs, brightly colored flowers in their fists. When he smiled—and he couldn’t help but smile—all the children wilted, falling into mulch, flowers burning colors in their small, dead hands.

Greg McEwan rose, fearing that his vision would return. Only sleep deterred it, but he couldn’t sleep all day. He rummaged through a box marked ‘KAREN’ with a marker. He found her purple diary, blew away the dust, and opened to the final page: February 7, 1972.

‘Spring is eating winter,’ she had written. She had died the following day, thirty years before. Reading now, he realized that he didn’t know her voice. He’d long forgotten her face and hands, her smell, the way her writing slanted backward. Now the words themselves were written by a stranger, someone he had never known, her voice as unfamiliar as a lie. He knew that he had loved her, but he couldn’t remember why.

He brewed a pot of coffee, smoked a yellow cigarette, and wrote a line beneath the closing entry of her diary. Then he signed his name. He drank the pot of coffee, grabbed his rubber boots, and shut the door behind him. On the table, near the ashes, he left the diary open.


* * *


Sheriff Riddle coughed. He spat in the water, where his mucous floated like a pod.

‘What’s the matter with you?’ Deputy Tom had rarely seen his boss in any kind of compromise.

‘Nothing,’ Riddle said. ‘It’s tar.’

The deputy examined each of Riddle’s nostrils, keen to see if were he was being had. ‘Tar? What you snort it?’

‘Cigarettes.’

‘They putting tar in cigarettes?’

Riddle coughed again. He turned toward the cars. Alicia and her mother leaned against the bumper of his cruiser. They spoke in voices feathery enough to disappear entirely. ‘Good looking woman,’ Tom said. ‘Maybe you should talk to her.’ He nudged the Sheriff with his elbow.

Riddle felt affection for his deputy, even as he felt an urge to hit him in the stomach. Riddle had lost a wife a year before. ‘Lost my wife to cancer,’ Riddle would say, referring to her lover with whatever came to mind. ‘Lost my wife to polio. Lost my wife to rabid, howling wolves.’ What mattered was he lost her.

Lately Tom had egged him on. ‘Finish up divorcing her and find yourself another one,’ he’d say. ‘It isn’t any point in being lonely all the time.’

Riddle couldn’t even take the wedding band off his finger. He’d tried it once and found the ring was stuck. The following he day he woke, ring intact, so hungover he forgot he even tried. He never tried again.

‘She’s divorced,’ said Deputy Tom.

‘I know she is,’ said Riddle. ‘It isn’t her I’m looking at.’

‘You think the girl is lying?’

‘No. I’m worried that she isn’t.’

‘We’ll find it,’ Tom said. ‘There’s no way out of this reservoir.’

‘It’s not the body I’m worried about.’

‘You’re worried about the girl.’

Riddle coughed again. He wiped his hand across a handkerchief and lit another cigarette. He turned toward the water.

‘Keep coughing tar,’ Tom said, ‘I’ll have you fill that goddamn pothole out front of my house.’

‘Back to looking,’ Riddle said.


* * *


Sheriff Riddle walked up the hill. Alicia and her mother heard him coming. He was heavy, and his feet were leaving divots in the sod. He rested for a second, checked the pines around the reservoir. They trembled in the breeze. He tried to slow his breath. Anything could wind him.

‘Nothing yet,’ he said. ‘We plan to keep on looking.’

‘Sheriff Riddle?’ said Alicia. ‘I didn’t make it up.’

‘I know it,’ Riddle said. He squatted on his heels. ‘How you holding up?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean it must have scared you,’ Riddle said. ‘I’ve seen a lot of bodies, and they scare me every time.’

‘No,’ Alicia said. ‘I wasn’t scared.’

‘Sad?’ he said.

Yes, Alicia nodded. Sad. Alicia’s mother smiled, but the word was in the corners of her mouth, hidden in the lines of early middle-30s. She leaned toward the Sheriff, breathing out toward him. She’d seen a hundred men act kindly to Alicia, wanting to impress her, and she knew when it was real. She didn’t see it often. Neither did Alicia.

‘You did the right thing,’ Riddle said. He’d finally ascertained that this, most of all, was why the girl was worried. More than bodies, more than death, Alicia was afraid of causing trouble. Alicia was relieved. Riddle looked at her. If any of her features bore resemblance to her father, it must have been the eyes. The smile was her mother’s.

Riddle coughed, embarrassed by a sudden gout. He caught it in his handkerchief. Alicia’s mother studied him.

‘That’s a lot of phlegm,’ she said.

Mom.

Her mother blushed. ‘I’m sorry. I’m a nurse,’ she said to Riddle. ‘I only meant you’re coughing up a lot.’

Riddle sighed. He looked toward the water. ‘Spring coughs up a lot of things,’ he said.


* * *


Alicia waited in the car.

‘She’s a good girl,’ Riddle said.

‘I hope she isn’t lying,’ said her mother. ‘Then again, I hope she is.’

‘I know she isn’t lying,’ Riddle said. ‘But maybe what she saw was something else.’

‘You think it wasn’t a body?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘I think it was,’ she said. ‘Something here—I don’t know what. The water. Like it knows.’

Further up the reservoir, ice cracked like lightning. Sun was bearing down, breaking up the surface. Half of it was white. The other half was swirling black. The reservoir was moving.

‘Have any kids?’ He caught her eye. It flickered on his wedding band.

‘No,’ he said. ‘I lost my wife a year ago.’

‘To what?’

‘To someone better.’

‘Then we know it’s not my ex,’ she said.

He laughed, and coughed, and coughed some more, until his face was bruising from the struggle.

‘Here,’ she said. She handed him a card. ‘I want you to see me about that cough.’

‘Thanks,’ he said. He took the card. ‘Really, though. It’s nothing. It’ll pass.’

‘It might,’ she said. ‘But probably not.’


* * *


Deputy Tom was certain something mystical was happening. Alicia Tool had passed the water just in time to see the body. ‘Couldn’t have been an accident,’ he said. ‘And on the very day your cough gets worse, you happen to meet a pretty, single nurse?’ Riddle wasn’t having it.

But later in the day, when Greg McEwan’s sister called, even Sheriff Riddle had a feeling.

‘This is Lane McEwan, out in Arkansas,’ she said. Her voice was like a jelly. It quavered on the line. ‘My brother is Greg McEwan.’

‘Out on Water Way?’

‘Yes,’ she said, surprised. ‘That’s right.’

‘What seems to be the trouble?’

‘Well. I haven’t heard from Greg in weeks,’ she said. ‘He isn’t much for phones, but now he doesn’t answer.’

‘How long exactly, would you say?’

‘February. Christmas. I don’t know. We aren’t close. I’m sure I’m being silly. But I’ve called a dozen times and nothing seems to raise him.’

‘I’d be happy to check on him.’

‘Would you really?’

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘I’m a bad sister,’ she said abruptly.

‘You’re good to call,’ he said.

He took her information. Then he told her not to worry. He instantly regretted saying anything at all.


* * *


Riddle drove his cruiser out to 7 Water Way. He parked along the road, an empty ribbon of pavement on the eastern edge of Waterbury reservoir: a service road that no one serviced. Greg McEwan’s cabin tilted in the trees, like something even termites had abandoned.

Riddle knocked. No one came. He found the door was open, called hello, and went inside. The place was small and empty. In the corner was a bed. Against the wall, a coffee pot was stationed on a thick, iron stove. Both were cold. An empty frame hung beside the window. He didn’t see a bathroom. In the center were a table and a chair. Riddle lit a cigarette and stood above the diary.

‘Spring is eating winter,’ he read. Below it, in a rougher hand: ‘Winter ate spring.’

Riddle coughed and caught his breath. His cigarette was trembling, so he crushed it in the tray. A thin line of smoke rose and whispered off. He noticed that his cigarette was lying next to Greg’s. He stood and shut the diary. He looked around the room.

‘I’m sick of being sick,’ he thought. He opened up his wallet, touched the corner of her card, and set his mind to making an appointment.


* * *


Deputies Dick and Tom remained. The reservoir was dark beneath a cloud. The empty spots, between the chunks of ice, were bottomless, impenetrable. Tom and Dick suspected they were staring at the top of something deeper than a reservoir. Neither of them said it. Hidden underwater, in the full dark cold, Greg McEwan’s body drew attention in a way he’d never known when he was living.

‘You don’t even know what you’re looking for,’ said Deputy Dick.

‘I’m looking for a body.’

‘You don’t know what you’re looking for.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘That body could float up right in front of us,’ said Deputy Dick. ‘You wouldn’t even know what you were looking at.’

‘And you would?’

‘I’d know enough to quit whistling.’

Tom quit whistling. The final note extended over the water, like a ghost.

‘Listen to me,’ said Dick. ‘We’re looking for a body. Understand?’

‘Shit,’ said Tom. ‘I thought we were looking for sunken treasure.’

‘Now you’ve got it. Now you’re looking right.’