A tire swing hung from an aging elm where Devin would push his younger brother Corey so high I could feel my stomach drop whenever I watched from our backyard one house away. Corey would pull the tire almost to their back door, steady it by grabbing the rope with both hands and lift himself into it, feet first, lingering like a gymnast doing a planche. Devin would burst from the house, grab the bottom of the tire and run forward, letting go as he ducked under it and then ran left toward the garage.
When I was in the sixth grade and Corey’s family lived in our neighborhood, every weekend my parents and I heard yelling from his house and racket from that garage at the back of the property; wood cracked, pipes clanged as though they were being beaten up by wrenches and cries became sobs. I imagined Corey on the floor of the garage, his legs and arms pulled in tight as if they could be retracted, the entirety of him to follow, his small, greasy father waiting a minute before he came out where I could watch him walk along the driveway toward the back door. Not long after, Corey would pull the tire swing that hung from a tree in their yard almost to their back door, steady it by grabbing the rope with both hands and lift himself into it, feet first, lingering like a gymnast doing a planche. Devin would burst from the house, grab the bottom of the tire and run forward, letting go as he ducked under it and then ran left toward the garage.
I’d stand against our lattice fence and peer between the slats, though, by mid-summer, they were overtaken by Virginia Creeper, which obscured my view. One of those vines corkscrewed out of the ground, climbed an elm planted long before I was born and got the tree in a stranglehold near the top, killing the leaves above it. In 1999, the year Corey drowned in Lake Darling, my father finally hired a tree service to take it down, limb by limb, until there was only the trunk, which the workmen chainsawed into sections until all that remained was a flat slab of wood, a body of water’s outline from above.
Early one summer evening, just past solstice, I heard moaning coming from that garage, stifled, breathy rumblings neither pleasure nor pain, a soundtrack to something horrible. My parents were at a dinner party, and I was restless, so I went outside, pushed myself up against the latticework that gave into my body and waited. A pale green tendril from the Virginia Creeper had grabbed onto the wood near my right hand; it was hard to believe that something so small and pliable could grow into a vine strong enough to take down a tree.
I waited. What I finally heard was an awful noise, a hole into which a boy could be pitched, deep water into which he could disappear. If you reached into a person and pulled out his heart, the sound, I believe, could not compare to it. But mosquitos were diving at my ankles, and gnats were flying around in waves. I couldn’t stand it.
I pulled away from the fence and headed toward our next door neighbor’s backyard where I walked along a hedgerow of cotoneaster toward a scruffy lilac, its white flowers gone to seed, near that garage. When I put my hand on the garage, I remembered how much the wood had rotted, frayed into splinters, a few I’d taken out of my fingers that summer.
The noise dwindled into breath, with voice barely audible beneath it. I stepped down into the gravel driveway that led to the garage, open as high as my knees, and bent down to look inside. It was dark except for a flashlight’s small beam trained on someone, though it wasn’t Corey. Corey was tall and narrow, lithe, his shoulders perhaps no broader than mine, so that the gray T-shirts he always wore were loose there as though they had raglan sleeves. It was Catherine, I saw, his younger sister. I could tell because of her ruddy complexion which made her look perpetually windburned and her dark eyebrows which seemed to start at the lids and grow up and out, about to spread across her forehead.
“Be quiet, Cath.”
Only Corey called her that.
“I mean it.”
Corey had her against a metal shelf, empty except for several rectangular-shaped cans, the red capped nozzles ringed with oil. He pushed steadily and held on to her bare hips. She had her hands on his shoulders, her eyes closed. They both moaned, their voices heavy in a frightening duet.
I backed away carefully, aware again of the gravel driveway, smooth stones in pea rock, and the lilac bush. I stepped toward it before pivoting to walk along the cotoneaster, the hedge trimmed level and flat, shoulder-height. Quietly though my heart pounded in places it had never been before—the bottom of my feet, the crook of my elbows—I got back to our yard, where I could lean against that latticework to see if anyone was following me. Soon my father’s car door slammed with a whack that told me my parents were home. And by the time I grabbed the back door knob, the front door was opened and closed with a sucking noise made by the rubber insulation around it.
I told my parents what I’d seen—that Corey and Catherine were together in a horrible way in that rotten garage in the back, that I’d seen them when I’d gone to check on some strange noises. What I wanted to say was that their bodies crashed against one another, like water to its shore, held back only by that metal shelf, sticky with oil like the bands of goo city-workers painted around the circumferences of trees to catch and kill insects.
The police showed up not long after my father called, and we went to bed as if we could find our sleep there, floating within reach.
The next day I looked out our kitchen window and saw no activity at Corey’s house, so I went to the fence and waited. But there was no back door flying open and shut, no tire swing tracing the arc of a pendulum. Nothing A week passed, and then a month of the same. Nothing.
The night before school started up again, I went into the neighbor’s yard, walked the hedgerow of cotoneaster to the lilac and stepped down into that driveway. The garage door was open knee high, but it was too dark inside for me to see anyone there. I turned right and walked toward the tire swing and rope. All that remained was the tree from which they’d hung, insects imprints in its bark, like a dense fossil record of an era, perhaps one when water covered our city completely.
Years later, about a week before Corey drowned, I was in the backyard of the house my husband and I had just bought, watering a new rose bush that would eventually screen us from the neighbors. It was early evening, a breeze ushering in the night, and my hands were dirty from digging and planting most of the day.
“Why did you tell on us, Melissa?”
I couldn’t believe what I heard. I looked up. Corey stood behind a waist high line of our caragana, leaves shaped like fake fingernails.
“Corey, what’re you doing here?” I said.
I’d made a dam of soil around the plant so that water would collect at its base. That’s where I kept the hose trained, though my head was swimming.
“You messed up our lives. We had to move, and Catherine and I were in a bunch of foster homes. Why’d you say anything?”
“I had to. We were in junior high together.”
“No, you didn’t,” Corey said. “It had nothing to do with you. Absolutely nothing, Melissa.”
Around the rose bush, the dirt was turning to mud and water was seeping into its roots, encouraging them to go deep and survive. If the plant fared well—-and I had no reason to believe it wouldn’t—I would never see those roots again.
“Nothing, Melissa. Don’t you get that?”
When I didn’t answer, he walked away. I knew that the ground had become saturated because water was pooling around the rose, some of it splashing my sandals, so that my feet were wet. I went to the faucet where my hose was attached and turned it off. There were no mosquitoes or gnats out, so I didn’t go in until it was completely dark.