On summer nights, the house claustrophobic, Greg oftentimes climbed out his bedroom window to lay on the roof and enjoy the soft breezes prevalent there above the warm earth. The night Sara Lang came to see him, he was listening to the transistor radio balanced on his windowsill. A gravel-voiced DJ howled out a dedication, and Greg heard tennis shoes scraping down the red dirt driveway to his home.
He sat up, saw her coming, wearing a tie-dyed tank top tucked inside white shorts. Sara waved and he mirrored the gesture, pressing his other hand into the rough shingles. He thought of standing, but instead snapped Jim Croce off singing “Time in a Bottle,” and slid down to the lip of the roof. She stood in a patch of grass below, looking around at the dark porch and shuttered windows, then up at him, a summer face, freckled cheeks, soft eyes shaded with mischief. As if to say let the wild rumpus start…the Wild Thing is here.
“Hey,” she said. “This where you live, huh?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“It’s nice. Lots of room in there I guess with two floors.”
He grasped the edge of the roof, her face a few feet from his.
“I’m going to come down, if it’s okay,” he whispered.
“Your house,” she said, rolled her eyes.
He crept towards the window.
“Hey,” a loud whisper.
“Yeah?” He answered, louder than he’d liked, hoping it didn’t carry to his parent’s bedroom on the other side of the house, though his father was a heavy snorer, and his mother wore earplugs most nights.
“Bring your guitar down,” she said.
“I don’t play that good. Still learning.”
“Don’t care. Just bring it with you.”
Greg had dragged a stack of weathered milk crates below some trees in a pasture nearby, seats for his friends when they came over to swap baseball cards, pop off surplus Fourth of July firecrackers, or to knock around as boys do. Greg, clinging to his guitar, sat on one crate, and propped a foot on another containing old toys – cap guns with busted barrels, broken Yo-Yos, a tin of faded green Army men. Sara sat on another beside him, their knees nearly touching, and they were quiet.
It was cool under the trees, even more so than on the roof. Greg liked digging here after a heavy rain when the soil was wet, looking for Indian arrowheads for his collection, though he’d found none. Only spindly roots buried in auburn sludge.
He’d found far more under the highway bridge at Teller Creek, and he was there a few weeks earlier when Sara’s cousin, Donny, brought her to meet him, though he wasn’t having much luck that day either, flipping gunk aside with his mother’s castoff garden shovel, replying with a frustrated here when Donny called where you at. The shuffling slide of pebbles and dirt, and with a halfway glance over his shoulder, he saw Sara first, though she trailed Donny by a few feet. Sears catalog ensemble; red shirt, yellow piping on the sleeves, rainbow belt cinching the waist of navy shorts. Tanned face, brown hair in a ponytail, hint of smile. Donny wore aviator sunglasses, introduced her as his woman.
Two weeks ago, but this was the first time they were alone.
“How long are you here?” Greg asked.
“Until just before school, then back home,” she said, her profile beautifully pale and distant. “Daddy sent me here because he said he had a lot of work this summer, but I think it’s because I’m starting to, maybe, remind him of my mom. He looks at me sometimes and his eyes are sad.”
“Yeah? What happened to your mom?”
“She died, when I was little. Never knew her. I was maybe one.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Greg’s hand slid down the guitar strings.
Sara quietened, then:
“Sometimes he drinks, and we’ll be in the living room, me on the couch and him in his chair, and I’ll be watching TV or reading a book,” she said. “And I’ll look up because he’s looking at me, but it makes me embarrassed so I duck my head. It’s like he’s examining me, and I’m someone he doesn’t know. You know, not his daughter. Makes me feel ashamed. He…”
“What?” Greg asked.
“Nothing,” she said, exhaling. She folded over, facing the ground.
“Donny’s a nut,” she said, changing the subject. She raised up, pushing a hand through her hair, moving it around, so the weight of it fell on the opposite side of her face. “Could be fun, huh? A thrill?”
Donny had badgered them about swimming Lake Tanneyhill ever since Sara arrived. Specifically, about swimming a mile-long cove of deep water where the old town of Waterloo lay submerged. Haunted, people said. Greg heard the stories like everyone else; people trapped in their homes when the water came, now ghosts, eternally restless. How if you walked the lake at midnight, you’d see ghost lights below moving among the deteriorating houses. Or that Indians had a burial ground nearby before the flood, and how now angry spirits floated around like spectral eels, lurking to drag anyone living down into black Waterloo.
Donny’s summer dare. One to brag about when high school started that fall. A last stand at Waterloo! Like Napoleon! He’d cackled.
Sara moved in closer, kissed Greg’s cheek. Warm thoughts flooded his face. She kissed his lips.
Greg would swim to the bottom of Waterloo if she wished. In, out, and around the homes. And if they found no bottom, they could keep swimming, hand-in-hand, until no longer able to do so, fall instead and allow gravity claim over their bodies. All those ghosts be damned.
Harvey Paige, Billy Elliot, and Vance Jefferies were with Greg and Sara the next Saturday night, an evening spent bottling lightning bugs and singing off-key rock and roll to Greg’s bad guitar playing. They roasted marshmallows and drank orange soda in the woods outside his home and loud laughter stilled to simmering conversation about Donny’s dare, how upset he’d be discovering they’d done it without him. And because Donny could be irritating, they agreed, even though an infectious shudder ran through the boys like a yawn. Waterloo. They were really going to swim Waterloo.
As they walked through the grass to the lake, only a mile or so from Greg’s home, Sara’s fingers brushed against his, though he never managed to catch her hand. She had been the most eager, the most enthusiastic, though Greg would not tell anyone that later.
They watched boats emerge from the darkness, engines throttling back as they entered the cove. Little waves spilled ashore and the first emergency responders stepped back to keep their boots dry. The firemen and policemen moved hesitantly around the lake, shining flashlights over the water, looking back at the boys. There were clear mutterings.
What were they thinking?
Stupidest thing ever.
Not a rescue operation now. It’s a recovery.
The boys shivered, wrapped in blankets given them by the paramedics. Greg glanced over to see how Billy was doing. He sat between the opened doors of an ambulance, the paramedic examining his eyes with a penlight. He was at least moving, which he hadn’t been when Harvey had pulled him out of the lake.
A beam lit the shallows and Greg held his breath; pale, like the banking body of a small shark beneath the water, white underbelly showing. He looked away, concentrated on the boats.
The first diver tumbled into the water with a loud splash. Two more followed. Greg wondered if the divers were afraid, swimming so far under the lake, lanterns falling across a gloomy landscape of decaying buildings. And ghosts. And, somewhere, Sara.
A piercing howl erupted outside the cove. More sirens were coming.
The drive home was quiet, though his mother looked back once or twice, taking his hand, rubbing it between her thumb and index finger. His father glanced at Greg in the rearview mirror, reflecting a disappointed eye or one thankful it was not Greg.
At home, his mother hugged him so strongly he felt suffocated, and gently pushed her away. In bed, he closed his eyes, saw Sara’s laughing face, bobbing just above the surface of the lake, how she’d been only a few hours before.
The next morning Greg’s father received a phone call. Greg sat in front of television, paying little attention to The Price is Right, uneaten cheese toast and glass of lukewarm milk on the table beside him. When his father hung up, he said nothing to Greg, went instead to the kitchen. A moment later, his father reappeared, told Greg some men needed to talk to him and his friends at the police station. His mother poked her head in to listen, not saying anything, a dishrag pinned against the wall. Greg nodded, and said ‘yes sir.’
His father bent, patted his back.
“It’ll be fine,” he said.
They brought the boys to a small room, one with several wooden chairs, a table, and a single bulletin board, bare but for a calendar, the kind banks gave away, ones containing stock images of mountains, oceans, and other faraway landscapes. A mirrored window reflected their faces. Greg supposed his father and the other parents were behind it, watching them, like in the cop shows. Greg wondered if Sara’s father was there, or if it was her aunt. He imagined her father angry and weeping, imagined him chasing after the boys when they left the police station because they were the ones that had lost his Sara, who’d reminded him so much of his wife, and now both were gone. Both taken.
Greg stared ahead at the boys mirrored reflections.
They sat across from two investigators, men in wrinkled white shirts, each with their sleeves rolled up, dull badges dangling from breast pockets. One smoked a cigarette, dumping ashes into a tin ashtray. The other examined an open file. A patrolman with a glum expression stood in the corner, one the boys recognized from the school crossing. Officer Sanderson. They didn’t know his first name, though they’d exchanged imaginary gunfire and corny jokes with him for years. Greg guessed he was there to provide them some comfort in an uncomfortable situation.
The investigators explained to the boys they weren’t suspected of anything. There were only some details they needed clarified.
One asked them what happened when they reached the lake.
Harvey said they got there about nine. The others nodded in agreement.
We stripped down to our skivvies, Harvey said, ducking his head, then we went swimming.
The men nodded. Was anyone scared?
The boys looked at one another.
I guess, well, we all were, sort of, Vance said.
What about Sara?
No, I wouldn’t say she was, Vance said, she was giggling.
And then what?
We walked in, then treaded water, swam a little out into it. We weren’t going to stay out there long. We just wanted to do it.
Someone said, ‘let’s swim underwater and look for the town,’ Vance said.
That was Sara, Harvey said. No one really wanted to do it. Everything was black out there and we couldn’t see nothing.
Did you? The men asked. Go underwater?
Yeah, Greg said. I think we dipped our heads. Everyone, I think.
Not me, Billy said, almost whispering.
What about Sara? The men asked.
Oh, she went under, Vance said. She went diving.
Was that when it happened? She didn’t come back up?
No, she came back.
Someone said, ‘we need to go back,’ Vance said.
That was me, said Billy. He spoke to the table.
Yeah, Harvey said, I think we all were a little scared then. I think we all were thinking about all those stories…
The men looked at one another.
Someone laughed, Vance said, that was you, Harvey?
Harvey shook his head.
No, it was Sara, Greg spoke up.
And then, like that, she went under, Harvey said.
She was pulled, said Billy.
Everyone went silent.
The television crews came and spent the first few days reporting about the on-going recovery with nightly updates, rolling footage of divers in the water and boats dragging the cove for the corpse of Sara Lang. They interviewed the state police lieutenant in charge, who wore sunglasses and sported a bristled crew cut. They were looking for Sara or the girl, he said. Greg imagined the lieutenant had family, maybe even a daughter, and could not bring himself to refer to Sara as the body just yet.
Two days went by.
When the reporters tired of the lieutenant, they questioned the lead diver. His hair was brown and shaggy, unkempt, the kind divers seemed to always have. He had a tan face, bright teeth. He answered a reporter; where they were searching (the cove and perimeter), if the structures made the search more difficult (no, because we’re not swimming in them), if they were exhausted (we have a good rotation going so everyone is fresh). Then the reporter asked a question, almost off the cuff as if he hadn’t meant to, but tiring of the same old-same old, wanted a different response.
“Is it scary down there? All those lost structures – like a ghost town underwater?”
The diver dipped his head, as if deep in concentration, then looked over the water, eyes narrowing.
“Wouldn’t say it was scary,” he said. “Spooky, maybe. Yeah, spooky.”
A week into the search and the television reporters were gone, although the local newspaper still followed the story. By then, the search area had expanded to include the lake outside the cove, thinking Sara had been yanked from where she’d drowned by an underwater current, though those were extremely rare in a body of water the size of Lake Tanneyhill.
It perplexed everyone, including a state pathologist the newspaper’s reporter contacted, who stated that, yes, given the length of time, Sara Lang’s body should have been found by now. The reporter also talked with several of the divers, maybe even the same one interviewed on television. They talked about the conditions below, the strangeness of swimming around buildings that had been underwater for nearly fifty years. How they were also exasperated with having not found a body.
“Is there a Sara Lang?” The paper quoted one diver, maybe half-joking.
Greg only left the house with his parents, mostly to the super market with his mother, where he blankly thumbed through a wire rack of comics near the front of the store, though not escaping hushed whispers behind his back: He was one of…can you imagine…that girl…do you think they could have…I would be a mess… He didn’t know the actual rumors, but he’d overheard his mother on the phone one evening talking with someone and by the end of the conversation she was yelling. After hanging up, she came in the living room where he was watching the Electric Company, rubbed his head before fixing herself a drink of something from his father’s liquor cabinet.
On a Friday, they’d returned from the market, and Sara had been drowned for twenty-one days. Harvey Paige rode his bicycle down Greg’s driveway, skidded to a stop, kicking up red dust clouding the wheels. Greg sat on the porch, tracing over a cartoon in Mad Magazine, and they acknowledged each other with nods.
Harvey slipped off the seat. He turned the right side of his face to Greg.
“My dad gave me this,” he said.
A bruise the size of an apple, the color of an eggplant, surrounded his eye.
“Geez, what for?”
“You know my dad. He don’t like police. All the trouble he’s been in. Don’t like anything to do with them, whether they’re after him or not. Said I did it to myself.”
Greg thought of Harvey, how he’d been the night it happened, how he’d reached under the water and grabbed Billy because he’d gone into something like shock, towing him to shore, Greg and Elliot already swimming like the devil had touched their ankles.
Greg’s face flushed and he looked out into the field of tall grass surrounding his home.
“Well, heck,” Greg said. “It’s not like we did something wrong. We told them what happened. It’s not like we’re in trouble or anything.”
Harvey straddled his bike. He went to kick off on the pedals, turning the bike, but stopped.
“You should talk to Billy,” he said. “He won’t tell me nothing.”
One month. Nothing. Month-and-a-half. They called off the search.
Before bed, Greg sat at his desk, lamp on, and pushed aside the meshed parts of a B-52 model airplane he’d grown tired of. He examined the story of Waterloo in his father’s local history book, having borrowed it a few years earlier for some class project.
It had been drowned in the thirties, part of a project by the Tennessee Valley Authority to connect the cities of northern Tennessee to the inland waters around northern Alabama. The reservoir and dam displaced some sixty families and left the once bustling little riverside town under five-hundred feet of water. Businesses, homes, and the Baptist church were relocated, as well as several graveyards, though many structures were left intact, and on the morning of April 14, 1931, the waters poured in like Noah’s flood, 100-year history of Waterloo committed to the murky depths.
The Waterloo piece was accompanied by an early century grainy photograph showing the town, as it had been. A main street, muddy in the photo, and buildings on either side. Several people, men and women, intermingled beneath a store awning, the faces of each unclear, blurred smudges, as if already covered by the waters of Lake Tanneyhill.
He couldn’t get a clear vision of that night. When Sara went under, Billy had screamed, ducked his head to look for her. Greg almost forgot to tread water, frozen, the fear tickling his feet and legs, the lake somehow colder because Sara hadn’t resurfaced. Billy had gone limp. Greg and Vance swam as fast as they could, Harvey pulling Billy. Greg saw them from space; four gray dots in an oily blackness, like ants floating in a puddle. Moving so slowly. All the old stories had been real in that moment for Greg. Ghosts of Waterloo coming to drag them under, like Sara, and have their way, eternal.
Billy had been a straight-A student and when freshmen year began all seemed okay. Greg saw Billy in biology class, but assigned seating kept them apart. Greg sat near the front, while Billy sat by the door. Sometimes, while scribbling notes, he stole a look back to see Billy’s pencil digging into the pages of his own notebook, drawing or writing, his eyes out there, as if he’d only just been dragged limp from the waters of Waterloo.
Greg tried to catch him a few times after class, but he disappeared when the bell rang. During breaks, their foursome since grade school, was a trio. Greg knew nothing physically kept them from Billy; they could have approached him any time, but the Billy they’d known was gone.
Mid-semester, for no reason, Billy laughed out loud during biology class. The teacher asked what was funny, but he kept laughing. It sounded fake, like pretending. She sent him to the principal.
In P.E. a few days later he walked into the occupied girl’s locker room and caused a shrill panic. The gym teachers found him punching the brick wall, wrestling him out before he could break his hand.
Multiple suspensions during the remainder of the school year. Smoking in the bathroom. Fights, provoked and otherwise. Classroom disruptions. Teachers repeatedly submitting office referrals. Students avoided Billy, even the usual troublemakers; the bullies, the roughnecks. Crazy, they whispered.
Greg last saw him spring of junior year. Billy sat behind the band building, resting against the wall, legs spread in front, dragging a sharp stick through the grass. Greg was on the way to art, but he stopped when he saw Billy. Some lingering friendship, or the memory of Billy as he had been before the summer night Sara went under and never came back up. He walked over.
Billy didn’t reply. He stared into the long gashes he’d raked up, like he was digging for those old Indian arrowheads Greg once collected. Streams of noise – young laughter, loud conversations – moved around them, but between them there was a void of silence where old words had lost meaning. At least since Sara.
Greg studied the wall, turned to leave.
“I see her face, you know, Greg?” Billy said. “I have trouble sleeping. All the time.”
Greg listened as Billy fashioned his ghost story, the kind people had told about Waterloo for years. But it was Billy’s ghost story, one that pulled Greg backwards, plopped him again into the murky waters of the old lake. Sara vanished; Billy dipping under to look for her. But what he saw then, Greg saw now.
Sara smiled, Billy said, the whole way down.
The tardy bell rang, a shrill, but welcome interruption. Billy sat, stick puncturing the earth, his eyes haunted and sleepy. And tired, but how telling Greg the story seemed to unburden him of some weight he’d carried since that night.
Billy dropped out the next day. In what would have been the morning start of senior year, he left town, vanished. Never heard from again by Greg, or anyone.
The evening after he talked to Billy, Greg climbed out the bedroom window onto the roof. He sat on the shingles. The roof creaked below him. The moon was hidden behind layers of clouds. His eyes fell over the dirt road, and he recalled the moment Sara had first walked down it. He saw her now as she had been. One week before she was lost. She stopped under the lip of the roof, but this time he did not slide down to look into her face.
That night, he dreamed of drowning, his face caressing the coarse ceiling of an underwater home, trapped beneath a roof, but feeling Sara beside him; the slender motion of her arms; the nudge of a narrow shoulder. But it wasn’t her. It was something horrible with a face like Sara’s. Plucked flesh, empty globular eyes. He woke up sweating, silenced his scream.
The day before Greg left for college, he walked to a department store to buy some last-minute items. He spotted Officer Sanderson, an arm draped out the window of his patrol car. Sanderson lifted a hand, a smile creasing his lips. Greg stopped and Sanderson asked about his day, where he was headed, about college, their first real interaction since those school crosswalk days. After the interview that day in the station, Sanderson hadn’t really spoken to the boys.
“You getting along fine after, well, all that mess?”
Greg said he was, that he supposed it had worked out, although he still often thought about it.
“The other boy that wasn’t there that night?” Sanderson asked. “Her cousin, wasn’t it?”
Greg said yes, that Donny and his mother had moved away after Sara drowned. Somewhere north, he didn’t know where.
Sanderson chewed on that for a moment.
“They were renters, him and his mom,” he said. “That house sat vacant about a year before a new couple moved in. They were rummaging around, the way folks do when you’re in a new place, getting it how they like, opening cabinets and closets and such. Anyway, they found a couple of pictures, brought them to us. Said they found them in a bedroom, in an old chest of drawers that stayed with the house. A couple of Polaroids, there like someone pushed them deep inside a drawer with a bunch of other stuff and they could’ve snagged in the back of the drawer, pinched, and left behind. Someone might have thought they’d gotten them all, but hadn’t, see what I’m saying?”
Greg was quiet. Things unlocked in his head. Ugly things, because Donny had owned a Polaroid camera.
“The photos were of the girl,” Sanderson said. “The first, she was on a bed, looked scared. The other about the same, but in that one she had her shirt off, and it was clearer. Nothing really illegal in those, just the way she looked, scared.”
Sanderson let out a heavy breath.
“Anyway. Chief stuffed them in an envelope. Didn’t follow-up on it. Had his fill of the thing, you know, her missing, no body. Didn’t see any use resurrecting something like that. The girl was dead. The family moved awhile after. And he wasn’t even there that night, right?”
Greg didn’t answer. Sanderson frowned.
“Never set right with me, though, none of it. Take care of yourself, huh?”
Greg said yes sir, Sanderson started the patrol car, and pulled off.
Greg took a few steps, extended a hand, touching the corner of the last building on the block. He moved around it to the other side of a souring dumpster and squatted, the rough brick wall dragging up the back of his T-shirt. Short gasps, thinking of Donny, how he’d referred to Sara as his woman. How they’d all laughed.
And that conversation underneath a canopy of trees outside his home, when she’d first kissed him. Sara talking about her father. How he looked at her. How there was something he may have wanted to do. To her. Sara going back to him at summer’s end.
Greg visited Waterloo the next day, the first time since Sara disappeared. He went in the evening, when the sun was an orange streak, the pine trees pointed profiles over a deepening horizon. He took his guitar, fitted with fresh steel strings, and sat on the grass. The air was cool, the lake calm. An unnatural haze settled over the water, like a morning mist.
He could not sing. His voice faltered if he tried. He played notes over the neck of the guitar, the melody and phrasing materializing a second before he pinched the strings. Sometimes he played in the key of C, or A, or G. Sometimes in D-minor, the saddest key of all.
He closed his eyes, imagining Sara smoothly breaking the surface of the lake, skin the pallor of cold if cold had color, streams rolling down her slender arms and legs. She’d come as far as she could, shallow water around her ankles.
Greg saw her eyes, brown, but sad, and beyond, the woods, growing darker. Maybe he’d open his own eyes and be twelve again, and the sun would break over the trees, summer opening around them like a rainbow.
He played, never saying anything, the notes suspended briefly in the air. She’d listen, until the pull of what waited below was too strong for her. A gentle step backwards until she floated, disappearing under the black water, a flickering figure falling away, always falling.
After she’d gone, Greg sat alone and silent, the smoke over the lake scattering. Crickets came to life in the reeds around the lake. Night things rustled through the bushes.
He walked the hill, guitar in one hand, towards home, not looking back, thinking of turning and running into the lake, letting the hands of the dead carry him far, far below, to Sara.
In the morning he would leave. He would not be coming back.