MARY MCGRAIL

 

See You Later Crocodile


The Keoughs had all been at Minnow Pond State Park for hours on Saturday, picnicking, wading, and baking in the sun. Peter Corrain had jumped in the water as soon as they arrived, like always. His routine that August was to disappear until dusk, swimming back and forth across the pond faster and better than the lifeguard. Kate Keough went in after him but stopped when the water reached her chin. The deep pond restricted her to the dog paddle and floating, neither of which kept Peter in sight for long once he got going.

Unlike other people Kate fantasized about, Peter Corrain was not a celebrity in a magazine or on an album cover. He ate and watched TV in the same house as she did. His black hair smelled faintly of algae after his swims and his overbite made his bottom lip shine with spit when he talked, which was rarely.

A month earlier Kate's mother brought him home with her, leading him to a small room off the kitchen where all eight Keough kids were crowded in front of the TV. Mrs. Keough flicked off the set and announced that Peter would be staying with them. Kate recognized Peter from third lunch at St Xavier Jr. High, where he was a freshman and she was in seventh. As Kate's siblings swarmed forward for a better look Peter stepped back, just ducking a hanging light fixture. Kate did not see any suitcases or bags, only the metal toolbox he held that had the word "Peter" scraped into it.

Kate and her brother Tom had been in Minnow Pond a long time that Saturday, since eleven in the morning. Six hours of sun shone pink on their scalps, shoulders and arms, while the cold water turned their palms a fish belly white. Wooziness had dulled the aim of Tom's splashing arm, but he managed a final hit with the move he'd named "the sidewinder." She fought back hard, shoving water in his face. "Weak, weak," he replied, blinking away splatter.

Twenty yards away Kate's mother dangled the baby's feet in the murky shallows, saying "whoopsadaisy" over and over. Honor's diaper slid off and Kate watched her mother lunge for the drifting Huggie. "That's why the water's brown," Kate said.

She did an underwater handstand.

"Your legs went sideways that time," Tom said when she came up.

"So. Watch me float." Her skills were wasted on her brother. She arched her back, spreading her arms wide as if draping the pond in perfect folds behind her. Her fat legs bobbed, weightless.

"Peter's good at Risk and Battleship," Tom said.

"As good as you?"

"He beat me in Risk." Tom let his knees drop and went under, then burst up shaking out his long hair like a dog. Risk was Tom's favorite game. When he won he pumped his fist, yelling, "I have achieved global hegemony!" Kate wanted to keep talking about Peter but couldn't think of anything to say. She slapped the water as if it were a face. Tom made a sound with his
cheeks, like a fart. "His father's heart exploded you know."

"It did not," Kate said.

"I read a person's heart can stop from a valve, or clots that swim to your brain."

"You don't know anything."

"And he turned blue. It's in the autopsy."

The image of a blood-soaked corpse rose up quick and livid in Kate's mind. Autopsy was a new word Tom liked. The sound frightened her. Autopsy, dropsy, Whoopsadaisy.

"Quit lying," she said.

Mr. Keough stood from his beach chair and called loudly to Tom and Kate. "Lads and lassies. Will ye come eat?" He talked in a phony Irish brogue that embarrassed Kate.

Mrs. Keough led the little kids out of the water. She turned towards Kate and Tom. "Where's Peter?"

"He's on his third time out," Kate said.

She and Tom left the water and joined the rest of the family on three connecting blankets laid out under some trees. Tom found a partially buried rock and lifted it. "Kate, look. A teeming colony of larvae."

Kate turned away, bit hungrily into a sandwich. The slosh of water in her ears silenced the world beyond her moving jaw, allowing her to survey things peacefully for several minutes. With a towel she covered the stiff, tiny bra-cups of her orange bathing suit. Kate had picked it from a bin at the Buck-A-Pound Thrift Shop downtown even though it was an adult woman's size "petite." The color reminded Kate of the bright orange ones models wore in QT ads to show off their fake tans. Mrs. Keough had taken the used suit in her hands, held its meshed cotton crotch to the light, said, "Oh, I suppose."

When she finished her sandwich Kate ran to the Minnow Pond Snack Hut for a Tab so she could start a diet. A girl from St. Xavier's named Donna and two other kids got behind Kate in the line. "My mother threw that bathing suit away," Donna said loudly. "Doesn't your mother know what a store is?"

Kate tightened her grip on the coins in her fist. "It's from TJ Max," she said, turning around.

"Then how come the bow is ripped on it?" Donna's eyes shone fiercely in her small head. Kate bolted out of line and ran into the parking lot, past the farthest row of locked cars. She crouched low beside the passenger door of a convertible and waited for the girls to be gone. When the coast was clear she entered the water and peed freely through the suit.

Up on the balding grass her siblings in their damp suits huddled around the cooler, everybody with their own Coke. The first evening breezes moved in the pines and pleated the water's surface around her. Kate's mother called to her. "It's getting dark. Tell Tom to find Peter and help me pack up." Mrs. Keough turned to busy herself with the little kids and take them to the station wagon. "I'll go find Peter," Kate said and she hopped out of the water towards the scrubby pond "beach."

As the last slanting light evaporated from the pond, grown-ups shook out blankets, plucked bottles of Coppertone from the cooling sand and left the park. Kate scanned the blackening circle of water but couldn't see Peter, so she closed her eyes and listened for the slap of his arms in case he was still swimming. He must be tired by now. Even him.

"Peter!" Her voice echoed weakly in the far line of trees. She brought her hands to her mouth to make a horn and yelled again.

Kate recalled an incident from a week before, when she knocked on Tom's door and discovered her brother and Peter eating candy and sharing the remains of a joint. "Shut the door quick," Tom said, trying to hold smoke in his lungs. The record player needle skipped as Tom began dancing around to show off how high he was. Kate remained near the door and Peter stepped towards her. "Care for a hit?" he asked.

Kate managed to nod. Her index finger and his touched when he passed the stub, and she inhaled twice from it, deeply, the way Peter had. Then a series of coughs exploded from her, and wouldn't stop. Tears rose in her burning eyes; she heard herself make gasping, ugly sounds.

"Drink this," Peter said, opening her balled fist and placing a glass of water into it. He led her to Tom's beanbag chair. Kate drank the water slowly, carefully, filling herself to silence. The coughs subsided. Peter leaned close to examine her face. "Your eyes are wicked dilated," he said. His breath smelled like licorice.

Peter's voice wove itself into her thoughts, becoming the sound she listened for as she headed for a narrow footpath that cut into the forest all the way around Minnow Pond. It would be possible to encircle the water and meet him coming back someplace along the way.

But away from the parking lot and snack hut area Kate became disoriented. Nothing near the water seemed familiar in the growing darkness. Shrubs, tree stumps and rocks and things rose to trip or bump into her. She continued forward for a while, arms out like tentacles. At one point just as she felt sure she'd found the path, her right leg plunged into invisible muck that pulled her in to the hip. By grabbing blindly at branches she hoisted herself back onto solid ground. For several yards she remained on her hands and knees, crawling, too scared to trust her legs.

She stood up, focusing her vision on the subtlest shifts in density and empty space. A tornado of mosquitoes and gnats swirled around her head and she smacked herself to be rid of them. She moved slowly, testing the ground with each step, knowing that she was lost.

Peter drowned. The idea rose like water in her throat. She screamed his name until she was dizzy and out of breath, but heard nothing. The silence seemed to last a long time, and then the hum and lights of a motorboat advanced so that she could just discern them from where she stood in the brush.

At that instant a low branch snapped inches from Kate. She gasped and looked into the dark. Goosebumps rose on her skin like antennae.

"Kate." The voice fell out of a black cluster of leaves.

"Peter," Kate said, too frightened to whisper. "Peter?" No answer. "We're looking for you." The boat's big light reached into the trees but did not penetrate the spot that had sounded her name. She waited, gingerly scratched the bites at her ankle. In the silence Kate sensed the presence of something watchful beside her. Was it Tom, scaring her? "Tom? I know it's you." There was no answer.

The boat she'd heard sputtered nearer. Its driver used a bullhorn to repeat "Kate Keough! Peter Corrain! Kate!" The interchangeability of the two names struck Kate as proof that if she was listening in secret, Peter was too. "Over here!" She screamed, up on her knees and bent double with the effort. "We're over here!"

But when the motorboat came near, its driver found her alone. The park ranger assisted her into his wobbly boat, saying only "You ok?" over the engine noise as they headed in.

On shore, Tom ran down the hill towards her. His windmilling arms appeared and disappeared in the flashing light of an ambulance and two police cruisers. Seeing her brother wildly running to her made Kate's chest feel light.

"You're gonna get it!" he screamed. He stood several feet in front of her in the cold sand, arms rigid at his sides. Kate stared at her brother, at the tears and snot that covered his face.

"What happened?"

"Everybody thought you were dead," he said.

"Me? You mean they found Peter?"

Tom made a sound, then knocked her down hard on the sand, pinning her in the stomach with his knees. He aimed stiff punches directly to the vaccination spot on her right arm. His knees had shoved the breath out of her and she gasped at the air like a fish, unable to cry or escape as the blows struck. Tom hit her over and over, his mouth twisted.

With her free hand Kate dug fingernails into his neck and struck hard anywhere she could, but he had leverage. "Quit it!" she rasped, and spat in his face. At that he jumped up, suddenly calmer, and used the hem of his T-shirt to wipe his cheeks and forehead. Kate sat cradling her throbbing arm, rocking it gently back and forth at the elbow. Her limbs trembled with rage. Up by the cars someplace her parents' voices rose amid a general confusion that was interspersed with blasts of police radio static.

Tom said, "They called the paramedics in and cops."

"I will not ever talk to you."

"Well how would you like it?" He started bawling. "They said you both went in."

"Ever."

The authorities closed Minnow Pond to the public during the search. Divers combed the deep water while college students in goggles groped around where the muddy edge of water met thick underbrush. Kate wasn't allowed into the area to help look; it was all patrolled. She thought about the place where she heard her name whispered.

Trapped at home she found it impossible to sit still, watch TV, or sleep. She waited and waited. Her brother tried to joke around a few times but she pretended not to even hear him talking. She strode from room to room, then up the stairs to the attic door, to Peter's narrow bed. She buried her face in the sheets. When their rank sweetness became unbearable, she reached underneath for the sharp edges of the toolbox and traced the jagged letters carved there. Flipping the box open, she fingered its measly contents for the hundredth time; gum wrapper, a dime, the barely smoked Taryton he must have planned to re-light. On one of these journeys it had occurred to her that Peter never liked their family and had left it for good. Maybe he tried, that night in the woods, to tell her he was leaving.

Kate wore a path through her family's messy house; in the kitchen she gorged on pity-visit casseroles and pie, ignoring dishes piled in the sink and on the counters, then wandered past the den, where her younger siblings sat in the blinking glow of the TV every afternoon after school. Everybody seemed back into their old routines.

"I heard a scuba diver say the pond's too deep to find bodies," Tom said one day, finding her on Peter's bed. They had not spoken in over two weeks. The discarded Taryton was in Kate's mouth, held unlit between her teeth. Every few moments she drew on its faintly discolored filter as Tom sat listlessly opening and closing a desk drawer.

"I heard him," Kate said. "At the lake."

"Heard what?"

Kate removed the cigarette from her lips, checking for any saliva before carefully returning it to the toolbox. Despite her efforts, the filter showed signs of disintegration.

She showed the box to Tom. "He left this."

Tom held the open toolbox to his face and sniffed it a few times, then, after examining the dime briefly, he closed the lid. "You need matches?" he asked, seeing the Taryton.

"No," she said.

Kate pushed the box back under the bed, then lay with her legs curled close to her chest.

"Want to play Risk?" Tom asked.

"Later maybe."

Her brother bolted down the stairs two at a time. Kate shifted to get under the blankets, wrapping them snug around her in the late summer heat. She lay like that for hours, listening. As evening approached the orange sun blazed low in the attic window, then vanished.