Death Lives In The Water – Snippet 15
What remained of Rory O’Connor was buried in the family plot above the mill, along the Martins Way River. At Mary’s request, there was no formal church service; just a gathering at the gravesite for his entombment. Like all the O’Connors and Harpers before him, Rory was wrapped in linen and lowered into the ground in a plain pine box. Out of compassion for both the family and the populace of Harper’s Landing, Rory’s remains had been laid to rest in the grave before the service. Most if not all of them knew that not all of Rory rested in that grave. Nevertheless, they had dug a full-sized grave, and built a regular pine casket. Then Arthur Willingham started to deliver Rory’s eulogy.
“How do you speak for a man you barely knew,” he began. “Rory was a friend to many of you, a beloved brother to Mary and Bull, and a hero to everyone. He served his country with honor and returned to the comfort of family and friends when the horrors of war overtook him. He will live on in our memories, in our love, and in our compassion for his family.”
The Army had provided an honor guard, as was his due, though at Mary’s request they refrained from the usual rifle salute. The head of the guard handed Mary the carefully folded American flag, Rory’s Purple Heart placed on top. She clutched it to her chest as silent tears rolled down her cheeks.
Arthur then invited others to speak if they wished. They spoke of Rory’s humor, of his skill as a fisherman, of his love of family. No one spoke of his terrors, his retreat when the Fourth of July came around, his inability to find love or companionship after war had left him emotionally and spiritually shattered. Instead they talked of the Rory they wanted to remember, the man they would entomb in their memories as well as the grave.
When “Taps” was played, Mary collapsed into Bull’s arms. The grief of everyone involved was palpable. Life cut short is never easy, no matter the cause. But life cut short without cause or explanation is unbearable and soul bending.
Jim Burch stood next to Linda Collier, and although both had strong feelings and rich memories about Rory, neither spoke. They shared a silent grief for a friend taken too soon. Nor did they attend the wake afterward at Morey’s. Instead, without being asked, Linda followed Jim to his office where they shared the better part of a bottle of well-aged scotch in silence.
The Missouri State Police lab had been unable to identify any DNA other than Rory’s after swabbing both the neck and ankle. Reluctantly, they had released the remains for burial and marked the file “unsolved; no further investigation requested.” It was not the usual means for handling what appeared to be a homicide, but without other evidence they had no choice.
Things in Harper’s Landing slipped back to normal, with only an occasional discussion about what had happened to Rory. One of the more popular stories was that someone had released baby alligators into the Martins Way, and they had found their way into the underground waterways. Despite the lack of alligator or any predator DNA, the story gained popularity. Some wanted to introduce poison into the wells, to do away with the critters, while others favored placing traps or blocking side passages in the hope of catching or starving them to death. Jim had to warn folks off the poison route, which never really gained popularity anyway. He didn’t have to worry about people trying to close off the passages from the waterways to the Martins Way. People were honestly too frightened to be willing to go into the river to place traps or other means of blocking things off.
Gradually, fishermen returned to Big Bass Pool, and by the time tourist season was in full swing the stories had died down. This was a great relief to the few townsfolk who made a significant portion of their living off the tourist trade. Even Mary was able to set aside her grief enough to deal with the influx of customers seeking local yarns and unusual cottons from her well stocked shop.
Summer was just around the corner, and things in Harper’s Landing appeared to be back to normal.
Gary Miller sat rigidly behind the steering wheel of his Mustang, trying not to grip it so tightly that the others would notice. It was the first day of summer vacation, and Gary, Billy Martin, Steve Blinder, and Mike Stoneman were on their way to mischief. The other boys wanted to go skinny dipping at Harve Sanders’ pond. Harve would be gone, working on the big landscaping project at the Jackson Hill Library and Community Center. It was just barely warm enough for swimming, and Gary had much preferred the idea of stealing some beer from his dad’s cooler and going down by the river to fish and skip stones.
Gary was mortally afraid of water, afraid in the way a child fears the dark or old people fear death when they have not spent a life well lived. He remembered his brother’s drowning vividly, although he was only five at the time. In fact, it was his most vivid memory. That and his father beating his mother near to death for having been drunk when it happened. Never mind that the old bastard was six sheets to the wind himself. It was her job to watch the kids, and Mattie had wandered unnoticed down to the river’s edge while his parents and younger brother picnicked on deviled eggs and peanuts. And the parents on vodka-laced iced tea. Mattie’s screams of terror still haunted Gary’s eighteen-year-old nightmares.
He drove slowly down the back road toward the pond, praying for Harve to come home early or for Big Jim Burch to decide to come looking for them. No such luck. They arrived at the pond unseen and parked under a large beech tree which hid the car from view of Harve’s house, about a quarter mile away.
Missouri in the late spring is a wondrous place. Green grasses mix with wild flowers, and trees spout pollen in all directions. It was getting on toward summer, and the wind was pleasant with just a slight edge of brisk. The cottonwoods were nearly ready to unleash their allergy-inducing fluff balls on the world, and the bulrushes were already poking up in the pond. They all knew that the pond was deep in the middle, though how deep no one was quite sure. But the edges were shallow, and bullfrogs perched on lily pads among the rushes, fat and content on a heavy diet of late spring mosquitoes and water walkers.
Billy Martin pulled a fat joint from his shirt pocket and lit it with a wooden match. After taking a long pull, he passed it on and the boys shared it one after another, waiting for the blissful hit that would provide the courage required to strip and jump into the water. Gary also took a hit but made no move toward undressing. When prodded by the others he demurred, claiming an infection from a barn accident. He pulled up his pant leg to reveal the bandaging.
“Yeah,” said Billy. “You don’t know what’s in that pond. Might make the infection spread to your balls.”
They all fell on the ground with laughter, over-reacting as the pot hit their juvenile brains.
“Maybe his dick will fall off too,” snorted Mike.
And again they all collapsed in raucous laughter.
The other boys, now filled with cannabis-fueled courage, peeled off their jeans and shirts, and one by one leaped shrieking into the still cold water. Gary sat on the hood of his restored muscle car, keeping a wary eye out for the sheriff or, more likely, the owner of the pond. He allowed his mind to wander, musing over the considerable charms of one Miss Bridgette Stevens. Bridgette was the daughter of Jen Stevens (now Harper), who worked at Morey’s Diner, and Will Stevens, who had gone off to war in Afghanistan and come home in a plain pine box. Jen and Bridgette struggled through that first year of grief and shock, moving back in with Jen’s parents. Jen worked full time at the diner, and Bridgette sometimes filled in on busy tourist weekends.
While puberty sneaked up on most of the girls he knew, it hit Bridgette like a wrecking ball. One day she was flat, freckled, and gangly; the next, she had two glorious mounds of fleshy wonderfulness on her chest, and her hips swelled just enough in all the right places.