It was the summer of Nancy Drew–the year I finished the last of Carolyn Keene’s seventy-eight mysteries at the library by my house and, enthralled, started again on the first one. School had been out for a month by then, and the heat came down like an omen, flat and hard on our bodies. My father had a name for this weather; he called it July’s Murder. I liked this because it sounded Nancy Drew, and it worded the world exactly: the grass curling with exhaustion, the sidewalks belly-up with sun by early morning, crying: uncle! uncle!
Everyone who mattered knew what to do with this heat, and that was: go to the pool to see everyone else who mattered and suffer the weather together. I lived next door to the pool and by mid-morning the air would thicken and turn, honeyed by suntan lotion and salty with the smell of skin. I was not a person who mattered, and so each morning I biked past the pool, past the lapping and the laughing and the languid bodies, and into the starched, buttoned-up air of the library.
My cousin Diana was always there, and the routine was always the same: the left turn at the circulation desk, the stop at the mystery section, the five or six books from the revolving plastic cases near the windows in the sun. On a good day, if no college students were around, we might get the reading room. Then we felt adult, like we knew everything there was to know or would soon, and had a pressing need to discuss this in our own glassed-off section in the back.
The reading room was for secrets, confessions, the otherwise-unspoken. Sitting there, visible to everyone, we could whisper things heard by no one, and this was a particular form of pleasure. But we took every precaution: the glass, thin; the content, top-secret; our voices, naturally loud. Before we began, Diana would stand me outside the room while inside she called out names of boys in our 6th-grade class. If I blushed, she knew I’d heard, and she had her upper limit. She called it testing the threshold. After that, the conversation could begin, the terror of being heard allowing us, strangely, a near perfect freedom.
We’d spent the first part of our summer in this manner, huddled around the meeting room table, unraveling the mysteries of our own small lives, our meager but particular plot of bodies, blood and intrigue. Diana would talk, mostly, and I would scribe: 1) While doing laundry, Diana had found a pair of bloody underwear at the bottom of the hamper. When she mentioned it at dinner, her sister had stormed away crying. 2) One day, at the pool, Ryan Hastings had told Tiff Myers she gave him boners, then climbed up the high dive and back-flipped off of it. Just for her.
These were our cases, and they proved difficult. We did not know where the blood came from, or why Diana’s sister was angry but not scared. We did not know this word, boner.
At first we turned to dictionaries. Diana on the Merriam Webster, I on the Oxford. There were lines of definitions for blood, but none that matched our experience. There were no entries under boner. We wondered: Was Diana’s sister dying? Was Ryan Hastings sick with a terrible skeletal disease?
There was so much to know and no way to know it. Mrs. Willoughby, the librarian, had a placard on her desk that read, “Questions? Ask a bookworm!” We suspected, however, that our situation did not apply. For the first time in our lives, we could not consult books–our normal line of resort. We could not pester our teachers. And our parents–even if we dared ask them, if they even knew the answers–were not to be bothered: For days they had been talking about Something Important, gathering at each others’ houses, putting down the phone when we entered the room. And this, one sweltering day in early July, is what we’d reserved the reading room to discuss. “Hushed tones,” said Diana. “Carolyn Keene would call it hushed tones.”
We knew that if Nancy Drew were in our situation, she’d solve this yesterday, scaling a fence to crouch outside the parents’ top-secret meetings, or planting a recorder in a strategically-placed potted plant. But we had not been allowed out at night for a week, and were too scared of getting caught to pull stunts. In short, we satisfied ourselves with eavesdropping. And when we did–when we put a glass to our parents’ late-night doors; when we loitered at the dishes, our ears bright and our hands soapy–we heard the word body, we heard the pool, we heard taken, and we heard the children. We had heard these words before, in other sentences. Why then, did they sound so ominous now?
We did not know. We did not know almost anything. But there was one thing we understood clearly: we were the children. As in, what about the, and we can’t tell the. The children who must be protected from this body, whatever it was, and this place where bodies were taken from: the pool. We wrote this down in a notebook that Diana titled What We Know (So Far). It was the only sentence in the book. “We’ll fill it in as we go,” said Diana. But I knew her voice when she wasn’t certain.
The main problem was school: how it didn’t start again till September, how that was the only way we saw anyone our age who could tell us anything. Until then the days were dry and hot, the trees drier and hotter, until in mid-July the mountains themselves caught fire–the worst fires the adults has seen in years–the whole valley gasping water, water with a forked, orange tongue. A dry, hot summer with equally hot consequences. The grass outside on the edge of flame.
Each day, Diana and I fled to the library, hoping to shield ourselves from the heat, hoping to crack the case. But even our shaded meeting room blazed as the sun rose and the urgency rose and our casebook stayed mostly blank–as blank as what we could know from inside the glass, which was nothing.
Diana hated this nothing, this not-knowing. She would measure the reading room with her feet, pacing and stopping, pacing and stopping. “We don’t know anything” she cried. “We don’t know anyone.” She spat these last words at me, as if it were my fault. Then, knowing she’d hurt my feelings, she’d switch tacks. It’s so hot, she’d reason, and the only cool place is the pool. Everybody who knows anything goes there. We are wasting our time, holed up in this library, she’d say. Nancy Drew didn’t sit inside some nerd palace, busting criminals by reading a dictionary. Nancy Drew had friends, for crying out loud. Hobbies. Boyfriends.
I wanted to tell her that I was her friend, that we did have hobbies. Reading, for example. Our casework. But I knew not to argue with that voice.
Then, in mid-July, Diana got what she called the blood. She showed me her underwear when it happened, the scarlet bright and deadly against the white cotton, and I thought so Diana is dying too. But she didn’t act like she was dying. In fact, she spoke to me less and less as the summer gasped on, saying I wouldn’t understand, saying something about the changes. I looked up the changes in my dictionary, but there were only the usual words, and she was right. I did not understand.
Who did understand was Tiff Myers, who had also gone through the changes, and as a consequence Diana was forever by her side, flipping her hair back when Tiff did, wearing her shirts off her shoulder, just like Tiff. When I tried to bring her back to the case, when I mentioned the searches in the hills by our house, Diana said she was tired of games and perhaps I should be too. When I brought her a paper I had palmed from the trash–a picture of the missing body, who turned out to be not a mere body but a girl our age, smiling because she didn’t yet know she’d be taken while swimming, smiling in a school picture much like our school pictures–Diana changed the subject. “Maria says a boner is when a guy likes a girl so much he can’t control himself,” she said.
And then one day Diana did not show up. Same with the next day, and the next. I told myself I should have expected this, but I was new to rejection, and the shame burned in my throat. For two weeks, I sat alone at the desk in the reading room, the privacy unnecessary, the casebook waiting. Once or twice, I made feeble attempts to gather clues, walking down to the gully in back of the library to search for god knows what. But I’d hear the scrabble of animals and would run back up the ravine, afraid. I learned then that I was a person who poached courage from stronger personalities, and I sat on the bank, hot with this knowledge, and hot with tears, too.
My parents noticed my grief in the way that parents are remote delicate machines for registering such things. They spoke to me, eyes stretched with concern, about how, despite being barred from going anywhere alone, I should also get out more. The only option I had was to go places alone, I said. But I was at the library for hours every day, they said. Surely I was lonely? Surely I could hang out with the girls from school? “Just like your cousin, Diana,” they said. Just like Diana had started to do.
. . . . . .
Diana finally did come back, without explanation and nursing a plan. “We’re going to the pool,” she said, in the way our parents said that’s that, even though what our parents had been saying for weeks was the pool is strictly off-limits, do you hear?
I agreed to the plan partly on formal grounds, out of a pure recognition of our failure. The many nights camped outside our parents’ doors, scribbling down words, the attempts to draw our fathers into conversation about newspaper headlines, the words body, body half-hidden by their hands: all had come to nothing.
But mostly I agreed because I needed Diana–needed her certainty and her scheming and her insouciant walk. Because I felt like a conjoined twin separated in a precise surgery in which Diana had gotten the spine and the brain I had been left with only the heart–a useless, bleating, beating thing I had no idea what to do with. But Diana knew, and I determined to follow that knowledge, past summer and into fall and all the way to whatever place a person goes to learn what she’ll do next.
. . . . . .
The day we went to the pool, the heat hit the mountains like a bell, and the whole town sounded with it, a clamorous heat that thrummed in our nostrils and ears. I wore my detested one-piece, a white suit with red stripes and a sailor insignia on the front. Diana appeared at my house tawny and smooth, a bright green bikini with a stomach pale and tender as a newborn. “No parents, right?” was all she said for hello.
We didn’t speak on the walk, either, and in the silence we heard the lazy, caramel voices of the popular girls floating toward us on the air. I almost turned back, especially when I saw the security guards, but Diana pushed me through the gate. “A true detective never quits on a case”–an old saying of ours, but said in a new way, with a barb so it would catch. By the time it did, Diana was across the grass, shoulders back, sauntering up to a knot of new friends.
That day would be the last I spoke to Diana. The last time she spoke to me. I remember it in fragments: the pool icy, the sun irascible. Swimming simply to have something to do, alone in the deep end while Diana stood, one hip out, laying a hand lightly on this or that boy’s tan-broad shoulders. The drop in my belly before it happened, then the release. The blood curling up, my body kicking the water, treading with horror the darkening pool. Diana approaching, tall, pliant, all-knowing against the backdrop of sun.
“Oh, Moira,” she said. And walked away.
. . . . . .
They found a body a week later, in the gully by the library. The girl from the picture, the girl from the pool. She had been there for some time, right beneath the window where Diana and I had conducted our investigation, right next to the ravine I’d sought out on my own. It was night when they pulled her out, but the moon was full, and even when our parents tried to cover us and the police bunched together we could still see the girl, bloated and baggy, heavy with some unspeakable weight. Diana was there, in the glare of the moon and the chemical flash of the flares. She was hanging on a boy I had never seen, and when our eyes met I tried to look at her the way I used to, when glances were a language: The girl from the paper, I tried to say. What we know so far. Diana held my look for a long time, her head high and very still, like a deer on a remote road late at night, angling its ears toward some secret what-next. And then she turned, very slowly, and put her mouth on the boy’s mouth. I watched until I knew she would not look back, then turned toward home.
The newspaper said serial killer. S-e-r-i-a-l, not cereal. Finally, a word in my dictionary. It meant again and again, or a drama that appears in parts, a killer who kills again and again in a story whose end is not clear in the beginning. A story everyone learns as they go.
Our killer had particular habits: he stalked small-town pools and libraries, and liked middle schoolers especially. He always dumped his girls near water, their billowing bodies artfully arranged, flowers or weeds woven into their hair.
. . . . . .
As the summer burned down, we lost and then found these bodies, more and more bodies–girls in ditches and drainages across the valley. All but one. Diana’s. She disappeared one day, too, but unlike the other girls, she was nowhere. She was simply gone. I know. I searched for her myself: in all the watery places, and all the places we used to go.
I had seen her only once since the night in the gully. She was at the swimming hole up the canyon; I was near the benches by the trees. She was halfway across a log that spanned the water, fifteen feet of air beneath. “Do you dare me?” she called to the shore. “Do you dare me to jump?”
. . . . . .
I would never know the name of the boy she had kissed in the gully, or the last thing she saw. The news said Missing since late August, the anchors at their desks, their papers neatly piled.
For me, it had been much longer.
I would never know what she’d learned, and if it was too late once she knew it. I would never know anything again. Of this I was certain. Not unsolved, but unsolvable.
. . . . . .
Unmoved, my blood arrived each full moon like a reminder. The red was always bright and shocking, but I never did die. I held onto the casebook for a whole year, the one Diana and I had shared. At night, I’d look over our notes. One of these evenings, when my room was too pooled with light to sleep, I took down the journal and, using the Mickey Mouse pen stuck inside it, crossed out whole pages with determination, starting at the back and moving toward the front, reversing time. Finally, I came to the first page. What We Know (So Far), it said. We are the children, it said. I paused for a moment, then crossed that out, too.
Ash Sanders hails from Salt Lake City, Utah but currently does her word-slinging in Brooklyn. She’s written for Sunstone Magazine, local radio, and various travel outlets and is now taking a turn toward fiction. Her work can be found at www.ashsanders.com.