We walk along the lake, out to where a jogger found their daughter’s body almost twenty years ago – nine months after she first went missing. The elevated, cement pier that lines the lake is cracked and crumbling in spots, and when I look over the edge, when I consider jumping into the water, my stomach leaps. It’s a good ten feet down, and I’ve never liked heights.
“Those houses over there, those weren’t here when she did it,” the mother of the girl explains. “And there were trees all along that ridge so you wouldn’t have been able to see the cars on the highway. I always found it odd that no one saw her jump in, but when you come out here you can understand, I guess.”
The water is an emerald green, and tan leaves float on the flat surface.
“Divers did a search over by the beach, but they didn’t find anything,” the father of the girl explains in a flat voice. “And they did an extensive search down by the dam, in the drainage culverts. They thought maybe her body would be in there.”
We keep walking and the day feels as heavy as a summer storm. Out in the lake a mom paddles a kayak with two children, each of them wearing brightly-colored life vests. They laugh and splash each other with their paddles. We keep walking, dead leaves crunching underfoot.
“This is where they found her,” the mother says quietly, and the three of us stand there, and for a little while no one says anything. Sometimes you just have to stand in one place and not move. Sometimes being still is the way you deal with life, the way you consider the past.
“I haven’t been back here since it all happened,” the father says, and there is a hint of surprise in his voice, like the ripples a fish makes when it rises to the surface. It’s as if he’s only just now realizing it.
“Me neither,” the mother says. “Oh, but wait, I did come back here once.” And we hold those nearly twenty years since it happened in our hands, and we think about what has happened in twenty years, and those years, they seem like nothing. Like air.
Then we stand in silence again, and the black clouds drift towards us and the eastern sky is neon blue. It has no idea a storm is on the way. We, too, pretend not to see the darkness coming.
But we cannot stay on the pier forever. You can visit the past, but you can’t build a house there. So we walk back to where the past joins a trail on the bank and walk on the dirt, all the way back to the present. Poison ivy lines the path, and crumpled beer cans from where the teenagers hide among the trees at night. The lake has a long sandy beach and a wooden frame where people stack their kayaks and canoes. We get back into their car and drive away.
“How did it feel to be back there?” I ask the mother later, and she smiles, sort of chuckles to herself, then holds her hand up against her chest.
“I felt it,” she says. “I felt it right here, and that’s why I kept putting my hand up.” I hadn’t noticed. I had been too busy staring into the water, wishing it could tell us the story.
* * * * *
I drive the two and a half hours home and when I come inside I have this sudden urge to hug my children, so I track them down throughout the house, one at a time. Leo stares at me while I kiss his plump cheeks. Cade and Lucy are older now, so a normal hug will do. Sam and Abra, I wrestle them to the ground and Sam punches me and I hold his arms down and tickle him and Abra jumps on top of both of us and they scream and Sam nearly gives me a black eye at one point. Later I lay between the two of them and read them a story and sing their favorite songs: Great is Thy Faithfulness and There’s Just Something About That Name.
The rest of the evening we go about our normal lives and I think back to where I was that day, the conversations I had, and I remember something the father told me.
“I know things now that I wish I didn’t know, like how one of the first things a psychiatrist will tell you when your child is a threat to themselves is to remove all the sharps from the house. I didn’t even know what she was talking about when she first told us that. Sharps? And I know the method that divers use to search a lake in the middle of winter. I know the state of a body after it’s been in the water for nine months. It’s a whole list of things, the things I wish I didn’t know.”
I think back on his words while we go about our normal lives tonight, and I think to myself that normal lives are underrated.