“Why do you think Uncle Scott’s the monster?” Simon asks as we pull the car off the road and onto the dirt path between the dying pine trees.
I don’t answer.
Simon doesn’t question me again until I turn the low beams off and tell him to grab our headlamps from the backseat.
“Are you sure?” he asks.
“It’s your Uncle Scott,” I tell him. “He’s the monster drowning them.”
No reply. He doesn’t want to understand.
“Simon,” I say, “We’re bounty hunters tonight, catching the crazy.”
He nods in the dark.
I shouldn’t have said that.
Simon squirms in his seat.
I don’t. No moving. Only imagining.
But my shoes are wet. I’m sure of that. The squeak from the rubber hurts. It resonates and pounds in my head as I ease my foot off the brake.
So, I put my hand on Simon’s shoulder and imagine him smiling.
It makes me feel better.
Imagining that smile means not needing to say, “Simon, one day you might be a monster too. It runs in the family.” But when I turn my headlamp on, the light shines on Simon and I realize he isn’t smiling.
I imagined what I wanted to see again.
That’s how it is, me imagining, seeing things, and this is happening, and oh well, and oh God, so I let the light pour from my headlamp until it spots an old Ford pickup tucked between two pines off the dirt road.
It’s Scott’s truck.
“Dad, that’s not Uncle Scott’s. That’s Mom’s van.”
I don’t reply.
Simon doesn’t understand.
I can hear the lake. The waves. They’re close.
Simon cries next to me. He uses his arm to wipe away the tears.
The sleeve looks heavy, like army surplus, like wool logged with water.
It’s not wet. I know that. But it’s hard to be sure.
Simon continues to wipe away tears. There are so many.
From the backseat, I pull the hammer. I’m prepared to use it. I considered a hatchet, but it’s my brother.
The rope and duct tape I throw in the backpack.
The crossbow I give to Simon.
He takes it in his hands, points it at me, keeps it aimed at my face.
We stare at each other until I stop thinking about his mother and the lake and say, “Damn it, Simon, not at me.”
Simon points the bow down, sighs.
He sounds exhausted, like a swimmer dying or like a hundred pound person pushed under a thousand pound water balloon. A smothered nothing. An exhale.
His headlamp turns away, glaring out the window onto the crumbling wood of the rotted sign reading Darlyn Lake.
I wonder if he remembers summers here where we swam with Uncle Scott and his cousins, warm days where we splashed at the edge with his mother.
I wonder if he remembers Jillian like I remember her, or does he remember her like I remember my mother?
I try not to think of them.
Simon doesn’t ask about his grandmother, why she’s never in the photos.
I appreciate that.
The most we’ve discussed was my saying, “You would’ve liked her. She was sweet” and his asking “Did Grandma die early?”
How do I tell my son his grandmother disappeared swimming in the lake?
The water looks choppy. I can see it through the trees.
My brother Scott and I knew something else about Lake Darlyn and our father—not exactly, not at first, we knew something, about Dad and the lake others couldn’t.
Other people, they didn’t know our father kept getting lost on his way to work that year, that he was angry at the trees in the yard.
Sometimes he’d stare at the sun for an hour.
He’d tell us he talked to sergeant, that we’d better get back to work and dig the latrine.
He grabbed me by the shoulders once, pushed me to the ground. “Get the fuck down, idiot, do you want them to see us?” He held me there, his heavy arm across my back and we laid in the grass for almost an hour while he scanned the yard for something only he could see.
I remember how impossible it was for me to move under his weight, how thankful I was when we quit the struggle and I could still breathe.
It was only grass he held me in.
No water filled the lungs.
It didn’t matter much. Those things happened. Dad held us down, hid us from unseen dangers. He’d snap out of it, embarrassed, confused, not knowing how the hell we ended up on the ground in the backyard. It was hard for him to understand why his arms held us so hard beneath him—but it didn’t matter—not until he came home, crying, saying he couldn’t find her in all the water, in that terrible fucking lake.
I remember him shouting over and over about the lake, like it was real, a person who’d taken Mom from him.
I shared a look with Scott, that look saying Dad did it.
He probably had an episode out in the lake surrounded by the dying pines. They stood like summer dried soldiers on a front line.
Of course he did it.
He’d found himself alone in the water unable to make sense of it.
That night I cried in my pillow.
Scott said, “He’s so crazy, Dad probably thinks she swam away or the lake ate her.”
I laughed between sobs and thought about how deep the lake was.
Six months after Mom disappeared, I sat on the concrete floor, alone in the garage, working on my bicycle with a creaking wrench in my hand.
And I felt him behind me.
My father stood there, as if from nowhere, looking at me below him. His hammer in his left hand. He stared at me. A little through me. At something I couldn’t see then.
He’d look from it, then back to me, staring at what only he could see, as if I were connected to some perceived danger.
He cracked his neck, wiped his nose.
Then he said it. His thin wet whisper, “You’re one of them, you devil gunner.”
His pupils had taken over the eyes, so I didn’t try to see if my father were somewhere inside the twitching thing standing over me.
I closed my eyes and felt the weight of the wrench in my hand, hoping it wouldn’t hurt him.
Whatever happened after that happened. The memory is blackness. It is hot noise, anger and other things I choose not to remember.
Scott said I shouldn’t remember. I wouldn’t forgive myself. He said, “I’m your brother no matter what” and “let’s not look at each other different, okay, it had to happen.”
It didn’t matter. When Dad went missing, no one checked the lake.
Scott told them Dad yelled something about going to find Mom and slammed the front door. We knew the police, everyone actually, felt sorry for him. They thought he’d lost it over our mother’s disappearance, because they knew, like we did, she was probably dead at the bottom of Lake Darlyn.
In the woods, walking to Scott’s cabin, the lake shimmers. The dying pines still line the shore. I imagine they are my father in his uniform, the one he wore in summer when he had no reason to. It was hot. He was wilted. The heavy wool jacket. The green of the coat made it seem natural to be so heavy-armed and crazy.
Darlyn is cold water. It’s moonlight and rolling mercury. It’s a child’s broken thermometer emptied into the palm, a draught of madness I should avoid.
“I don’t think your mother ran away,” I say to Simon. “Something worse, the lake, the fucking lake,” I tell him.
My headlamp catches confusion, anger, disgust.
I remember the danger.
Scott stands in the trees. I can see him.
“No, he’s not. He’s not there,” Simon tells me.
He shakes my arm.
“He’s out there,” I say. “The monster. That fucking lake. He’s out there.”
When I grab the back of Simon’s neck, so he’ll understand, when I tell Simon “stop pointing the crossbow at me,” I hear a branch break and let go.
I can see Scott in my father’s uniform, standing along the shore of Darlyn.
He is between the trees.
I can hear my mother in the water.
Jillian, my wife, is screaming, trying to keep above the waves.
“We need to find Uncle Scott, save your mother,” I yell at the woods.
Simon keeps running.
The trees nod.
The lake swallows.
The weather is hot and my shirt scratches the arms.
I hate wool.
The color green like the army, the army like my father, my father like the grass he held me down in until I cried and he woke up.
I hate myself.
The light from Simon’s headlamp bounds off the path ahead of me, shining through the trees until for whatever reason, he turns it off, and then it’s dark, and then I do what I have to and make my way to Scott’s cabin, and I see him there. In uniform.
Limbs in those sleeves are fifty-pound weights.
His face is wet.
Through the window, inside my brother’s house, Simon waves his arms frantically yelling things at Scott I can’t hear.
Thin strands of hair stick to his old forehead. They can’t hide the sunburn from his standing in the yard.
Scott is in my father’s uniform.
His arms look heavy.
I can feel the weight of the wrench in my hand.
When I look down, it’s a hammer.
I am not holding a wrench.
I am not a boy in the garage.
My arms itch from wool.
“Shoot him, Simon!”
With my hammer, I smash the window.
When they turn and look through the broken glass, my father’s face doesn’t seem right. It looks like my brother’s.
Jillian screams from the water.
The lake rumbles.
Simon scratches his face, his arm stretches in the heavy green wool of my father’s uniform.
My wife is not here.
Scott is screaming, shaking Simon, telling him to do it, that I’m gone.
I can see my father aiming the crossbow at me.
“I’m not a devil gunner!”
My wife is not here.
I am not a devil gunner.
I don’t want to be here. I hate the lake. I hate the garage.
Simon and the crossbow, and my father and the lake, and me and…
A twang and a thud. The crossbow unburdened.
Scott looks relieved. Simon looks sad. My father looks like me—when I’m close to the lake, my reflection in the ripples.
I hate the water.
Simon’s arrow aches in my side and Lake Darlyn accepts me in, reaches out and wraps me in its waves.
Scott can tell Simon about my father.
He can explain the lake.
The weight of Darlyn is on my shoulders, touching my neck.
I’ll go and get Mom.
Dad can swim in Darlyn until then.
I’ll be waiting, doing the backstroke and humming stars while the pines stand guard for monsters.
While the pines stand guard.