The Accidental Drowning
of Leo Merwin

by Rachael Inciarte

The lake that drowned Leo Merwin was man-made. Instead of a crystalline blue, the surface shone green. Tree leaves hung like a mobile above the deep, sleepy water. In the summer, the parks and recreation department of Aceymac, Connecticut, filled it with roe—sunnies and bluegills—for townsmen who taught their sons and daughters how to fish for sport. For weeks the lake seemed to boil. It was alive with flashing tails and fins and yawning mouths that suckled on human toes if a body held still enough in the water.

In the dead center floated a wooden dock. A freckle on the face of the lake, the last dry place to know Leo’s footprints.

~

Will’s son, Foster, was a classmate of the drowned boy, though not his friend. No one was, according to Foster.

“No wonder,” Francine said. She did not bother removing the plastic bulbs pitching music into her ears, even for the sake of courtesy. Air pushed through her wide nostrils, throwing into relief the teardrop dimple above her upper lip. “He was even more of a loser than fat-headed Fossie.”

“Enough, Francine.” Will said this over a dinner of delivery pizza, split among himself and his two children. There was much for Will to dislike about his sixteen-year-old daughter. Worse than her smart mouth and unmasked contempt for him, was the likeness to her mother.

Opposite Francine, his youngest, Foster, was a grade-school bleeding heart—the type of kid who tried to heal roadkill. His report cards were unimpressive, but Will didn’t mind that. Francine was a bookworm and she gave him nothing but trouble.

“It’s okay, Dad,” Foster said. “She doesn’t bother me.” He chewed with careful bites through cheese and meat and red sauce.

Francine slammed her crusts into the garbage, and spat. “I can’t wait to get out of here and away from the two of you.”

Will did not respond, thinking instead of the postcards sent from his wife. They were generic, their glossy fronts chevron or paisley print, all without return addresses. It became Will’s hobby—his obsession—to study them. She did not write much, mostly asked rhetorically after their children, but still he spent hours checking for any sign of regret in her looping vowels, a sense of indecision blotting her periods. Finding none, he tore them to shreds and scattered the remains into his neighbor’s trashcans. Believing they would only serve to upset his children, he never shared them.

Will couldn’t imagine that, if Francine left, she would send him anything.
Ever.

After dinner, he and Foster washed up. The sound of tap water ricocheted off soiled cutlery and rang in their ears.

“You should ignore your sister when she acts like that. I do.”

“What?” Foster asked over the noise.

Will tightened the tap, which plunged the kitchen into silence. He wiped his damp hands on a towel then handed it over. “I said, don’t let your sister get to you.”

Foster took the towel from his father and began methodically drying the valleys of skin between his fingers. “Oh, I don’t anymore. Since Mom—” He bit the rubbery inside of his cheek and peeked up at his father, who keep his face blank. Foster continued, “I remember when Francine was nice.”

Will reached out to take back the dish towel and hung it on the oven door—it’s rightful place for as long as they’d had the house, since the year he and Lorraine were married. To his son, Will said, “Your memory is better than mine.”

~

At Aceymac Lake, a memorial service was arranged in Leo Merwin’s memory. Leo’s mother wasn’t the one to arrange it, but she was there. It was the first town function anyone remembered her attending. She was a loner, not one for dinner parties or lawn gossip with the neighborhood mothers. No one saw her sit among them on the church pews, shifting uncomfortably on the hard wood and nodding solemnly along with the minister’s words, nor did she attend temple with the handful of local Jews. Whenever anyone did speak to her, she stared past their eyes, focused on something unseen in the distance. What did she do all day in that buckling saltbox on the outskirts of Aceymac? Townsfolk wondered. She smelled of candle wax and earth. Children started a rumor that she was a witch. They explained that she had given her son Leo the evil eye, and that was the reason his left socket puckered. Why his gaze was always blank. The adults shushed their sons and daughters, but then whispered over their heads that maybe the kids were onto something.

On the evening of the memorial service, however, Ellie Merwin was the recipient of many dozens of invitations: dinner, drinks, book clubs, grief groups. Over a hoop of carnations given by the mayor himself, he promised the lake would be renamed after her son. Leo was a good boy, other parents said, having never met him. Those children at school who pushed and teased him approached her with their gaze on the ground to tell her they would miss him.

That night, the moon was new and the water black. Still, aside from the ripples that licked up Ellie Merwin’s hands as she dipped them into the lake that swallowed her son.

~

Francine and Foster were allowed to attend the service, but Will told them to return home before nine. He stayed in to scrutinize another of Lorraine’s postcards, bent so low over it that his breath softened the paper. She’d only written to send her useless love to the children, and Will burned the scraps in the oven, clouding his kitchen with smoke that set off the alarm.

Lorraine and Will married out of college and settled into their house and lives in Aceymac. The town was classically New England, with narrow roads that wove through maple woods dappled in sunlight, and every old barn and bridge boasted a historical landmark plaque. Exactly the kind of place they imagined growing old in, surrounded by their children and grandchildren. Will was hired by a consulting firm that outsourced lower-priority clients from New York City, but Lorraine said she wanted to be a stay-at-home mother. It seemed incredible to Will that she could find so much pleasure in sweeping crumbs from the kids’ high chair trays into the wells of her artistic hands, or in picking clothes from the closet and laying them flat for all four of them to wear the next morning. In the early years, Will waited for the moment when she would break and admit that she couldn’t take it anymore, not another nursery rhyme, not another smear of peanut butter and play dough. That never happened. Each morning Lorraine rose sunnily from the bed they shared to tend to their children, and in the evenings, Will returned home to greet an exhausted, but happy, wife and family.

He longed for the days of placing his briefcase on the floor beside the closet, and hanging his coat on the hook, instead of dropping them unceremoniously in the hallway. Lorraine would come to the door and give him a quick kiss on mouth, sighing a breath of warm air before their faces had parted more than an inch. She still closed her eyes whenever they kissed, and as she opened them again, eyelashes moving upward like a paper fan, she would launch into story, “So, let me tell you.”

Could Will have seen it coming? He wondered. He had taken their vows for granted, he decided, believing naively in the promise of forever. Or maybe it was Lorraine herself he had taken for granted. Either way, he wasn’t shocked that she left him. Will didn’t think of himself as especially attractive or smart, he laughed at jokes too late and sometimes drank too much, but for Lorraine to abandon Francine and Foster too... it made him loathe her as much as he still loved her.

~

The days following Leo Merwin’s memorial were somber, more than anyone had expected. Out of a sense of unease, the parents of Aceymac wanted to keep their kids away from the lake. But children flooded the shore like a tide pulled in by the mystery of death. At first none of them dared to touch their bare skin to the water, pacing instead along the crescent of sand, skipping stones at the wet lip of the lake. But when one brave soul finally dove in, the splashing hoard followed.

New water games were invented, each involving at least one of the children pretending to drown. Someone would fill the pillowcase of their cheeks with air, then sink themselves into the murkiness. They would count up until thirty seconds—a minute, two—had passed, then shoot straight to the top like a rubber duck in a bathtub. Meanwhile the other laughed, hearts thumping with the effort of keeping themselves afloat. Heads above the surface, it was easy to feel strong. Their legs and arms churned beneath them, and they imagined how much weaker and slower Leo must have been to succumb to the weight of the water.

They wondered how it happened, the accidental drowning of Leo Merwin. A cramp from swimming too soon after a meal? A bad slip off the platform? No one knew. No one had seen it happen. They were only sure that the body had been raised from the bottom lake. That surprised them; they thought all dead bodies floated. Those children with parents willing to talk informed them that, in fresh water, a drowned person always sank first. It was only later on that it could float. Leo spent a day and a half missing, and his body never got the chance to rise up again.

Neither of Will’s children had ever experienced a death before—not that of a family member, not even of a pet. It did not surprise Will to learn that Francine was hanging around the lake, sulking as if the macabre event were her own personal tragedy. But Foster, too, now spent much of his free time down by the water’s edge. When his father asked him why, he turned even quieter than usual and stared as if looking through the sun’s glare. He said, “I don’t know why, but I feel like that’s where I need to be.” His answer reminded Will of his own fascination with the postcards, by all accounts an unhelpful and wasteful preoccupation. A refusal, an inability to let go. Will used the back of his hand to brush away a crumb of something off of his son’s cheek, and forced a smile.

Following Lorraine’s departure, Will enrolled the three of them in family therapy, because that was what his friends and neighbors and coworkers thought he should do. But with each session more silent and awkward than the last, the counselor finally suggested that each of them see him individually so they would be better able to ‘cope in their own way.’ Now, Will was the only one who still met with Dr. Drandon, though he wasn’t quite sure if it was habit or need that continued to bring him in.

“Perhaps you feel that as long as you do not accept the reality that your wife is gone, there is still hope she will come back?” the doctor suggested.

“How can I accept reality when I don’t know what the reality is? Why did she leave? I thought we were happy. Who did I marry, after all?”

Dr. Drandon asked, “Do you mean, you feel like you never know her?”

Will said, “I mean, she fucking ruined everything.”

One of the worst things Lorraine did to Will was leave her things behind. She took with her some of her clothes, a few books, her heirloom tea set, and her steel string guitar on which she could only ever manage a few chords before her fingertips turned red and sore, and abandoned all else. Like the postcards, Will combed over these items, the debris of a life. He worked hard to remember, to inventory all the things she had brought and disowned, made lists and compiled what he knew about her to try and discern what had made the seemingly arbitrary cut, and why. It was hard not to think of himself and their kids in the same way as the trinkets and sparse jewelry still organized chaotically on the top shelf of her dresser, the vintage record albums she once claimed to love enough to bring to a theoretical deserted island. Her engagement and wedding ring were nowhere to be found, and Will sometimes imagined that she wore them still, perhaps occasionally turning him over in her mind’s eye they way she sometimes had spun the bands on her left hand as she spoke.

At first Will lied, pretending to the children that their mother had gone to help her sister upstate, suddenly ill. They were curious, but not immediately suspicious. Will did, in fact, place a call to his perfectly healthy sister-in-law and a few of Lorraine’s close friends just to check in that she wasn’t staying with them for reasons unknown. No one knew where Lorraine had gone, not that Will expected they would. If Lorraine was planning end her relationship with her children, he couldn’t imagine she had any other ties she would be unwilling to sever.

Will hadn’t wanted to tell the them their mother left, but of course it was inevitable. It was absurd of him to hope that if it were never mentioned, the issue would be entirely avoided. As if their eyes would slip right past her chair at the dining table, her favorite potted plants would wither and die and disappear without comment, and Will’s early middle-aging body could slowly encroach onto her side of the bed until the whole mattress became his own. But the kids would be alright because they were resilient. He repeated this mantra, polishing the lie into a silvery truth.

And wasn’t it true that Lorraine had given them life? Did she have the right, then, walk away from it?

~

Will suspected his children had somehow discovered a loose scrap of their mother’s postcards. He thought this because, after a lifetime of rivalry, Foster and Francine were now spending time together. After work one evening, Will came home to discover the pair sitting side by side on the sofa, neither speaking, staring at nothing in particular.

When Will cleared his throat, they both looked up at him as if their eyes were giving them trouble. It reminded Will of the way his own pupils adjusted from a darkened room.

“Everything okay?” Will asked.

“Yeah, Dad. Everything is fine?” Foster’s tone was less reassuring than bewildered. Francine stood and walked away, wordless.

Will’s eyes followed her, but he spoke to Foster. “I’m starving, what are you thinking for dinner, pizza? Or, if you’re feeling brave, your old man could cook something for you.”

“Not sure, I’m going to lie down. You can choose.”

Foster climbed the stairs to his room and was still asleep when Will knocked on the door later. He left a plate of overcooked pasta on the bedside table.

Will vowed to hide the next hideous correspondence in his car’s glove-compartment until he was able to dispose of it using his office’s shredder.

~

School loomed on the horizon like the setting summer sun, a pendulum in the late August sky. Francine and Foster continued to act... oddly. But his children weren’t the only ones. At the grocery, the gas station, and the bank he overheard other Aceymac parents all swapping stories. Amelia Mathers’ six year began sleeping in the bathtub; Bob Sunn’s three daughters were uprooting the family’s Japanese maple tree for some incomprehensible reason; Jessica and Jim Yearlie’s newborn developed a crick in her neck and went crosseyed.

This confounded Will, who already had not known how to interpret his own eerily quiet household. The lack of din should have made Will jubilant, but as a parent he was keenly aware of the anxiety that settled alongside silence. His teenaged daughter could never have been described as docile. Yet, here she was, politely passing the butter at breakfast and cleaning her room when she was told. At first Will guessed it was an act, that she was purposely feigning obedience so that she could claim good behavior when she requested some ridiculous freedom later—like a tattoo or a road-trip with a boyfriend. Will found himself skirting around her as if she were a live wire. But no shock came, which was a shock itself.

That was around the time Foster began skipping dinner in lay outside and press his ears to the ground as if listening to voices beneath the soil. And when Will looked over the hedge into the neighbors yard, he saw that Foster wasn’t the only one.

~

Somehow, from someone, the drowned boy came up.

Aceymac residents begged the town council to drain the lake, convinced their children had caught something, that they had been somehow contaminated. The water, perhaps, held on to something from Leo Merwin’s death—something that snaked into their own children and changed them. It wasn’t reason or science, but how else to explain it? But the Mayor, a childless man, pointed out that the adults too had all been exposed to the water, and were fine. And besides, was he expected to vacuum it out with his upright? It wasn’t practical, he said.

And so, during the final night of summer vacation, the children of Acymac marched themselves toward the lake.

Will awoke while the moon was still high and bright enough to look like the star on a Christmas tree. He’d had a nightmare that his ex-wife had kidnapped Francine and Foster. He knew the cause was Lorraine’s latest postcard. In place of the usual platitudes, she’d written, I wish I could be the kind of mother they need again. But I never could, not in Aceymac. What could that mean? He fretted. Did she intend to return, snatch up the kids after two years of absence and take them away? Would she have the nerve?

Impulsively, to reassure himself, Will crept down the hall to where the kids slept. Francine and Foster’s bedrooms lay across from one another. For several seconds, Will stood listening for the sounds of sleep—the circle of breathing, the crack of a tense mattress spring. He heard nothing. Francine’s door was closed, but Foster’s was slightly ajar. Will gently pushed it aside, as if sweeping away a lock of hair from his son’s forehead. Foster’s bed sheets were blank as a page, his comforter waterfalling onto the floor. In the next room he find Francine’s also vacant, and for a moment Will felt the terror of his subconscious crashing into reality. The bitch had really done it. She’d taken his children.

The sound of shuffling through the screens diverted his initial panic. Outside, a herd of children moved as if being called by the Pied Piper. Will rushed outside to follow them from the house all the way down to Aceymac Lake. Intuition made him certain they were heading in that direction even before turning on to the dampened, downhill road. Their eyes were open but glassy and blind, their ears deaf to the waking world. Will orbited around them, hollering names, grabbing them, shaking some so hard their baby teeth clicked together inside their jaws. They did nothing but walk, made no sound besides the noise of their slow feet—bare, freshly scraped and blackened from asphalt—carrying them unflinchingly forward.

At the lake, the sand was so densely packed beneath the hundreds of tiny soles that it lost its powdery quality and become solid as concrete. It stunned Will to see all the children spread out before him like photographs in a yearbook. He searched the crowd for the familiar faces of Foster and Francine. Foster! Francine! What he wouldn’t give to see Foster’s crooked grin, his darling daughter’s dimples. She was born during a blizzard; Will had to stop the car three times on the way to the hospital to clear the road. Lorraine’s panting and the way her thighs convulsed as if struck by lightning had Will convinced their daughter would be born right there on the dashboard. But it would be another ten hours once they reached labor and delivery before she reached up through blood and bramble to enter the world. Lorraine was too exhausted afterwards to hold on to all seven pounds and eight ounces of Francine, so she slept in Will’s arms and he kept vigil. He watched petal soft lips quiver noiselessly, listening to the wind knock snow around outside. He and Lorraine were charged with protecting and loving her, and then later Foster, from that night forward. And Will had done that hadn’t he? Even without Lorraine, even when he’d rather not. Where was Lorraine now, when he and the children needed her?

One day, after carpooling her kids to school and kissing her husband on his way to work, Lorraine packed up some clothing, and books, and her heirloom tea set, and steel string guitar, and left home. Two years later, Aceymac Lake drowned Leo Merwin the summer before he began fifth grade. Will couldn’t even say that he knew one better than the other.

Will continued searching the crowd for the faces of his family. He waited there with the children on the sand, waited for the first footfall into the black water.
   
Rachael Inciarte holds an MFA from Emerson College. Her work has been published in Post Road Magazine and NANO Fiction.​