Sometimes you have to discard your past.
Never swim in the pond.
These were the two maxims by which my grandmother lived. The first one made sense to me, even as a child. Some mementos held warmth, like my basketball-shaped eraser from kindergarten and a downy yellow scrap of my baby blanket. Other souvenirs needed to be dropped in a fire pit with gasoline and a match. Every summer, I carried such flammables with me in an old shoebox when my parents dropped me on my grandmother's front porch. That first night, with a warm scatter of fireflies across the grass, we went out back and burned things. My old report cards with their progression of ticked "behavioral problems" boxes. A calendar of my favorite band, which underwent a cataclysmic split. The tattered pink-and-black friendship bracelet from Rachel Hawkins, who in the space between seventh and eighth grade, hit puberty and became too cool to hang out with scrawny little me, with my big ears and nerd glasses. That one lit fast and burned long, fueled by years of suffused sweat. This rule of my grandmother's made sense.
The rule about the pond, on the other hand, baffled me for years. For those of you not in the know - you're probably from somewhere like Minnesota or Maine or Michigan, where summer is a reprieve from bitter winter - July in the hill country of Texas is a geography from which the devil himself draws inspiration. My grandmother's house was air conditioned, technically, but she grew up ingrained with the economics of the Great Depression, and my grandfather ran off in '64, leaving her to raise my father on a single income. The good Lord gave us screened windows and a stiff breeze for a reason, so the dials on the window units rusted into place at 82 degrees.
So it was, every summer, I slouched into the kitchen, Charmander shirt clinging to my nubby shoulder blades, and begged for a momentary suspension of the pond rule. The good Lord was clearly busy providing for orphans in Sri Lanka and had neglected to maintain our temperature. In the long run, our concerns were trifling. In the meanwhile, I was going to melt like a tub of butter left on the counter. I collapsed on a kitchen stool and pressed my forehead into the vaguely cool linoleum. Drawing on that sensation, I daydreamed about the pond, tucked in the hollow down behind the house. It was ringed with cedar trees, hidden from the boundary fence separating my grandmother's land from the Colters'. I imagined releasing my breath and sinking down to its unknown depths, suspended in womb-like silence, hair floating like kelp.
Without fail, my grandmother listened silently to my complaint. When I exhausted my frustration, she wiped her hands down on her apron, made of flour-sack material in a faded floral pattern. Setting aside her pie crust, she'd crack open the refrigerator, a stainless-steel behemoth forty years younger than the other appliances. Careful to let as little cold escape as possible, she withdrew an opaque glass pitcher and then a mason jar from the cupboards. Rest assured, these jars originally housed preserves and were not purchased clean and sparkling for the purpose of containing beverages. My grandmother, despite her intentions to judge not, suspended that stricture to squint at such trends. After pouring me a jar of lemonade, squeezed that morning, she ambled out and pulled another lemon from the gloss-leafed tree off the front porch. She would take a wood-handled paring knife and excise a perfect round from the center of the fruit. Drawing the knife in a clean slit from center to rind, she slid the round over the lip of the jar and set it before me.
As I slaked my thirst, she resumed her baking preparations and reminded me why we did not swim in the pond. Her rationale evolved with the years. When I was five, I had an unfortunate encounter with a strong set of waves at the beach. My lingering thalassophobia rendered any explanation unnecessary; I cast a wary eye on bathtubs, much less natural bodies of water. When I was nine, my childish fears behind me, it was the cows. They drank from that pond, you see, and you wouldn't want all that cow slobber and chewed-up grass sticking to your skin, would you? In the throes of a lengthy squeamish stage, I mounted my bicycle and trekked over to the Colter property. Like civilized folk, they had a flagstone-edged pool installed in their backyard. Pool privileges meant pretending to enjoy the twins' intense love of Bratz dolls - I was more a Beanie Baby kid myself - and suffering the presence of their soulless ginger younger brother. Jeffrey was directly responsible for the temporary loss of my eyebrows, my fear of fish heads, and the whooping I got at eleven years old for dropping my first big-girl curse word in the presence of a responsible adult. All in all, though, the twins were nice girls and Mrs. Colter frequently treated us to rocket popsicles and nail polish. Mr. Colter, I gathered, made like my grandfather and vanished from their lives when Jeff was in diapers. I returned to my grandmother's narrow two-story, exhausted, and fell asleep smelling of chlorine and sweat.
The Colter girls exceeded my expectations by not turning into shallow nitwits when they emerged from their chrysalises between sophomore and junior year of high school as gorgeous brunettes with cheerleader skirts. By those summers, the slobbering cows were sold off. At seventy, my grandmother didn't have the energy to deal with their shit, figuratively or literally. The one time I asked about the pond, off-handedly, she looked over her perpetually-thickening lenses and dropped the death sentence of Flesh-Eating Bacteria. It was all over the news those days. The county health inspector had taken samples from the pond and advised complete avoidance of its waters. I bought it. What sane grandparent would try to sell that if it weren't true?
I almost didn't come the summer after my freshman year of college. Most of my new friends had either gone home or to Europe, and most of my friends from high school were overachievers in summer classes. My mother wandered into my room the week after I got home, phone receiver pressed against her chest. "It's your grandmother," she said, stepping over my half-deflated duffel. She lingered, expression faintly taut. It was clear she knew the last semester had not been an outstanding period of my life, but also clear she didn't want to pry. "Did you have a minute?"
I took the receiver. "Yeah, of course." I exhaled and dropped onto my bed, lifting the phone. "You know, G, I do have a cell phone number these days."
She chuckled. "Dear, I don't want to be pestering you while you're off at school. I imagine you have plenty keeping you occupied."
I flopped onto my back and stared up at the lazy drift of the fan blades. "I'm not so busy I don't have a few minutes to talk to my favorite grandmother," I said. "I'm pretty sure I could've slept through most of American Lit and still pulled a B."
"You're so sweet, Katie-bee. I don't want to be taking up your college time, though. I imagine you have a lot of new experiences under your belt now, with all those classes and boys and new friends."
I was quiet for half a second too long. "Yeah, just a few."
My grandmother made a soft sound. "You know you're always welcome out here. Would you like to come for a few days? Bring a box or two for the fire?"
I swabbed my eyes clear only for them to instantly refill. My voice cracked once. "Yeah. Yeah, I would please."
Both of my parents were a little surprised, but neither protested. Dad filled up the tank of my little Focus the next weekend, and I drove out. It was the first time I'd made the trip alone; it was a five-hour schlep from our dwelling in east Texas. I plugged my phone in and listened, in a spate of emotional indulgence, to the entire first Evanescence album. I'd dated a couple guys in high school, nothing serious. Then I got to college, where upperclassmen cautioned against dating freshman year. Something about figuring yourself out before entangling time and emotions with another person. I scoffed, vaunting my status as a sophomore by hours, which I believed endowed me with sufficient maturity to date whenever I wanted sans repercussions. Then Eric Villier came along. He was tall, he played rugby, and his poison of choice was an Irish car bomb. In short, he was not the usual type who found me interesting, but that usual type also rarely worked up the courage to ask me out.
Eric, on the other hand, scrawled his phone number under my knuckles with a sharpie after a particularly heated argument in an upper-level world history course. Said I was feisty, and he liked that. We went out for six months. I was enraptured enough to look off the sense of humor he considered "edgy" and his constant reassurance that I "wasn't like other girls." This relationship terminated abruptly as I discovered him intimately entangled on his living room floor with an attractive volleyball player. There was a screaming match. I rearranged his television screen with one of his economics textbooks. With scathing originality, he called me a bitch and argued that we never defined our relationship as exclusive. A couple weeks later, the semester and that relationship were over. I came home, and the abrupt cessation of Monday 8 ams and reading reports and calculus homework left me with all too much time to brood.
I was still turning it all over in my mind - was I to blame? Was I worth so little he felt the need to find intimacy elsewhere? - when I rattled over the cattle guard onto my grandmother's land. Her house perched atop a gentle hill, its creamy boards blushing orange with the setting sun. Faint smoke rose from the back yard. I left my luggage in the trunk and took just my purse and a shoebox. Among the box's contents was an Iron Man T-shirt Eric got for my birthday, which should've been my first sign. I hated Iron Man and his douchey little beard, but then again, Eric's conception of geekery was definitively monotone. Couched under the shirt were a photo strip from a friend's wedding and a dog-eared playbill from our university's production of Oklahoma!, and trivial little bits and bobs that felt like constant paper cuts.
She was waiting at the fire. With a sweating glass of lemonade in hand, she sat on her favorite camping chair, ankles crossed. The fire flickered thoughtfully in the panes of her glasses. "Glad you made it in before dark. It's so hard to see without good streetlights."
I laid a soft arm over her shoulders. "Maybe they'll get some out here eventually."
She shrugged beneath me, raising one hand to pat my elbow. "I don't mind the dark so much. It's peaceful. Quiet." Fireflies hovered along the grass like gently intermittent stars. She glanced at the box tucked between my elbow and side. "It's all ready when you are."
I hesitated, staring at the box lid. Some perverse hesitation rose up in me, as if by retaining these trinkets I might cling to hope. My grandmother spread her palm over the box. "Sometimes you have to throw out your past, dear. Learn from it. Grow stronger because of it. But get rid of it before it poisons your future."
I exhaled and threw the box wholesale into the fire. As the cardboard blackened and flaked, I sat down and burst into racking sobs. Slowly, my grandmother raised herself from her chair and sat next to me, stroking my hair. We sat there until stars crusted the blackening sky.
Despite my class schedule and grad school applications, I managed to make it out to her house a few days every summer. They were never eventful. I learned how to lattice pie crusts. She sat in her favorite recliner and read deep into the evenings. We drove into town, an hour round-trip, to stock up on items she couldn't raise in the garden, like paper towels and light bulbs. After a surprise promotion at my first job, I bought her a new, gleaming set of kitchen knives. She sent me a thank-you note in spiderweb cursive, and I noticed for the first time the tremble in the loops of her Ls and Gs. I lived seven hours away, but I found more excuses to take weekends off. My grandmother needed help replanting the vegetable garden. The roof was leaking. Her cat needed to be taken to the vet again. That last one was entirely fiction, as my grandmother's cats were feral, but it gave me a reason. I fueled a couple more fires. We got central air conditioning installed, which all but removed the pond from my mind, although I could have sworn I heard her wandering down toward it once or twice in the middle of the night. When I asked, she only shrugged and said the old needed less sleep than the young.
I got the call a couple years into my first full-time job as a proofreader for a company that published the glossy, generic pamphlets that populated any doctor's office. Mrs. Colter found my grandmother in her garden with her trowel still in hand. There were letters for me and a reading of the will to be held after the funeral. It was a small service, mostly people from around town, a smattering of second and third cousins I hadn't seen in a decade. It startled some of them when the lawyer informed us my grandmother had left the house and all fifteen acres to me. It certainly startled me.
In a private letter, written on a legal pad a day before her passing, she noted her increasing fragility. Her letters jittered on the page, which was littered with blue ink spots. She asked me to return Mrs. Colter's cast-iron skillet and vacuum cleaner, as she doubted she would have the chance. Holed up in a booth at the town's first and only Starbucks, I stared at the last sentences for a long time, unsure of their meaning. Dearest Katie, I know that the matter of the pond has plagued you for many years. I do not have the energy or time to explain all the reasons behind it. The basement may hold some answers for you. Know that everything I did I believed necessary at the time. We must look out for our own. I love you, my dear. I rubbed my right eyebrow with my palm, set down the letter, and planted myself back in line. This was a three-coffee puzzler, no doubt about it.
The guy in front of me took his credit card back from the barista and thanked her with a crooked little smile I found uncannily familiar. It had faded in the last decade or so from fire-hydrant to rich auburn, but I knew that hair. "Jeffrey Colter," I said.
He froze with his wallet halfway down his back pocket. "Uhh. Yeah?" He pressed his knuckles to his lips and barked a laugh. "Holy hell, long time no see. What're you doing in town, Katie?"
I waited a second. Jeff sucked in a breath and stiffened. "Sorry, dumb question."
I shrugged. "It's all good. Just here for a few days to sort things."
"Yeah, Mom told me you got the house." Jeff waved me up to the counter. "Drink's on me, least I can do."
It would be an insult if I turned him down, in small town etiquette, and I didn't think an iced green tea was going to bankrupt him anyway. We retired to my claimed booth and caught up a bit. He'd graduated a couple years ago with some form of engineering degree and was working up in the Panhandle on the oil fields. Shelley was getting married this weekend, so he was back for the wedding. I gathered from the edge of his tone and curl of his lip that he did not possess great fondness for the fiancé, so I asked. After an obligatory hem and haw, Jeff described the man as "kind of a controlling fuck." But whatever made his sister happy, right? Shifting in his seat, Jeff glanced away and tapped my grandmother's letter, folded over. "Homework?"
"God no." I considered the paper a moment. "Last note from my grandma."
He made a sympathetic sound. "Sorry."
"She had a good run," I said. "Don't get me wrong. I've exhausted a couple boxes of Kleenex already the last few days, but I think it was her time. I can kinda be okay with that." We sat in silence a moment. He considered the intricacy of the kinks in his straw, which he'd been fiddling with the whole time. I exhaled shortly. "Did you guys ever have issues with flesh-eating bacteria on your land?"
Jeff frowned. "Nah, definitely not. I was into gross science growing up. I woulda known."
"Fair enough." I fiddled with the corner of the letter. "It's the weirdest thing, my grandmother never let me go in the pond down behind the house, and her excuses about it were never consistent. It was bacteria one year and piranhas another." I aimed a finger at him as he laughed. "I was six, man."
He raised his hands, eyes sparkling. "Hey, I didn't say anything."
"Glad to see you're still a little shit," I said, unable to stifle a smile. "Anyway." I unfolded the letter and pointed at the last lines. "I don't know what the hell this means and was just curious if it rang any bells."
He scanned it, forehead dimpling. "You gone to check out the basement yet?"
"That's the thing," I said. "I didn't know there was a basement until about fifteen minutes ago."
Jeff looked up at me and tilted his head. "Okay, that's weird. Wouldn't surprise me if there is one in the house, though. Plenty of space on the back side."
"Huh," I said. "Guess that's a place to start."
We chatted a few more minutes, exchanging phone numbers. He wanted to know whether I actually found a basement and I told him I could be an errand monkey if Shelley needed anything last-minute. After that I went home and poured myself lemonade. For fortification, I added the unlabeled whiskey slipped to me by a distant cousin at the funeral. We always had one moonshiner in the family. With buzzing fingertips, I investigated the house for hidden doors or hatches, coming up with nothing but dust bunnies and a headache. After that I checked the outside of the house as well, in case there were a room not accessible from the interior of the house. So it was, as the bloody sun receded, I encountered the door buried beneath the ivy smothering the back of the house. I'd always wondered why she let the vines grow uninhibited.
I could've waited for the next day's light. Instead, burning with curiosity and bootleg alcohol, I obtained a high-powered flashlight and hedge clippers from the utility room. It took a few minutes to hack away the foliage in the twilight and a few more to find the right key on my grandmother's massive clanking ring. The lock clicked open as the last crescent of the sun vanished behind the hills. The door was old, wooden, and looked warped into the frame. I wrapped both hands around the handle, one of those massive circular iron ones, and hauled back.
The door was not as warped into the frame as it looked. I fell flat on my ass, certain my grandmother's specter was shaking her head at my language. Hauling back up to my feet, I squinted into the doorway. Illuminated by the white cone of my flashlight, I saw the hallway stretching for five feet into an open room. My flashlight glinted off something on the back wall. Looked like a pegboard of tools. I slapped around on the wood-paneled wall for a light switch to no avail. The wind rose, tailing off into a soft moan around the house.
"Suck it up, kiddo," I said. "It's a basement. Not a haunted house. Probably." I strode in, sweeping my flashlight around the room. The lavender twilight did not extend past the hallway, which limited my vision to the reach of the flashlight. There was, in fact, a board of tools set into the wall over a plain wooden set of cabinets with old rubberized handles. I tipped my head and frowned. To my knowledge, my grandmother's expertise remained with the essentials – screwdrivers and tape measures and the like. These were tools primarily of the slicing and bludgeoning kind. I reached out and skimmed my finger over the side of a snub-nosed saw. It could have been the influence of my NCIS addiction, but this particular implement would look at home in a morgue. The metal tray of knives on top of the cabinet wouldn't quite, which in no way dulled the sharpness of the blades.
On the plus side of things, there was an ancient metal lamp perched on the far corner of the cabinet. Its cord snaked down to an outlet near the ground. I located the twisty knob on the head of the lamp and turned it on, rotating the lamp toward the center of the room. It was occupied by a stainless-steel table, which stood over a wide-mouthed drain in the center of the floor. Old, iron stains marred the cement. On the table was a human skull, death-grinning at me with cavernous eye sockets.
I didn't quite scream, but it was a near thing. After a long moment, filled only with the keen of the wind, I relaxed my grip on the flashlight. Rubbing my aching palm, I stepped forward and picked up the skull. It didn't look or feel like plastic, and the gold-capped molars lent themselves to authenticity. "What the shit, Grams?" I muttered. It was definitely an adult-sized skull, faintly yellowed with age. I set it back on the table and turned toward the cabinets.
The first held stacked sheets of plastic, rolls of unopened duct tape, and packages of elbow-length rubber gloves. I cursed and moved onto the second. Five more skulls stared out at me, each next to a collection of personal belongings. Wallets. A leather belt with a silver and turquoise plate buckle. One worn pair of black loafers, crusted with mud. A set of Dodge truck keys. A tarnished gold class ring, its face the size of a nickel. I picked it up and tilted it to check for an inscription. In the harsh white light, I found one on the inside of the band. Jonathan Colter, Class of '85. I always heard he ran off and never came back. Just sent cash in the mail to Jeff's mom. This – well, this indicated his skull had been moldering in my grandmother's secret basement for a couple decades.
Vaguely numb, I sorted through the other damning personal effects. They indicated the skulls were all male. All the names I found I also recognized as local. A banker. A pastor. A couple general reprobates. The oldest sat in the back of the last cabinet atop a pocket watch with my grandfather's name engraved in it. At that point things got a little blurry. I stumbled out onto the grass, trying not to throw up. The entire evening held the wavery feel of a nightmare, needing to run but having your feet rooted in the ground. Soft yellow lights shone from the living room windows. I closed my eyes and dug my fingers into the grass.
After wrestling my nausea down, I stared off toward the pond, which was obscured from this angle by the slope of the hill and the surrounding cluster of trees. I still didn't know what founded my grandmother's prohibitions on swimming in it. Unfortunately, I had new ideas. I broke into a trot downhill, flashlight swinging. The light glanced off the surface of the pond, which rippled wetly in the wind. I dug my phone from the back pocket of my jeans and threw it onto the grass before splashing in to my waist. The water was skin temperature. Rocks and sticks ground together under my feet. I took a breath and dove under, forcing my eyes open and hoping the flashlight was water-resistant. I looked toward the center of the pond. The flashlight gave me a shaking cone of visibility, revealing nothing but wavering plant life, specks of organic detritus, and a terrified frog. I surfaced and inhaled sharply, wiping my eyes. A branch stabbed into my foot as I stepped forward. "Son of a bitch," I said. My voice shook worse than my grandmother's ancient washing machine. Fishing around under the surface, I closed my hand around the impediment and pulled up a long, white bone.
I froze. My chest tightened up. I suddenly didn't want to think about what was crunching under my feet, or how long this bone had been here, to be so clean, or – something slimy brushed the side of my leg and holy shit damn had my grandmother not lied about the piranhas oh my God were there flesh-eating fish in this pond. Heart slamming against my ribcage, I dropped the femur and splashed back toward the shore. Gasping, I stumbled out and collapsed, trying to breathe. I flopped over on my back and stared up at the sky. The stars climbed ahead, and the moon secreted itself behind a gauzy wisp of cloud. My thoughts scattered. My grandmother killed people. My grandmother killed people. My grandmother killed people. My grandmother killed people. It was strange how emphasis shifted meaning. English was funny like that. The fact that I was thinking about linguistics at this exact juncture in time probably meant I was deep in shock.
Far too close to me, a riotous chorus of banjos broke into song. I shrieked and lurched away from the noise. It dawned on me, half a second too late, that it was a cell phone and I was wound tighter than a guitar string. Rolling onto my elbows, I swept my hands through the grass and found my phone. "Hey." I tipped the phone away and cleared my throat, bringing my voice to an audible pitch. "Hey, Jeff. You, uh." I fumbled for something safe. "You survive the rehearsal and all?"
His voice scraped over the line. "Katie, I've got a huge favor to ask."
I frowned. I could hear a woman sobbing in the background. Having lived in a women's dorm for a couple years, I could distinguish pretty well the different genres of crying. This was beyond everyday tones of upset and into ragged, heartbroken pain. Despite what I told Jeff earlier, this was a sound with which I was intimately familiar after the last few days. "Yeah, of course, is everything okay?"
"No." His voice wavered. I couldn't tell with what emotion. "Shelley ran into one of her high school exes in town. They just talked. Laurence was already sauced before the rehearsal. Found out and lost his shit. Broke her nose. Maybe her arm. Can't tell. Bruised her up pretty bad."
"Christ," I said. It served both as expletive and divine appeal.
"I know your grandma kept a whole bunch of medical supplies on hand. Fixed me up more'n a few times when we didn't have insurance. Maybe it's out of line but I really need to take Shells somewhere safe right now."
The wash of cold rage surging through my bones silenced me for a moment. "Shouldn't you be taking her to a hospital? Or call the freaking cops?"
"Martin," he said. "Her fiance's Laurence Martin."
I sucked in a breath through my teeth. "Shit. Sheriff's kid?" My grandmother did not hate many people, but the erstwhile sheriff garnered her deadliest manners. Well. Apparently not her actual deadliest, given he was still shuffling around, crocodile-grinning and protecting his own.
"Yeah," said Jeff. "Not the first time it's happened either. Never this bad before."
"Come over here then," I said. I felt deep certainty settling in my limbs. The world called to me in a warm wash of calmness. The moon glimmered on the soft ripples of the water below. I stood up and began climbing the hill toward my house. "I'll get everything set out." Ice packs. Gauze. Plastic sheeting. Bandages. Hydrocodone.
His exhale shook. "Thank you. Thank you, Katie."
"Don't worry," I said. I pictured the cabinet under my grandmother's bathroom sink, where she kept her medical supplies in a couple fishing-tackle boxes. That image was curiously overlaid in my mind with the image of the basement cabinets, stacked with skulls. "We'll fix this, Jeff. Don't worry. You just get her here. I'll take care of it."
And I would. Because I had a basement. And I had a pond.