It had been a long hard winter. The freeze had begun in October and as March drew to a close it seemed it would never end. Then April Fool’s Day came bringing with it warmer temperatures and the sun shining brightly on soil that had been ice bound for months. The runoff was fierce and flooding hit hard. Those of us who lived near the river watched the banks with trepidation. My little house was not as close as some of my neighbors but when a small community experiences trouble we all share it. The melt was bad enough; the rains that followed only compounded a bad situation. The whole town pitched in to stack sandbags around the foundations of the houses nearest the river. Jo and Glenn Baker lived closest to the river; their house built on stilts in an effort to avoid the possibility of flooding. But as the river edge grew closer to the stilts and eventually made its way up, foot by foot, it was apparent the stilts might not be enough to keep the house dry.
Jo and Glenn moved their sheepdogs to their cousin’s house on the hill. There wasn’t much they could do but watch the water rise and move valuables like family photos and treasures to the upper floor. In the end their back deck was washed away when the soil that held the stilts gave way. Piece by piece it floated off in a rush of gray water with white caps like an ocean storm instead of a raging river. About that time they decided enough was enough and got a storage unit in town and started moving as much as they could out of the house.
Dewey Parker lost his shed but by some miracle the house stayed put. The sandbags kept most of the water out but his carpet was ruined and the tiles in his bathroom floated in an inch of dirty water. His wife Ella ran screaming from the house when she jumped off the commode after seeing a fat rat swimming vigorously in the bathtub. Dewey actually got a laugh out of it and retold the story for days.
By the second week of April things began to simmer down. The rain lessened and the sun peeked out every so often, making a valiant effort to dry up some of the soil. The third week into April the rain stopped and the waters began to recede. Folks stopped making jokes about building an ark. It seemed as though the nightmare was over and life could begin the slow process of returning to normal.
The last week of April is the week we all remember. That was the week the first body floated past the boat ramp. Four of the local boys had disobeyed their parents and gone down to the river to see if there was anything worth collecting the way small boys like to collect things. Joey Fisher thought it was a mannequin and even considered trying to swim out and get it. The boys ran along the river’s edge following it as it bobbed along. It was Mike Mills who got the closest to it when it got hooked on a tree that had fallen into the river and extended several feet into the murky waters. The boys were arguing about the likelihood it was a body when two more bobbed along like they were joining a death dance party. That sent the boys running to the road where they flagged down the Nelson twins who were heading into town for the first baseball practice of the season. The Nelson twins pulled over and chewed the boys out for their stupidity and followed them back to the river’s edge. Bobby Nelson pulled out his cell phone and almost dropped it when he dialed the sheriff to report five bodies stuck out in the middle of the river, bobbing around, arms and legs entangled as though they were performing a bizarre group hug.
By the time the sheriff got to the spot in the river where the boys were all staring silently at the growing number of bodies, it was up to nine by then, the Nelson twins had taken pictures with their cell phones and news was already making its way through town. Within about an hour the river bank was crowded with spectators trying to count the tangle of bodies and discern their genders, some of which were naked as newborn babies. When all was said and done seventeen bodies were pulled from the river in varying states of decay. Nine were women and eight were males. The males looked to be young, barely out of their teens although it was left to the state medical examiner to make the final call on that.
When the rains of April finally gave way to the warm, sunny days of May more bodies had been discovered further up the river. State investigators were joined by federal investigators and the riverbank was sealed off for several miles. The Nelson twins and the four boys who had first spotted the macabre display became instant celebrities since they were the discoverers of the biggest thing to happen in the area since Clara Woodstock shot her husband for chasing skirts in the next town over twenty years earlier.
Amidst all the fuss and attention the adults began to look at one another with a degree of suspicion. It was Steve Bumpus who first pointed out in his soft steady voice, “Guess someone around here has a taste for killing.”
He was leaning on the checkout counter at the IGA, a long line stretching behind him and every checkout backed up with Saturday shoppers when he made his statement. It was like someone dropped a thick quilt over the whole store as the hush spread from line to line and heads swiveled about to check the reactions of those nearby. A few of the older folk asked “What did he say?” and were answered in whispers that sounded like the soft hissing of steam from a kettle with a busted whistle.
I was stocking at IGA that year. I didn’t hear the remark but I did hear the silence that followed it, if it could be called hearing. I guess it was more like not hearing. There was no more kids fussing for the candy that lined the displays at the checkout, no more grumbling about the rise in the cost of eggs and milk, and no more huffing and puffing from impatient shoppers who thought the lines should always be open and available for them and them alone. I moved down the cereal aisle where I had been stocking the corn flakes that were on sale and had been cleared out twice that week already. It was creepy, like watching a DVD on pause, people just standing, some with mouths hanging open like they had been saying something and stopped mid sentence. Steve picked up his two bags of groceries, gave a quick glance around the store, then strode easily out the automatic doors with no look back at the mess he’d just started.
Then, as if the door swishing closed behind him threw an unseen switch, the registers started binging, the voices were raised, and the kids resumed fussing for candy that would keep them spinning like dervishes for the remainder of the afternoon.
Billy Lawrence, the other stocker, passed me on his way to the back carrying empty boxes from the end caps. “What happened?” I asked.
He gave an uneasy glance back at the front of the store. “Nothing important.”
If there ever was an understatement that was it. And the weeks that followed proved just how much of an understatement it was.