by Joe Baumann
In the picture that appeared on the news and in the newspapers Amos looked younger, his hair short and rounded and even over his forehead and it made his face look different. Bigger and wider, pale and canvas. But the day he fell into the river, Posey’s hair, which swished just behind her shoulders, was barely longer than his and was the same caramel color. From behind, they looked like twins. I usually followed a few feet behind them when we walked to the bridges.
When we were at the bridge’s center, Amos leaned against the rail just like every time. He craned over especially far when the boats fluttered down. Caught by the wind, turning over and over in loopy somersaults, they’d go twisting under the bridges, away from where we could see. Feet on the sagging wood railings, Amos would laugh, let his hands’ grip loosen sometimes. He always said feeling gravity fight to suck you down was a rush. Posey did it too, now and then, but I always shook my head and watched them.
The day he fell in, the water was gushing and white.
When Amos’ mom left, she put a note on the kitchen table that he found after school. He held it until his father came home from work hours later. Amos hadn’t turned any of the lights on, just sat on the slick leather couch that sucked him down like quicksand between the cushions. He didn’t say anything, just stood up and waited for his father to walk into the room. Thrust the note toward him. Watched his eyes drizzle across the paper. His shoulders slump. His briefcase crack against the floor.
Amos came to live with us when his father’s drinking killed him. He was thinner than me and had no friends. He’d lived hours away. My dad stood me in front of him, bending down and placing both hands on my shoulders. We’d gone to Uncle Ned’s funeral the day before. He explained about Amos living with us. Smiled at me. His teeth were white and straight. He said that real men shared their rooms. Would I mind sharing? I shrugged and shook my head no.
Amos slept on the floor in a sleeping bag that first night, before my parents went out and bought him a bed and cleared out my father’s office for his room. We didn’t speak. I had some plastic stars on the ceiling, the kind that glow in the dark. We stared up at them. When my eyes started to pulse, I shut them and fell asleep. I don’t know if Amos was comfortable enough for sleep too. When I woke up in the morning he was already down at breakfast. The sleeping bag was a broken cocoon.
Posey screamed. The noise vibrated against the nearby trees. I ran to the rail and looked over. He was somewhere down there, far away. We couldn’t see him. Only heard rushing water. I hadn’t heard a splash or a yelp or anything at all. Just the pounding white water slithering under the bridge.
I looked around. No cars anywhere. Of course not. The bridge was too small, on a hiking trail, maybe fifteen feet above the river. I leaned over again and felt the rail yawn against my weight and I backed up. Looked at Posey. She was pale and wobbly. I worried she would faint and I’d have to carry her all the way back to my house. Someone would think we’d done something wrong. My arms shook. I looked back down at the water. The paper boat that Amos had thrown had landed and was drifting across the surface of the water toward the shadowy underside of the bridge, bobbing along as if nothing was wrong when everything was very wrong.
“Do you like bridges?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Rivers are cool, you know.” His father was an architect, he said. Designed a lot of bridges. “Small ones, though.”
“We should go look at one.”
“They’re all over here.”
“Didn’t you know that?”
“Do you know how to make a paper boat?”
“I’ll show you.”
My mouth was opening and closing and my jaw hurt. I must have looked like a fish. Posey ran to the other side of the bridge and I followed her, unsure of what else to do. The boat appeared, fluttering along in a wavy line. I could tell it was crumbling, the bottom soggy and disintegrating. It started to sink, swallowed up by the water.
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know.”
I looked at Posey’s hands. They gripped the wood hard. I thought it might weep, or bleed.
“Where is he?” Her voice cracked as she screamed. She raised her hands to her ears and pulled at her hair. Strands stuck out, like she’d been shocked.
“I don’t know.”
He’d turned invisible, dragged down by the current, or something. The water gurgled, slipping across the rocks like plucked harp strings.
Amos went to school with me. He was a grade above me, but he sat with me at lunch. We didn’t talk much. Jelly seeped out of his sandwich. His didn’t have peanut butter on it like mine because he was allergic. Or didn’t like it. I didn’t ask.
At recess he sat on the edge of the concrete in front of school, where it dropped down six inches and became blacktop. I played basketball but wasn’t very good. I kept looking toward Amos, so guys zipped by me and made layups. My friends yelled at me. But I kept glancing at him. One of Amos’ shoes was untied, laces fluttering in the heaving breeze.
Posey and I walked home in silence. She was shaking. I took her hand and she tried to smile. She gripped my hand tight. It hurt, but I looked away and grimaced. It was the first time we’d held hands. When she asked what we should do I said I didn’t know. I was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and had the hood pulled tight against my hairline. I had to turn my head to look at her.
We heard cars when we crawled out of the woods, thought they’d be police cars. As if by magic they knew.
“How can we know?”
“I don’t know. But I do. Where else could he be.”
“I don’t know, I guess.”
We stood in silence as cars washed by us in flashes.
“Will we go to jail?”
“Not if we don’t tell.”
“How can we not tell?”
I shrugged and looked away, toward the asphalt. Toward the cars zooming by. People and families with place to go. Knowing where they were trying to go.
“Maybe we didn’t see him today.”
My name was a whip.
“Maybe we didn’t see him today.”
“Don’t say that.”
“I have to. We have to.” My words disappeared up into the grimy clouds. I wanted to be back on the bridge, reaching out and holding Amos before he fell over the rail. Gripping his weight, anchoring him. Pulling him back. Posey would be holding his hand. Three of us, hanging on.
We watched Amos fold the piece of paper into a rowboat. I handed him the pennies, one at a time. Posey ripped off strips of tape and Amos attached the coins to the bottom. We signed our names with the Sharpie he pulled from the pocket of his camouflage jacket. All of us smiled. Amos jotted our phone number down in swift digits.
He always dropped the boats and we watched them flutter down. Held our breaths. Hoped they would land smooth like leaves, crest the surface of the water, and bob along on the trickling current.
“Someone might find one,” Amos would say when he leaned back from the rail.
“And then what?”
He shrugged, shoulders swallowed by the puffiness of his coat. “I don’t know.”
“Think they’d ever call us?” I asked.
“I bet the numbers get too smudgy.”
“Then what’s the point of writing them?” Posey asked.
“I don’t know.” Looking away from us, out over the water, Amos’ eyes blurred with cold. “It’ll be something to remember. ‘Remember that boat I found that one time? How weird was that?’ That’s what they’ll say.”
He looked back at us, smiling.
“They’ll think, ‘I wonder what those numbers meant’,” he said.
I dreamed about Amos. We were standing under a bridge. We never stood under bridges but there we were. I was cold. It was dark. The water was shallow, just up above my ankles. It felt like ice, big sheets cutting over my skin and sliding up my legs. Filling me up with a chilly pain. I wasn’t wearing shoes.
His hair was stringy and gray, little snakes draped down his shoulders and chest. He was wearing a t-shirt that was soaked. His concave chest heaved. I could see the bluish tinge of his skin through the fabric. He didn’t say anything. His eyes were swollen and red.
“There’s chlorine here,” he said.
My fingers, when I looked at them, were blue, too. I shivered. A line of white boats bobbed under the bridge and waddled toward Amos and made a circle around him.
“They found me,” he said, pointing toward them. “Why can’t you?”
Amos and his dad used to build bridges in their basement. Out of toothpicks and glue. They would hang little weights from them in the center. See how much they could hold.
“Triangles,” he told me and Posey. We were standing on a rickety wood bridge. I could see rot on the edges of the planks.
“What about them?” Posey always smiled when she talked to Amos.
“They’re the strongest. Best shape for bearing weight.”
“How do you know?” I said.
“We tested them. My dad and I. Triangles always last the longest.”
Posey’s smile widened, her teeth gleaming and white.
Mom was just getting us ready to go to church when the police showed up. They’d found him. She lost her balance, grew wobbly and reached out to my father. He held her up as she cried. I stood behind them, curtained from the police.
They’d asked about Amos three days before, when Mom reported him missing. Two of them sat in our living room and Mom handed one of them a glass of water. The other had waved her offer away. She sat next to me, arm hanging over my shoulder, heavy like a velveteen curtain. My body slouched forward.
I told them I wasn’t with him the day he disappeared, that he just went out on his own. “He did that sometimes,” I said. I kept my eyes low when they asked.
“Are you sure?” my mother said.
“You won’t get in any trouble,” the one with the glass in front of him said. He had a bristly mustache. It twitched when he spoke.
“We just want to find him. Sweetie.” Her grip around me tightened.
“I’m sure,” I said. My right leg bobbed.
When they left, Mom held me by the shoulders, hard, nails digging into my back, and she stared at me. Straight in the eye.
“Curtis,” she said. “You won’t be in trouble.” I tried not to tremble.
She was quiet when the police, the same ones, told my parents where they’d found him. His body washed up on a riverbank. Near where we’d been, me and Posey and Amos. My father loosened his necktie and turned to me. I shifted my weight.
We didn’t go to church. My parents had to go identify his body, bloated and blue as it must have been. I’d seen enough television to know what a drowned kid looked like. They left me at home after I said I would be fine, over and over.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll be fine. Go. I don’t want to see.”
But I could only see him. I kept imagining him on a steely slab. Eyes suddenly opening up, mouth agape and howling out accusations and hatred toward me and Posey for leaving him behind.
My stomach was tumbling and yawning, spitting into the rest of me. They have to know, I thought. My parents, Posey’s parents, the police. Somehow, I knew they knew. The boat with our names: it must have followed him. Resurfaced, wrinkled and runny but legible. Of course they would know.
I didn’t know my mom knew where Amos’ mom was, but she called her that afternoon. I wondered if Amos had known, too. Another secret. I was filling with them. When would I burst?
During the call, my mom’s voice chattered, like someone was holding her at the hips and shaking her. She’d decided to make cookies, and the house smelled of melting chocolate. The timer buzzed while she was still on the phone. I turned it off and she tried to smile at me. Her sad smile hurt me and my stomach groaned. She pointed at the oven mitts. The blast of heat from the oven was like a splash of sand in my eyes, a warm slap.
When my mom hung up the phone, she bit her lip. Told me to let the cookies cool before I ate one. My parents hugged. His shoulder was wet with her tears. When I grabbed a cookie, my mom bent down, her knees popping. She wiped a smear of chocolate from my mouth. She told me it wasn’t my fault. I nodded. Then she hugged me and I looked away. She must feel it through my bones, I thought. She must know that I knew. That I let Amos float away.
I pulled back and went to my room to finish my cookie alone.
Posey and I would stand on the murky, brown bank of the river. In the winter I would wear mittens. We looked at one another and shivered. My stomach would feel hot like I had the flu. We imagined the boats there. Posey would wonder out loud where they’d all gone. I guessed the boats had rotted, their bottoms getting wet and falling apart into tiny pieces the size of snowflakes. But I didn’t say anything. I just breathed, the air from my nose puffing into clouds that disappeared in a second.
At night while our parents drank wine together until they could talk about what had happened, the two of us would sit in my basement cross-legged and stare at one another, playing with the itchy spines of the white shag carpet. We rocked back and forth a little bit. I wanted to kiss her or at least hold her hand but I never did. She never reached out for me either.
We crept up sometimes, avoiding the second-highest step. It squeaked. Posey and I looked at one another. Our secret flapped between us. Did our parents suspect? I’d told my mother more than once about our trips to the bridges. Pestered her as I repeated all the things Amos and Posey and I did. She must have put the pieces together. But the police had ruled Amos’ death an accident. She never said a word.
They talked about how tragic it was. Their words were sticky and slurred. My mother’s voice high-pitched and throaty. None of them talked about what Posey and I had been doing that day. When the subject came up, silence fell, heavy and stone. Posey and I looked at one another, squashed together on the stairs. She always looked away.
Posey left. Boarding school, her parents decided. They said she was depressed. Must have been the trauma of Amos dying. I bit my tongue when she said goodbye.
I went to the bridges in the afternoon by myself, to all the places we’d been except for where he fell. I imagined some police were still stationed there, waiting for me. I tried teaching myself how to make the boats, but they were rickety and uneven. Crinkled and sloppy. They all sank, even when I clambered down to the banks of limpid creeks and cast them from the shore. I pictured Amos reaching up through the water to grab them, or poke holes in their thin bottoms, dragging them down to the silty bottom.
When I finally left for college, Mom gave me a cold hug when we stood at my dorm room door. She said she would call when they got home, but we didn’t talk until I called the next day. A small creek was at the bottom of a hill on the south side of campus and I went there once winter rolled in and froze over the surface. I stood on the small bridge, a concrete walkway with a cold metal railing. The walkway was suspended maybe five feet above the water, hovering over a vertical storm drain and a meek creek. If only Amos had fallen from something like it.
I brought a misshapen paper boat and wrote our names, all three, forging Posey’s and Amos’ signatures in jerky, loopy letters. I taped pennies, two, to the underside on either end.
The boat flipped twice when I threw it and landed upside down on the water and lay atop the ice. The names stared up at me, black and sharp on the bluish white slate. Standing atop a frozen crypt, like flowers on a grave. Unable to move toward the bridge and slip under, into the shadows, where I didn’t have to stare down at it.