Concrete Summer — Leah Wingenroth

There was a lot to remember about that summer. Almost every weekday, my older sister Marie would march me hand in hand down the street and over the hill to the too crowded neighborhood pool, old towels and plastic flip-flops in tow. Everything there was bright. We snuck quarters for the concession stand and let the popsicles we so triumphantly courted melt and drip down our eager hands, pooling in the in-betweens of our fingers. Our young skin ripened with the heat each passing day.

One Tuesday, a few weeks in, the first shy day of the summer, the pool’s picket gates were closed and guarded by a curved woman with cracked hands. Her name was Andie, we learned, and she had found the boy when she came to open up this morning. He was face down in the water. I had imagined his body then, bereaved of breath, keeping his heavy lungs afloat. The ambulance that took him away was already gone before we got there. Andie told us his name was Dakota. He was seven years old and lived down Sir Chandler Lane with his mom and stepfather. I know now we were too young for her to tell us this. This moment of divulgence made it tangible. We stood in ferocious silence, letting the weight of what had happened there sag and mold the space around us.

Before, I hadn’t known death, not intimately. It was some abstract, incomprehensible secret I heard my parents whisper about with caution when we stopped seeing the older woman down the road walk to her mailbox every morning. But, I hadn’t felt it in my own hands until then, until Dakota. I felt small.

The clouds were still hanging low in the sky as we walked back home from the pool. Our footsteps felt too loud, rising in an echo only to fall through the static air. I didn’t know him. I didn’t know what color his eyes were, or what his favorite popsicle flavor was. I didn’t know him. And yet, my naive heart felt like it was being wrung dry by relentless, callous hands.

The next day, the pool was turned to concrete. Marie and I watched, framed between once white fence posts turned yellow with age, as the men filled up all the spaces that had consumed Dakota. The sun pulsed arrhythmically as water became stone, and we were quiet.

Later that afternoon, with darkness teetering on the horizon, we climbed into Mom’s old Odyssey, the kind with the sliding doors that would pinch your fingertips if you weren’t paying attention. More and more air was sucked out of the car as we drove, the three of us tethered soundlessly in our discomfort. We didn’t speak of the thing that had happened, Mom didn’t bring it up. I don’t think she knew what to say either.

I never understood the gravity, the true weight contained in a second until I was thrown from my seat as we drove home from the concrete pool that summer evening. It seemed to happen in reverse, the van skipping across the asphalt. Or at least that’s how I remembered it. I had seen the deer moments before Mom did. He was beautiful, with wide eyes and antlers like tree branches. Before he died, he looked at me with care. He wasn’t scared. In an instant, he was lost amongst a sea of shattered glass.

My ears rang with symphonies of every sound imaginable as our world began to collect itself. I had felt Mom’s firm grasp on my arm and Marie’s hand in mine as we pulled ourselves carefully from the wreckage and back into a stop-motion reality. As Mom made frantic phone calls, I had looked all around us for the body. Marie wept. Part of me was glad I never found his tree branch antlers, inevitably shattered and relegated from their glory. But, most of me wasn’t.

Later, as we sat around the kitchen table watching the sun fall, the three of us trembled in the aftershock. I had wondered, then, if this was what Dakota had felt like, lungs tight and crumbling. I wonder if he was scared. In that moment, all I could do was hope the water in the pool hadn’t been too cold.