I keep coming back to the night we found out about the twins. Michael and I had been married for ten years at the time. Clare would have just been turning five. Michael had been called in before, but never for anything like this. Our community hadn’t faced this kind of tragedy since that boy had gone missing in ’87, but then, he was never found, and anyway, that was before Michael started diving.
We heard about it on the news first—about the twins, that is. Two identical sixteen-year-old girls, missing, feared dead. Their stepfather was being held as a suspect.
“How awful,” I said.
“I suppose I’ll be getting a call,” Michael said. He was staring down into his coffee mug. It was after dinner, dark early, the days getting shorter. We always had a pot of coffee on, sunrise till bedtime, even though it was hard on Michael’s stomach and sometimes kept me up nights. It was a habit. Clare was in the other room playing. I could hear her shuffling toys around in her big plastic bin, picking something out, murmuring to herself, or to her playthings.
“Do you think you’ll find anything?” I said.
“No way to tell,” Michael said. “I guess that’s why we look.”
“I suppose it could be a late night.”
“Could be.” Michael rubbed his hands up and down his smooth face. He still shaved every day, and though he was clearly not a young man, it gave him an air of innocence, of credulity. “May need to pick it up again tomorrow if we don’t find anything,” he said. “I imagine we’ll start with the quarry, and then try the river. If the search takes us to the river, we could be at it for days.”
“You don’t usually find anything there.”
“Maybe you should call Dave, let him know you might not be in tomorrow.”
“I’ll call him in the morning. See how it goes.” He rose from the table, taking the dessert plates around the counter to the kitchen.
“I’ll get those, honey,” I said.
“That’s all right,” he said and began running water in the sink. I knew he could probably use something to occupy his hands, so I stayed at the table. I let him.
The phone rang an hour later. Michael answered, and from the softness of his voice, I knew what it was about. I was in the living room, reading the newspaper in an armchair. Clare was playing at my feet. The day’s news seemed outdated, irrelevant, given what we had heard on the radio, and it was only holding part of my attention. I folded the paper in my lap when Michael came through the room, wearing his coat.
“I don’t know how long I’ll be,” he said.
“Good luck,” I said. “Be safe.”
He went out through the garage. I listened to the rumble of the garage door opening, the gravelly hum of Michael starting the car. Clare listened, too, holding a toy truck.
“Mom?” she said, when the garage door had ground back into place. “Daddy scares me.”
I was alarmed. “Why, sweetie?”
“I don’t know,” Clare said, like this was a silly question.
“Your father loves you very much,” I said. She didn’t look comforted. She rolled the plastic truck around on the carpet. I felt I should say something else, but I wasn’t sure what, so I placed the newspaper on the side table and went to the kitchen for more coffee.
On my way back through the dining room, I saw the mouse. It was crouched by one of the legs of the table. I stamped on the ground to see if it would startle, but it didn’t move. It was up on all four legs, and its little black eyes were open and shining. Maybe it had just crawled there and died, moments ago. Or perhaps it was frightened, stunned still.
I set my mug on the counter and went to the hall closet for a broom and a dustpan. Only when I reached out with the broom and poked the mouse did it move, bringing just one of its naked, pale little feet forward. A single step. I poked it again, and it crawled forward with another foot, from the opposite side. I still wasn’t sure it was alive: nerves, maybe. So I pushed it gently from behind, and the mouse took a few more labored steps, crawling. We had put poison out—Michael heard scratching in the walls—but we hadn’t found any mice yet, dead or living. I wondered if this is what the poison would do, slow them down. I hoped not; it seemed cruel.
I nudged the mouse with the broom, helping it along, until I had it in the dustpan. I hesitated then. But it made no effort to move, even when I started walking toward the back door in the kitchen.
I turned the deadbolt and opened the door onto a windy autumn night. I held the dustpan close to the ground and dumped the mouse into the grass, and then I reached up and turned on the outside light, to see what it would do. It was crawling, with as much effort as it had taken inside, and with no clear destination. I wished I had dropped it further from the house. “I hope you live,” I said, by way of apology, and shut the door.
Later that night, I was sitting up waiting for Michael, reading in the living room, when there was a crash in the kitchen and a sudden rush of wind. I had forgotten to lock the door, and it had blown open in the breeze. I jumped up and hurried over to it, gripped entirely with dread, and yet realizing as I went how silly my urgency was.
When I reached the door, I closed it partway and turned the light on again. The mouse was still lying in the grass, not a foot from where I had dropped it, on its side now. I closed the door and locked it and turned out the light.
I was just about to give up and go to bed when I heard the garage door. I went to the kitchen to pour Michael a fresh cup of coffee. He took it from me in the entryway, and then he went into the living room, set his mug on the table without drinking, and collapsed into a chair.
I sat down opposite him on the sofa. “Any luck?” I said, and regretted the word.
“We found them,” he said.
“In the quarry?”
“Both of them?
He nodded again.
I covered my mouth with my hand. “Did you bring them up yourself?”
“One of them.”
“Oh, god.” I shook my head and my eyes felt hot and wet. “It must have been terrible.”
He swallowed. “I’ve taken up bodies before,” he said.
“But this was different.”
He looked at me and then looked away. “Yeah,” he said. “This was different.”
We sat in silence. The old grandfather clock—inherited from Michael’s parents—tocked thickly, cutting out the moments in blunt precision. “I found a mouse,” I started to say, but then I felt stupid, and I stopped.
When I lay in bed next to Michael that night, he seemed different. At least, that’s how I remember it now. I have revisited the memory so often that I fear I have intruded into it, so that the woman lying there belongs as much to the present as she does to the past. Perhaps, in truth, I slept soundly. But when I return to that night, now, I am lying awake in the graphite hush of our bedroom. The softest hint of moon glow is humming in the window. And I am afraid to lie beside him there, and I am afraid to be alone.
We followed the news coverage of the murders all that week—me with morbid curiosity and Michael with a stricken pallor I had never seen on him before.
The stepfather had a wild story about a stranger’s truck in their driveway, out-of-state plates—that was the slant of it. The local news outlets seemed inclined to believe in the stepfather’s guilt. They were vested in it. Whether this was because it was more sensational or because it felt safer, I wasn’t sure. But there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him, it seemed, and the stranger, if he existed, hadn’t left a trace behind. Everything suggested that this was one of those things about which the truth would never be known.
It was Sunday, a week after the twins had been found, and we had just finished up brunch. We were sitting at the dining room table with wet, black stains at the bottoms of our mugs, dishes still laid out everywhere: fruit, some shreds of scrambled egg, half a pan of sticky cinnamon rolls. We’d excused Clare to go play. The sun was passing in and out of clouds, and the light slowly pulsed from dim to bright.
Michael was staring into space with a disgusted look, and I asked him what was bothering him. He shook his head. “I just can’t believe they’re going to let him get away with it,” he said.
“You think he did it?” I said.
He looked out the window. “Somebody did it.”
A long, heavy silence followed. Michael looked ill. His hair was unwashed and his face was flushed, and I had again the frightening sensation of not quite knowing him. I pushed my chair back and went into the living room to check on Clare.
It may be another one of those tricks of memory, but I seem to remember having a bad feeling before I entered the room. Clare was sitting near the radiator, looking confused. As I approached her, I realized what the object was that had caught my eye: a small rectangular tray full of tiny blue pellets.
“Mommy,” she told me, “this isn’t food.”
“No honey, that’s not food,” I said. “That’s poison.” I reached down to take it.
Her eyes got wide. “Poison?”
“Honey, did you eat any of these?” I was trying to sound calm. My mind was racing. I couldn’t remember how much poison we had put out; I didn’t know whether any was missing. Clare didn’t answer me. I called for Michael.
“Clare, honey, did you eat any of these?” I asked again, becoming frantic. Clare said nothing. I yelled my husband’s name. He came into the room slowly, taking it in.
I turned to him, holding up the tray. “Michael, what were you thinking, putting this where Clare could reach?” He didn’t say anything; he just sank into a chair and sat there. “Jesus Christ, do something,” I said, but he just sat, staring.
So I was on my own, as I lifted our little girl up and brought her to the front hallway, as I zipped her into her coat and forced shoes onto her feet, and as I took the keys down from the hook with a trembling hand and drove her to the hospital.
“Mommy,” she said in the car, “when I die, is Daddy going to bring me up?”
“What, sweetie?” I said, confused. With some effort, I was breathing steadily now.
“Is Daddy going to bring me up?”
“You’re not going to die,” I said.
Clare looked resigned. “It’s okay, Mom,” she said. “You don’t have to pretend. I know about poison.” I remembered once reading her a fairytale involving poison and wished that I had never told her anything.
“Not all poison kills you, honey,” I said. “Some just makes you sick. And we’re taking you to the doctor, so you’re going to be all right.”
“I don’t want Daddy to bring me up,” she said with sudden urgency, starting to cry. “I want you to bring me up, Mommy. I want to be with you.”
I didn’t understand what she was saying. Bring me up. Looking back, I don’t know how I missed it. But I was rattled, and in the moment, the phrase seemed nonsensical and unmoored. I thought it must be the product of some feverish confusion, so I said, “Don’t worry, honey, I’m going to bring you up. I’m going to bring you up.”
Though he never told me any more about it, I often imagine the night that Michael dove after the twins. And my picture of it is so real to me that much of what I now feel for him—the things I hold against him, the excuses that I make for him, the ways I understand him, the ways I sometimes love him still—are contained more in this imagining than in anything real that has passed between us, before or since.
Time and again in my mind, Michael pulls off the road at the quarry and gets out of his car, leaving the headlights on. He joins a small congregation of other divers and law enforcement officers huddled there. Michael converses in low tones with these men, nodding, grim. Then he pulls his bag out of the trunk of his car and suits up, stripping naked right there in the cold night before slipping into the second skin of his wetsuit. The other men are doing the same. They do not look at each other.
Then they strap air tanks to their backs and connect them to their masks. They check gauges and open valves. They start breathing through these other lungs. They fasten headlamps to their foreheads and switch them on. As they step into their flippers and walk to the edge, it looks for a moment like a grand opening, search lights sweeping the night at random, but then the beams all turn downward, into the icy, gray-black water below.
They look at each other, nod, and dive, one at a time, Michael going first. For a moment it is almost fun, and he remembers why he started diving in the first place, but as he hits the water, he remembers what he is looking for.
The world down there moves at a different speed. He is surprised once again how clear quarry water is, like nothing else he will ever dive in. His headlamp cuts through the dark, and the absence of the usual obstructions—sediment, silt, plant life, fish—makes the whole thing feel even more like a dream.
It also makes it easier to spot her as he nears the bottom. He is both surprised and not surprised, seeing her there. Her hair drifts and floats above her like seaweed, but there is no seaweed in the quarry, and he knows that it is her, that it is one of them. Her naked body—it only now registers that she is naked—seems to be sitting upright, against the bottom, drifting slowly forward and back, the light and the water rippling off of her pale, bare breasts.
He should not think that she is beautiful, but he does.
He doesn’t know which twin she is, but he swims down to her and scoops her up, props her against his shoulder, supporting her with his weight. He hesitates a moment, and then starts to rise, swimming upward. Her body rocks back and forth against him; he feels her there, the whole weight of her, which is not what it once was. She is approaching weightlessness, and for a moment he feels like he is, too.
And though he knows he will regret it, he cannot stop himself from pausing now and pulling her away and looking into her face. He knows that its beauty will haunt him, and it does, but what he has not prepared himself for are the purple-brown bruises around her eyes and the red-gray marks on her neck and the cold, dull blue of her skin, and she does not even look human anymore, so close up, and in fact she is not; and it’s as though she has just died in his arms and decayed all at once, as if time here operates on a different scale and everything can be lost in a moment, and he has lost it—it is gone.
A spray of bubbles escapes him and he pulls her close again and kicks the rest of the way. When he breaks the surface, it is not into the same world he left behind. A boat is there, with men who take her from him and wrap her in plastic, and he will never see her again, and he is grateful for the mask that is there to prevent him from saying anything, for fear of what he would say.
Or perhaps it was nothing like that at all. Probably it was not. But Michael is a man of so many secrets, and this is all I have. So I keep it, and cling to it as best I can.
Much later, I realized what Clare had been talking about that day, when she asked if I would bring her up. She must have heard Michael and me talk about diving once and imagined that her father was some kind of angel, or grim reaper.
But I didn’t understand this when I was bringing Clare home from the hospital that day, shaken up but safe, and she asked, “Are you bringing me up now, Mommy?” and I said, “Yes, dear,” and she asked, “Is Daddy going to be there?” and I said, “I don’t know, sweetie.”
And I didn’t understand it when we climbed out of the car and she stopped still in the garage, very afraid suddenly, refusing to move.
And I still didn’t understand it when I finally coaxed her through the door, into the living room, and she looked around with wonder. Michael was nowhere to be seen. Clare looked wide-eyed at the couch, the chair, the table, her box of toys, some still scattered on the floor, caught in a sunbeam from the window. “It’s just like earth,” she said, bewildered, taking it all in. “It’s just like home.”