There was a foot of standing water in Cora Fletcher’s basement. When she touched the surface with her hand, it slopped against the walls, leaving a line of mineral deposit that crept up the cement.
The slow seepage had begun three days earlier, on the same morning she found Adam Clay’s body lying face-down in the municipal stream that ran behind her parents’ house.
The stream behind the house was shallow, too negligible to submerge anything so large as a person, but Adam had been wearing a gray jacket, and his hair was clotted with ice. In the January landscape, he was almost invisible.
She saw his hand first, pale and resting half-closed against the bank. She stood over him in the bleached reeds, and the back of his neck was strangely bloodless. She knelt, touching his shoulder, then his curled fingers. The jacket was the one he wore every day and ice had formed a fragile rim at the cuffs of his sleeves.
She was not a skittish girl. In the kitchen, she answered the police officer’s questions. The discovery, which had horrified her tender mother, only made Cora feel unsettled. The fact that she had been the one to find him was as impossible as his drowning in the first place.
Now, there was a foot of water in the basement.
Since the morning of Adam’s body, Cora had been waking up.
The previous night, she’d gotten out of bed just after 2:00 and gotten out a flashlight. Standing halfway down the basement steps, she held the light so it sent shadows splashing over the walls. For an awful, glorious moment, she thought she saw movement—there, by the shipwrecked washing machine—just from the corner of her eye. Adam, facedown in his gray jacket, hands floating limp in the foul water.
The flashlight dimmed suddenly, and when she shook it back to brightness, he was gone. She went back upstairs, remembering a day on the football field.
Alone under the bleachers, she’d plotted the meticulous lines of curves and vectors. He came across the field, unaccompanied. They had never spoken to one another.
Adam glanced over his shoulder, then swung his fist, hard, against the aluminum bleachers. The sound reverberated wildly and Cora resisted the urge to cover her ears.
When his gaze shifted and he saw her there, he did not smile, but shape of his mouth was tender, as though they shared a secret. He shook his head in response to a question she had not asked. “You don’t want to know.” His hand was bleeding in a thin smear.
Behind him, the sky was a hard, indifferent gray. Two and a half months later, he lay in the weeds at her feet, all answers gone.
Again, Cora woke in the dark to find the numbers on her digital clock fixed mysteriously at 2:18. In the bathroom across the hall, the faucet was running. She counted, first to sixty and then farther, to eighty. A hundred. A hundred and twelve. The numbers glowed unchanging in the black clockface.
She considered Adam’s declaration, his assurance that she did not want to know. It wasn’t true.
She wanted his life. Not to live it, but simply to examine the hidden facets, his embarrassments and his sorrows. Had he been lonely? Had he fought with his parents, smoked clandestine cigarettes out his bedroom window? She wanted all the small, private moments that were so integral to a person. She wanted the hundred tiny miseries that drove him to the creek at night, the moment when consciousness faded and darkness swept in.
Across the hall, the water only ran, splashing into the basin, gurgling down the drain. Then it stopped.
She closed her eyes, imagining the current, how it would feel to breathe water instead of air. How vivid and real the world must seem in that moment. How inescapably true.
When she opened her eyes again, her room seemed small and strange. The clock said 2:19. She got out of bed.
In the basement, the smell was oppressive, cold as autumn. She flipped the switch and the bulb came on, illuminating the scummy waves as they lapped against the steps.
“I want to know,” she said, cupping her elbows.
There was no answer, only the water. It ran down the walls, dripped from the exposed beams.
There in the shadows, she saw him again, but now he lay face-up, his mouth blue with cold and drowning.
She stepped down into the water. Her pajamas felt heavy and the fabric clung to her knees. It was deeper now. It had been rising. She waded out to him, kneeling so the water washed over her thighs. His eyes were open, cloudy in the dim light.
“I want to know.”
The hand came up then, catching her by the back of the neck. His grip was chilly and inexorable, pulling her down. His mouth on hers was cold and she closed her eyes and let him do it.
He knew the dancing, gibbering secret of the world—what it was to die.
She pressed her lips to his dripping mouth, and waited for him to share it.