Wept the River
The first time the detective rang the doorbell, Lizzy was upstairs in her room, sitting at her small white desk. She was pushing the plastic spring-loaded ballerina in the center of her jewelry box back and forth with her index finger. She had been at it for over half an hour, occupying her senses with the ping sound and the scratchy texture of the ballerina’s pink tutu. She heard her mother’s murmur, and then footsteps on the stairs.
“Lizzy,” her mother said gently, “there’s a man from the police department here to see you. Can you come down, dear?”
Lizzy stopped pinging the ballerina. She had already given a statement at the police station, numb and scared and maybe still a little drunk. Now it was three days later. She was in the flannel pajama bottoms with the yellow ducks that she had been wearing ever since she left the police station.
Lizzy stood in front of her closet door. She examined herself in the full length mirror, deciding not to change her pajama bottoms. Her face was puffy, the roundness of her freckled cheeks exaggerated by intermittent crying. Her dark hair was wiry, untamed, but that was nothing new. She flinched at the clarity of the green in her eyes. Did they look like honest eyes? She vowed to look downward when talking to the police.
Lizzy kept the detective waiting for a few minutes, trying to remember her answers from the police station. The walls of the room had been an oily gray, the color of the river at twilight. She had been separated from the others, alone with her mother, the two of them sitting on cracked plastic chairs that rocked a little on the uneven linoleum.
The cops had started with her name, her high school, and whether she knew Ryan. Those were the easy questions. They asked for the names of everyone else who had been at Jim Gaffney’s graduation party. That was harder. Then they asked her how much she had to drink.
Lizzy didn’t remember all the stuff they drank, or how it had tasted mixed with Red Bull in a red Solo cup. She hadn’t told the police about that, or about Ryan doing keg stands, his legs hoisted high by Jim Gaffney and Badger, Ryan’s knobby wrists teetering on the keg and beer in rivulets down his chin. His wrists had looked so blue, his veins like the spidery waterways on a classroom map.
She remembered feeling like she was going to pass out, asking Badger if they could rest in his car for a little while, away from the others, just to see if she could get a second wind, wondering why the Red Bull hadn’t kept her alert the way Jim’s brother said it would. She and Badger walked up the slope to the car. Badger supported her, hand on her ass. They were both so drunk.
He was aggressive in the car, tearing at her shorts. She had wanted to help him, or had she wanted to stop him? She had been unable to prevent her brain from swimming.
Did they do it? She didn’t know. She couldn’t tell from her underpants. If they had, it wouldn’t have been the first time but it wouldn’t have been special, and she thought it was supposed to be special. She wanted to know, but she was afraid to ask. It might be easier not to know. She didn’t want that to be the last thing she did before Ryan died.
Lizzy was asleep alone in Badger’s car when Ryan’s jeep rolled down the long slope of the Gaffney yard and into the river. She woke up when Andy splashed over the low bank, diving in. It wasn’t the sound that roused her, but the flashlight beams circling in the yard, sparring and separating like boxers. She pulled her clothes together and followed her friends, who streamed from the slanting lawn down to the river.
Andy later said that the river’s cold slam disoriented him. Did that happen to Ryan, Lizzy wondered? Was Ryan afraid when he hit the water? Her grief about Ryan would shatter her if she thought he had been afraid.
Andy tried, but couldn’t get the doors open. He looked in the car, thought he saw Ryan, but it was dark. He pounded on the jeep underwater, holding his breath as long as he could. Over and over he surfaced with loud gasps, and then descended again, thrashing his way to Ryan in the jeep.
Suddenly Badger was next to her. Lizzy, Badger and the others shouted Ryan’s name, as if their voices could pierce the river’s murk and the jeep’s metal. They threw rocks, trying to break the car’s windows. Lizzy expected, hoped, to see Ryan push to the surface, maybe do a handstand on the roof of the jeep. They would pretend to be pissed off but then they would hug him and tell him how much he had freaked them out.
Finally Andy pulled himself out, sitting at the water’s edge, sobbing in anguish. Later the police brought a tow truck. The jeep wept the river from its seams as it rose from the water.
At last Lizzy slumped down the stairs. The detective was not one of the officers she had seen at the police station. He introduced himself and motioned for her to sit at the kitchen table, as if it were his house. He seemed to ignore her pajama bottoms. “I’m sorry to bother you, Lizzy,” he said earnestly. She felt like saying she was sorry, too, but there was no point in being a wiseass. Her mother, recriminations long over, hovered in the kitchen.
“I was going over some things, and they just don’t make sense,” the detective said. His questions came rapidly, mostly repeats of questions others had asked in the police station: How did the kids get alcohol? Why was Ryan in his car? When did the jeep roll into the river? Why was the key in the ignition? Did she, or anyone else, know Ryan was inside? How long was the jeep in there after it rolled?
Lizzy, head lowered, felt nauseated. She didn’t know, she said to each question he asked. She didn’t know. She was asleep, alone in Badger’s car. It was parked further up the yard, with the lights off. Even if she hadn’t been asleep, she couldn’t see anything from there.
Lizzy had her own questions: Does it count as sex if you don’t remember it? Does it count as death if you don’t witness it? But these were not questions for the detective.
After he finished his inquiries, the detective sat for a long while, drumming his fingers on the kitchen table, chewing the inside of his lip, not looking at her. She had run out of things to say. The silence felt eerily loud to Lizzy, like the startling burble of water filling a sinking car.
“Well,” the detective finally said, “I’m gonna bet that someone does know the answers. Why don’t you think about it? See if you remember more.” She nodded, signaling that she would think about it. “Ryan’s family is counting on you kids. They lost their son. They deserve to know, don’t they?” He stood and moved behind her, placing a hand lightly on her shoulder. It startled her, like the hand of a ghost.
That night she called Badger. “Hey,” she whispered when he answered.
“You shouldn’t call me, Lizzy. What if the police are listening?” Lizzy didn’t think that was the case, and wondered if that was really his reason for not talking to her. “A detective was here. Did they talk to you again, too?” she asked.
“Yes,” he hissed. “Nothing has changed, right?”
Lizzy felt upended – her summer and her friends and her feelings for Badger all working against gravity, like Ryan on the beer keg. Then she understood that Badger was asking about what they were telling the police, the lies they had formed with both words and silence.
“Nothing changed,” she said.
“It’s – so weird. At the funeral, I’m supposed to help carry the, you know, coffin.
With some other guys,” Badger said, his voice tight. “Oh, man. I don’t know if I can do it, Lizzy.”
Lizzy pictured Badger rubbing the scar on his chin, the way he did when he was nervous. He had been rubbing that scar the first time he asked her out; she remembered how sweet and awkward he seemed, a far cry from his reputation. Despite the closeness they had built since then, she knew this was not the right time to talk about the two of them in Badger’s car. The layers of their lies about that night buried that encounter more deeply each time they spoke. She murmured reassuring words as if by rote. He seemed to pull himself together.
“So, why did you call?” He asked suddenly.
It took her a while to answer. “I just wanted,” she said. It was about Ryan, about her inexhaustible sadness. But she couldn’t finish the sentence.
Lizzy had never met Mrs. Gaffney before the party. “Call me Marla, hon,” Mrs. Gaffney had said. “Jim’s dad and I are going to make ourselves scarce. We’re going let you kids have a good time. But watch the driving, okay? If you need a ride, have Jim come find us and we’ll take you home.”
Instead, their older son, Jim’s brother, was the chaperone. He bought the keg and a few bottles of liquor at a party store on the other side of the county, setting everything on the concrete pad in front of the pole barn with cans of Red Bull and a tower of Solo cups. Jim set up speakers facing the river. They danced and sang to the music, but mostly they drank. Jim’s brother schooled Lizzy and another girl on the benefits of combining Red Bull and vodka. He leaned too far into them, his breath appalling and the sweat misting from his T shirt.
A week later when the detective rang the doorbell, Lizzy found herself telling him the real drinking story. She figured the detective already knew that everyone at the Gaffney party was drunk, so she might as well tell him how they got that way. She knew she would be getting Jim’s brother in trouble, but he was a dick and deserved it.
“What the fuck, Lizzy,” Badger said when he called her. “I know it was you. Now that asshole is in trouble, and who know what that’s gonna lead to.” Lizzy pictured Ryan laughing, trying to do a handstand on the keg, the blue rivers of his veins carrying life upside down, away from his heart. “Badger. Badge. Our friend died. Our friend, dude. Don’t you even care?”
Badger was silent. Then he hung up.
A week after Lizzy talked to the detective about the drinking, he returned. He stood on the front stoop with Lizzy and her mother, declining to come in; he was on his way to lunch and told them he just had a quick question. “I talked to the 9-1-1 responders,” he said. “They said that when they got there, the Gaffney yard was really clean — no evidence of a drinking party. So what happened to all the beer and booze you told me about?” His tone was inquisitive, not accusing. Lizzy blanched. She pressed her lips together and said he should talk to Jim Gaffney’s older brother.
“Yeah, I’ll do that, sure,” said the detective. He rubbed his forehead, peeking at her between the splayed logs of his fingers. “You know, we could save some time if you just tell me.”
Lizzy felt her head might burst. She closed her eyes. Ryan was there behind her eyelids: goofy, guileless Ryan, her friend since kindergarten; Ryan, who loved Badger but had warned her that Badger could be selfish in dealing with his girlfriends. She didn’t speak to Ryan for a couple of days after that, out of loyalty to Badger. She was sorry about that now.
She opened her eyes. Finally she spoke. “We cleaned it all up,” she said. “Before they called you guys. Ryan was in the river, and the rest of us cleaned up.” The detective stopped rubbing his forehead. “Lizzy,” he said, leaning in to her.
“Did someone tell you to clean up before they called 9-1-1?” Tears etched her cheeks.
She closed her eyes again. Ryan was still there.
“Marla,” she said. “Mrs. Gaffney.”
Several days later, Lizzy returned to work at the municipal soft ball fields. It was a summer job she didn’t care about, and she figured she could feed the popcorn machine and haul root beers out of the cooler without having to think too much about anything.
She felt as if she were waiting for something, even something painful, to make the summer end. She longed to stop her mother’s gentle solicitations to share her feelings, reviled by her mother’s tenderness. If only someone would yell at her, slap her, call her a liar and a jerk. Wasn’t that what she deserved? Didn’t they all?
Today only one game was being played. Lizzy had forgotten that Mr. Gaffney was on the Bickler Lumber team, but there he was in the outfield, pounding his meaty fist into his glove, the logo on his chest already defaced by sweaty dust. She did not see Marla Gaffney stubbing out her cigarette in the dirt next to the bleachers, careful to avoid getting grit on the tips of her squared French manicure.
Lizzy’s mother had hugged Marla at Ryan’s funeral because she looked pretty shaken about the accident. Marla told everyone at the funeral how sorry she felt, how she had offered to drive kids home if they needed it. She said these things over and over. One of the Gaffney’s neighbors told Lizzy’s mother later that Marla was livid with Larry Junior for buying alcohol for the kids; Junior was already on probation for a DUI in March. The Gaffney family, the neighbor said, had recently hired a lawyer. That meant that the Gaffneys had stopped talking to the police.
Suddenly, there was Marla, walking toward the concession stand: Marla, who had ordered thirteen kids to stuff the keg and all the trash and bottles into her husband’s truck so he could drive it over to the Bickler Lumber parking lot; Marla, who told them after they finished that it was in everyone’s interest to keep quiet about the alcohol because they would all be arrested if it came out; Marla, the furious, frantic protector of Larry Junior.
Marla stopped briefly to tug at her crop top. She was getting a little pooch around the middle, and Lizzy correctly observed that the gesture was self-conscious. She did not know that it was also a girding for battle.
“Hi Lizzy,” Marla said with an unnerving brightness. “I saw you over here and thought I’d come see how you’re feeling, hon. After that night and all. Just hoping you are okay.”
“Hi Mrs. Gaffney – Marla,” Lizzy said, not looking at her. “I guess I’m okay.” “And how is Badger?” Marla asked. “I mean, him and Andy must be feeling terrible.”
“I haven’t seen too much of him,” Lizzy said. Then she added, “We’ve both been pretty busy.” She ducked her head under the counter for a minute, just to exhale that lie.
Badger had been mostly out of touch, and she missed him so much. “Can I get you something?”
“Well, sure, since you don’t seem to have much business today,” Marla said, glancing around at the empty concession stand. “I’ll have a diet coke.” The batter on the field thwacked the softball. There were a few whistles and cheers. Lizzy walked back to the cooler and got the drink. Marla fumbled in her purse, prolonging the search for payment. The afternoon sun radiated through her feathered red bob, a woodpecker’s comb. “So,” she said, “I can’t imagine what Badger’s going through. But I mean, it was an accident, right? How could they know that Ryan was in the car?”
Lizzy flushed hot and cold at this comment about a night she spent long hours trying to wish away. “I’m not sure – what? What are you saying about Badger?” “All I’m saying, Lizzy, is my heart goes out to him. I’m sure they thought it was just a little bitty push to the back of an empty car. You know – a prank. Like kids do.” Lizzy paled. “Do the police -?” she said.
Marla’s mouth smiled slightly, revealing the small gap between her front teeth.
Her eyes did not crinkle. “I don’t talk to the police, hon,” Marla said. “Maybe you should ask them next time you’re over at the station being a little tattletale.”
At home in her room after work, Lizzy returned to the listless exercise of pinging the ballerina on her jewelry box. The act released sudden, fragmented memories: Badger fumbling at her shorts, pulling too hard, rubbing against her in a way that hurt, everything spinning, wanting it to stop, opening her eyes and looking out the sunroof as Badger grunted and grabbed, the stars through the sunroof wobbling and dipping in the navy sky as if plunging into the river. Lizzie willed her mind to conjure a happier ending, one in which she spun cleanly out of the sunroof with her arms overhead, toes en pointe, remembering what it felt like before Badger, before vodka, before sex.
Lizzy hadn’t intended to sleep. When she awoke, she knew that she would have to talk to Badger about Marla’s accusation, but she did not know what she would say. She splashed cold water on her face, dabbed deodorant under her arms, and pulled her tangled hair into a ponytail. By the time she got to Badger’s house, she felt ready. It was past the midpoint of summer and already on the cusp of twilight. Badger met her outside, the two of them smacking at mosquitoes on their legs and ankles as they talked. Lizzy told him, in the simplest way possible, what Marla Gaffney had said. Badger could not listen without interrupting, flecking her story with obscenities. At last she finished, exhausted by the telling and by Badger’s intense reaction. “So you believe her, Lizzy?” he asked, rubbing the scar on his chin. “Is that what you’re saying? You’re accusing me and Andy?”
“I’m asking, Badge,” she said. “And I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. But I do. For Ryan. I know it was an accident, no matter how it happened. And I would forgive you, if it’s true,” she added, although she had not really thought that through. She wasn’t even sure which parts of the night needed forgiveness, or whether she needed it, too.
“Listen to me,” he said fiercely, close to her ear. By now both of them had started crying, grubbing awkwardly at their eyes with fists and fingers. “Listen. I don’t know what Marla Gaffney is trying to do, but it didn’t happen. All you have is what she said.
How would she know? Some people were in the house, some in the pole barn, maybe a few outside. Was she keeping track? I thought she was asleep. How the hell would she know?” Lizzy pulled back and searched his face. She could read only his anger.
“What she’s saying is crazy shit. He must of – I don’t know, somehow driven his car down there. The police said the key was in the ignition. And he was totally shitfaced.” Badger paused. When he resumed, his tone shifted. “Don’t you trust me? I love you. If we really do love each other, you need to promise you believe me.” Badger was kneading her arms now, right above the elbow, and it hurt. Then he said quickly: “She made us clean up. Who fucking does that? Think about it, Lizzy.”
“Maybe I should tell the police that she’s out there saying this stuff,” Lizzy said, her voice hoarse.
“No. Hell no. Don’t open that up,” Badger replied sharply. “I talked to a lawyer. A friend of my dad’s. She said they’re probably going to arrest Marla and Mr. Gaffney and Jim’s brother. They’re bad people, Lizzy. Don’t play into it.” He sounded like he was begging now. “Oh, man. It’s been so hard on me. Everything about this. Don’t you love me, Lizzy?” Badger’s handsome face was scrunched and red in the gray twilit evening.
Lizzy didn’t answer. His words cause something else to arise in her mind. She knew what to say now; she knew what to ask. She looked directly into his face. “Why didn’t you try to save Ryan? Why didn’t you jump in the river?”
“Oh god, Lizzy.” His renewed crying was a fountain of regret. “I can’t swim. I never learned how to swim.” All of these months together, and she hadn’t known.
They sat on the front step for a while, not talking, until they both grew calm. Badger kissed her goodbye and went inside. As she walked home, Lizzy realized this was the first time Badger had said he loved her. His love felt sticky, glued to his demand that she stand by him. Yet what he said seemed right: The Gaffneys were criminals. They were going to be arrested. Marla Gaffney’s story was probably just a way to deflect attention from her own family.
But still. Lizzy could see how it could happen. They all adored Ryan, but his innocence made him so easy to tease. And it was hard to keep track of where everybody was in the pre-dawn blackness. She remembered how frantic Andy had been. And Badger had lied easily about the drinking. Well, they both had at first. Was he lying now?
After Badger kissed her, she thought that she would feel closer to him. But instead, as she walked through the darkening streets, she felt mistrustful. Maybe they were both just bobbing on the surface, sometimes pushing away, sometimes grasping at each other, all to avoid drowning under the tremendous weight of that terrible night.
Summer was half gone, and she would be eighteen in a week. She felt as if the good things like love and happiness and truth and trust had all spilled out of her. She resolved to salvage them somehow, to find a way to stay afloat on her own.
Lizzy closed her eyes and saw Ryan again, dancing behind her eyelids. Badger had not mentioned his name.
Ballerina image courtesy of Tilemahos Efthimiadis via Creative Commons
About the Author
Mary Hannah Terzino is an emerging writer of short stories in her 60s. She spent over 30 years practicing law before turning to fiction. She is presently working on a collection of short stories about how the living experience the death of others, which includes “Wept the River.” Mary Hannah is a graduate of Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin Law School. She grew up in Indiana and has lived almost her entire life in the Midwest. Currently she is at home in Saugatuck, Michigan, where she writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River. Her work has been published in The Bear River Review and online in Quail Bell Magazine and The Forge Literary Magazine. She was a 2017 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge Literary Magazine.