It was a fascinating sight to see the dead body at Walden Pond. While I was walking by myself along a lakeside path, I saw a group of men, some in police uniforms, at the shore. I never want to see anything like it again; it’s something I will never forget. Two divers in black wet suits pulled the dead man to the shore. I saw the body for only a couple of minutes, enough time to see that his whole body was bloated and his skin was gray. I felt a little sick to my stomach, not like I was going to throw up or anything like that. It was such a weird sight that I couldn’t keep my eyes off him and the men who were all around him. I was only eleven years old, almost twelve, but I had been to many wakes where bodies of my dead relatives and friends of my parents were all dressed up and made up to look their best. This was different.
The man was wearing dark-colored pants and a white shirt, so I guessed that he drowned in a bad accident. I heard somewhere that Walden Pond was over one hundred feet deep. Was this man trying to swim across the lake? Quickly, two policemen covered him with a blanket. The only sounds I heard were the shouts of children playing at the beach area a hundred yards away, a few birds chirping, and the mumbling of the men below me.
I crouched behind the bushes and didn’t move an inch as the men in wet suits hauled the body through the woods to an ambulance. It was then that I started shivering, partly because I a little nervous, and partly because of the cool breeze blowing in from the lake. I only had my swim trunks on.
From where I stood on the high bank, to the east, through the trees, I could see the spot where the ambulance was parked. To the west I could see most of the lake. Far out in the middle, three row boats were anchored a few yards apart. A man in each boat leaned over the edge waiting for a skin diver to surface. They were still searching. The boats looked like they were floating on a bright layer of shimmering stars as the noontime sun lit up the surface of the lake. They must have known where the man had been swimming. I nearly jumped out of my skin when a loud trumpet sound blared from one of the policemen. The sound echoed across the lake. The policemen waved their arms toward the boats and the men on the lake waved back. When each diver surfaced, he, or she, was helped into a boat. In minutes, the boats were gone.
A few people who were in the parking lot gathered around the ambulance and watched as it drove away. Somehow, the news hadn’t spread to the beach area where most of the people were. The search was over. It was like nothing had happened. The lake was calm again.
I ran back to my parents and my sister at the beach area. I needed to touch base with them to make sure that everything was really normal again.
“What happened to you?” asked my father who sat up on our blanket. He had just awakened from a nap. “You look like you saw a ghost. You’re all out of breath. You haven’t been swimming, have you?”
“A man drowned,” I said as I flopped down beside them on the blanket.
“That’s terrible,” said my mother.
“It happens too often out there. People just swim out too far. Maybe he got a cramp.”
“You haven’t eaten since breakfast,” said my mother. “There are sandwiches in the basket.”
“I’m not hungry,” I replied. I wasn’t. My stomach felt like it was tied up in knots.
Neither my father nor mother asked me if I saw the body or if I was affected by what I saw. I didn’t know how to tell them. The rest of the afternoon was like a blur. I entertained myself by digging holes in the sand. Because I couldn’t swim, I was too ashamed to play with the other children who were enjoying the water. Seeing the drowned man made me more afraid. I’m never going to learn to swim, I thought. How could a man drown if he knew how to swim? I grew tired of digging holes.
“I’m going for a walk,” I said.
“Don’t go too far,” said my mother. We’re leaving soon. It’s getting chilly. Put your sweatshirt on.”
“Where’s Jeannie?” I asked.
“She’s probably somewhere on the beach with her friends,” she replied as she lay back on the blanket.
I shivered as I put on my sweatshirt. The afternoon sun was still bright, but it had gotten cooler since noon. I was drawn like a magnet to the place where I saw the body three hours ago. Between the beach area and the spot where I saw the body, the lake front was rocky with bushes hanging over the water. From where I stood on the path, the lake water, darkened in the setting sun, looked green and gloomy and scary. Again, I shook as a cool breeze drifted in from across the lake. I tried to imagine what happened. How far out was he? Did he cry for help? Why didn’t anyone help him? I thought. The vision of the body on the shore reappeared in my mind as I tried to figure out how far out the man was when he drowned. The boats were near the middle. Maybe the man got tired when he tried to swim across the lake.
Suddenly, from the hill above me, I heard voices.
“That takes care of that,” I heard a high-pitched voice say. “They’ll never trace us now.”
“Yeah,” said the other person. “Let’s get out of here. We shouldn’t be here.”
I was scared, but I scrambled up the hill to get a closer look at who they were. It was a man and a woman.
“He was dead, all right,” said the woman. “You hit him hard enough to crack his skull open. Are you sure nobody saw us dump him in the lake?”
“Trust me, nobody saw us. Even if they did, we were too far out for anyone to recognize us.”
“Let’s get out of here.”
“Hold it. What was that?”
“What was what?”
“I thought I heard something, there.”
I could see him pointing straight at me. I fell flat on my stomach in the bushes and prayed.
“You’re spooked. It’s only the wind. Let’s go.”
They moved along the path and took the same route to the unpaved parking lot that the men in wet suits took to the ambulance. I lay still until their voices faded in the distance. They murdered him, I thought. They’re going to get away with it. I have to do something. I scrambled to my feet and ran toward the parking lot. I stepped into the open parking area. All I could see were several people packing up their gear. I jumped out of the way as a pickup truck went roaring past me. The man I heard was driving. He gunned the engine and the wheels spun in the dirt. He drove off in a cloud of dust, but not before I got his license plate number, not really a number. It was easy to read: TRUCKN.
Frantically, I looked for someone I could talk to. I spotted a young man loading some equipment into his van.
“I saw the murderers,” I cried as I ran up to him.
“Whoa,” he replied. “Say that again.”
“I saw the people who murdered the man they just pulled out of the lake.”
“C’mon, man. How do you know they killed him?”
“I heard them. They drove off in a truck. I got the license plate. TRUCKN.”
The man looked like I’d him with a rock. “Get in,” he said motioning to his van.
“The state police barracks is about a mile from here. We have to tell them before it’s too late.”
I didn’t know what to do. I know I should have told my parents first, but I didn’t want the killers to get away.
“Get in,” he repeated. “Don’t worry, I’ll bring you back.”
It didn’t feel right, but I got in on the passenger side. The van was an old VW that was a real wreck. It took four tries to start it. I glanced at the back. It was loaded with junk, like scuba gear and rusty tools and fishing gear. He drove out of the parking lot onto the main road, but it was longer than a mile before he turned onto a dirt road. I noticed an abandoned roadside stand as he made the turn.
“Where’s the police station?” I asked. I held on tight as the van tossed about on the bumpy road.
The man said nothing as he dodged rocks and ruts. All I could see were trees on both sides and the road curving ahead. Finally, we came to a screeching halt in front of an old run-down farmhouse. The truck I’d seen was there.
The man got out and ran around to my door. “Get out,” he yelled.
As soon as my feet hit the ground, he grabbed me by the arm and pulled me toward the house. I was skinny then. The man was at least a foot taller than me and really strong.
“Ow, that hurts,” I cried. “What are we doing here?”
He pushed me through a side door, through a mud room like we have at our house, and into a kitchen. The man and woman I saw at the lake were sitting at the kitchen table. The woman was facing us, the man sat with his back to us. There were stacks of money in front of them. The woman looked up like she was in shock. For a moment, she stared at us as if she didn’t no how to react.
“Who is this?” she said.
The man turned. When he saw me, he jumped to his feet. “What in blue blazes is the kid doing here? Where did you pick him up?”
I tried to get loose, but the man squeezed my arm harder.
“Take it easy. I picked him up at the lake.”
“What is this, some kind of joke?”
“He knows you killed the guy. He heard you and he got your license plate. I’m just cleaning up what you two left behind.”
The man glanced at the woman. “I told you we should have gotten out of here. You wanted to hang around.”
“Sure, blame me. You had to hit him. I’d like to know who tipped the cops about the guy bein’ in the lake.”
“We didn’t have to go back.”
“Hold it. We don’t need any arguing right now. I’m putting him in the root cellar until we figure out what to do with him. Count the shares and let’s get out of here.”
I was dragged outside where the man yanked me to a door that looked like it was leaning against a hill. He opened a trapdoor and pushed me to the opening. There were three wooden steps leading to another door.
“Go,” he said, “down the stairs. Open the door.”
I looked down at where he wanted me to go. I was really scared. “What are you going to do with me? I won’t tell on you.”
“Get down there.” His voice scared me.
I opened the door. The light from the outside lit up a small room with a dirt floor. The stink that came from the room made me want to throw up. I could see some shelves with rotten potatoes and some boxes of sand with apples on them.
“Get in there.” The man was angrier now. “Why did you have to stick your nose in? Why couldn’t you mind your own business?”
“You can’t leave me in here. I’ll die.”
Without another word, the man closed the door, went up the stairs and shut the upper door. I stood there not knowing what to do. There was nothing to sit on. The stench made me sick and the place was cold. I’d never been in a place so dark. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I was happy that my mother made me put on my sweatshirt, but my legs were freezing. I don’t know how long I stood there. I wondered what my parents were thinking. Maybe they weren’t ready to leave the lake yet, so they wouldn’t be worried. Then, I had a weird thought. When cowboys in the movies get off their horses, they throw the rein around a branch or something and the horse just stands there and waits for the cowboy to come back, even though the horse isn’t tied up. Well, I thought, I’m not a horse. No one is going to find me. I have to get out of here. I couldn’t tell which direction to go to find the door. Carefully, I took one step, tripped and fell down. It was so dark I couldn’t tell where the ground was, darker than when I played blindman’s buff when I was a kid. I took another step and another until I felt the dirt wall. I stepped to my left, still holding my hands on the wall until I felt the wood of the door. I pushed. It opened. Slowly, I crept up the stairs and put my back to the upper door. I pushed upward. That door opened, too. I welcomed the warmth and cleanness of the outside air, took a deep breath, peeked out, and, not seeing anyone, stepped into the sunshine.
To the west, toward the sun, there was a rolling hill covered with dead grass and brown shoots of dead corn plants. I looked to my right toward the house. It looked more run down than when I first saw it. The roof sagged and what was once white paint had turned to gray. The van was in the same place where the young man parked it. The truck was gone.
I looked at the field, then at the house. I didn’t know whether to run or not. If I ran across the field, they might see me. I crept toward the house and around to the back. The only sounds I heard were birds chirping and a muffled sound of cars on the main road a good distance away. I found the kitchen window and peeked in. The place was empty.
I went to the kitchen door and went in. Sure enough, they were gone. The piles of money were gone, too. They must have left in a hurry because there were two twenty dollar bills under the table. I remembered the talk a policeman gave in my school about evidence and what the police do at crime scenes, especially about fingerprints. I found a small paper bag, picked up each bill with my fingertips on a corner, and put them in the bag. Now, what? I thought. It was a long ride in, a long walk out.
I couldn’t resist looking into the van. The license plate had been removed. What I hoped for was there. The key was in the ignition. That’s weird, I thought. Maybe the young man left it for me on purpose. I took one last look around. I couldn’t believe what I saw close by. Someone had tossed the TRUCKN license plate. That meant that they put the van plate on the truck. Quickly, but carefully, I picked up the plate, put it in the van with the bag, and got behind the wheel. I looked in back and found a pair of old gloves. There had to be fingerprints on the steering wheel. I took a deep breath and turned the key. This shouldn’t be hard to do, I thought. I practiced in our old car in our driveway. It had a manual shift, too, but this one was on the floor.
The engine turned over and over and over. “C’mon,” I yelled. I had my foot to the floor on the gas pedal. The engine responded with a roar. “Okay,” I said, “let’s do it.” After several tries with the grating sound of the gear shift echoing across the field, I finally figured out how to get it in gear, but I shot forward toward the house. I don’t know how I did it, but I found the brake pedal just in time before I would have driven into the kitchen. I managed to turn the van around so that I could head down the road.
I felt like I was riding a bucking bronco in a rodeo as the van bucked and heaved on the dirt road. By the time I reached the main road, I was in full command. Which way to the police barracks? I thought. Or was the man lying? I remembered that the farm stand was on the right when we turned in, so I turned left hoping that the police barracks wasn’t too far away and prayed that no cars would come the other way. In less than a mile, I saw the STATE POLICE sign. I left the van in the middle of the parking lot and ran in.
“Help,” I yelled. “I found the murderers.”
The policeman at the front desk looked at me as if I had two heads. He couldn’t help but notice how dirty I was from the root cellar. “Hold on, son. Let me have that again.”
“I saw the man who drowned at the lake. He was murdered. They kidnapped me and put me in a root cellar.”
“Sure, kid. What’s your name?”
“Casey Miller,” I replied. “You have to believe me.”
“How did you get here?”
The words poured out of me like a torrent. “I drove their van. I’ve got evidence. There are twenty dollar bills in this bag. They left them behind, and here’s the killer’s license plate. There must be fingerprints all over them. My parents are still at the lake, I think.”
“Hold it, right there.” The policeman went into the back office and returned with another officer. This one had gold stripes on his uniform. I repeated my story to him.
“There was a robbery at the bank in Concord yesterday morning,” said the second policeman. “They took the bank manager hostage. He was the man you saw at the lake.”
“What happens now?” I asked.
“Sergeant Burns will drive you back to the lake. We’ll take it from here.”
“Could I use your bathroom?” I asked. “It’s been a while.”
On the way to the lake, I felt really proud of myself. Here I am, riding in a police car, but no way am I going to be a policeman when I grow up, I thought. I’ve had enough of that.
The police cruiser pulled into the Walden parking lot. My parents and my sister were loading our car. “Would you please let me off here?” I asked. “I don’t want to upset my parents. They’ll think you’ve arrested me.”
“I’ll talk with them. Not to worry.”
“Okay. Have a great day. You’re a real hero.”
“Thanks, bye,” I said. I waved goodbye and strolled to our car.
“Where have you been?” asked my mother. “What happened to you? You look like you fell into a mud puddle.”
“I just fell down, Mom. No problem. Hi, Dad.”
“Are you OK?” asked my sister. “You look tired. What have you been doing? I can tell you weren’t swimming.”
“I had fun.”
I grinned as I sat in the back seat on the way home. No swimming for me.