There’s a small valley at the bottom of the steep hill as you enter North Lake. It’s the reason that in the winter, on certain snowy afternoons, the school bus had to drop the children off at the top, and we walked what seemed like miles to our homes in the neighborhood. In that valley, there’s a creek which leads to a shallow pool of murky water. It always seemed like sewage to us, though it may not have been. I was a bully back then, and threw my best friend’s bike in that water, punishing him for being unable to defend himself. We played in the old pipe that connected one side of the valley to the other. We stepped on stones and logs to avoid the water, but taunted each other to dip our shoes into what we assumed was filth. I learned that my friend’s parents were getting divorced in that pipe, changing the dynamic of our friendship forever. My healthy home was a constant reminder of his broken family. Our friendship was a reminder of his stagnation, and so it ended.
One day in December, I came down that hill to find a family wading in the water, their van upside-down in the muck. It wasn’t a snowstorm, but it was snowing enough to pad the sound of the already quiet country road. I asked if I could help but there was little I could do. I remember the man, and maybe his wife and children, but I don’t recall doing much to make his life easier in that water. Maybe they had already called the emergency crews, or maybe they were self-sustained and didn’t need any more help than they had between them. I had never seen these people before and didn’t tell my parents what I saw, for reasons that I can’t explain. The next day, the family and the van were gone, and no one I knew could tell me what happened.
Gradually the water dried up in that valley. The creek was replaced with weeds. The tunnel lost its purpose. And I grew too old to play there anymore. All of my childhood summers spent dodging that putrid water now feels like it was replaced with that family in the winter, watching as their van slowly sunk further into the muck.