Everyone thinks I don’t go into the lake because I fear water. In a sense that’s true; I do fear water. In particular, this water: Seneca Lake—the longest and deepest of the Finger Lakes. But not because I’m afraid I’ll drown, I’m actually a very good swimmer. I don’t go into the lake because I know what’s down there and they do not. So here, on the south shore, closest to my home, I sit and watch small white waves roll in while others swim. The clear and deep, chilly blue waters of the ominous lake—dug from receding glaciers left over from the Ice Age—are not for me, nor, I suppose, not for Corey, either.
It’s been more than forty years but I can still hear the sounds of the Fourth of July celebration in town. It was the year of our bicentennial, 1976, and practically every man, woman and child of Watkins Glen came out to celebrate. There were firecrackers going off in front lawns, bottle rockets in back alleyways and sparklers in the hands of every wild child racing up and down Franklin Street. Downtown, NASCAR drivers stood alongside their shiny new race cars and signed autographs while talk of a real professional firework show over the lake at dusk quickly spread from lip to lip and neighbor to neighbor on sidewalks, playgrounds and backyard patios. It was small-town America at its finest, all decked out in red, white and blue and Corey—my best friend—and I were not going to miss out.
I first met Corey Miller in 1970, on the playground near the lake, when we were both six. He and his mom had just moved to Watkins Glen, from Ithaca, and lived three blocks down from me on Decatur Street, he said.
Corey was a chubby little kid with honeysuckle-blond hair, fierce blue eyes and a considerable limp due to one of his legs being slightly longer than the other; a result of a nasty viral infection he contracted when he was four. Somehow the infection, he explained, caused his left leg to stop growing for a little while. “By the time is started growing again it was too late. My right leg was already two inches longer.”
“Does in hurt?” I asked as we climbed the monkey bars.
“Nah, not really.”
I smiled and watched as he jumped to his feet and clumsily landed in the sand pit below. Despite having just met (and his bum leg) we played together for hours that day. He told me about his dad and how he died in a car accident the night before his sixth birthday, just two months earlier. “That’s why we moved here. To get away from where it happened. Ithaca was so sad.”
“That’s terrible, Corey. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. I still have Mama.”
It’s accurate to say that I liked Corey, or felt sorry for him, from the very start. Most of the other kids in our neighborhood, mainly the boys, teased him about his plus-size body and nerdy limp for years to come, but not me. I never teased poor Corey. Somehow, as I soon learned, he would perpetually draw the proverbial short straw.
Pete Slater, a no-account drifter, was one of Corey’s short straws. According to Pete, he once held a fantastic job as a prison guard up on the Hill in Elmira until he fell off the wagon, hard. Being a guard in those days paid pretty well, but Pete managed to spend everything he earned as soon as it hit his pockets. By the time he arrived in Watkins Glen in 1974, he was penniless and begrudgingly relied on his own two feet to get around town. He was easily overheard, cursing freely, as he walked to Curley’s Chicken House for dinner; to The Glen to watch the NASCAR races; and occasionally down to the lake for a dip when it got, “too fucking hot.”
It was about this time, when he was doing all the walking, that he met Shirley, Corey’s mom, at a local establishment in town known as Dusti’s Bar & Grill where she tended bar. Dusti’s was the sort of place where people like Pete, hayseeds mainly, could gather day or night to shoot darts, play pool and get totally soused.
Oddly enough, and by most accounts, Pete Slater was a good-looking man. Good enough to get the attention of the pretty widow Shirley Miller, most folks agreed. He stood an even six feet tall and weighed a solid two hundred and ten pounds, all muscle. He had a habit or wearing a navy-blue bandana around his head that he tied off in a knot at the nape of his neck. It kept his long, mud-black hair out of his handsome face, I guess. But what I remember most are his ugly tattoos. They were the doggone ugliest I’d ever seen in my life, and he had lots of them. One in particular that I remember well, was of a devil’s head wrapped in serpents located smack dab on the side of his thick, well-suntanned neck. Black, red, green and threatening was that tattoo. I hated it and I hated Pete.
But I wasn’t alone on this issue, just about everyone in town hated Pete Slater. Brute, swine, vermin, thug: words used by many to describe him three months after he arrived in town and began working in the salt mines. When he disappeared a couple of years after marrying Shirley, not too many people lost sleep worrying about whatever became of him. “Adios muchacha,” was the most common sentiment expressed by the hard-working people of the mines and the patrons down at Dusti’s, according to Shirley.
A few days before the bicentennial celebration, in an unusual display of generosity, Pete managed to obtain all sorts of illegal fireworks down in Pennsylvania for Corey and I. We were planning on lighting them. All of them. Most girls were afraid of such things but not me. At the age of twelve—and as always—I was twice as brave as Corey Miller and everyone in town knew it, including Corey. Heck, in the spring when we’d go searching for night crawlers to sell down at the docks—two for a penny—it was me who scooped up those slimy fat bastards while Corey held the flashlight. He wouldn’t touch them, said they’d make him puke if he did. Another time, when we were eight, my mother cut my long, shiny black hair boy-short. All my friends, including Corey, sat huddled together on our front lawn and watched as my mother snipped away at my head with her trusty shears—her swift and eager hands allowing my hair to fall where it may. It made no never-mind to me, but Corey cried and cried when he swept up that raven colored hair from our driveway and carried it home in his hip pockets. Beats me whether or not he still has those stupid locks. Probably not.
Yeah, Corey was odd that way; all sentimental and not very brave. That was until the early evening of July 4, 1976, rolled around. A night I’ll never forget.
After finishing my dinner and washing all the dishes, I was finally allowed to go over to Corey’s for a little fun. It was about six o’clock in the afternoon when I arrived and saw all of the firecrackers from Pennsylvania lined up in his driveway. Naturally, Corey was waiting for me; he needed someone brave enough to light them and, luckily for him, I had just arrived.
As was the neighborhood norm, I cut through their breezeway and knocked on their back door. No one answered so I knocked again. When still no one answered, I leaned forward and pressed my face against the window to get a peek around inside the house. And that’s when I saw Shirley collapse to the floor after Pete hit her across the face with his closed fist.
Just about everyone in town knew that Pete Slater hit his wife on a regular basis but it was the first time I had ever witnessed it. Poor Corey had probably seen it dozens of times which must have been heavy on his mind when he came screaming out from the living room and lunged at the giant of a man standing before him.
Before I knew what was happening, my hand was suddenly on the door knob, turning it, until I was well inside of their kitchen and part of the mayhem unfolding before my very eyes.
Pete easily repelled Corey’s advances and seemed to enjoy the sport of it. But Corey was as mad as a cat left out in the rain, the sights of which I had never seen before or since. “I’m going to kill you, Pete!” He screamed, as he frantically punched and slapped away at Pete. Shirley lay a crumpled mass on the black and white tiled floor, crying and bleeding into a kitchen towel while I stood still like a statue of Sacagawea trying to figure out what, if anything, I should do next.
Then Pete, I’ll never forget, threw back his head and began to laugh, shamelessly, causing that crazy-ass, serpent-wrapped devil tattoo on his neck to laugh right alongside him…or so it seemed. “This is hilarious, Corey!” He wailed. “That’ll be the day when a pansy-ass cripple like you gets the better of me!” His sardonic grin now coldly demented and terribly frightening.
I thought I may pee in my pants but instead I screamed, “Corey, stop! Let’s go outside and light the firecrackers.”
“Yeah, and don’t forget where them firecrackers came from, sweetheart. They were a gift from yours truly!” Pete announced as he pounded his thumb into his mighty chest and offered his outstretched hand to Shirley. “Get up!” But Shirley, with a look of sheer terror written across her bloody face, scrambled backwards, away from his reach. Seeing this, Corey suddenly vanished into a back room for a few seconds. When he returned, I could hardly believe my eyes and, most likely, neither could Pete. Less-than-brave, twelve-year-old Corey Miller stood stone cold in the middle of the room, his feet shoulder-width apart, bottom lip curled under with a .38 Special pointed straight at Pete Slater’s head.
“Okay, let’s all calm down now,” Pete sputtered, veins in his neck throbbing wildly. “Everything’s cool. Corey, put down the gun before you shoot someone.” Corey never flinched and even Shirley, still cowering on the floor a couple of feet behind Pete, remained deadly quiet. “Shirley!” Pete barked as he turned and faced her. “Stop crawling around on the floor like a fucking maggot! Get up and talk some sense into your stupid son!”
Obediently, Shirley grabbed the top of the kitchen table, pushed herself up as hard as she could with her other hand and attempted to stand, but she was rocky. “Corey, don’t do this,” she pleaded as she continued to try and steady herself. “Put down the gun, honey. Everything’s going to be alright…”
But Corey didn’t seem to be listening to her, or anything, as he stood in what looked like some sort of trance; both eyes fixed on Pete, chin up, shoulders back, hands still planted firmly on the gun. Pete returned Corey’s unbroken gaze, but somehow managed to simultaneously reach behind his back and drag Shirley to his side by her long, red hair. “Tell him again, Shirley! Tell him…”
Pete was suddenly interrupted by the deafening sound of the pistol being cocked. “Let go of my mother,” Corey demanded. Then, to everyone’s shock and horror, he fired a live round high above Pete’s head which erupted in our ears with a loud and powerful BANG!
With the sudden and dramatic tip of the scale, Pete finally surrendered to Corey (or, mainly, to his gun) by letting loose of Shirley. Quickly, she scrambled backwards again, away from Pete and looked up at her son. I don’t know how she knew what was about to happen, but suddenly she screamed, “Corey, don’t!” But it was too late. Just as the words parted her lips, and the neighbor’s firecrackers began to bang, crackle and pop again outside, the gun went off again. This time hitting Pete squarely between his eyes.
Pete collapsed to the floor where bright, red blood quickly began to pool around his head. Corey’s mouth flew wide open as if he, too, couldn’t believe what had just happened and dropped to his knees. Shirley, still in disbelief, released some sort of high-pitched, primeval sound, like a wolf’s howl, and crawled across the floor to Corey’s side. Me? I threw up on top of my bright yellow Converse and covered my face with both of my shaking hands. I can still taste the gunfire that seeped into my mouth and nostrils that day.
Instinctively, we all scrambled to the far end of the kitchen and sat with our backs against the wall—as far away from Pete, and all that blood, as we could. We must have remained there for a solid ten or fifteen minutes, maybe longer; suspended in time and our shared, overwhelming state of shock. Then Shirley—the first to regain composure—suddenly spoke, breaking our eerie silence.
“Corey, look at me, son,” she said as she gently ran her hand over the top of his head. Corey looked up at his mother as silent tears streamed down his cheeks. “We need to get rid of Pete’s body. Do you understand?”
Events now seemed to unfold very slowly, especially for Corey and me as we sat wide-eyed depending upon Shirley, the only adult, to take the lead. In that slow-motion way, Corey nodded, apparently communicating that he had indeed heard and understood his mother’s words. After several more agonizing seconds, while I thought about running home, Corey finally opened his mouth. “Yes, Mama,” he whispered. “I understand.”
“Okay, good…that’s very good, Corey. You’re doing great. And don’t worry about anything. Everything is going to be just fine, as long as you both do exactly as I say. I promise.” He nodded again.
Then Shirley turned around and spoke directly to me. Her voice was hushed but completely clear. “Olivia, honey, you need to stay and help us take care of things. Do you think you can do that, sweetheart? Help us?”
My mouth opened but no sound came out. Help them? It was all so wickedly weird and frightening I couldn’t speak. But I must’ve said something to satisfy her. I just simply don’t remember what.
Shirley then took the gun, still in Corey’s hand, and wrapped it in a brown paper sack, the kind you got from the grocery stores back then. “Corey, do you think you can go into the bathroom and pull down the shower curtain for me?”
Corey did as she asked. About five minutes later, he returned with the plastic shower curtain and slowly handed it to Shirley who spread it out over the floor, next to Pete’s body. She then directed us to help her roll Pete onto it and wrap him up, tightly. “Like a burrito,” she said. “We’ll do it together.”
After his body was wrapped in the shower curtain and tucked into the corner of the room, we began to wash the kitchen floor with bleach on our hands and knees; scrubbing and wiping, scrubbing and wiping until the flesh on our hands split and our eyes burned. When Shirley said the checkerboard floor was sufficiently cleaned, we gathered the blood-soaked rags into an old bucket and took them outside to be burned in the firepit.
About this time, many of Corey’s neighbors were outside again, gathering together their foldable lawn chairs and coolers as they got ready to walk down to the lake to watch the fireworks. But Shirley, now shockingly-cool as morning dew, calmly smiled in their direction as she threw the bloody rags into the pit, doused them with lighter fluid and lit a match. Poof! They were gone.
Mechanically, still moving slowly, Corey and I went through the motions of helping her collect all the firecrackers from the driveway and bury them deep inside an old, wooden chest stored in the corner of their garage. Back inside the house, we sat huddled together in a circle on the living room floor.
“We’ll just wait for it to get dark outside and when the coast is clear, I’ll pull the truck out of the garage and we’ll move him,” Shirley began.
“But won’t people still be outside then, Mom? That’ll be about the time they return home from watching the fireworks,” Corey said. “They’ll be out and about getting drunk and setting off more firecrackers for hours after it’s dark…don’t you think?”
“You’re absolutely right, Corey,” Shirley said. “We’ll just have to wait until well beyond midnight to make our move.”
“My parents will wonder where I am,” I said, still terrified and hoping the simple truth would excuse me from further bedlam.
But Shirley was prepared. “Let me call them and tell them you’re going to spend the night, okay honey?” (Yes, she called me ‘honey’ for the second time that night, as if I were still an innocent child.) She went on. “You’ve spent the night here before so I don’t think your parents will mind. I’ll tell them that you and Corey are having such a good time lighting the firecrackers that you’d like to stay longer, and that it’s okay with me if you spend the night on our couch.”
I still wanted to run but all I could manage to say was, “okay.” How had I suddenly become such a coward?
At Shirley’s insistence, we played several games of Yahtzee, or tried to, on the shag-carpeted floor while we waited. A game I now refuse to play, ever. When “well beyond midnight” finally arrived, we looked outside and discovered the fireworks over the lake had long since drawn to a close and the neighbors were back inside of their homes—lawn chairs, coolers and themselves all tucked in for the night. All was normal, yet nothing was normal.
As planned, Shirley pulled her pickup out from the garage and backed it up to the breezeway door. We each grabbed a section of Pete’s burrito-wrapped body and struggled against the weight of the corpse while we carried it outside. We knocked over several large house plants and even a lava light as we made our way through the kitchen, out the breezeway door and finally deposited his heavy body into the bed of the truck. Then, just as quietly as she could, without the aid of headlights, Shirley drove down Decatur Street towards the lake with Corey sitting next to her, me next to him.
Once we arrived on the south shore of the lake, Shirley turned off the pickup’s engine, got out and pulled two cinderblocks resting beside Pete from the back of the truck. Corey gathered a heavy rope in his hands and we helped him tie off the blocks and wrap the rope around Pete’s body. Finally, Shirley tucked the gun inside of the shower curtain, next to the body, and told us to wait while she borrowed a speedboat from the docks. Back then, many people in Watkins Glen were very trusting; they’d leave the keys to their boats where anyone could easily find them. Shirley took advantage of the status quo and drove one of those unsuspecting neighbor’s boats deep out into the lake with me, Corey and a very dead Pete beside her. The macabre drone of the small engine as it propelled us further into the lake—and madness—was the only sound we heard.
After we were about three or four hundred yards out, Shirley cut the motor and we all pushed the stiff corpse—laden with heavy blocks—off the starboard side of the boat. We then leaned forward, watching wide-eyed, as a large ripple spread across the still waters and the body of Pete Slater sank down some six hundred and seventeen feet—the depth of the colossal lake—and into the black abyss. Neither Shirley, Corey, nor I uttered a single word as she turned the boat around and we made our way back to the shore.
Later that morning, as I lay awake tossing and turning on the couch, the unforgettable sound of Corey’s gun reverberated over and over again in my mind as I tried to make sense of what happened. Why Corey had fired that second and fatal shot, I just couldn’t understand as Pete seemed to be surrendering at the time. At least, that’s the way it looked to me.
Perhaps Corey had finally had enough of his stepfather’s cruelty, I thought. Or, maybe, it was the terrifying image of his mother, bloodied and bruised again by her husband’s hand that pushed him over the edge. I considered everything I could think of. Had Corey intended to kill Pete all along? Or had his trigger finger accidentally slipped? Did he even think about what may happen to him if he did kill Pete?
These questions ran through my mind all night long, as they still do today. But I’ll never have any answers, especially not now; it’s too late. What I did know for sure, as I lay awake staring up at the ceiling that night, was whatever his reasons, or what he may or may not have been thinking, Corey, in fact, had shot and killed Pete with one, perfectly aimed and timed shot, magically muffled by the rowdy sounds of the Fourth of July celebration in town.
When the glorious sun, my savior, finally flooded through the open windows—and after I promised both Shirley and Corey that I would never tell—I ran home, barefooted, as fast as my non-calloused feet would carry me. (I never could bring myself to wear those yellow Converse again so I later convinced my mother that I had somehow lost them.) I ran past the neighbors’ houses, past the chilled, steel blue water of the lake, past the docks, past the boats, past the playground and quickly went about the business of trying to forget how my best friend had shot and killed his stepfather right in front of my eyes.
As the days slowly passed, Corey and I began seeing less and less of one another. It had become clear to us that nothing could, or would, ever be the same. The innocent days of our childhood had tragically slipped away, and soon were nothing more than a distant memory. He and Shirley moved away the following fall, to Geneva this time, a small city nestled at the top of the lake. I never heard from them again.
I’m an adult now, a spinster, really, still living in the same house I grew up in with my now elderly mother and father. “Such a shame that Olivia Spencer never married,” I’ve overheard those same neighbors of Corey’s from 1976 say as they pass me down on Franklin Street. “She was such a lovely child. Never pegged her to turn out like this. Such a shame.”
So, here, decades later on windy days like today, I sit alone on the gritty beach and listen to the sounds of the waves hitting the south shore of Seneca Lake. Now and again, swooping in from the direction of Decatur Street, a helpless little wisp of a wind forms this way and that, riding upon some mysterious breeze and swirls around my head. It’s then that I worry that old, tattooed Pete may one day float up to the surface of the enormous lake.
I pound my fists into the sand and force myself to close my eyes and pray that the currents of the underground springs of the imposing Finger Lake will be kind to me and take Pete up north, about thirty-six miles, to Geneva, and let my old friend Corey and his mother deal with him all alone this time.
But then, that’s only fair. Don’t you think?
Mary Mack is the author of suspense-driven novels such as Reasonable Regret and Beyond Jerusalem Hill. She’s the wife of a self-proclaimed historian, mother of five and grandmother to seven. She began writing late in life at the age of 54. She does her best writing at home in her sunny guest room located in the Finger Lakes Region of New York with her crazy cat Isabella at her side. Mack prefers writing stories about strong, leading ladies and her favorite pastimes include going to the movies with her husband, reading, writing and sampling the wonderful wines of the Finger Lakes. Visit her website and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter: @MaryMac28270414!