The earth stopped spinning for a second, and when it again moved, everything was different. “Where is he?” I asked, because I couldn’t wrap my head around the moment. I felt like a firebush plant, as though most of my body had blended in with the world; all that was visibly alive was my soul, the bloom, the bright red-orange tubular blooms shooting out like flames.
Then several things happened at once. First, Manning tackled me. “YOU IDIOT!” he screamed. “YOU IDIOT! HOW COULD YOU THINK I WOULD TAKE YOUR STUPID DOG OUT THERE?”
Hawk reached us just as we both tumbled into the cold wet sand, and he pulled Manning off of me and cast him aside, where a police officer restrained him and his grandmother pulled his head to her chest. Hawk sank to his knees beside me, and covered me with his own jacket. Someone arrived with Cleo, who jumped on us both and licked our faces until my cheeks felt sore from her sandpaper tongue. And finally, Manning’s father arrived. An officer intercepted him and spoke with him briefly; then Mr. Vanderwart ran to the water and began screaming.
“STERLING! STERLING! COME BACK, SON!” he shouted. “STERLING! I’M HERE!” He waded into the surf; the Jet-Ski man trotted out to him and gently kept him from diving in.
I looked at Manning, and saw that he was doubled over. As I watched, he gagged, then threw up in the sand. As his head came up, his eyes met mine, and we stared at each other for a long, long moment, and I could see that he was just a boy. There was no hatred in his face, just tear-stained misery, and with this clarity came my sudden understanding that Sterling was gone.
A terrible, debilitating exhaustion swept over me, and I laid my head down near Cleo and closed my eyes. I felt my body going numb with cold, and I heard Hawk whispering in my ear, but I didn’t move. He grabbed my hand; I squeezed it lightly so he’d know I was okay, and he let me lie there. Somebody covered me with a blanket.
A while later, a commotion developed nearby; the helicopter whirring disappeared and was replaced by a boat’s engine. When I heard Mr. Vanderwart shouting, “NO, NO, NO!” I knew Sterling’s body had been found, but still I didn’t open my eyes. I felt my mother’s smooth hands on my face, stroking my hair; I remained motionless. All around me, I could feel the activity and imagine the scene: Mr. Vanderwart and his mother hovered over Sterling’s limp figure; Manning standing alone and forgotten; the police waiting awkwardly to escort them to wherever; and my parents huddled over me and my dog, the four of us like a fortified igloo trying to steel ourselves against the sadness that would affect us for a very long time.
It was nearly dark by the time my parents half-carried me home. Merri put me in a hot bath and washed the sand out of my hair, Cleo watching with her chin on the tub ledge. My mother spoke to me in soothing words, as though I was a baby, and I took comfort in my own helplessness, and in feeling like she and Hawk could resolve any issue that plagued me.
I slept hard, but I remember stirring each time my mother came into my room to feel my forehead for fever, and squeeze my hands to make sure they weren’t still cold. The next day I opened my eyes and knew it was late in the morning. Not till then – fully awake, with sun shining through my window shades, my surroundings as familiar to me as my skin – not until then did I grasp that everything and nothing was the same.
I got up and went into the kitchen, where my parents sat drinking coffee and waiting for me. I went to Hawk first, and he embraced me with a bear hug so tight it hurt. “Darling,” he said. “My Palmer. I’m so sorry. I’m so glad you’re safe, and I’m so sorry. I should have been there.” Merri stood and wrapped her arms around us both.
After a bit I sat down, and Merri handed me some hot chocolate.
“What happened?” I asked. “I mean, I know Sterling is….I know he’s gone, but I don’t understand what happened.”
Hawk sighed heavily. “We only know what Manning and his grandmother told the police,” he said, then recounted the story.
Apparently right after I dived in, Sterling and his grandmother arrived. Sterling must have been worried about me being alone with Manning – he told her that Manning had taken my dog. When his grandmother saw that I had dived in, she shouted at Manning to run to the nearest house and call 911, which he did – but while he was gone, Sterling ran after me and threw himself into the surf. His grandmother is healthy, but not strong – there’s no way she could have stopped him on land, much less in the water. By the time Manning returned, Sterling had disappeared from view, dipping between the troughs of the waves.
More importantly – he really couldn’t swim, at least not well, and certainly not in rough waters. His uneven legs kept him from being a strong kicker, and he had never been athletic like his brother. Manning must have wanted to go after him, but his grandmother wouldn’t let him, or at least begged him not to.
The neighbor who Manning asked to call for help also thought to call Mr. Vanderwart and Hawk. Police arrived within five or 10 minutes, and Manning told them everything – that he had taken the dog and lied to me about her being at the lighthouse, and that I was swimming to try to reach her and his brother was swimming to help me.
I listened carefully to every word, and tears sprang to my eyes as I imagined my friend ignoring his own limitations to try to save me. I thought of his chubby, freckled arms slapping those cold swells, and his fear as the water invaded his nose and forced its way into his mouth.
Why couldn’t I have waited? Why didn’t I just call the police myself? But one question plagued me mercilessly. I could not figure out why Sterling had not told me that Manning had Cleo, and why he had behaved so oddly that day when I went to find him. Sterling told me everything! I knew more about him than anyone! Something wasn’t right.
“I need to talk to Manning,” I told my parents. They looked at each other, then back at me.
“Really, I want to see Manning. I want to make sure he’s all right,” I lied, then realized I was being partly truthful. I remembered his devastated look from the beach, and my heart knew that though I had lost my best friend, he had lost his brother. Mostly, though, I needed to figure this out, and only Manning could help. I didn’t know whether he’d talk to me, but I had to try. He had forced me to play a role in Sterling’s death, and for that, he owed me the truth.