What Happened Beneath

by Anna Whiteside

I don’t go to zoos anymore. I don’t go to aquariums, or water parks,
or national parks, or state parks, or dog parks, or anywhere that
there might be danger lurking in the Beyond or Beneath.

When I was much younger, in the Before, I went to those places. I
don’t remember it, but I have a picture of my mom and my brother and
me, standing in front of an enclosure with an anteater. I am laughing
because anteaters really are a joke of a creation, aren’t they? And my
mom is laughing and holding my brother. He’s just a baby, so he isn’t
laughing but is instead making one of those gooey, amorphous faces
that babies can’t help but make. I imagine that my dad, holding his
phone up to his face, is also laughing.

They don’t laugh as much anymore, my parents. After it happened,
they went for what seemed like years without laughing, and when
I laughed they’d look at me as though I’d just landed from another
planet. I was their faraway daughter, their alien.

What they’ve never understood is that I’m not suffering in the way
that they are suffering. I was five when it happened, just a kid myself.
In fact, I don’t remember much about the Very Bad Thing at all. I only
remember afterward, when the cartoon characters came to our hotel
room to distract me with cookies and candies and silly songs. They
were too loud, and I wished they would go away. All I wanted to do
was to watch these same characters on the TV in our room, on the
channel that featured them nonstop.

I preferred the TV versions of these characters. The TV versions
were smaller and more manageable. They weren’t large and boisterous,
and more importantly, they weren’t expecting anything of me.
The characters on TV were doing their rightful job of entertaining me
with their antics. I didn’t have to give them anything. I could laugh
at my own pace, which really is what any five-year-old wants to do.

***

Everyone wants to know—but never outright asks—about the actual
Very Bad Thing. They are disappointed when they figure out that I
either don’t remember it or am not going to tell them. I dated this
guy in college who I figured must have Googled me since I went to
college far away from my hometown, in a town and a place where my
name was just a name and not a name inextricably tied to tragedy.
A few dates into our short-lived relationship, this guy starts telling
me about his next-door neighbor getting hit by a car and killed when
both he and the neighbor were kids. It was a very sad story, and he
kept looking at me in this searching way as he was telling it, like he
wanted me to say something. I didn’t know what to say, so I told him
that if he was still that worked up over it, he ought to go to therapy.
He recoiled when I said that, slumped back on his side of the booth
and scowled. We didn’t go out again, which I thought was all for the
best because he had very shitty taste in music.

When I was a teenager, my parents made me go to a therapist. I
was “acting out,” they said, because I’d quit going to church and had
for one week painted my fingernails black. They blamed all of this
on the Very Bad Thing, though I, who am now a parent of a teenager
myself, know that teenagers are in general shitheads and otherwise
difficult people to be around, with or without a grand tragedy.

The therapist operated out of a cabin on a lake. She had wind
chimes and dream catchers and a golden retriever therapy dog that
had bad breath and some kind of liquid running out of its eyes.

I was told by this therapist that I absolutely could remember what
had happened to my brother; I had merely repressed it for the past
eleven years. In order for me to become a “normal” adult, I was going
to have to first remember and then confront everything that had
happened on that terrible day that summer.

The therapist made me lie down on her sofa while she sat Indian
style on the flokati rug beside it, speaking in one of those calming
Food Network voices, attempting to lure me into a state of hypnosis.
I wasn’t buying it, but I lay there anyway, because I was tired, because
it was summer and I’d stayed up most of the night reading The Grapes
of Wrath. I watched the light that reflected off of the lake dance on
the ceiling above me, and I thought not about my brother, nor about
my parents, but about myself and about what life was going to be
like when I was able to get out of this town. I would one day live a
life, I realized, in which I wasn’t tied to my brother’s death, in which
I wasn’t tied to my parent’s guilt, and in which I wasn’t tied to some
grand tragedy in a vacation town whose name, in my mind, is now
synonymous with misery.

The therapist, meanwhile, droned on about the Very Bad Thing:
about the lake, and the struggle, and the Monster, and the only thing
that all this made me remember was the cinematic version of the
events that had formed in my head, the created memory, a result of
having a story—my story, or rather, a story adjacent to me—played
over and over again, by newspapers, and broadcasts, and talk show
hosts, and even a Lifetime Original Movie. Fun fact: the actress who
played me in that movie died of a drug overdose in her teens.
At the end of the hypnosis session, the therapist asked me, again,
to recount my memory of the event, and I decided I’d go with the
version my parents give because even though I know that theirs is
not the true version and that at this point there is no true version, I
knew that it was the one that the therapist would be most likely to
believe. And she did, and she smiled so damn smugly I almost lost it.
She asked me how I, as an “almost adult,” would deal with the situation
and its manifestations in my own life. How would I take agency?
I put aside the fact that even as an “almost adult” I recognized that
this question was flawed and that it ignored all of my real problems,
and instead I locked eyes with her and said, “I would get on with my
fucking life.”

I did not go back to that therapist, or any other. My parents must
have decided that I was beyond repair.

***

My parents went to a lot of therapists right after it happened, following
the recommendation of this friend and then that friend and
then later that person they ran into at the supermarket or that other
person who called them out of the blue, a complete stranger, to offer
their services. It seemed like there was a new therapist every week,
and each one had different ideas about what my parents needed to do
to feel better. And because I was a child, their only remaining child,
many of these ideas seemed to involve me in ways that I still find
deeply unsettling.

There was the therapist, for instance, who said that I needed to
sleep in bed with them every night for a month, to develop a new
family unity. This lasted about a week, until I learned that the best
way to get rid of my father’s deep and resonant snoring was to keep
him awake by kicking and thrashing.

Another therapist hooked us up to a machine that made bleeps
and bloops. It was supposed to reverse certain charges in our bodies,
but it only gave us headaches.

We did light therapy. We did music therapy. We quit eating meat.
We quit eating dairy. We quit eating much at all, right after it happened.
My parents quit eating because they couldn’t eat. I quit eating
because my parents had trouble remembering that I was there.

But I don’t blame them for that, or for anything else having to
do with the Very Bad Thing. They don’t need my blame; they had
enough blame pouring in at them from around the country when it
happened. A lot of people had a lot of things to say. Because people
always have a lot of things to say. Because saying things is easy.

They shouldn’t have been playing by the lagoon. There were signs.

They shouldn’t have been at that place at all. Don’t they know it’s
an evil corporation?

The father should have fought harder. If it were me, I would have
saved my kid.

The mother should have kept better watch on her kids.

The kids should have been in bed.

They should have. They should have. They should have.

In the investigation afterwards, the officials determined that the
signs said “No Swimming,” and we weren’t swimming, we were just
playing on the beach. The signs could have instead said, “Caution.
There are Monsters in this water, lurking below the surface, who will
rip your child off the face of the earth,” but that might have damaged
the ethos of the happiest place on earth.

When it happened, specialists did the rounds on news talk shows,
explaining that it’s basically impossible to do anything once the
Monster has you in its powerful grip. All you can really do is scream
and kick, make a lot of noise, and try to poke the Monster in its eyes.
That is, of course, if you have presence of mind to do any of that, if
you can do anything except panic.

My dad says he tried to fight the Monster, and I believe it. I have
memories of him in the Before, just small things, glimpses and starts,
and in many of those, he’s loud and lively and—a word I didn’t really
understand until I grew up and left home and started my own life
and my own family—joyful.

He was the kind of dad who would have planned a trip to the happiest
place on earth, who would have spent a lot of money flying us
there from across the country, who would have put us up in a nice
hotel, nicer even, than he needed to, who would have had us participating
in as many of the resort’s activities as we could, including the
family movie night and fireworks on the night of the Very Bad Thing.

***

What is a real memory, and what is a created one? And how do you
ever tell the difference?

I remember fireworks and I remember screaming. I remember the
way my mother’s face distorted into something that was less a human
face and more a mask of tragedy. I remember my dad yelling for
help. I remember people running.

But when I analyze the memory, I realize that my parents look old.
My mother’s face isn’t just distorted, it’s wrinkled. Her hair is gray.
My father’s hair has thinned into a wisp. The people who run to help
are wearing clothes that people wear today. It’s a lie. I’ve made it all up.
But the fireworks—how do you know? Fireworks are always the
same. And I’m tempted to think that this is the part that I remember,
the fireworks.

***

After it happened, we didn’t go to fireworks. My parents didn’t talk
about it—it was never a stated thing that we would not do, it was just
understood.

And then when I had kids, we didn’t see fireworks, and we didn’t
go to zoos.

My husband, who is patient, and who is good, tries to understand
all of this, he really does, and I love him for it. But still, when our kids
got older, he started suggesting trips out to Yellowstone, or to the
beach, and I’d look at him wild-eyed and shake my head.

“But it’ll be OK,” he’d say. “We can be careful. We can do everything
right.”

This made me laugh. Because what I understand now, what I’ve
understood since before I ought to have understood it, is that you
can never do everything right. Where we were, where my brother was
killed, was a place where everything was supposed to be done right,
where everything was supposed to be safe.

It was a place so safe, in fact, that dangers were created for us,
just to make it more exciting. The day before the Very Bad Thing,
we’d gone to one of the parks—the only day we got to go, our last
day as a family of four—and one of the rides featured a witch that
chased us from room to room as we were pulled along in our cart. My
brother and I screamed and screamed, terrified of the old crone and
her gnarled walking stick, but then we got to the end of the ride and
there was music and sunshine, and I was OK.

My brother wasn’t OK—he stayed scared. On every other ride, he
screamed, even the ride where all the children from around the world
sang that stupid song about friendship and harmony.

“It’s OK,” my mom kept whispering to him. “It isn’t real. None of
this is real.”

By the end of that day, he’d finally caught on. When we took the
ride on the boat through the jungle, he didn’t scream about the elephants,
or the lions, or the snakes, or the crocodile. At all of it, he
pointed and laughed.

I have agonized over what he was thinking in his last moments.
I imagine that to him, this was just more of the game. Nothing was
real, Mom had told him, and so he laughed and laughed until the
teeth sunk into his little leg.

I’ve wondered if he had enough time to be mad at us for not saving
him. Or worse, I’ve wondered if he died still thinking that we
would come, the muddy water at the bottom of the lake filling his
little lungs as he opened his mouth again and again to call out for us.
As a child, the only thing that resonated with me was that my
brother was gone. While at first I found some solace in the fact that I
would no longer have anyone to compete with for my parents’ attention,
this quickly dissipated as I realized that my brother’s absence
demanded more attention than his presence.

And then, of course, I was lonely, and that was a hole that could
never be filled.

***

My parents didn’t talk about the actual thing after we returned home.
They talked about my brother all the time, but they did not talk about
that day. I suppose they wanted to spare me the gory details, to keep
me from suffering through the nightmares that haunted them.

When I turned fifteen, my parents gave me a laptop. I’d stay up
late, searching for stories about my family in the same way other kids
my age searched for porn. I read articles about the attempted rescue
and articles about who was actually to blame. I read articles about
everything the resort did and then did not do to make sure that it never
happened again and articles about my brother’s memorial service.

I inundated myself with facts and information, but still, that
wasn’t the stuff I cared about; what I cared about was what happened
in the Beneath. There were article about that too, and there was the
coroner’s report, but it wasn’t the science that I hungered after; I
needed to know what it was like to be my brother in that moment.
I wasn’t with him in the end, but knowing what it was like, feeling
what it was like, would bring me closer to being there.

From my reading, I learned that after the Monster grabbed my
brother, it dragged him out only about ten feet from where we were
standing, and then it dropped him. It didn’t eat him, though people
thought it had, because this was a Monster, and that’s what Monsters
do. So all those other Monsters that were killed, their guts torn
open in a desperate search for my brother’s body, died in vain.

My brother drowned there on the lake floor, only six feet below the
surface. If the water had been clear, if we had known where to look,
we might have saved him. Might have.

When I’d grow too tired to keep reading, I’d lie in bed, imagining
that I was at the bottom of the lake with my brother. I’d slide my
hand along the soft, slimy sediment and reach out for his. I’d sing
the lullaby our mom used to sing to us before he died, the one about
the old gray goose in the millpond. The melody would come out in
bubbles, but still I would sing, and my brother would smile one more
time. I wouldn’t have saved him, but in his last moments, he would
have known he was loved.

***

It’s been forty years since this happened, but my parents are still
alive, and they are still together. Does that surprise you, to know that
they didn’t split up? It surprises most people, but it doesn’t surprise
me. My parents have been unified by tragedy. Where before they
seemed to me like two different people, they now are blurred together
in shades of gray and black and blue.

They aren’t a constant presence of sadness. I have seen them laugh,
and I have seen them smile. I have pictures in which we are all smiling—
my graduation, my wedding, and the birth of my children. In
these pictures, you would not look at us and say oh this is a family
that has been through great tragedy. You would not say that this is a
family that is obviously fractured. All you would say is that this is a
family, and you would end it at that, period. But we know better. We
know that we quit being whole one horrible day in July.

We stopped talking about it some years after it happened, after
we gave up on the shrinks and on getting better. Before, in the years
that grieving weighed down on us like a sickness, my parents would
do something on my brother’s birthday. My mom would bake a cake,
and then she’d cry, and my dad would get lost in home movies. At
some point, we shifted to going to church and lighting a candle, each
of us saying—or not saying—a prayer. We’d go out to eat afterwards,
mumbling about nothing in particular over our spaghetti and breadsticks.

And then we did nothing, at all.

We had not forgotten; we were just tired of the pain.

***

When my first child was born, I debated how much I needed to tell
her about the uncle she once had. I wondered when I should tell her.

“We don’t have to think about this now,” my husband said. “We’ve
got plenty of time. Let’s just be happy. Let’s not worry about it.”

But what he doesn’t get—what he never will get—is how impossible
that is. I will always worry about it. It will always be a wound.

I ended up telling my kids by accident, when my daughter was
ten and my son was eight. They had been invited to a birthday party
at the zoo. I’d gone through years and years of them begging and
pleading me for visits to the zoo. Each time, I’d give the answer of
no and because I said so, or no, I don’t like zoos because they’re hot,
or they’re too much money, or they smell—all things which are true,
by the way, but which did not do as good a job of convincing my kids
that zoos are bad places.

But on this particular day, they kept pressing. Why didn’t I let
them go to the zoo? Why didn’t I let them have any fun? Why was I
such a bad mom?

And so it came out. It just came out. Not all the frightening details,
of course—I’m not that terrible—but the facts of what happened just
came pouring out of my mouth before I really knew what I was saying.

My husband came in the room to find our children sobbing. When
I explained to him what I’d said, he went white.

“They’re too young to know this,” he said to me as he paced back
and forth in front of the bed in our bedroom. “It could scar them
for life.”

“Gee,” I said. “I was only five when I saw it happen. What are you
trying to say about me?”

He never answered my question.

If it actually phased my kids, I’ve never noticed. That was five years
ago, and my kids have continued to grow into OK people. They talk
back sometimes, they sometimes make bad grades, and they can be
selfish and unkind. But then they can also be the opposite of all these
things. Sometimes, they even let me think that I’ve been an OK parent.

A few months ago, my daughter asked me about my brother, or, as
she called him, “My uncle, I guess.”

Was he the reason that I don’t go to church with the rest of the
family, she wanted to know. Was he the reason that I have problems
with being sad?

I did not have good answers for her, because the truth is that I do
not know. I don’t go to church because God doesn’t make sense to
me, and I get sad because the world is a hard place for a lot of people.

But would I have felt this way if my brother had not been killed?
Would I be me, or would I be a different person?

The Monster didn’t just take my brother that day; it also took the
person I might have become.

***

Yesterday my daughter brought home a permission slip for a field
trip. She’s chosen to take a zoology class—a rebellion, perhaps? It’s
too early to tell. Part of this class evidently involves a visit to the zoo,
where the students will take a behind-the-scenes tour with a zookeeper.
How fun! Other parents must be saying. What a great opportunity!

My daughter pulled out the permission slip and studied it for a
second before handing it over to me. She didn’t make eye contact;
she just stared down at the floor like she does when she knows she’s
done something wrong.

It crushed me in the way that I’ve grown used to since becoming a
mother, that feeling of realizing that the person you love more than
anything is so intensely scared of you.

“It’s OK,” she mumbled. “I don’t have to go. The teacher says I can
do a different assignment.”

“No,” I said, surprising even myself. “You can go.” I wrote my name
on the line that said it was OK for her to go, and then I signed my
name on the other line that said that it was OK for them to administer
emergency treatment to my daughter, my beautiful daughter, my
daughter who has a greater chance of being killed when I drive her to
school, who is far more likely to be killed by another human, who is
more likely, even, to be killed by her own body.

Experts later determined that the odds of dying the way that my
brother did fall at about one in twelve million. But if you witnessed
that one in twelve million, it doesn’t matter. That’s the only death
I’ve ever seen, the only way I know to die.

***

When I told my husband about the field trip, he hugged me. “I’m so
proud of you,” he kept saying. “Look at what you’ve overcome.”

My sanity, I thought. That is what I’ve overcome. I’ve finally become
just like everyone else, who cast their most priceless treasures,
their children, out into the world and are foolish enough to think
that the occasional prayer will ward off the Monsters lurking in
the deep.

But I know better. And the Monsters, they know better, too.