Mr. Bushnell died a long time ago. Don’t know when exactly. We weren’t born yet. But Mrs. Bushnell kept up the old place on Martin. You’ve seen it, maybe half a mile past Mike Heberle’s—red door, white clapboards, big pond by an empty paddock. We used to swim there every summer. One August afternoon, that’s just what we were doing when Mrs. Bushnell’s son Lance showed up. If he wondered why four teenagers were in his mom’s pond, he didn’t say anything. He just shuffled Mrs. Bushnell out of the house, half-carrying her it seemed, and helped her into his blue Buick. Then he drove off.
The house stayed empty after that. We waited until the end of the week, then rode our bikes over to Fred Murphy’s to find out what was up. Fred lived three houses down from the Bushnells’. Now he lives in Florida, but we hear he’s still nosey. Anyway, he was working outside but stopped fiddling with his mower long enough to give us the scoop. Seemed Mrs. Bushnell was moved into a nursing home called Memory Garden, which has to be the stupidest name for a place aimed at helping folks with dementia. That’s what Lance said his mom had—what he told Fred Murphy.
Fred talked to Lance when the guy returned two days after carting off his mother. This Lance showed up with a U-Haul and started cramming it with Mrs. Bushnell’s stuff. Fred got a good look at the contents, full of everything that might be worth anything. “To sell on Craig’s List, most likely,” Fred said, disapproval plain in the way he gripped the screwdriver in his fist and rubbed his knuckles under his chin like a heavyweight gearing up for a fight, “and poor Mrs. Bushnell not even dead.” He made a disgusted sound like ta, and for the rest of the day—first, back in the pond, then as we raced home for supper, then late that night, behind Hunter’s house, smoking the pot we filched from his sister—we practiced it on one another, saying things like, “Who farted? Ta.” “You think Krissy Cole wants to see your ugly ass? Ta.” Then we made up commercials for the lame nursing home, like “Can’t remember? Come to Memory Garden. We’ll grow you a new brain.’ Ta.”
We did have some pity for the old woman. She’d always been generous with the pond. When we were kids, she’d call us to her kitchen door and hand us stale bread to feed to the fish. And once, after we spent three hours fishing and catching nothing but a bluegill, Mrs. Bucknell, probably feeling sorry for us, wandered out to the pond and gave us a chunk of beef fat. “If you can see them, they can see you, and they’ll steer clear,” she pointed out kindly. “But once they realize you’re offering gristle on the hooks, don’t matter. They’ll die for a taste of steak.” Which proved correct.
Then that Lance of hers appeared out of nowhere, and—poof—she was gone. It was weird. The longer we dwelled on the old lady, the more we felt bad for her, and the more we hated her sneaky son. Soon the house had a for-sale sign out front, and that pissed us off, too, because the pond had become our good excuse for lounging around all July and August, although, with work permits, we were finally old enough to get summer jobs. It seemed inevitable that the next summer, which would be the summer before our junior year, we would be totally screwed, since whoever bought the Bushnell house wasn’t likely to turn a blind eye to four teenagers swimming on the property and stealing catfish.
Before the house was sold, while we still had the chance, we started sitting out by the pond pretty much all day long, listening to the croaks, chirps, quacks, and hums, plus the occasional whir of dragonflies, and talking shit about Lance Bushnell, like “I’d like to put him in Memory Garden—bury him there and make him a memory.” Then we speculated on how much the guy had pocketed selling his mom’s stuff, figuring he probably wiggled the rings right off the poor woman’s fingers before ditching her in that nursing home. Then we wondered if she was really in Memory Garden. Like, how would we know? That loser Lance could have made up the story and snuck back with his mother the same day he left with her. “Probably tossed her in this pond,” Andy concluded, staring uneasily at the smooth water.
Didn’t take long for someone to point out that the morning mist sitting on the water looked creepy. The next day, a heron plucked out a fish and flew away, the beating wings huge and slow, its shape, from the tip of its bill to the base of its long, curved neck, like a question mark. (We knew the answer.) The bird cast a shadow across the cattails. We watched it disappear over the woods.
I shivered and suggested, “Let’s break into the house and look for clues.” We found a way in through a cellar window, grimaced at the spider webs and egg sacks our wiggling-in had left on our heads, and hightailed it past the dusty shelves of canning jars to the creaky stairs. We didn’t poke around the place for long. We’d hoped for and dreaded, in equal measure, bloodied rags, a rope, a cudgel, or, at the very least, a ransacked feel. But the house was neat and largely empty. “Lance must have come back here to clean when we weren’t around,” Hunter said, though this was hard to believe. Hell, we practically lived by that pond, lurking morning, noon, and night, glancing over our shoulders, peering into the murky water, and waiting for Mrs. Bushnell’s corpse to float to the surface.
We didn’t think about how sad it must have been for Lance Bushnell to go through his childhood home and reduce it to a crapload of cardboard boxes. Or how hard it must have been to find his mother so diminished that he had to half-carry her to his car—the very woman he remembered carrying him. Or how terrible it must have been to realize his mother had completely forgotten him, her own son. Or how her forgetting must have made him feel like a boat floating in the deep center of a quiet pond, no boater, no paddles.
What we thought was that Lance Bushnell would have had to be invisible to sneak past us and break into the house to get it ready to put on the market. We added the power of invisibility to the long list of Lance’s evils.