The bubbles surfaced before the bus arrived every morning. Marissa stood by the kettle pond, peering into the leaf-choked water. A pitch pine had snapped halfway up the trunk in the last nor’easter. The green-needled branches lay submerged, the jagged break becoming a perch for blue heron and gray-backed gulls. There were no birds to greet her that morning. Instead, she focused on the water. When she got on the schoolbus, Marissa noted the bubbles in her journal, tallying quantity and duration.
“What do you think it is?” she asked her friend, Paige, sitting cross-legged beside her, their matching purple Hawaiian print backpacks tucked beneath their feet.
“I heard a man drowned in that pond after he crashed his car through the trees,” Paige replied, reading over Marissa’s tally marks.
“But there’s no car in the water.”
“Of course not. Someone winched it out. They got his body too, not before the snapping turtles though,” Paige said, clenching and unclenching her jaw in imitation of a reptilian beak.
Marissa fell silent as she thought of the man, who, in her mind, possessed a close likeness to her father. Dread crept up her spine as she imagined bottom feeders nibbling at his face, gnawing through fingers and arm meat as his body lay submerged. She shivered, holding back a cry. Her father hadn’t returned home in two months. Her mother told her he was away on business, but Marissa knew carpenters didn’t go on business trips. She missed him, the way he’d joke with her when she came home from school, the way he’d whistle whenever she made a basket in JV basketball games. Marissa felt Paige’s hand on her shoulder. She jumped, forehead colliding with the window.
“Are you ok?” Paige asked. “You look a little sick.”
“No, I’m fine,” Marissa replied, rubbing her head. “I didn’t sleep much last night. I must have spaced out.”
“You sure you weren’t spooked?”
“No way. I need more than a story to freak me out.”
At home, that afternoon, Marissa thought she’d find her father sitting at the kitchen table, a half-eaten sub from D’Angelo’s left on the counter. I saved it for you, his usual catchphrase ready for when she pushed through the door. But he wasn’t at the table. His work boots weren’t on the doormat. Only a note from her mother waited there, reminding her of the leftover mac and cheese in the refrigerator. She had to work late at the restaurant. Jen bailed on her shift again. Marissa ate the macaroni cold, looking over her pond notes, trying to find commonalities and explanations.
Over the next week, she’d arrive at the bus stop early to wait by the kettle pond. One day, a blue heron took wing when her Nikes tread loose stones by the pond’s edge. Summer vacation was a week away. As her final day grew near, the thick fishy scent of the pond swelled, ripening like a fruit she couldn’t identify. The submerged pine-needles had turned brown, their green luster faded. Seven o’clock and the bubbles rose from the leaf muck, bringing loose sediment with them to cloud the surface. Each passing day, the bubbles grew more rapid, their duration lengthening.
“What did you find?” Paige asked as she slid into their customary seat.
“There were way more bubbles than yesterday,” Marissa replied, showing Paige her notes.
“That means he’s getting ready to come back.”
“The dead guy?”
“Of course. Who else would I be talking about?”
Marissa paused. She neglected to tell Paige she hadn’t seen her father in weeks, almost as long as she’d been noticing the bubbles. She hadn’t told anyone how much she missed him, how their house felt empty without him sleeping on the couch after a long day of roofing or sanding floors. Marissa slept better when she heard him snoring. It meant he was still there, that she wasn’t alone when her mother worked late shifts.
“No one, I guess,” Marissa replied as the bus pulled up to the u-bend before the school, depositing her classmates on the sidewalk.
The bubbles weren’t rising on Friday. Marissa waited on the banks of the kettle pond, pen in hand. Maybe it was a sign, she thought, an approaching moment of clarity. She squinted into the leaf litter, the water clear in the early morning sun. She imagined her father’s face parting the pine needles. His mustache and eyebrows matched the brown hue of the mud along the shore. His mouth opened and bubbles streamed out. His voice erupted from each sphere, calling her name, telling her how much he loved her, that he missed her, that he’d be back soon. They made eye contact as he floated beneath the surface, leaves rising around his submerged form.
Marissa dropped to her knees, sinking an arm into the water, reaching for her father. Her fingertips grazed his forehead. Their pads traversed rigid skin, reptilian and raised. As she made contact, another gout of bubbles disrupted the pond’s skin. Marissa fell back, banging her tailbone on the road’s cement berm. Where her father had been, the snout of a snapping turtle rose, nosing the surface, its beak clenching and unclenching, attempting to taste the fingers now withdrawn from reach.
The turtle didn’t linger long before diving to the bottom, a slow trickle of bubbles dispersing in its wake. Marissa counted their number, noting how they never escaped her father’s lips, how his voice didn’t swim free from their ruptured skin. Another moment and the turtle was gone, blending with the pond’s mottled bottom, dragging the likeness of her father down with it.
Paige never mentioned the drowned man’s name.
Marissa was afraid to ask.
© Corey Farrenkop
[This piece was selected by Damyanti Biswas. Read Corey’s interview]