Underwater monsters with hungry metal teeth

Ever since AMELIA ANNE IS DEAD AND GONE made its way onto shelves in July, I’ve had people ask whether it’s a true story, or perhaps based on one. Some upstate friends, seeing parallels between our shared hometown and the insular one in the book, have even professed to know the exact location where Amelia’s body was found, or the exact person who inspired this or that character. 

I refuse to confirm their suspicions.

But I’ll tell you this much:

The tractor in the lake is real.

At least, I think it is. The lake is real. The pool on its western shore, surrounded on all sides by steep-rising blocks of granite, is real. The bridge that spans it, with its spindly cables and cracked foundations, is real. And the local kids with sunburnt shoulders, sitting in a row like birds on a wire, are real.

I was fifteen the first time I went, one of four passengers in my best friend’s boyfriend’s car. The lake was out beyond the town lines, and its frontage was mostly private — built up with rustic cabins and simple ranch homes owned by summerers. But there was one spot, where the lake thinned and squeezed through a narrow ravine, where a public road with a single-lane bridge cut across the water, and this was where we went. We parked at the side of the road and skipped barefoot along the broiling asphalt, small rocks biting into the soles of our feet, until one by one we perched on the metal rails. We wore cutoff shorts and bikini tops, we shed our t-shirts and tossed them on the curb. And we waited, smoking cigarettes, until one of us — the bravest, boldest one — would casually flick a butt aside, and say, “I’m jumping,” and push off the bridge into space.

*

It was that first time, after my maiden jump, that I clambered out of the frothing water and up the rocky hill to the road, and wandered across to the opposite rail, and looked over into the pocket of water there. It was beautiful, much better than the narrow channel we were all plunging into. Deep and dark green, rippling just a little from the impact of bodies in the water on the other side. There were high, sheer banks rising up on all sides, a perfect swimming hole.

The boy who’d brought us saw me looking, and shook his head.
“Don’t,” he said. “There’s something in the water over there.”
“What?” I asked.
“I don’t know, a tractor or something.”
“A tractor?”
“Yeah, a tractor.”
“Yeah,” my friend said, pushing her hair out of her eyes. “A tractor.”

It is a testament to the peculiarities of small town living, and the peculiar authority of seventeen year-old boys when you are a fifteen year-old girl, that I didn’t ask why or how there was a tractor in the lake. Instead, I shrugged, walked back across the sun-bleached road, swung my legs over the rail beside my friends, and pulled at the long, waterlogged fringe on my shorts until someone dared me to jump again. But only on the westward side, of course. Because of the tractor.

*

Over the years, I’ve often thought of that spot: the bridge, the lake, the perfect circle of water that nobody ever swims in. I thought of the lurking beast beneath its surface, a monster straight from redneck mythology, the existence — or at least, the possibility — of which was accepted as inarguable fact by everyone who went there. I thought about how easy it was to believe in it. It was a story so powerful, and so plausible, that not a single one of us ever thought to ask if it were really true. We were there all during that summer, and the one after, too; the claim of a tractor submerged in the water would have been easy enough to investigate, could probably have been disproved with nothing more than a long stick to poke down into the cloudy depths. But nobody did. The inviting pool on the other side might as well have been a thousand miles away, as remote and inaccessible as an image on a postcard. And in the years since, when I’ve driven past that spot in the summertime, I’ve often seen groups of kids with jean shorts and farmers’ tans perched on the rails, plunging into the water.

Not one of them has ever crossed the width of the bridge to jump on the other side.

Once, I thought about pulling over, rolling down my window, and asking them why. I wondered if they’d cite the existence of the tractor, all sharp edges and tetanus rust, waiting down in the murk to chew on the soft, pink skin of a reckless kid — or if the monster’s features had changed over time, if the past decade had turned it into a car or boat wreck or a murderous, mammoth snapping turtle that could sever a foot in one bite. Instead, I waved and drove by without stopping.

*

A few weeks before the publication of AMELIA — in which a secret, a submerged piece of farm equipment lurking in the waters of an inviting swimming hole, causes tragedy when it goes untold — I went out for drinks with my friend, the one I’d been with when we first went to the bridge. She’d already read an early copy of the book, and she laughed and said, “I can’t believe you put the underwater tractor in your story. I’d forgotten all about that.”

“Is that actually true?” I asked. I whispered, actually; that’s how taboo the question felt.
My friend shrugged, and said, “I think so. Right? My grandfather told me about it, I remember. And some other people. It’s got to be true.”
“I guess,” I said. “It’s a crazy story, though, isn’t it?”
“I never really thought about it, but yeah.” She thought about it, sipping her beer. “We could always go look and see.”
“Yeah,” I said. “We should.”

But we didn’t.

And we won’t.

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