Jeremy Sterns was my best friend growing up, we were absolutely inseparable. I met him on my second day in third grade; I was the new kid in school who, only a week before that, had been staying with relatives while my mom and dad finalized their divorce in the San Bernardino Superior Court. The move to Akron with my mom had been hard between leaving behind everything and everyone I had grown up with and having to move in with my aunt and her family. By the time Jeremy sat down at my table in the school cafeteria and commented on my Star Wars lunchbox, I was already giving serious thought to trying to steal my mom's credit card and booking the first flight back to California.
He was the only friend I ended up making that year, as a matter of fact. Some of the other kids in our grade were alright to me, some were less so, but after of the month or so of questions about what California was like, most of them ignored me. Jeremy, on the other hand, was with me from the start. He was a skinny kid back then, with light brown hair that was always messy and a face full of freckles. He could make anyone laugh without even trying, but for all the time he goofed off, he was spending just as much with his nose in a book, and not the crap that the teachers had us read, either. On top of that, he was plenty imaginative, always full of big ideas he was itching to test out; most of them didn't pan out, but we sure had fun trying to make them work. I was more of a quiet, introspective person myself, but with as much as Jeremy liked to talk, it worked just fine.
For the first few years, we would hang out after school, usually at his house since Aunt Karen didn't like to have company over. Unlike the squat brown ranch that my mom and I shared with our relatives, Jeremy's house was a stately white Georgian that had aged gracefully. We lived in the suburbs, surrounded on all sides by tract housing, he lived in an older neighborhood that had been tucked back among the many lakes and waterways that cut through that part of Ohio; the whole area was beautiful most of the year, really. Not like California, per se, but in its own right, it was quite pretty. While the city had been growing up and out by that time, the little haven that Jeremy's parents lived in had been left well enough alone. By the time I was in middle school, it was like a home away from home; by then, we didn't even bother with formal invitations, I just rode my bike over there whenever I wanted and Jeremy's parents would let me in without a second thought.
Most of the time that we would hang out at his place, Jeremy would want to show me games on his Atari. We'd take turns trying to rack up a high score, or see who could clear the most screens before dying, and just generally have a good time, drinking Coke and eating junk food. In the summer, his parents would invite me over to swim in their pool, or the occasional trip up to Cleveland for a day at the amusement park up there. It wasn't like my mom was making the kind of money for things like game consoles or trips to a theme park, so I was only too happy for the opportunity to enjoy myself. Later on, as Jeremy and I got older, we made more friends and would go up to Rolling Acres, the mall nearby, to check out the video arcade and just generally tool around.
However, in all the time that we spent together, and maybe it's just my introverted side coming out, but I always felt like the best times I had with him were walking the wilds around his neighborhood. Once you got off the streets and into the brush, it was pretty much empty land for a good few miles south of there. Jeremy's best plans, for the most part, were thought up on walks we'd take through there, or on bike rides we would have along the back-country trails and dirt roads. It was on those roads that he and I pored over old issues of Playboy that a kid at our school was able to steal from his dad's collection and rented out at a dollar a day. It was also out there, in those wilds, that Jeremy confessed to me that, for all his laughing, he wasn't a happy person, and hadn't been for years. We confided a lot in each other, walking through the tall grass and the marshes, and I can honestly say that, while I've had many friendships since that time, none really stand out to me in the same way that my time with Jeremy did.
By the time we were in the seventh grade, Jeremy had rounded out a lot; his plans, and his sense of humor, had gotten more grounded since his days as the class clown. He was starting to apply himself in his studies, going out of his way to really help people, too, and not just making jokes to lighten the mood all the time. He had rounded out in other ways, too; the school wrestling team was always trying to get him to join because of his height and substantial weight, but he never took them up on the offer. Girls took notice of Jeremy as well, and it seemed like every month, he was dating someone new. I, myself, hadn't changed all that much; I was still the wallflower that most people ignored, and while my mom had finally gotten a job that paid enough to get us out of my aunt's house, we were even more hard up than we had been with her support and shelter, so I wasn't in a position to go to a lot of outings. Still, despite his popularity and academic success, Jeremy never got tired of our little expeditions in the sticks; if anything, he took even more solace in them, kind of like mini-vacations that we could plan out ahead of time and use to get away from everyone. By then, we had so much going on in our lives that we had to schedule a walk ahead of time by a few days, just so we could make sure we didn't have homework or friends or whatever else get in the way.
It was in one of these planning sessions that Jeremy clued me in about the gully. As the low roar of the school cafeteria during feeding time continued on around us, he checked for anyone nearby, then dropped his voice and leaned forward, causing me to do the same.
"I found something last night, when I was walking around. You know that fort we built a few years ago?"
"Of course, dude, not like I'm going to forget that. You ripped off those fence boards from that construction site down the street; man, that guy was pissed about it for weeks."
"Yeah, well, there's that thick line of trees right through there, right?"
"Beyond that, I found something, a gully."
"Okay? So what, there's a bunch of little ditches and things that run all through there."
"There was something in it, a guy. He was dead."
I stared at him in disbelief, my hand tightening around the can of Coke on my lunch tray. The look I gave Jeremy had been enough, evidently, as he nodded and continued on in a rasp whisper.
"I know, right? I saw someone floating face-down in the water, in some kind of suit, and I went down there, not too close, 'cause, I mean, I was freaked the fuck out already, but yeah, he was totally dead. His hands were all swollen and blue and, it was just really freaky. I didn't even see his face, but his hair was all a mess and he was covered in moss and sticks and shit."
"Did you tell anyone?" I stammered, wide-eyed with disbelief.
"Hell no," he shot back, grinning, "but here comes the best part. I went home and was thinking about this, right? Like, come on, man, a body in a suit, just drowned like that in some drainage ditch off the marshes? That's gotta be, like, a murder for sure. So, sure enough, an hour later, my dad's watching the news, right, and they're talking about some mafia guy who goes missing, some kind of drug deal gone wrong that the police were looking into. There's even a reward, but here's the real kicker: this guy had a suitcase full of cash on him when he disappeared."
I stared down at the remains of my pepperoni pizza and blinked, slowly, breathing heavily as I did so. To my thirteen year old mind, I was sure that we were going to be the coolest kids in school if Jeremy's story was legit. Dead bodies, mafia murders, a suitcase full of greenbacks, it was sure to be the stuff of bragging rights and ego boosts for years to come. Heck, it might even be enough to spare us the torture of freshman year when we got into high school. When I looked back up, Jeremy was practically fighting to stay seated, with all the anxious enthusiasm jittering through him.
"Right? Like, this is too cool, man. We'll be famous for this. And, get this, this is the best part, you're going to love it. So, like, if he washed up in that little ditch, that suitcase that was with him, it's got to be around there somewhere."
"You sure about that? If he got killed by someone, wouldn't they just, you know, take that with them?"
Jeremy shook his head, his grin not even fading.
"No way. If they wanted him dead, why leave him in the lake? Doesn't make sense, that thing's so small as it is. They were going to find his body after a little while. They said on the news that this guy was shot in the drug deal, and that he got away. Well, something my dad said really got me thinking; he was talking about how, if this guy showed up at any hospital, they'd call the cops because the guy had a bullet wound. That tells me that he probably didn't go to any hospital. You know what I think? I think he went out into the lake and hid that suitcase in the woods around there, but before he could get out of there and find, like, I don't know, an illegal doctor or something, he died, and then he washed up in the gully."
What little hesitation I had at such a far-fetched plan was laid to rest by the time he and I were heading off for our next class. It was decided, we wouldn't give the police any chance to rob us of our glory, so we'd head out as soon as we could that day to find the body and then look for the suitcase. As with all things in life, it didn't turn out to be that simple. My last two classes for the day saddled me with enough homework to keep me at home until late in the evening, and convincing my mom to ride over to Jeremy's house for dinner was a battle in and of itself. Nevertheless, by the time eight o'clock arrived, I was standing on the back porch of the white Georgian house with my best friend, each of us with a flashlight and a conspiratorial grin.
We had spent enough days in the wooded areas around his house to know the paths and potholes at night. As we set off under the lie that Jeremy had left his textbook out at one of the innumerable clubhouses and hangout spots we had built for ourselves out there, we didn't say much. With nothing but our wits, our puny AA battery powered lights, and the stars peeking out through the cloud cover to guide us, we weren't focusing on conversation. After about fifteen minutes of walking, we reached the really heavy stuff: dense trees, underbrush that would choke everything from your knees downward and leave muddy stripes on your legs after a rainstorm, little pools of stagnant water by the water's edge that were topped with algae. Years of hiking through there had given us the best routes to get wherever we wanted, but despite that knowledge, it wasn't easy working through the wilderness.
As much as I loved hiking through that whole area at day, at night, it was an entirely different experience; the isolation, once a comforting contrast to the chaos of everyday life, was suddenly unnerving. The dark clusters of forest that we saw mystery and adventure in during the light of day became the breeding ground of unseen threats. Strange, eerie animal cries echoed out of the blackness, seeming to encircle us and draw ever closer as we made our way deeper into the brush. At one point, I tugged on Jeremy's shirtsleeve, jumping a little when he wheeled back around, his face taking on an unnatural pallor in the pale white light from my flashlight.
"Hey, uh, think we could talk a little, to, you know...lighten the mood?"
Jeremy laughed a little, nervously.
"Yeah, kind of creepy out here, isn't it?"
I laughed, myself, looking for any excuse to break up the looming unease that hung over us.
"It's okay, we're almost there. Once we get to the gully, we'll spread out-"
"Wait, ah, I..." I trailed off, not wanting to finish my sentence. I hated coming off like a wimp in front of my best friend, but in all honesty, the idea of going from a corpse, alone, in the dark, to find the dead man's hidden money was kind of terrifying. Thankfully, Jeremy seemed to know exactly what I was thinking, and maybe was thinking something similar, himself, because he smiled and gave my arm a good-natured jab.
"Don't worry about it, dude. Two sets of eyes will be better than one, this late at night. Are you ready? It's just ahead."
"Y-yeah, I think so," I replied, still nervous.
We pushed through the final cluster of trees, past the site of our old fort from a few summers back, and reached the gully. It was almost entirely shrouded in darkness, cut off from the starlight by a canopy of trees that had grown over it; our flashlights' meager beams were the only trace of illumination in the place. The filthy water in the ditch had been overtaken by moss and algae, causing the whole area to stink like a swamp, along with another smell, something different that I didn't like at all. As Jeremy took his place at the edge of the gully, he elbowed me to come forward and look where his flashlight was pointing. My heart was in my throat, my hands shaking and my flashlight beam with them, and I really, really wanted to turn back and go home. I didn't, though, despite everything welling up inside me to turn away, not look, let it settle, not get involved. I stepped forward. I shone my light where Jeremy's light was. I looked.
The guy was still face-down in the water, but his hands were definitely bloated and an unnatural pale blue color. His dark hair was all askew and matted with mud and slime from the pond. The suit itself was black with grey pinstripes, and very dirty and waterlogged; the jacket was pulled up a little in the back, showing a stained dress shirt that had been white when it had been dry, but was totally soaked through and covered with algae. The gentle current that flowed through the gully jostled the corpse ever so slightly, tussling his hair and sending a ripple through his suit jacket. This thing that was lying out before me, stinking of pond scum and decay, was both human and unnatural, so much like us and yet, not. I turned away, suppressing an urge to vomit. I could only imagine what his face looked like, and for my own sake, I was hoping I wouldn't, but the sight of the grotesque, bloated hands was enough to give my imagination plenty to work over. Jeremy turned to me, his forehead creased with worry, and stepped back from the edge of the ditch to join me.
"You okay, man?"
"I've never seen a dead body before."
"Yeah, me neither, 'til I found this guy."
Talking about him like that, as though he was standing right there with us, sent a shiver down my spine. I wanted to get as far away from that thing as I could, right then and there.
"Let's go home, please, dude, I'm... I'm freaked out. I can't do this, not tonight. It's not like the police are even going to be looking for him out this far, right?"
Jeremy frowned, but didn't protest. I guess, thinking back, he probably wasn't all that far from how I was feeling at the time. We made our way through the brush and hiked home, grateful for the light of Akron looming on the horizon for us. By the time we reached Jeremy's house, an hour had passed by and my mom had been calling about me, worried sick. We said a curt goodbye before I biked home, still unsettled by what I had seen. After I got home and got a lengthy lecture from my mom, I skipped dinner, crawled into bed, and stared at the ceiling. My sleep that night was rather fitful, broken up with dreams that wouldn't go away. First I dreamed that I was having to chase after Jeremy as he broke away from me in the dark wilderness to get to the gully first, intensely disliking the feeling of being in the brush alone. After that, every dream brought me closer to the gully, and I could feel, sense in the back of my mind, that as I was doing that, the man in the ditch was moving, too. Moving out of it. Moving towards me.
When I ran into Jeremy the next day, I didn't say much, and he didn't either. It's not like we were disappointed in each other, more disappointed in ourselves for being 13 and still holding onto that childish imagination that kept us from continuing our search for the dead man's suitcase. We agreed, with far less fanfare than the day before, that we'd go back to the gully over the weekend. There was supposed to be a rainstorm on Friday, but it would scale back to a cloud cover on the day after. We'd spend the whole day looking for the suitcase and totally avoid the gully altogether, he said, which I was only too happy to agree with. Since we were going to be working in the daytime, I conceded that we could spread out and search more ground, but I still wanted to be within earshot of him and vice versa. Jeremy agreed to this, figuring that if nothing else, it would be good for when one of us found the suitcase. With that settled, we didn't say much until the weekend. I continued to have dreams about the gully, but I figured it was just stress and nerves from the bungled expedition the night before; I told myself that, since we were heading out in the day, it would be fine.
Saturday came around and we left for the wilderness; as expected, the rainstorm had made the entire area slick with mud, but other than clouds clogging out the sun and casting a shadow over everything, it was clear for us to go. The hike out to the spot of our old fort was a little shorter, what with us not having to rely on flashlights to lead the way, and it was there that Jeremy stopped me.
"So, I know I said we'd avoid the gully, and I meant it. We'll go around this group of trees here and then we'll circle back towards the lake. But, uh...I have to tell you something. See, I've been thinking, we're not the only ones who are looking for this money, right? And it's not just the cops, either, I mean. So, you're going to take the shovel," he insisted, pushing his mom's gardening spade into my hands, "and I'll hold onto...this."
Jeremy lifted up his t-shirt and pulled out a chrome revolver with a short barrel, the metal shiny in the muted sunlight that came through the clouds above. I stepped back, stunned.
"Dude...that's a, a gun."
"Yeah. It's my dad's. I don't think we'll run into any-"
"Jeremy!" I shouted. "Are you totally mental? What the hell are we getting ourselves into here?"
"Nothing!" He insisted, his hand wrapped around the gun, which he was pointing at the ground. "I'm just saying, if anyone comes along, we can't take chances. We're talking about serious stuff here, there's a lot of fucking money in that suitcase. You think that some mafia goon who comes along looking for it is going to just let us take it? If it happens, I'm prepared, that's all. I'm not saying it will, but if it does, I've got this."
"Oh, right, because a hardened criminal is going to let some little snot-nosed kid like you beat him in gun battle?" I cried, my voice breaking. I wanted to laugh and cry, or throw the shovel down and storm off; I had never been so completely upset with someone in my life.
Jeremy frowned at this assessment, but didn't challenge it. He merely sighed, tucked the gun back into his waistband, and held up his hands in a gesture of appeasement.
"Look, nothing's going to happen, okay? I'm just being stupid. If we can't find it today, we'll, just...it's not a big deal, alright? We'll just talk to the cops and tell them what we found. I just want to see if we can find the money first, alright?"
I looked at him, hard, but exhaled and dropped my head.
"Okay, fine, but after today, we're fucking done with this, got it? Like, we're in way over our heads to begin with."
"Guess we're not as invincible as we used to be, huh?" Jeremy asked with a grin, his humor already soothing over the situation, like he was so good at doing.
I laughed, bitterly.
"We were just dumb kids then. We're still dumb kids, looks like, if we're going through with this." My tone was stern, but I was already loosening up, just glad to have the end of the whole situation nearly at hand. Jeremy seemed to notice that, because he immediately thrust his hand out for a shake, which I obliged him in; he threw me a wide grin and cocked his head towards the edge of the copse we stood before.
"What do you say we see what a couple of dumb kids could do?"
I grinned back, despite myself. Everything would work out, we were in familiar territory, it was daylight, we'd be able to hear anyone coming from a mile away. At least, that's how it seemed standing in the clearing where we had once built a fort together out of stolen fenceboards in better times. Once we pushed through the trees, into the shadowy woods running along the water's edge, it was another story. We followed the path around the treeline, avoiding the gully just as Jeremy had promised, and it was there that I started my search, with my friend electing to work from the gully out towards me. I guess he figured that he would have a better chance of finding the money closer to the guy. I didn't want to even get close to him, not with the somersaults my stomach had done just watching Jeremy head over there.
I will be honest, I didn't search very hard. The rainstorm had made that whole area a sopping, muddy mess that was practically sloughing off into the lake. I didn't mind getting dirty, but I was kidding myself if I thought that I could find a suitcase buried in all that slop, and if the guy had buried it before he had died, even the police would be lucky to find it. Jeremy had entrusted me with the shovel, though, so I used it to poke in the mud here and there, figuring that if I struck anything hard, I'd at least try and see if it was the suitcase. Standing there with the muck up to my ankles, my best friend armed with his dad's gun and beside that...thing that I had had recurring dreams about, I felt uncomfortable, maybe even more so than the other night. I really wanted to get out of there, upset with myself for even agreeing to go along with Jeremy's insistence to give the search one good shot. It wasn't like we'd be able to keep the money; if our parents didn't find it, the bills were probably marked or something, like they talked about on cop shows on TV. After ten minutes or so of idly poking at the mud with the shovel, I looked over to the deeper cluster of trees around the gully, where Jeremy had gone to start his search, and wondered if I couldn't just go over and call out that I wanted to leave.
I started to approach the trees, knowing that I was drawing closer to the thing, the body, my nightmares from before racing through my head, when I heard a sound from the trees that made my stomach turn. Underbrush being pushed aside, mud squelching around a foot. I figured it was Jeremy, and I called out his name. No response.
"Jeremy, if you're fucking around, stop, dude. I'm leaving, I'm too freaked out."
More footsteps, but I couldn't tell if they were coming closer or moving further away. I was frozen where I stood, my body trembling and my mind screaming at me to move, run, go away, anything. I didn't want to be there. I didn't want to think about the blue, bloated, rotting, horrific corpse that was floating not more than a hundred feet away from me. I didn't want to think about those cold, clammy hands, overstuffed with filthy water, and how they would feel on my shoulder, or around my neck. I didn't want to think about what kind of horrors that face bore. I thought about them. Tears ran down my cheeks as I stood rooted to the ground, the shovel forgotten at my feet, my fists balled up and my body tensed up like an over-worked spring.
"Jeremy!" I called out again, rasping with fear.
The footsteps continued, and just as I was about to turn and run, a scream and a crack came from the gully. I screamed, myself, and dropped to my knees, my breathing accelerating to near-hyperventilating. I stammered, words refusing to form, and tears poured freely down my face.
"JEREMY!" I shrieked, beside myself.
The footsteps stopped, and this time, I knew they were approaching me. I buried my head in my hands, shouting at the person standing before me to go away, pleading through my tears for them to leave me alone. Despite it all, I told myself that it was Jeremy, playing the cruelest joke on me imaginable. I told myself that it was going to be okay. This stuff didn't really happen in real life, this only happened in the movies. I looked up.
The face that looked, or, more accurately, gaped back at me, was one that I will never forget. The bloated, water-swollen complexion, the mouth stained with blackish bile, the eye sockets that had been nibbled at by aquatic creatures, the guttural growl that came through choked lungs, it all gaped back at me. I felt myself scream, cry, shout. I fell on my back and slid back through the mud, my vision blurred by tears. The corpse, hanging out of its filthy dress shirt and black slacks, turned and lurched back through the trees. I heard another shriek that grew louder, and louder, before being replaced with choked sobs and gurgles. I heard the water splashing around furiously from the gully, and I knew what was happening, and I ran. I ran as fast and as long as I could, and I didn't look back once, terrified that I'd see the bloated figure right behind me.
After I slammed into the back door of Jeremy's house, I don't remember very much for the hours that followed. The police were called, a search party was pulled together. As it happens, some other people had heard the shot and so it wasn't hard for them to find the area where we had gone. Jeremy was not there. The corpse was not there. All that was found was a men's suit jacket, very dirty, floating in the gully. There had been a small hole dug in the mud nearby, with an indentation of what appeared to be a suitcase or some other kind of luggage. The police found my shovel where I had been, and said that there had been a set of footprints leading from the path to the gully, as well as a set of larger footprints leading from the gully to about halfway to where I was.
Later, I found out that the police found one other thing that they had decided not to share with me. Apparently, there had been deep scratch marks in the clay, matching the size of a teenager's hands, that led into the gully, right up to the water's edge.
In the week that followed, posters were made and placed around the neighborhood. Our teachers came and talked to us in school. The police made a few statements. Apparently, there had been reports of a man in the area approaching children and trying to lead them off; the situation with Jeremy was quickly piggybacked onto the child abduction bandwagon and played off as a freak occurrence, a worst-case scenario of a kid going out to play and getting snatched. Nobody wanted to admit what I had seen was real; the whole business with the missing criminal, the suitcase full of money, the gunshot, was all quickly buried.
I tried telling Jeremy's parents about the whole thing, but they wouldn't listen to me. They moved out of Akron before the school year was over, and my mom, sensing that this whole thing was really weighing heavily on me, insisted that we pull up roots and move, too, once I had finished up with the 7th grade. We ended up back in California, funny enough, and that's where I finished out my schooling. For a while, we were getting letters from the detective that had handled our case back in Ohio; he never had anything new to report most of the time, but he was the only person outside my mom who ever gave my account any credence. That stopped a few years after our move, the case file probably going into some police archive and being totally forgotten, or so I thought.
It's been just over 30 years since Jeremy disappeared, and I've grown and have children of my own now. I gave up long ago ever seeing my friend again, or having any closure to the case. I live in Arizona, in a house that does not have a pool or any bathtubs, just showers. After the situation with the gully, I can't be around water that's deep enough for me to be pulled under. Years of intensive therapy and psychiatric treatment have gotten me to the point where I can function in society, more or less, but I still find that I get incredibly anxious around large groups of trees, or any kind of large bodies of water. Hence why I live where I do. Since I moved out of Ohio, I have not been back. I tried contacting the detective on Jeremy's case some time ago via email. Surprisingly, he got back to me, after some time. It turns out that he's since retired, but still keeps tabs on the status of the case, should the unlikely event happen that any new developments emerge. Because it's counted as a child abduction, the police keep the case open, even if they don't have anyone actively working on it.
Yesterday, I got an email from the detective with a lead he found very interesting. The bills from the suitcase had, in fact, come from a sting operation planned by the DEA back in the 80s, so most of the serial numbers were on file. A number of serial numbers matching the ones on file were recorded as being used at an airport in Kentucky to purchase a plane ticket. He called about it and found that the ticket in question was to Tucson, the nearest major city to my house.
So, I've been sitting here with the shotgun I keep in the house for protection. All the water is turned off, the lights are all on, and I've called over some friends of mine who are armed, too. I told them that a drug dealer is after me, thinking that I tried to steal his money. It's true, technically, even if it's not the whole truth. I replied to the detective, telling him that if he doesn't hear from me after a week, or finds an obituary online with my name on it, he should watch his back. I'm ready to finish this, after 30 years of waiting. And yet, as I sit waiting for that bloated figure to lurch through my front door, what's funny about this, really funny, as funny as one of Jeremy's jokes, is that I can't stop thinking: what the hell kind of airline would let a corpse on board?