Water Oak Park wasn’t far from Sterling’s house, maybe a 1/2 mile, and it wasn’t very big. Merri took me there when I was a kid to play hide and seek behind the trees, and to be in a place where we could see the ocean without getting sandy. The wooded area stretched right up to the dune, and the oak canopy, sculpted by the Atlantic winds, reached inland, as though the branches were running away from the crashing waves.
The park also was a great place to view the old lighthouse, which sat at the end of a rock jetty. The jetty curled around a tiny protected private harbor built in the 1950s by a plastics manufacturer in front of his beachfront mansion – but that had been a terrible idea. The first big Nor’easter smashed his yacht. Ever since, the jetty and lighthouse served only as a landmark, although the lighthouse still threw a beam out at night. Even the jetty was closed to the public out of safety concerns, though I often swam to its enormous rocks in the summer and rested there in the sun.
But no sun shone that day I came in search of my dog, and the park was deserted. The ocean spit cold spray and bitter sand at anyone within reach, and again I felt the salt in my eyes as I scanned the trees. I had thought she’d be chained to a tree or maybe in a crate or something, but from the edge of the park, I viewed its entire expanse and I could see that she wasn’t there. I yelled her name anyway, desperately hoping she’d come bounding out from behind a tree trunk. She didn’t. And I began to sob.
Because I was sobbing, and because of the noise of the waves, I didn’t hear Manning ride his bike up behind me until he stood within arm’s reach and snickered. I whirled around and whipped my arm back to strike him, partly out of fear, but he caught my wrist and said, “You DON’T want to do that, fat girl.” He was a strong boy, a foot taller than me, and I let my arm drop by my side.
We faced each other, and for a short moment I forgot my fear. “Please, Manning,” I said. “Just….please. I just want my dog. I’ll do anything. Anything. I’ll pay you. I’ll give you whatever I have.”
He threw his head back with a snide laugh. “Ha! You think you I want money? I have more money in my piggy bank than you’ll ever have in your life.”
With that, I felt utterly defeated. I started to tremble all over, and could feel tears and snot dripping down my face again. Slowly, I backed away in the direction of my bike. I needed to go home. As I pulled my bike up to mount it, Manning spoke again.
“Maybe,” he said, “maybe your dog wanted to visit the lighthouse.”
I froze. There was no way he could have gotten Cleo out there. The jetty leading out to the point was blocked by a locked fence. “No,” I cried. “You couldn’t have.”
He smiled. “Really? Maybe my dad practically owns this town. Maybe he has keys to everything. Maybe I can do anything I want.”
Now, years later, I can see how impossible it would have been to lead any 80-lb. dog over those slippery rocks, much less Cleo, who wasn’t crazy about water. If only my adolescent mind had possessed such rationale! Then maybe I would have thrown my leg over my bike and pedaled home to Hawk, who upon learning that Manning was involved, could have helped. Or maybe I would have remembered, as I rounded the other side of the park on the way home, the small parking area across the street, where my dog sat locked in the men’s bathroom, cold and dirty but safe.
But I was 12. I believed anything was possible. So when the image of my beloved Cleo – alone in a dilapidated lighthouse, waiting for me to find her – when that image flashed through my brain, it shone like a beacon and led me to the beach, where I kicked off my shoes, shed my jacket and threw myself into the chilly surf.
The water was probably 60 degrees that day, about the same temperature as the air. As I kicked my legs and forced my arms into the familiar crawl, the cold seeped under my clothes, crawled along my skin and invaded my very bones. I kept my head down and just swam, letting the noise of my limbs hitting the waves fill my ears. After a few minutes I paused and tread water to catch my breath and get my bearings; I thought I heard yelling on shore, but I ignored it and continued on toward the lighthouse.
I swam for what seemed like hours; it was probably no more than 20 minutes before I stepped foot on a rock that would lead me onto the jetty. I pulled my heavy soaked body out of the ocean, then looked back across the choppy surf toward Water Oak Park.
Manning stood on the beach, but he wasn’t alone anymore. There were four or five grown-ups near him, all gesturing wildly toward the water and toward me. I heard the Jet Ski before I saw it zooming my way. I could see he was coming for me, and I was glad; my teeth chattered and my fingers were bluish. But I forced my stiff limbs to carry me up the jetty, and I loped across the rocks to the lighthouse. I needed to find my dog first.
The Jet Ski man steered his boat parallel to the jetty and shadowed me as I ran, shouting and gesturing. I slowed down enough to hear him. “PALMER!” he shouted. “PALMER! STOP! WE HAVE YOUR DOG! STOP, LET ME HELP YOU.”
I stopped. “REALLY? YOU REALLY FOUND CLEO?”
He nodded. He was wearing a black wetsuit and a life vest with the word POLICE etched across the back. I watch as he nosed the craft in closer, then stepped out onto the rocks and waited for me to ease my way down. “Really?” I asked again. “You really have my dog?”
The man smiled grimly and nodded again. “C’mon,” he said. “You need to get warm.”
It had taken such enormous stamina for me to churn across those waves; the Jet Ski jumped and lurched toward the shore like a dancing mullet. We were on the sand in about two minutes. As we approached shore, I was shocked to see Manning in tears, and his grandmother leaning against another police officer.
And then time slowed down. The WHIR-WHIR-WHIR of a helicopter’s blades provided the symphonic background; I saw Hawk running across the park, his face stricken until his eyes met mine. I looked at Manning’s grandmother, and watched in horror as her mouth opened up and emitted a low, long wail. The helicopter noise intensified as it flew closer, then hovered just offshore, flying in circles. Only then did I think to ask what the chopper was doing.
“Your friend Sterling,” the Jet Ski man said. “He jumped in after you. No one’s seen him since.”