The boy was five.
Clad in a blue t-shirt, shorts and black flip flops, and armed with a toy fishing net on a stick, he prowled the beach and the dock looking for sunfish. Some of his relatives barbequed one dock over, at the far end of the beach. Others were on the boat moored further into the bay of Lac St-Pierre.
There were ten or fifteen adults on the beach, and maybe three more in the water, on the other side of his dock. At least twenty children splashed, laughed and screamed on that other side, the swimming side.
The boy stayed on this side, though. He could not swim.
A silvery fish caught his eye, and he followed it, fish underwater, boy on the dock. He reached the end of the dock and looked over the edge. The fish had disappeared. The water was black on this corner of the dock. It was nine or ten feet deep, with no sand on the bottom to reflect any light back.
The boy shuffled to the edge of the dock and took his flip flops off. As he sat down and peered into the depths, both flip flops slipped off the dock. When he saw them floating in the water, he was frantic. The boy grabbed his fishing net and tried to snare one of the shoes. It bobbed just out of reach.
The boy leaned as far out as he could, stumbled at the edge, and, with a sound that was lost among the other children splashing, tumbled into the lake.
No one saw him go in.
My friend Chantal heard the splash from about twenty feet away, where she floated on a noodle in the afternoon sun.
Just then I came running down the dock, chasing a football and some cool water. Like all of my decisions today, this one was driven entirely by body temperature and energy level. It was my favourite kind of day.
I splashed into the water with about as much noise as possible. When I surfaced, looking for the football I failed to catch, I was blocking Chantal’s view.
She began to shout about something behind me.
When I turned, all I could see was the corner of the dock, with its black pontoons. Chantal was still shouting, and pointing.
There. Right in my line of vision, almost invisible in front of the pontoons, the top of a head with a mop of black hair. No face. No arms. No flailing, no wave, no splashing, no noise. No movement.
When children drown, by the way, this is often what happens. And then they sink to the bottom, where they may lay undiscovered for hours.
I closed the twelve or fourteen foot gap in three seconds. I grabbed the child around his tiny waist and heaved him above me into the air. I kicked frantically under the surface to keep us both afloat. Without a free arm, I prepared to flip him onto his back to swim him in. But Chantal’s cries brought footsteps pounding down the dock and the child was lifted off me by a burly man, who’d had no idea anything had happened.
“My god,” the man said, “I didn’t see a thing. And I was on the dock. I thought the boy was with you.”
On the other side of the dock, the children who had no idea anything had happened were swimming around my husband, Dave, who had no idea anything had happened. He laughed as I swam by, racing to shore to see to the boy and tell his family. Chantal came out of the water close behind me.
The boy’s uncle was shocked and grateful. Dave was shocked and impressed. Everyone was buzzing. Adrenaline began to make my fingers feel prickly. Chantal looked a little green.
We stayed until sunset. The excitement died down, although the conversation was changed for the afternoon, and heads were counted with much greater frequency. The quiet returned. In that quiet, Chantal and I exchanged a look, and I knew she was thinking what I was.
With no indication that he had gone off the dock, any search for the missing boy likely would have begun on shore, across the road, maybe even at the park. Hours may have passed before someone would voice a dreaded possibility, before the first responders would arrive. Sunset at the Camping St-Pierre dock would have been punctuated with the alien sounds of sirens and the glare of searchlights, the purposeful splash of police divers.
And there would have been a gurney on the dock.