We hopped fences, dodged security personnel and did everything in we could to get into that old, abandoned park. It was my idea really, Charlie just wanted to tag along. Charlie was a boy I met in American Literature at the University of Miami, where we were both going to college at the time. I had heard about an old Disney park called Disney’s River Country that had closed down in 2001 due to mysterious reasons, the most prevalent being tainted water, and Charlie was interested too. When we finally made our way inside, the sun was setting, and I could just hear the faint sounds of the main park that seemed so far away. The place was overgrown and shabby, looking forgotten by time. We pressed on, and eventually the smell hit us.
Wet earth and stagnant water. I knew it anywhere. See, I spent most of my life living near a river up north in New England, covered with marshes and wet lands, and I felt a twinge of nostalgia as the smell reached me. Charlie, on the other hand, was from Oklahoma. He crinkled up his nose and turned to me, frowning, “What is that?”
“It’s just a little marshy here, that’s all.” I replied offhandedly.
“Are you kidding me, it reeks.”
“Wait until the mud turns and lets loose a little swamp gas.” I smiled wryly. This seemed to hush him up.
We kept walking and I realized just how quiet it was there. I could hear faint chirps and hums from little insects hidden from view, and every so often a bird would take off over head, or some small furry animal would skitter across our path. We got to the main pool, which had turned a deep, olive green color from age. I knelt down in the grass and watched the soft breeze ripple the surface, and for a moment, I was back home in Massachusetts. I stood up and looked at Charlie, who was staring into the dank, algae rich water.
“Jesus…” he muttered in a low voice, “This is a Disney park.”
“Not anymore.” I offered quietly. The silence pressed down on us as a cooler breeze cut through the warm air and sent a surprised shiver up my spine. We continued through the park, and eventually came upon an old maintenance shed where a new smell hit us. This one wasn’t quite familiar.
“Jeez, Miriam, is this that swamp gas you were talking about?” he asked, waving the air in front of his face.
“No,” I replied, covering my nose, “Swamp gas smells a bit like sulfur, and it’s never this nasty.”
“Then what is it?” he asked, “Did something die?”
I didn’t know what it was exactly, but it wasn’t that anything had died, I knew that for sure. It smelled like sweat and filth, but nothing like death, “I’m going to find out.” I walked to the shed, the source of the smell, and felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Miriam, don’t.” he said firmly, “Whatever it is, it’s going to be disgusting, so let’s just not look, okay? Let’s just leave.”
“It’s no big deal, Charlie! Just one little peek, and you don’t even have to look!” I said, trying to lighten the situation. He frowned but let me go ahead. I opened the door a crack and looked inside. What hit me was a second, more potent wave of the putrid smell and in the corner of the little structure I saw a huddled mass. It moved, responding to the light and to my horror, it was, at least at one time, a human being. It had become sallow and deformed, and wheezed sickly at me, reaching out a gnarled hand. Its sunken eyes were filled with unspeakable sorrow, as though the poor creature was begging for mercy or perhaps for death. Its veiny skin seemed bunched, as though its flesh was too big for its bones. As its spindly, emaciated body stretched ever so slightly, its face distorted with pain, almost as if its simple existence was agony. I felt my stomach churn and bile burning in the back of my throat as I stumbled backwards, slamming the door shut. I emptied my stomach into the thicket, the sick mixing in the tall grass with the tears flowing down my cheeks, and I felt Charlie beside me again, holding my hair.
“Jesus, Miriam, what did you see?”
If I told him what I had seen, he might have wanted to look too. I managed to fumble out, “You were right Charlie… just a dead animal…”
I have no idea what was in that ‘tainted water’ and I had wondered for a long time.
Now, I really don’t want to know.