The pool is an empty blue eye staring at the sky. By the time the police arrive, the long fingers of the trees’ shadows touch the edges of the water. The swimmers have withdrawn to the locker rooms to rinse and dress, but one small group huddles under an umbrella: A police officer, a woman, and three wet-haired girls clutching towels.
The officer says, “I know you’ve already talked to my colleague, but I’d like you to run through the details one more time for me.” The mother smiles and nods. Her daughter Esme is sitting in her lap, shivering, with a towel pulled over her head. “So who had contact with the perpetrator?”
“A perpetrator is a bad guy,” the mother explains to the girls, then tells him, “To be clear, officer, all three saw him but he was only physical with my youngest daughter, Fay, and our neighbor Molly.” She points to the pink-cheeked girl flopped on the lawn chair and then indicates the dark girl sitting at Fay’s feet, then the girl in her lap who regards the officer through a hole in the towel: “This is Esme, my oldest. I was sitting right here all day. I was literally watching the girls the whole time.”
The officer addresses the two girls on the lounge chair. “Can you tell me what happened?”
Fay’s eyes dart toward her big sister hidden under the towel. “We were playing Marco Polo. It was my turn to be ‘it’ so had my eyes closed. I felt someone touch me.”
Esme giggles violently in her mother’s arms.
“Where did he touch you?” The officer wants to know.
“Under the water.”
“He means where on your body,” her mother explains.
“Oh. He touched my butt.”
Esme explodes in hysterics, writhing and pounding her heels against her mother’s shins. Her mother hushes and soothes.
“What’s so funny?” asks Fay.
Molly raises her hand to speak. “I saw him hiding under the water. He was sitting on the bottom watching us. He grabbed my bathing suit.” She stands up to show the officer the bow sewn on the side of her bikini bottom.
The mother explains: “He was wearing a snorkeling mask. I was sitting right here watching them the whole time, but I didn’t even notice him.”
“We have a thorough description of the perpetrator, but we’re hoping you might come to the station within the next couple days to make an official statement.”
“Sure, sure,” says the mother, “whatever we can do to help. I just can’t believe he got away.”
“Is there anything else you can tell me? Any detail might help.”
“We told as soon as it happened.” Molly says. “Almost right after, we told. We knew it was the right thing to do.”
“He touched my butt on purpose,” declares Fay.
“Shut up!” Esme hisses, pulling the towel off her head. Her hair is plastered to her skull. “Just everybody shut up!”
“I tried not to overreact,” the mother says. “I didn’t make too big of a scene, did I girls?” No one answers. She turns to the officer. “I told the lifeguard but he didn’t seem to know what to do, either. By that time, the man knew we were looking at him so he left. Maybe I should have taken a picture of him with my phone but I didn’t want to draw too much attention. I could have called 911 but I wasn’t sure what had happened, after all. I mean, what kind of touch were we talking about? That’s when I started asking around. I told a couple other mothers and when they asked their kids, we found out he’d touched them, too. In a public pool full of people, in broad daylight!”
The officer says, “Our interviews today indicate he may have assaulted at least eleven other girls today.”
Esme speaks through a little opening in her towel. “He didn’t touch me anywhere, not one bit. I wouldn’t let him.”
Fay glares at her sister. “I had my eyes closed! We were playing a game! He probably tried to get you too, Esme.”
“Shut up shut up shut up!” Esme yells and pulls the towel back over her head. She doesn’t take it off or say another word the whole car ride home. Fay falls asleep as soon as they pull on the freeway, and Molly stares out the window.
In Molly’s fantasy, a crowd collects: mothers, fathers, children, and grandparents surround the pool, silent and sure as stones. Someone reaches under and pulls him out by the nape of the neck and for a moment he dangles in the air, wet and wrinkled, squirming like a worm, before they converge, each taking hold of a part— mask, fin, forearm, shin, buttock, handful of hair, pinky finger, lung— and pull. There are no cries, no blood, just the gentle popping of joints, and when everyone has a piece, they nod to one another and leave, each carrying their part with them. Some pieces will be thrown in the garbage while others will be used in the classroom or donated to science. Certain bits will be put into the garbage disposal, but they’ll send the good parts to his parents who will keep them in a jar on their mantlepiece.
A mile from their exit, Molly leans forward to ask, “What if they catch him?”
“They’ll ask us to identify him,” the mother whispers so she doesn’t disturb her daughters. “They’ll need to make sure they got the right guy so it’s important to remember what he looks like. We have to remember every detail, just in case.”
Molly takes a mental account of the details of the day: How when they all showered before they got into the pool, Esme stood in the echoing room with her arms crossed tight over her not-flat chest, rivulets of water snaking down her pale limbs. Fay’s brand new pink-and-green striped two piece with the little white anchor stitched on the hip. The 4’ mark on the side of the pool where she could no longer touch the bottom. Ambient squeals and sobs of children playing, a loud, sonorous thump of someone kicking too close to the surface, and below it all, his shadow quavering at the bottom of the pool. The antiseptic stench of pool water still clings to her hair.
She remembers the look on Fay’s face when it happened and how the three of them clung to the side, their whispers echoing in the gutter. She remembers the expressions rippling across her face when Esme said they should keep playing their game, that it was just a mistake and besides, their mom would freak out and then everyone would know. But it was two against one, the younger girls insisting, although Esme made them promise to tell only if their mother first promised not to make a scene.
“But what if they don’t catch him?” Molly asks the mother.
“We don’t have any control over that. All we can do is do our best and remember every detail.”