I can’t remember the last time we’d had such a hot summer. All the beaches were packed. You couldn’t find a shoreline that wasn’t teeming with people. Most summers, we would’ve been right there with them. This last school year, though, had been rough. We’d had an inordinate number of encounters with bullies, and the last thing we wanted to do was put ourselves in a place where they’d almost certainly be.
That caution came with a price, of course. We were sweltering. Fans did nothing. Every time we opened the freezer to grab a chunk of ice, we’d get yelled at for letting all the cold air out. It seemed like everything we did, it only served to make us hotter and more miserable.
My brother had an idea that sounded pretty great to me. There’d been construction going on near the old quarry that was on hold for some reason. Donny said he’d been snooping around there the week before and he noticed there was still a lot of water from the spring floods that’d gotten trapped and hadn’t dried up yet. Plus, the quarry was deep enough to be in its own shadow; the walls went up at least 30 feet. It’d be a climb to get down and back up, but it was worth the risk if it meant getting a break from the heat.
We hopped the fence and stared down at the water. It looked pretty damn refreshing. The way down was steep and rocky, but Donny and I were both pretty agile at the time. We went slowly, despite dripping with sweat and coating ourselves with dust and bits of gravel. When we got to the bottom, it was already a relief. The air was ten degrees cooler and the shade provided a welcome reprieve from the mid-day sun.
There was a long branch near the edge of the pool. Since the water was murky, we didn’t want to take a chance and dive in. Both of us remembered how Leon Hollis broke his neck back in 3rd grade. Neither of us were going to make that same mistake. I reached in with the stick and pushed down and around. It felt about two or three feet deep. I let out more and more of the branch into the water and felt the soft, muddy ground underneath. We couldn’t do a proper dive, but we sure as hell could jump in. That was all Donny needed to hear.
In the blink of an eye, Donny had stripped out of his clothes. I hadn’t even finished saying, “Jesus Christ, Don, don’t take your fucking underpants off too!” before he was stark naked and mid-air in a bellyflop position. He crashed into the still water, sending out a massive wave to soak the muddy shore. I was untying my shoes when Donny spluttered to the surface. He looked different.
Donny’s pale body was covered in a mosaic of black and brown shapes. I mean covered. He was more brown and black than he was white, and as he staggered toward me with his arms out so they wouldn’t touch his sides and his legs bowed so they wouldn’t rub together, I realized what they were. Leeches. Hundreds – maybe even a thousand – leeches.
He began to scream. It was a shrill, high-pitched shriek that I’d only heard from girls on the playground at school, but with them, it was only while they were playing. The sound coming from my brother was one of abject terror. As he screamed, he formed the words, “help me” and moved closer and closer to the shore, away from the water. By the time I’d gotten over to him, he fell on his back into the soft mud, his head inches from the shore.
I stood over him, unsure of what I should do. He began rubbing his hands over his trunk, trying to unlatch the things from his belly and chest. Blood smeared as their bodies burst under his touch. My horror stunned me for a moment, and as I stared with shock at my brother’s body, I noticed details for the first time.
There was a leech stuck to his left eyeball. It hung down about 3 inches, its body fat with blood. The eye was red and angry looking and Donny was blinking furiously, and probably unconsciously, to get the thing off. One leech was attached to the head of his penis and there were seven on his scrotum and perineum. Under his arms were the remains of at least six that had been smashed as Donny rubbed and pulled at the ones on his torso.
Finally, I snapped out of it and began raking my nails across the creatures that covered my brother. He was a red mess. I tried to pick up my pace, noticing how, even under the shroud of blood, I could tell Donny was getting increasingly pale and weak. His arms didn’t move much anymore and his screams had devolved into wheezes.
I ran back to where we’d left our clothes and returned with a large beach towel. I wadded it up and scrubbed Donny up and down, not caring if I crushed the things instead of just removing them. They needed to die, and quickly, or else I was certain my brother would be exsanguinated. I rubbed his face and chest and legs and feet until there was nothing left pulp from their devastated bodies and the smeared blood they’d stolen from Donny.
I knelt next to Donny and tried to get him to focus. I told him I was going to run for help and he was going to be okay. His good eye moved to meet my face. “Back,” he muttered.
“Yes, I’ll be back as soon as I can,” I assured him, and got up to run home.
Donny grabbed my ankle in his weak fist. I stopped and looked at him impatiently, not understanding how he didn’t see how time was a factor here.
“Back,” he said again. “My back.” He exhaled a long, low breath. He didn’t move or say anything after that.
A column of frost coalesced along my spinal cord. With great care, not wanting Donny’s face to sink into the mud, I turned my brother over and screamed. On his back were two leeches, each the size of a watermelon. No longer trapped between the mud and Donny, they detached their proboscises, each of which were as long as my middle finger. Then, with their bodies full and their appetites sated, they began the slow crawl back into the water.