A while back I participated in a 1,000 word flash fiction contest with this story, over at the leighendarium. It reminded me of “Stand By Me” and a time in my childhood when my friends and I seemed to come up with a dare every single day. I hope you enjoy it. (Instead of reading it, you can also listen/watch it on youtube here).
There were three of us. Kelly Myers, Jonah Appelbaum, and myself. Every day after school, we’d ride our bicycles down Louis Avenue, jumping the pot holes and screaming from the top of our lungs. We’d race each other on the steep part all the way down and across the train tracks into the Nature Sanctuary.
The park extends to the river, a downhill slope past a school of weeping willow trees, across the narrow stone bridge and through the barren meadow where small purple flowers would stick out from the hardened soil.
The challenge was to ride as fast as possible toward the edge — the spot where the steep cliff fell forty feet down into the water — and hit the breaks in the last possible moment. I lost each time, breaking too soon. Jonah usually came in second, leaving Kelly the winner with only a few feet of distance between his bike and the sharp edge.
We called it the line of no return. We had carved it out of the dirt and filled it with charcoal dust so it was visible against the sandy soil. It was a straight line parallel to the edge. To come to a safe stop, you had to have the brakes fully engaged before the line.
That day, Kelly hit the brakes when he was on top of the line, not before. When his front wheel crossed it and he still had not made any attempt to break, I knew he wouldn’t make it.
I was already at a standstill, the fine dust of the dried up dirt swirling around me, when he approached. I saw his face, the moment of panic when he realized he hit the brakes too late.
“Alex!” he cried out. Then he went over the edge. Actually, he let himself fall onto his side in an attempt to slow down his momentum. It probably did. But not enough.
I was frozen. He didn’t scream or anything. It was as if he simply left this world without saying goodbye. I remember thinking that he was a good swimmer, that he could probably make it to shore. But I knew that the fall would most likely kill him — the fall onto the large boulders that stick out of the water this time of year.
Our town is in a drought from May through August. During that time, the river loses four feet of its water. Sometimes five. Kelly could have survived in March. He could have survived in September. Not in June. Not today.
I heard the metallic clanking sound of the bike crashing onto the rocks below. I didn’t want to see him. I didn’t want to have the image of his broken body be the last thing I remember. Jonah, his face pale as the moon, was much more courageous. He let go of his bike and ran the few feet to the edge. Jonah lived next door to Kelly. They were like brothers. They fought and teased each other as only ten-year-old boys could. They loved each other too. They looked out for each other. They looked out for me.
I moved here only two years ago from Chicago. I’m smaller than most boys my age and had very thick glasses. I got teased a lot. I got pushed and intimidated and made fun of but when one of the other boys hit me, Kelly hit him back. That day I didn’t walk home alone after school. Kelly and Jonah walked next to me, one on each side. We were inseparable ever since, sometimes to the detriment of our teachers and our parents. We were trouble. We built a dam in the Shallow Creek that was so high, it flooded the nearby walkway making it impossible for pedestrians to cross.
We’d use the thin green plastic pipes you find in aquariums and turn them into spitball shooters. Armed with a bag of dried peas we’d declare war on some of our classmates, teachers, and unsuspected civilians. We’d sneak out of the house at night, meet up, and switch garden ornaments between houses, convinced that we had just pulled off the heist of the century. Kelly and Jonah said they were the muscle and I was the brains of the operation. I never had better friends.
“Kelly,” Jonah cried. He looked down toward the water.
I approached as if in trance. The afternoon sun sat golden on the surface of the river. I remember the ripples in the current, the sparks of light dancing on the surface, the quiet terror I felt when I moved closer to the edge, stretching out my hand as if to reach all the way down to the bottom and lifting my friend up and save him.
“Kelly,” I whispered.
The bike lay broken on top of a huge boulder forty feet below. The front wheel was bent forward, the steering column snapped in half. The cards he had pinned onto the back wheel to make the bike sound like an airplane propeller, lay next to it.
I couldn’t breathe. Jonah said something. He yelled something, first down toward the water, then to me.
“What?” I said.
“Don’t let go!” he said. Not to me. He didn’t say it to me.
I saw Kelly’s hand first. It was holding on to a root that stuck out of the cliff wall a foot below the top. Then I saw his face. His smiling face.
“Holy shit!” I said. Then I yelled it. I shouted it. “Holly shit! Holy shit! HOLY SHIT!”
Jonah grabbed him by the arm, I held on to his wrist as we pulled him up. We fell on our backs.
“That was close,” Kellly said nonchalantly.
“You’re such an asshole,” Jonah said.
The clouds flew across the sky high above.