If Any of Us Are Actually Alive
Go back to a time before cell phones, back to a time before war, when two brothers were content to spend their days watching their fishing lines twist in the current of a muddy river. I live most of my days there, a time when Tim was still alive, a time when my biggest fear was that notched wooden paddle our father kept in the corner of the garage above his tool chest. I was afraid too of losing my brother to the alluring charms of the teenage girls that populated our small high school. They had smiles that everyone noticed and if that wasn’t enough their bodies were starting to curve like the roads of County switchbacks, their breasts protruding from shirts that were too tight and rode up to reveal the soft skin of their stomachs and the black holes of innie belly-buttons. That’s what I had to compete with that summer. Baseball was out and girls were in. I didn’t know it then, but I never stood a chance. My brother was lost, a wandering soul, caught between the smell and touch of Missy Rogers’ skin. Of course Tim wasn’t the only one who had eyes for that girl. In a town as small as Sunnydale, Missy was the queen and she knew it. Now that I’ve got teenage girls of my own, I understand a little more of what took place, of why Tim and Missy seemed to collide, and how that collision brought those other boys—Dustin Randle and Axle Hartley—into our lives.
Standing in front of the gun cabinet, our images superimposed on the etched glass, I watched Tim yank on the handle. The door was locked, a stipulation my mother believed in and monitored daily. There were a few times when my father in his exuberance had forgotten to lock the cabinet. Tim, I’m sure, was hoping that my father had forgotten again. We stood in front of that cabinet, Tim’s own .22 gleaming in the dining room light, seemingly within reach.
“We could break it,” Tim said. He pushed the hair away from his eyes. Our dad had been on him for months to cut it, but Tim liked to see how far he could push our father.
“We can’t,” I said. “Dad’ll whoop us both.”
“Don’t be such a pussy.”
“What about the key?”
“If I knew where it was I wouldn’t be standing here rattling the handle. I bet Mom takes it with her every day.”
I knew where it was hidden and had been keeping it from Tim for months. I guess I was waiting for the right moment. To be honest I enjoyed the way it made me feel to know something no one else in my family knew. If it wasn’t for that name—pussy—I swear I never would have told him.
“Wait? What do you mean wait? Nate. Dammit, come back here.”
Finding the key the first time had been a fluke. One day, bored with school, I managed to convince my mother that I had a stomachache. That morning she was in a rush to get out the door. She had mentioned something the night before about having to clean four houses that day. Tim knew I was faking, but he didn’t say anything. I lay in bed, listening to the clink of spoons against bowls, drawers and cabinets shutting, waiting for them to leave. The second the door closed behind them I got out of bed and started roaming around the house. I searched the house, though I couldn’t tell you what I was looking for. I was curious about the stuff I was sure the rest of my family was hiding from one another. Eventually, I ended up in my parents’ bedroom. I was most curious about my dad’s stuff, but it also left me feeling frightened, as though he was looking over my shoulder or would come home and know that I had been through his things. I decided to start with my mother’s jewelry box to warm up with before tackling the rest of their bedroom. The jewelry box sat on top of her dresser in the corner, propped against the vanity mirror. A slight layer of dust covered the top, muting the wood finish. When I was younger, before our sister was born, she’d pull out the drawers, slowly, allowing the light to sparkle upon each necklace and ring, before I could touch anything. I’d touch a gold chain, with an intertwined heart pendant, and she’d launch into a story about how she’d gotten the necklace and what it meant to her. Even though I was alone and she wasn’t there to give me permission, I felt as though I had the right to do it. I pulled the drawers out one by one, and by the second one I noticed that there weren’t as many rings and necklaces as I’d remembered. The third drawer was the one were she kept her rings. The rings were gone, but in its place was a small silver key. The moment I saw it, I knew what it went to.
Walking back toward my parents’ bedroom, I hoped that she had moved it, hoped I wouldn’t have to tell Tim that I had the key. Of course, the key was there. Later, I would ask myself why I felt compelled to give it to Tim in the first place. I think I wanted to prove to him that I was as tough as he was. I wanted to prove that I could be there for him if I had to.
I gave the key to Tim, allowing him to open the closet himself. When I placed it in his hand, he smiled and I knew that I had done the right thing. Instead of punching or pushing me, he gave me a slap on the back and said, “Nate, you little schemer. I didn’t think you had it in you.”
How we got from our house to the bridge with a .22 rifle bobbing against Tim’s shoulder, I’ll never know. I was no less a spectacle. When we couldn’t figure out a way to hide the gun, Tim came up with the idea of bringing along the fishing gear as a decoy. First it was decided that I would carry one pole and the tackle box, but Tim was worried people would think something was funny if they saw two boys and only one pole, so he made me carry both.
The walk to the bridge was less than a mile, but my legs were short and the tackle box was heavy. I wanted to sprint there as fast as we could. Tim, on the other hand, was convinced that the key to making passersby think that everything was normal was by walking and making sure we had our heads held high. “And we gotta smile, like today’s our birthday. You know grown-ups want to see kids smiling.”
Cars passed us on our right and left in slow small-town intervals. Nobody stopped to ask us what we were up to or where we were going. A few of the older men, farmers in ball caps, eyes squinting against the sun, offered us a wave as they idled by. Tim shifted the rifle from shoulder to shoulder, a soldier on patrol, before trying to balance it vertically in the palm of his hand. I waited for the thing to clatter to the ground and fire a bullet between his eyes. I knew the gun was unloaded, we had both checked before we left, but by the way he was acting, treating the weapon like a toy, he deserved to stumble into an accident.
Before we reached the foot of the bridge, we had to scramble down a narrow rut cut into the dirt packed hill by trampling feet. The decline was sharp, and it made my feet twist and curve around one another like tree roots. To my right and left were steep embankments decorated with heavy limestone rocks, put there by the town board after the river had swelled and overrun the embankment and flooded the road above. At the mouth of the path, I stopped. The view wasn’t what I had expected. The water, the bridge, and the woods beyond loomed below us, but it seemed more terrifying being here without our father. Standing there, I wished suddenly that he was there, offering me a piggy-back ride over the earthen path.
“Do you want to see it or not?” Tim said before giving me a shove in the back. We had talked about actually seeing the body, it was the only reason I had agreed to come. Why I thought it would still be there, caught amid a sandbar, as the water rushed around and over it, I’m not sure.
My feet slid and stuttered among the rocks leading down to the wood-planked bridge. My head tumbled forward, suspending my body above the sharp decline of the dirt-matted path. I felt the tug of Tim’s hand pythoning around my bicep. I lurched upright. A dizzy tension released from my stomach and moved over my body. The sun’s rays, no longer shaded by the high-altitude clouds, sunk into the muddy river water below. Upstream, fish plopped in and out of the water, intent on catching gnats and dragonflies.
Tim shouldered past me. I watched the back of his heels, amazed at his precision. His ankles arched, his feet picking their way over the scrambles of rock, dust, and dirt. Standing on the planks at the front of the bridge, Tim turned and shouted back to me.
“You coming or what?”
I never understood why I went. The sight of the bridge alone made me swoon: the water below, the sun above, and my body somewhere in all of that expanse in-between. I had the same feeling every time I walked onto the bridge. I felt suspended, projected into the air, waiting for the bridge to plummet me toward the water below. There were no thrills to this feeling, only fear.
Pieces of trash, fishing line, soda cans, and candy bar wrappers lazed on the water’s surface. The water that time of year was no longer deep, but I wondered about the currents twisting, torpedoing along at the bottom. The surface, a brown, placid marble, glared in the sunlight. Noises, easily identified as bird or insect, echoed along the embankment. Gnats hung overhead, attracted to the underlying scent of the sweat beading at the edge of my hairline.
I counted each shell as he slotted one into the chamber and fourteen into the clip. Before he loaded the gun I asked him to check the safety. He assured me that the red dot was sticking outward along side the trigger guard.
“We should wait until we get further down the path.”
“Maybe I want to shoot a fish.”
“You start shooting around here and people are going to notice.” I pointed toward the houses on the hill. Houses that at one time had probably been sold on the merit of being riverfront property, long before it had flooded and the limestone was added to the banks.
“What if someone sees us? Tells Dad?” I said. I kicked at a rock, trapped and fossilized, the tip sharp and jagged, in the matted earth.
The bridge itself seemed as though it was probably in disrepair from the moment it was built. With the first step upon the grayed, mottled boards, I could feel my body’s desire to tip forward. Even with my hands grasping the metal guardrails, my legs began to shake. I concentrated on the grass at the other end of the bridge. Solid ground. I couldn’t imagine it: the water below always seemed so far away, how had it ever rained enough to fill the sloping embankments?
Tim walked forward, hands shoved into his jean pockets. His feet scuffed against the wood. I kicked harder at the rock, my toes stinging. Tiny fragments of crumbled dirt erupted from the ground, but the rock didn’t budge. It was larger than I thought. I wondered how far it went down. In school, the year before, I had learned that before the Settlers, the land had been a tangle of trees, forest upon forest, with animals roaming free. I wondered if the river had been less muddy, bluer, like the oceans depicted on the map in the back of a Social Studies book.
The splash of water echoed around the sides of the limestone-covered embankments, cut away by the ceaseless flow of the river. The sound startled me, ripping me away from the aimless thoughts of a ten-year-old boy.
Tim groped a handful of rocks from out of his pockets and threw them in masses like machine gun fire toward the river below. The rocks cannonballed into the river’s surface, erupting in splashes and ripples. I tried to stop time, imagining that I could, in the space between the splash flying into the air and when it landed again, see the river bottom. What was down there I couldn’t describe. I saw flashes of rainbow striped fish, their scales for the briefest of seconds shimmering against an indifferent sun; I saw crawdads attached to moss-laced stones, their legs knobbed and arched, trying to hold on against an invisible current; finally I saw years of debris, trash children and men had thrown from bridge height, reveling in the time between splash and ripple, unaware of the world they slowly ruined below the surface. It was this world I had been thinking about lately, wondering why I couldn’t be a part of it.
As the water came to rest, its surface no longer marred by the assault of pebbles from Tim’s arm, we heard voices echoing toward us from around the bend. I picked my way toward the edge of the bridge, my feet scuffing here and there like a horse’s hooves upon a cobbled lane. Tim’s hands yanked my arm, wrenching the soft skin on my forearm. I yelped and leaned my weight backward, trying to escape his grip. Again I felt the sensation of my feet sliding forward, my body no longer within my control, and I fell knee first against the wood. I scrambled and scratched at the wood, trying to regain my footing, but Tim held me down, his knee braced against the small of my back.
“Get off of me. Asshole. Let go.” I spit the words over my shoulder.
“Someone’s coming,” Tim said.
I counted to ten, waiting for a boat to round the bend. The voices, a baritone reflected from the embankments, erupted into laughter. Tim’s knee lifted, releasing the weight from my back. My knees ached as I brought my body upright. I felt my brother’s palm turn sweaty against my forearm.
“Maybe we should leave,” I said.
“Probably just some old men fishing.” Tim gave my arm a final squeeze before letting go. He mounted the bottom rung of the latticed guardrail. His body pitched forward, hips pinned against the ledge, balancing his weight. There was a loud splash, followed by the hammer-crack of laughter. I didn’t care for the way the laughter seemed to hang in the air like our father’s cigarette smoke, clouding above the river’s surface. I was about to warn Tim again, try to make him leave, when I saw the blurry shapes of three teenagers round the west bend of the river. In a grey johnboat, two boys and a girl, her legs hanging off the edge of the boat, slowly drifted toward the bridge. I watched her toes skimming the top of the surface, the river responding in a twinkling of ripples. None had on life jackets; each was in their own style of nakedness. From that distance, the girl seemed nothing but naked skin, enveloped in streams of sunlight. I sat on my haunches, hands wrapped around the rusty guardrail, taking her in as they drifted closer to the bridge.
Tim’s voice was at my ear; his breath smelled of grape soda and peanut butter.
“It’s them. The ones I was telling you about.”
I didn’t notice it at the time, but once Tim realized who was making their way toward us in the boat, he must have hid the rifle out of sight against his leg. The people in the boat drifted closer; they were unaware of the danger they were in. My brother couldn’t have known that we would run into those boys and that girl. Bringing the gun was just his idea of increasing our adventure. Breaking one rule was never enough. Tim always made it a point to push things as far as he could. On that day, he had everything he needed to push himself off the edge, our petty rule-breaking, a walk across the bridge, a glance at the charred remains of the Gun Building, and we would have been on our way back home, smirking to each other at the dinner table when our mother invariably asked about what we had done that day.
As the boat neared, it didn’t take long before they recognized Tim and began their attempts at tormenting him. Even now, knowing some of the details, Tim’s reason for being so angry at them isn’t clear to me. Although he’s denied it several times, I’m sure it had something to do with the girl. Missy Rogers and Tim had some kind of loose connection; a day spent together, maybe even a quick kiss between an older girl and a younger boy.
“Hey! Hey! It’s your hero, Missy.” The shorter of the two boys jolted out of his seat and started waving his arms like the beat of a dragonfly’s wings. He stumbled, his body angling toward the river. I held my breath and hoped he’d fall in, but he fell in a heap against the girl’s legs. The taller of the two boys, sat on the other side of the girl in the back of the boat. He laughed at his buddy’s joke and put his arm around the girl’s shoulder. I didn’t want to take my eyes off them, especially her. I felt transfixed as though it was my first experience watching TV. I was afraid that if I looked away, one of the boys would find a way to hurt me while my head was turned, or worse, she would disappear. I glanced at Tim. He no longer stood on the bottom rung of the support rail. His feet were planted against the bridge, and his left foot tapped at the stock of the .22.
“Axle, knock it off. He’s just a kid,” she said. She leaned into Axle’s chest, and I knew why Tim hated him.
The shorter boy pushed Axle’s arm away from Missy’s shoulder and pulled her into his own embrace. I didn’t understand why she let them treat her that way, as though her body was a playground built for their own amusement. I caught her smiling up at us, at Tim, but he was looking down at something next to his feet.
“Hey Hero, watch this.” The shorter boy grabbed Missy’s boob.
“God, Dustin, you’re such a jerk. Wait until my Dad hears about this.” Her protest started in shock, but trailed off in girlish laughter. In that instant, I felt as though I was betraying my brother. A small part of me admired the boy for being so brave, so selfish. Then I thought about her, and I wondered how her body would feel in my hands. I didn’t know the details, but I could understand Tim’s attraction and, with that, his anger toward those boys.
The boat continued to drift toward the bridge. Any minute, they’d coast beneath the bridge and onto the other side, where they’d drift around another bend. If only that boy had had enough sense to control himself from grabbing her they would have floated on and, although Tim would have still been angry, I think he would have gotten over it. He would have continued to plot his revenge, especially on those nights when it was too hot to sleep, but I’m sure that’s as far as it would have gone.
I heard her scream, and when I looked up Tim was jerking the gun from his hiding place and moving it into position on his shoulder. The boat headed underneath the bridge, and the few seconds it took them to re-emerge probably saved their lives. Tim pivoted toward the other railings. In that space there were no words between us, only the glint of sun trailing down the barrel of a .22 rifle settled firmly upon the bony shoulder of a thirteen-year-old boy.
As I climbed the railing, I felt the bridge sway against my weight. There wasn’t time to think about balance or what would happen if I slipped. I concentrated on looking out toward the bend in the river, where the teenagers had come from minutes ago. While in the air, I felt nothing but expectancy. Jumping started as a thought and just as quickly ended in an action.
Until I hit the water, my worst fear was that Tim would still shoot them. Beyond that, all I remember of being in the air was a rush of wind rising vertically from my feet and a twitter of nervous energy as my arms flailed about in a desperate attempt to cling to the empty air. I may have been trying to fly. Somehow, while in mid-air, my body managed to tilt head-first toward the drifting river below. The more I swung my arms, the more I tilted. I hit the water at a horizontal angle, cheek first as though I was merely lounging on the surface. I crashed through the water like a fist through glass. My hip hit something solid; my foot and elbow plunged into the muddy soil. Cold invaded my skin as I was enveloped by rushing water. Panicking, I gasped for air. Nothing. Nothing. My feet kicked at the bottom, traction slipping between each kick, knocking me back down. The current struck my body and ripped at my arms and legs, trying to drag me in different directions. Between gasps for air, my mind began working again, and I knew that I would probably die. My father’s warnings were there ringing in the vacuum of my ears. I forgot to open my eyes, forgot to take in a world I was sure was better than my own.
Hands on my shoulders.
A force, from where I don’t know, stronger than the current, was drifting alongside me, propping my head above the surface of the water. Then I gave up. Whatever strength I may have felt before I jumped had seeped from me like water over an embankment. Amid a tangle of limbs and desperate, jerky, bodily movements I found myself hoisted on the sharp edges of limestone rocks. Air plunged down my throat and filled my lungs until I threw up. Between branches of matted hair, I saw Tim standing over me, shaking his head.
Sometimes I wish our lives would have stopped right there on the muddy banks of that river. Tim would still be alive, a blurry grin across his face, the water dripping from his eyelashes. Until he joined the army, it was his favorite story, and he told it well. Embellishing, he’d make me sound more insane and more brave than I deserved, telling everyone that I had saved his life up there, that if I hadn’t jumped, he would have shot those boys.
Now that Tim’s gone, a victim of someone else’s gun, I see those boys, now men, with sagging guts, balding heads, and drooping eyes yelling at sporting events, cursing their kids’ miss of a tackle. I wonder if they still tell the story, I wonder if their children are allowed to go near the bridge, I wonder if they ever think about Tim or me, about how they’re alive and he’s dead, another hero in a pointless situation. I wonder if any of us has ever returned from that river bottom, if any of us is actually alive.
Tommy Dean is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, he has been previously published in the Watershed Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, r.kv.r.y, Boston Literary Magazine, Foliate Oak, and Gravel. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.