On those days that neither of us felt like living, we bought candy cigarettes and Twinkies, drank soda until our eyes swam rheumy, and dangled our feet over the wooden bridge, promising each other we’d be the first to jump, that the one left high above would watch the other until they no longer struggled against the current. “Look for the air bubbles,” you said, hands pulling out your ponytail for the eighth time that morning. Fifteen, but so small, I knew you wouldn’t make a splash, a dragonfly finally landing, coasting down the river, the fallen queen of a Coors light box. I played along because I’d let you get away with anything, even death.
I promised I wouldn’t follow, that I’d have to stay alive, because the people would demand a witness. Sure, they’d blame me, but you thought I was strong enough to take it. The accusations, the threats, the whispers and the stares, the way adults would look at me sideways, wondering. “You’ll be famous, Gavin. Famous is always better than dead.”
I had promised I wouldn’t love you either, that I wouldn’t keep the strings of hair I cut away the time we got lost in the woods, the ratty strands caught on a grasping tree limb, the one we thought had come alive for those frightful seconds. You hugging yourself, elbows rubbed raw from cutting our own trail, you swearing the river road was just around the next hill. The little dot of blood on your cheek, a dollop of frosting I couldn’t resist.
“If you’re gonna kiss me, you better do it now. I can’t escape or nothing.”
“Let me just get my knife,” I said, because even though your words said yes, I knew you really meant no.
“We agreed it had to be the river.”
“I’m just cutting you loose, Candy,” I said. Maybe even then I knew, goosebumps and that waving in and out feeling creeping over my back, the way you feel when a VCR tape ended and the screen went all scrambly like you were the last person on Earth.
The day it happened, the day you didn’t float, the day you didn’t wait for me, the sheriff showed up at my door. I’ll admit, for once, I wasn’t thinking about you. Your crooked smile with those bucky rabbit teeth, the way your knees turned into toward one another, how your breath always smelled like a Jolly Rancher baking in the sun. No, I was playing Sonic, battling my way into the Metropolis level, thumbs aching from pressing so hard on the controller, caught up in the blur of colors, collecting rings.
They sat me down in the living room, my mother wadding up her robe in her hands, not even apologizing for the state of our house, the fact that she hadn’t gotten dressed yet, the bowls of half-eaten cereal, the milk gray and warming.
After the sheriff cleared his throat for about the tenth time, I said, “I was supposed to be there.”
“At the river. That’s what this is about, right? Tell me Candy sent you. Tell me it’s a joke.” My voice cracked, and I remembered the way you used to mock me, your voice going higher and higher until I laughed, pushing your shoulder away, because I couldn’t handle being so close.
“Honey, there’s been an accident,” my mother said.
“Oh, you can do better than that, Mom,” I said, bouncing up, headed toward the kitchen.
“Gavin,” the man said, chewing on my name like a popcorn kernel stuck in his teeth. “We need to talk about Candy.”
“If you’d just go get her,” I started, but my mom’s hand was on the back of my neck, and the sheriff looked away.
“I should hit you,” I whispered. The Sheriff didn’t move, didn’t reach for his gun, wouldn’t even look at my face.
If it had been a joke, you would have begged him for more flair. He would have waved you away, citing regulations about unholstering his gun. His resolve though wouldn’t have lasted more than a minute. Your titled eyebrows would have said it all. I know you’ve already fallen in love with me, so do this one thing for me.
But love never guaranteed breathing or floating or safety or pride in being alive or the last second remembrance of your voice, all gone like the last drop of water circling the rim of a drain.
You said I’d be famous, but everyone hated me instead. I was sitting in the same desk, the one in front of me vacated by your accident. The counselor, Mr. Jenkins, encouraged me to say suicide, but what the fuck does he know? “We had plans,” I told him a week after the funeral. His bald head turned all red, and he couldn’t get any words out. I almost laughed. You would have done something crazy like kissed his cheek or jumped on the sofa, but I wasn’t allowed to laugh or cough or especially cry. Those were the new rules I gave myself.
So anyway, the adults were all watching me pretty closely, taking away scissors, standing outside the bathroom door. They looked at me like I was a dehydrated plant. That words were like water and I needed more chances to speak about my feelings. So much bullshit attention, right? The other students hated it. Nobody could do anything bad enough to fill the vacuum. I was like a black hole sucking in all this adult energy. Grant, that half-brained jock, who wanted to take you to the dance. You remember? The one who kept flipping the hair out of his eyes, pursing his lips like he was smoking, but he didn’t even have a vape? He tells me that some of the Juniors have been talking about “getting” me. Drowning me in the river if you can believe it.
“They said they gotta make it right. Balance the universe. Avenge Candy,” he said.
“Like they knew her,” I said, slamming my locker shut. Don’t worry, I took out that picture of you and me falling out of the bounce house.
“You could move,” Grant said. “Run away at least. My Dad said trouble is going to find you.”
“Wouldn’t take a psychic,” I said. I walked down the hall, staring at the muddy toes of my shoes. Most nights I snuck out to the river, stepping over rocks and beer bottles, wishing you believed in ghosts.
One night the Juniors caught me on the edge of the bridge. I was coming back from the gun club, a bunch of spent bullet casings in my pockets. I was planning on throwing them into the river, watching them float away. I was thinking maybe I could fill the whole thing up with junk, stop the current. It wouldn’t bring you back, but neither would doing my homework or mowing the yard; talking about my feelings or slitting my wrist. The counselor calls this acceptance, but I don’t have words yet for wanting to destroy everything. I watch videos of buildings blowing up until I fall asleep. My parents hover near my bedroom, but they don’t say anything. They won’t even say your name. To everyone else it’s like you were never here.
But the Juniors, right? I was hoping for something more like Westside Story—knives or chains, maybe a baseball bat. Only one of them was wearing a Letterman’s jacket. They held their phones out in front of them, flashlights like golden orbs dancing as the bridge shook from their weighted steps. It should have been like a duel from the Wild West, but it was more like seeing people from the church in the grocery store. I would have stepped around them, but their faces were too earnest. They had shit they wanted to say, and I was the only audience.
“This bridge is a piece of shit. Why would anyone hang out here?” the one in the letter jacket said. He was taller than the rest, but skinny, a giraffe among other animals.
“You shouldn’t be here,” I said, taking a spent bullet casing out of my pocket and tossing it over the rail. The glow of one of their flashlights tracked it to the water.
“Dude, what the hell was that?”
“I think he’s got a gun.”
I turn toward them because this was the stupidest thing I had ever heard. “If I had a gun, you think I’d be standing here?”
“Just tell us how it happened,” the one in front said. The frames of his glasses caught the light, bending it into the empty space between sky and land. I wish these pricks would leave us alone, Candy. You remember how we used to dare each other to jump up and down on the bridge, the way it rocked like a canoe tied to a dock? The closer they got the more it swayed. The more I wondered why you did it alone. It must have been quick, because the more I stood there, night after night, the more I wanted to live. For nothing more than to avoid the chill of the water on my skin. Wait till summer, I told myself.
“Is this the part where you beg me to repent, force me to confess, make me get down on my knees and suck your dicks or the whole world will know how I pushed her off the bridge, watched her hit her head, refused to jump in after her?”
“I told you he was a psycho,” letter jacket said, phone held out, no doubt recording everything.
“Nobody gives a shit about us. Touchdowns, spell bowl, break-ups. You and Candy is all anyone ever talks about.”
“You want a show,” I said, taking off my jacket. I put my foot on the metal guardrail. I should have been thinking about you, but I was imagining Leo DiCaprio as Romeo, the way he hit that water in the final scene, not even a flinch. I’ve watched it a hundred times since you jumped. The rewinding put me at ease. I hoped for a different ending.
“We know all about grief, Gavin.” The one with glasses shouted. He moved toward me, the other three crowding in behind him. Stray hairs dashed across their chins, the scent of body spray hanging in the air, threatening the copper smell of the river, the must of rotting trees.
I got my other foot up, my shoulders tipping forward, hips braced against the top of the rail, balanced. I was finally ready to jump. Those boys would be my witnesses. The water below was immune to everything above it.
They hesitated. None of them wanted to be the one to throw the punch that led to my drowning.
“Fuck your stories,” I said. “None of us was good enough for her. And oh my god, did she know it. You, and you, and you. And me.”
I didn’t mean for it to go so far. You know my balance was shit. I couldn’t even walk down the center of the road, my shoulder always nudging you farther and farther to the edge, your ankles irritated from the spray of rocks your feet kicked up.
The space between being poised on the edge and falling into the river was as fast as the flick of your mother’s lighter. I didn’t have time to close my eyes or my mouth before water was hissing past my ears, tightening around my neck, coldness blooming from my chest. I thought this would be the moment you would find me, guide me to whatever happened next. But maybe I was disturbed too soon, because in the confusion of their arms wrapping my waist, the weight of their bodies leaning up to the surface, the smell of synthetic leather as the sleeve of that letterman’s jacket brushed across my face, us falling in a spasm of sodden clothes onto the muddy shore, you never appeared.
You hear stories like ours and people wonder how it could go so wrong? They make a big deal of our “Suicide Pact” as if people don’t break promises all the time. I’ve tried not to use your death for personal gain. Every narration is an attempt at fame, at belonging, at getting other people to give a fuck. I go to the bar, and someone recognizes me. How, I’m not sure. Maybe I’ve got tragedy written all over my face. The women settle in close, their hips nestled against my leg, laughing wildly. The men stand, coiled, ready to call bullshit as if they’d believe the truth, as if they aren’t a part of this spectacle themselves. I’ve tried to remove myself, but there are nights when being an adult is just too much strain on someone who was supposed to flash away at fifteen. You called me oblivious once, but your death was the rotten fruit of knowledge.
Here are the facts, I say, listing them: Candy jumped off a bridge, she likely broke her neck and drowned. I was her best friend, we made a pact. I’ll never be the same.
Anything else is conjecture; estimates and guesses like faulty wiring spark sporadically. The pain is a dull but throbbing pulse connecting us like chemical bonds, elements weathering an invisible storm.
“Hey, Sad Man, tell us another,” they say, lining up the shots in front of me, wagering when my words will slur too much for intelligibility. “I knew a girl. Candy was her name. And I loved her.”
This is where the story should stop. Or begin again and again.
Tommy Dean is the author of Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. His work has appeared in The Bull Magazine, The MacGuffin, New World Writing, Pithead Chapel, New Flash Fiction Review, and elsewhere. His story “You’ve Stopped” was chosen by Dan Chaon to be included in Best Microfiction 2019. It will also be included in Best Small Fictions 2019. Find him @TommyDeanWriter.