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Over the Brink

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How could I have been this stupid? That was the question that echoed around my fevered head, but struck no answers. Icy spray stung my bare legs and I shivered both from fear and cold. There was no way out. My eyes darted from side to side but the island in the middle of the river was too far away, and we were going too fast, rushing closer and closer to the thing that brought me impending doom. I gazed helplessly down into the yawning, cavernous mouth of the rapid that was about to engulf me, and squeezed my eyes shut.


Our rafts pulled up to the bank, all of my cousins tumbling out to secure the rope to the rough, serrated rocks. I was amongst them, the youngest, and stood hesitantly in the knee-deep water, unsure of what to do.

“Tie it up!” shouted Uncle Fritz, as he dipped his hat in the cool water and set it, dripping, on his head. He wiped his sweaty hands on his shorts and sat back, letting the oars dangle freely. Laura hurdled out of the boat, clambered up onto a boulder overlooking the rapid and hunched there, grinning. The adults meandered their way up the slope and collapsed onto different rocks, removing their sunglasses and each taking a swig from their water bottles. Julia, lithe as ever, stepped out of the boat and extended a hand to help me. I vehemently refused, and leapt out, to clumsily land on hands and knees on the uneven surface. Fritz and a few others of my uncles headed down the hill, towards the rapid we were about to encounter.

“W-what are they d-doing?” I spluttered to Julia, clutching my cold hands to my chest.

“Scoping out the rapid. They want to see if it’s safe enough to cross.”

“W-what happens if it isn’t? Safe enough, I mean.” I looked towards the rushing waters and shuddered.

Julia flashed me a quick smile. “Then we unload the boats; carry all the stuff down the hill, and let Fritz and Allen maneuver the rapid. Altogether, not very fun.”

“Yeah,” I agreed fervently. “I’d rather swim.”

We made our way up the hill toward where the rest of our family slouched, enjoying the shade. Laura turned toward me eagerly, words spilling out of her mouth. “You excited, Baby Amy?”
“Shut up,” I growled out of the corner of my mouth. I hated that nickname that had been bestowed on me, as I was the youngest by at least a year of all of them.
She continued as if there had been no interruption. “’Cause we’re kayaking down the rapid! They scouted it out, and it’s alright, so they’re gonna let us float it, as long as we wear helmets.” She made a face.

“Wait, what?” I interrupted.

Laura sighed exasperatedly and pushed her lank hair out of her eyes. “We’re kayaking down it. But we gotta wear these really ugly helmets. They’re, like, yellow.”

I hadn’t heard any words after the ‘kayaking down the rapid.’ Uncle Fritz must be crazy. I, who was the meek one, the one who sat on the sidelines and watched in wonder as my cousins did crazy things like flinging themselves off of diving boards. But this was a category four rapid. The biggest kind. I gaped at the roiling river that swept by unfeelingly, crashing into rocks, and filling the air with its dull roar. I shook my head in wonder. This was my cousins’ biggest stunt yet. But there was no way I would be a part of it. Still, an insistent voice sounded in the back of my head, faraway, but still there. You’re always the one sitting out, it said. You’re always the one on the sidelines. I shook my head to clear it. You’ll never get a chance like this again, it persuaded. It’s the first step to an adventurous personality, a chance to not be the boring one anymore. Come on. You know you want to. You know the feeling of shivering in the pool while they do flips above you and grab everyone’s attention. You know that resentment that boils in your stomach. Wouldn’t you like to get rid of that—once and for all?

With a tremendous effort, I plummeted back to earth with a jolt. I knew I’d never actually do it. Why even try to convince myself, and just feel guilty and left out afterwards? This was a river trip. I was supposed to be having fun.

I took a deep breath and concealed my inner turmoil with a cheesy smile. Laura looked at me curiously.

“You okay?” she asked.

I was startled. “Yeah,” I said. I turned to plunk myself down on a nearby rock.

“Here they come!” a voice hollered in my ear. I twisted around to see the big raft come floating slowly towards the rapid, and then get drawn faster and faster toward the tumult of water. With my uncle manning the boat coolly, it slid over the ferocious waves and glided towards the bank. Fritz paddled furiously, and the raft bounced against the side with a slap.

“Next!” he shouted. Laura jumped up eagerly and buckled her life vest.

“You coming?” she asked breathlessly.

“Yeah, right,” I snorted. “Me. Rapids. Kayak. Picture that. We don’t mix.”

She chortled. “Sure. Whatever. I’m doing it. See you on the other side!” I watched as she sprinted off towards where the uncles were blowing up the blue inflatable kayak. I saw one of them hand her a helmet and hid a smile. It was yellow, and big and clunky too. Just the thing you would never catch Laura in. She bounded into the kayak where it sat floating in the river defying the drifting current, and gripped her paddle. Uncle John climbed in behind her, and pushed the boat off from the bank. I could see him muttering instructions in her ear, and she brushed them off impatiently, raring to go. I shook my head. So eager for danger.

The kayak slipped over the first rock and plunged downwards to face the onslaught waiting for it. I saw Laura’s expression turn to doubt, and then sudden fear. She paddled feverishly, and for a second, she vanished under the white froth and the only thing I could make out was the tip of one yellow paddle sticking up from under all of it. Then she popped up again, grinning now, and rode the rest of the way above the waves. When the kayak pulled up next to us, she plunked herself down next to me. “That,” she said, adding emphasis to her words, “was awesome. You should totally try it!”
Great, I thought. Bring on the internal battle again. I watched Julia do the same thing, handling the boat smoothly, without so much difficulty as Laura. I frowned. It was weird: it actually looked…fun.

And then I was flying. I raced over the slippery rock, pumping my arms, towards where my uncles were about to deflate the kayak and put it away.

“Can I go down it?” I asked them breathlessly. They gawked at me.

“What?” Fritz finally asked.

“Can I,” I started, “Go down the rapid?”

“On the raft? Sure,” answered Allen. “We all are going to.” He brushed his hair off his forehead, attempting to catch some breeze.

“No,” I said. “On the kayak.” This caused an immediate reaction.

“What?” Fritz asked again, his voice rising in pitch. I opened my mouth to speak again, but he held up a hand to silence me. “Not that kind of what,” he said hastily.

“Well can I?” I asked impatiently, shifting my weight from foot to foot.

He looked Uncle Allen. “I guess so,” he said slowly. “It just doesn’t seem like something you might do.”

Obviously. “Well I wanted to try it,” I said.

“Can you take her?” Fritz gestured toward Uncle John.

“Sure,” he said, a grin plastered on his broad face. We ambled down the treacherous island, hoisting the dripping kayak over our heads to the mouth of the rapid. “Ready?” he asked.

Not in a million years, I thought. But here I go. “Yes,” I said, my voice quavering, afraid again now.
Julia, condescending as always, placed a cold, pruney hand on my shoulder. “Good luck,” she said, with a smile. “You’ll need it.”
“Thanks a lot.” I tried to be nonchalant, but my trembling frame gave me away. I sat carefully in the tiny front seat of the kayak, and John climbed in behind me.
I remember a lot of thing that happened after we shoved off, but all of them in vague detail, like a television that was badly tuned, and kept blanking out or muting. I remember mostly the mix of hot and cold: the relentless sun that beat down, and the icy spray the misted into the air, drenching me. I remember the faint buzz of horseflies in the background, as John spoke instructions into my ear. I remember his wide grin and oversized sunglasses that dwarfed his face, and having the thought that he looked nerdy registering briefly in my mind. As we approached the rapid, I could see his thin but strong arms, muscled under the russet skin, towing the oars through the water.

“Paddle, Amy!” he had shouted, as I had weakly dragged the paddle through the water a few times, and then just rested it against my legs. I remember the imminent feeling of dread as the colossal waves reared up to bury us, looming just ahead. I had been plowed through them, gasping and gazing around frantically for something other than the white that surrounded us. And then—a feeling of nausea as the boat had tipped sickeningly to the left and I toppled out helplessly. I had been buried under an avalanche of white, frothing water, and I remember the terror that engulfed me when nothing other than foaming nothingness had met my eyes as I tried to swim clear. Then, suddenly, the roaring in my ears had been cut off.

I was sitting on the bank, surrounded by my cousins, as I coughed and shuddered violently. I tried to grin up at them, but was surprised by the sounds that seemed to be coming from me. I clamped my mouth shut, but couldn’t stop the uncontrollable shaking.

“All right, Amy?” a worried voice said from somewhere above me.

I steadied myself and answered shakily, “Y-Yeah.”
I caught the face of Laura from the cluster that encircled me. “What happened?” she asked.
I was starting to feel enough like myself again that I could roll my eyes and answer, “Duh. I fell out!”
“Well yeah I know that,” she rolled her eyes back at me. “I mean why?”
“Too rough. I couldn’t stay in.”
“Next time wedge your feet in the sides,” she advised.
“Don’t do that, you dork,” said the voice of Julia from somewhere nearby. “If you fall, then you’ll get trapped underneath.”
“No! It’ll help, ‘cause then…”
I closed my eyes and let their conversation fade into the hum of sounds and voices that surrounded me. I sat jadedly on the edge of the raft, worn out. A quiet voice disrupted my brief peace.
“Amy? We’re shoving off now.” It was Julia. “You handled that rapid nicely.” I could hear the edge of sarcasm in her voice, but mostly it was kind.

“Thanks,” I answered almost inaudibly, too shaken and tired to make a retort. I looked up and clambered onto the edge of the boat to perch there, grateful for the break in large rapids. There was only calm water that awaited us, for the rest of today at least. As we pulled into camp several hours later, my cousins and I tumbled off of the boat and sprawled on the beach as the adults began to unload the boats. We lolled around in the coarse sand, thankful for the short break before we had to haul ourselves up and help unpack the rafts. As we chattered about the various points in the day, I noticed a tinge of respect in the eyes of my older cousins. Always before, I had been the little one, the one treated superciliously and teased. Now, small as I was and younger, I couldn’t help but see how their ring shifted automatically to include me more, but not just out of kindness. Somehow, I had passed their test, and crossed an invisible line today. Somehow, in their eyes, I had become one of them.



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