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There’s a town in eastern Washington. It squats, along a lazy river, between the Cascades and the Waterville Plateau.
As cold as the winters are cold, the summers are hot. Humid, blisteringly hot. Like six months before, you’re tongue would have frozen to that pole, but now, when you touch it, the metal leaves your hand tender and red.
Like when you have to wear shoes, on the blacktop, the heat coming off it rippling reality. The kind of heat that works it’s way through your arms, and to your head, where it slowly absorbs the hours of sleep you got before.
It’s the kind of heat that leaves you half heatedly picking at your egg salad.
This town is Leavenworth.
It may actually sound familiar to you.
The town’s population is about three thousand. Any given day, though, the tourist to local ratio is about five to one.
They’ve all flocked from Seattle with their ice cream cones and sunglasses, or from Japan, with their cameras.
“It’s like f***ing candy land.” Said Alex, peering past the glare, into a shop window. “The whole town, like candy land.”
“It’s Bavarian themed.” Said Isaac
“My ass.” Alex caught up with Isaac. The two weaved through families with obnoxious dogs and kids. One freckle faced boy looked at his new toy with wide eyes. “Coowa!!” he said, mouth full of doughnut. It pissed Isaac off way more than it should have.
The street was lined with cute little shops, with fancy Bavarian manikins. The city hired guys to walk around in lederhosens and give kids great big hugs. The road was filled. One person every two square feet was the average. Of course, they always seemed to be the salmon swimming against the crowd.
Alex had gotten ahead of Isaac. Isaac pushed past a few tourists and craned his neck. Alex was arguing with a fat man twice his size.
“Hey,” Isaac got to them, “What’s going on?” The fat guy answered.
“This little s*** ran into me.”
“Oh yeah, that’s what happened, I ran into you, when I wasn’t even moving! Is that what happened?”
“You little…” That fat man’s face was turning crimson, his goatee bristling. He flipped out a cell phone. “I'm gonna call your parents.”
Alex stepped back, melodramatically, then pulled out his phone. “And I’m gonna call yours.”
The man ground his teeth together, and stepped towards Alex. His sunburnt hulk cast a shadow on the boys. He-…
“Randy!!” The fat guy stopped and looked up subsequently deflating like a balloon. His wife walked up. She didn’t even reach her husband’s height even with the six-inch high heels. Oh, and she had green plastic fingernails. How nice.
“Randy, what the hell are you doing?” she stomped at the word hell, leaving a dime sized hole in the pavement. “This does not look like watching the kids to me.” The wife looked around for the closest bystanders and spotted the boys. “Does this look like watching the kids to you, boys?”
Alex crossed his arms and shook his head. “No it certainly does not.”
“I’ve just about had it, Randy!” She grabbed his chin, pulling him down to eye level, then led him off through the crowd.
“What a douche.” Said Isaac, and the two boys kept walking.
There’s a bridge. Forty feet long, forty feet high.
The glacier fed river flowing under it splits in two going either to the right or left around Blackbird Island.
That’s where Isaac and Alex were headed, the Blackbird Bridge.
They were meeting two friends there. The twins, or Jack and Eric.
Earlier Isaac and Alex had sworn they were to jump off that bridge. Both kids were thirteen. They couldn’t turn fourteen, and have not jumped off that bridge. Everyone jumped off that bridge. You were to be disowned if you hadn’t. The more people who saw you jump off, the better, and today was an especially hot day. There was bound to be plenty of people there today.
Alex and Isaac turned a corner. The crowd got thinner and thinner.
The darling little Bavarian shops were replaced by normal shops. Then older shops. Then shops that crumbled behind the boards on the windows. Then no shops. Leafy green trees bent over the now-dirt road.
The boys removed their shoes. You couldn’t show up to the black bird island beach with shoes on. It didn’t matter why, it was just a sort of rule. Something you didn’t do.
Alex spread his toes in the red dirt. The two kept walking, shoes in hand. The road curved sharply down and two the left. The place was drenched in the thick smell of cotton wood. The trees formed a sort of cave overhead. Bits and pieces of sunlight could be found here or there. The road leveled out again and was now more of a trail.
Constant chanting of “jump! Jump! Jump!” drifted through the trees. You couldn’t really tell where it came from, but it got louder as the boys walked further. Then the trees gave way to the silty sand of the Black Bird Beach.
The Chorus of ‘jumps’ suddenly got louder. It came from about three hundred feet up river around a slight corner.
There was a big ass rock in the way, though. Some of the younger kids climbed it, then jumped off. Isaac and Alex used to do that. You had to wade out to the middle of the river to see the bridge. That thing was huge.
The two left their shirts with their shoes in a neat pile on the bank and waded into the river. The chanter’s efforts were finally rewarded when the high schooler clinging to the railing finally leapt out into the air. He plummeted like a rock.
“Gosh,” said Alex, “People fall so fast, don’t they?” Isaac hadn’t been paying attention to Alex; he kept his eyes glued to the structure in front.
Isaac turned back to the beach. Jack and Eric, the twins, came to a stop on their bikes, threw off their helmets, removed their shoes, then ran out to Isaac and Alex.
Isaac was worried. Jack and Eric had shown up to the beach wearing shoes. Well… they were riding bikes. I guess that was an exception.
“You guys just missed a jump.” Said Alex. Jack cursed.
“What was it?” Eric asked.
“Oh, just a jump, but he waved his arms and legs around a little, I’m guessing he’ll get a three.”
The boys listened to the murmurs of the kids on the bridge. They were rating their companion’s jump. One through ten, all jumps were given a number. Finally one high schooler announced “2.5!” to the world.
Two girls in bikinis stepped up to the railing. They swung long legs over the edge, gracefully balancing on the two-inch cement lip on the other side. They leaned out over the edge, with their hands holding on behind them.
The four boys could only hope one of their bras would slide off on impact of the water. “One!” Said the girls, “Two!.. Three!” They leapt off the bridge, passing in front of the sun for a second, then, holding hands, plummeted back towards the earth.
“The girls broke he surface of the water, laughing. They splashed each other as the floated down. While the high schoolers came up with a score, the first guy to jump floated past the boys.
The current carried anyone who jumped back past the big ass rock to the beach, where the jumper would swim out.
“5!” shouted the high schooler. A few of the others clapped.
Someone walked up the side of the bridge. “Who’s that?” asked Jack.
“I don’t know, he’s short though, our height.” A figure stepped uneasily up to the railing. The older kids coaxed him on.
“Wait,” said Isaac, “That’s Jonathon!”
Yes, it was Jonathon.
Jonathon, from their school.
Jonathon, who sat by himself at lunch.
Jonathon, who was about to jump of the bridge before they did.
The railing is three and a half feet high on that bridge. For people barely over four feet, that can pose a difficult challenge. Jonathon peered over the edge. He gripped of the slick railing to steady himself. The chant started once again. “Jump! Jump! Jump!”
Jonathon swung one leg over the railing. Slowly he took the other foot off the cement. His feet hung on either side, nothing to stand on. Isaac was sure he could hear a testicle popping.
His toes grasped for purchase. “He’s tipping! He’s Tipping!” exclaimed one of the high schoolers merrily. Jonathon’s arm shot out to grab… what? There was nothing. All the older kids had stepped back.
He looked right at the four boys. Isaac, Alex, Jack, and Eric. Then he dropped. His body made one, slow, long spin before it splashed and sunk in the river.
All was silent. One of the high schoolers gradually sighed the word “s***.” Jonathon didn’t resurface.
One high schooler threw off his shirt. A few girls immediately forgot about Jonathon at the sight of the high schoolers tanned abs. He soared off the railing, managed to do a front flip, before straightening out into a dive. He slid gracefully into the water.
Again, all was silent. Finally this high schooler came up, hair still perfect, somehow, holding Jonathon in his arms.
He carried the soggy child to the beach, where he set him down. Jonathon’s mother ran up, but the high schooler almost stiff-armed her. “It’s okay, I’m a life guard”
As Mr. Abdominals perfected CPR on Jonathon, the boys stood still in the river.
“Guess I owe you ten dollars, Isaac—…” Said Alex, turning to his friends.
“Twenty.” Corrected Isaac.
“’Cause I ain’t jumping.” Alex nodded once.
“I said I would. I promised. But I am not going to. You promised too, Isaac. Are you gonna?”
Isaac scowled. He turned back to the bridge. “Yeah… whatever.”
The crowd on the beach let out a cheer, as Jonathon coughed up water, and thanked his hero.
Mr. Abdominals stood. “Remember kids, don’t do drugs.”
No, he didn’t actually say that. He helped Jonathon up, turned to his friends, and shouted “Touchdown!”
He was enveloped by teenage girls and fellow jocks. They jogged up the trail back to the bridge.
If the boys didn’t jump today, they never would. As much as Isaac liked it, he knew it was true. They jumped now, or, were socially banished from their peers forever.
“There’s no way.” Said Alex, already realizing the same thing. “I can’t, I… I mean-…”
“I can’t either, but I’m still gonna.” Said Isaac. “And we-…”
“Hey guys.” All four boys turned around.
It was Amy. Curves. Breasts. Oh yeah, and the face too— a nice looking face. She was the hottest girl in school.
“Hey.” Said all four boys back, in unison.
“You guys gonna jump today?” she asked, shrugging one shoulder innocently.
The boys shrugged. “yeah, I dunno, maybe if we have time.”
“Time?” She asked, brow arched. “You guys have been standing there for, like, twenty minutes.”
The boys shrugged, modestly.
“Oh well,” she said, “See ya’ up there.” She ran off up the trail toward the bridge.
“That’s convenient.” Said Alex.
Walking up that trail was the hardest thing Isaac or Alex ever did. Neither Jack or Eric had promised anything. They weren’t going to jump today. “Maybe next year,” they’d say.
Every corner they rounded Isaac was sure he would see the bridge before them; that ginormous bow of concrete and steel cables.
“I feel sick.” Said Alex.
Isaac’s stomach was twisting in knots as well. Sensing danger, the primate may become nauseous, vomiting will make it slightly lighter, giving the crucial edge that keeps this mammal’s genes in the gene pool.
“Déjà vu.” Said Isaac.
“A glitch in the matrix!” Alex cried.
“Haha, but I mean, like, don’t you ever have those dreams, where your trying to get somewhere, but you can’t. Like you’re running through molasses.”
Up ahead, somewhere, the older kids were still deciding on a score to award the lifeguard, who’s voice was very much audible above the other’s. “Please, you’re all too kind, an eight is way too much, that’s more like a seven.”
“So modest!” Alex said in his most ‘bedazzled-schoolgirl’ voice.
Isaac almost wasn’t expecting when they rounded that last corner. Suddenly, there in front of them, was the bridge. All necks turned toward them.
In a small town like Leavenworth, every body knows each other. Even if you’re not friends with them, you’re at least aware if they’ve jumped or not. The kid, Jonathon, who fell earlier, he was a gift to the high schoolers, but the four strips of fresh meat shuffling onto the bridge right then, they were a real treat.
“You kids gonna jump?” asked Mr. Abdominals.
Isaac rolled his eyes. Hopefully, that’d be a sufficient answer. If Isaac didn’t jump, then he never really said he was gonna.
The two walked casually and looked over the edge. It looked a lot further than forty feet. The water ran pretty fast under the bridge. You had to jump right had the highest point of the bridge, where it was deep enough. There was no way to work your way up to it.
Even if you did jump at the beginning of the arch, there’d still be thirty feet of river bank between you, and sharp rocks.
You had to just do it. Do it all at once. You were in control of your body. Not the other way around. If your body said it didn’t want to, that was just too bad, because you said you did.
“You want to go first?” asked Isaac. Alex glared.
Mr. Abdominals started muttering something absent mindedly, “Jump. Jump. Jump. Jump.” Isaac shrugged at Alex. No biggie.
Others started the chant. It grew till it was deafening. Alex mouthed something to Isaac, who shrugged again. Then, Alex turned to the railing. He put a hand on the metal, then drew it back with uncertainty.
“It’s all slippery,” he said to Isaac, under he chant.
“What did you expect?”
People swam, then, out of peer pressure, or to prove something to themselves, they jumped off the bridge. Their shorts were still probably wet. The railing was slippery.
Alex’s heartbeat was in his stomach. A little puke rose up in his throat, but it was swallowed right away.
He gripped the railing. Both hands. And slowly he swung one leg onto the metal. He gave Isaac a little nod—it was nice knowing you.
Alex brought the other leg up, and froze. Not now, thought Isaac not now! Some high schooler shrieked, “He’s tipping! He’s tipping!” The others watched with the cruel anticipation of a NASCAR fan. But, (Hooray!) Alex swung his other leg over the rail, and landed on the cement lip.
He turned away from the crowd, hands behind, hanging over the cold water. He spit. The saliva fell, and the wind actually shifted around a little before it hit. “Five seconds.” Alex said. Five seconds is all it takes. Five seconds from the moment I let go. To the moment I hit.” Then he counted slowly from one to five.
The chant had died down. Wind tugged on the leaves of the trees. All was silent. Then a leaf blew by, and hung in the air in front of him. It slowly drifted down, swirling here, dropping there, rising back up, then sauntering side to side a bit lower. Alex’s eyes followed it down. Finally, after about a minute, it landed softly in the water. Alex burst into tears.
“I can’t do it!”
Isaac stepped back. The high schoolers had never seen such a thing. Sure, they had all thought about it, had all wanted to do it, but never actually considered it. In fact, kind of a relief swept through the crowd. An actual sigh, let out, to know that the bar had been lowered. It let them know that they were not the only ones nearly pissing their pants every time they hung over that edge.
Then one of them shouted “Wimp!” and that broke the spell. A jumble of insults and profanity filled the air with an unpleasant buzz. Alex, eyes downcast, began to climb back over. He stopped, meeting Isaac’s eyes for a moment, and looked back own.
“Alex.” Said Isaac. “I’m sorry.” Alex kind of shrugged, trying to get his leg back over the railing. “No,” Isaac said, “I’m sorry, for… this.” He stopped.
Isaac took a step forward. Alex stood. Isaac took another step. The high schoolers had shut up, watching. One took out a phone. Straight to YouTube.
Isaac brought his arm back. Alex shook his head. Isaac brought his hand forward, toward Alex, swiftly. Isaac’s hand impacted Alex’s shoulder. Alex’s center of gravity shifted off from his feet, and out into the open air. Alex grabbed Isaac’s out stretched arm. Alex’s momentum was transferred to Isaac, pulling him up and over the railing.
Alex’s velocity down combine with Isaac’s velocity up and forward gave the two circular momentum. They both fell, spinning.
Isaac couldn’t believe what had happened. He’d done his friend a favor, and his friend had done him one. Time protracted to about twenty percent.
They hung over the river. Slowly, the world shifted like the night sky until the bridge sat up-side-down, before them. Then the sky was overhead. then the river, again.
This happened again. however, this time, the bridge was a little farther away, and the river a bit closer.
They past a leaf, just sitting on the air. Alex’s splayed fingers brushed right past it.
It took five seconds.
Alex hit the water on his back. Isaac hit the water on his stomach. Both sunk.
Isaac opened his eyes. He was under water. He started swimming up, but there was something covering the surface of the water. He couldn’t push past. And there was an eerie glow coming from below. He saw that the river bed was covered in what looked like glass. Rippling glass. Isaac swam down. It was hard though; he had to push off the surface. Isaac pressed his hand against the rippling glass, and his hand went through, like some sort of force field.
He stuck his head through, and gulped in air.
The “surface” had actually been the bottom, and… Oh! Now it made much more sense. Perhaps Alex had made the same mistake because he was nowhere to be seen.
Isaac drifted away from the bridge. He could hear the high schoolers discussing whether the boy’s stunt had been on purpose.
The water broke in front of Isaac, and Alex popped up, sucking pounds of oxygen into his lungs. Alex spotted Isaac, and his face contorted in anger and hatred. He was about to yell something when Isaac high-fived Alex’s open hand. Isaac then turned to the bridge.
“Top that, b****es!”