Bryan S. Wang
Vinnie instructed us to undress. “The little wimps are going for a swim!” he shouted. His gang was gathered down along the bank at the base of the waterfall. One of the bigger boys let out a whoop and yelled back up, Throw the losers over!
From the outcrop on which we stood, it was nearly a thirty-foot drop to the water. The pool below was deep enough — teenagers had once jumped from this ledge as a rite of passage — but this knowledge provided little comfort. In those depths, I imagined, a boy could inadvertently slip into someplace dark and sinister, a place from which there was no certain return. The river rushed along beside us and over the precipice in a torrent, its passage down the falls a reminder of the tremendous and inescapable forces that nature can impose.
I stole a glance at Squid. In that moment, with Vinnie all strut and swagger and his boys howling and jeering in anticipation of our plunge, we might have broken free. Squid and I might have overpowered Vinnie, wrestled him off the edge, watched in satisfaction as he tumbled, cursing and flailing, before disappearing into the water. We might have scrambled back up to the trail and fled while the others looked on, dumbfounded.
“Let’s go girls,” Vinnie said. Squid looked away.
“Don’t show him you’re afraid,” I whispered to Squid. “You’ve got to earn his respect.” With a composure that I never displayed in gym class, I yanked off my T-shirt.
Squid ignored me, whimpering as he untied his shoes. “Please don’t make me,” he said. “Please don’t.”
By the time we finished undressing, Squid was near tears. “He made me do it,” Squid said, his voice hoarse and seizing. I muttered for him to shut up.
Vinnie smiled and took Squid by the arm. “My first victim.”
Vinnie’s posse raised a cheer: Squid! Squid! Squid! Squid!
Squid was sobbing now, his arms wrapped around his torso, his lips quivering as if faltering over a desperate prayer.
Squid! Squid! Squid! Squid!
Vinnie led him forward. “Let’s watch this fairy fly,” Vinnie said. He backed away and crossed his arms.
Squid trembled, his naked frame slight and fragile. “I can’t,” he wailed.
The cheers petered out. Get on with it! they yelled. Give him a hand!
Squid wheeled. “I don’t know how to swim!”
After a pause, Vinnie shrugged and said, “I guess it’s time for a lesson.” He looked back, regarding me with a snarly expression.
Predators prey. The strong survive. Vinnie would humiliate Squid, terrorize him, injure him. And then it would be my turn. To Vinnie, Squid and I were the same — cowardly, feeble, and pathetic. Throw the losers over.
I broke for the ledge. Vinnie turned and lunged for me, but I barreled on. I hurtled past him and Squid and, thrusting my knees into my chest, leapt from the rock. Somersaulting furiously, I descended, demonstrating that I was not at all like Squid, that I did not deserve his treatment, that I was worthy of respect and power — and whether it was luck or instinct or the hand of God that guided me, my body unfurled at just the right instant, and I entered the water hands first.
I sank deep into the pool, the water cold and black and pressing into my ears and tightening around my skull and my chest. Still I did not touch bottom. Around me floated the spirits of those who in years past had braved the same fall as they established their manhood. Buoyed by the realization that this dive would enlarge and strengthen and define me as it had so many others, I began to rise.
When I surfaced, Vinnie’s gang was waiting, silent and impassive. My exhilaration dissipated. I glanced at the shore opposite us, where a high cliff, too steep to climb and extending downstream as far as I could see, prevented any possibility of escape.
Then from above, like a verdict delivered from the highest judge in the land, Vinnie’s voice cut through the silence.
“Damn, Radbil,” he called. “That was glorious.” He clapped and told me to come up and join him.
I swam to the bank, reaching the side in a few swift strokes. The boys drew back as I climbed from the water. I averted my gaze as if it were they who were unclothed. I clambered up to Vinnie.
“Freakin’ amazing,” Vinnie said. “And I wasn’t even going to make you jump.”
I tried not to smile as I dried off with my T-shirt. I pulled on my undershorts and trousers. Squid gazed at me, and when he spoke, his voice was soft and steady.
“Raddy’s the one threw rocks at you, Vinnie.”
Vinnie turned, and Squid pointed at me. “Up at the bridge. He did it. I didn’t throw nothing at you, Vinnie. Raddy’s the one threw rocks.”
I started to shake my head, but Vinnie only grinned. “You need to work on your aim, Rad-Man,” he said.
He looked at Squid again. “We’re still waiting for your dive, you little turd.”
Squid did not say anything more. He turned away from us and squatted, his knees nearly to the ground. He stared at the water streaming over the drop-off. He might simply have been observing the river’s course and the way it navigated the fall, its steady flow, constant and inevitable. Or perhaps he was summoning his guardian angel, to rescue him, or grant him the courage to step out of character and perform something unexpected, something miraculous. Maybe he was stalling. In the way he was folded over, curling up inside himself, he resembled a sow bug that had been poked, a helpless and inconsequential creature to be squashed and disposed of.
I charged forward and gave Squid a good, hard push.
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About the Author
Bryan S. Wang
Bryan S. Wang resides in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, where he unabashedly wears the pleasant if clichéd trappings of a quiet and comfortable small-town life — a loving, supportive wife; two adorable children; a pretty house with a garage and a yard; a close-knit community that boasts tree-lined boulevards, a stately library, and caring and generous people. In retrospect, his childhood, spent in the outskirts of the outskirts of Philadelphia, wasn’t so bad either. His fiction has most recently appeared in jmww and Vestal Review and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and selected as a notable story for the storySouth Million Writers Award.
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Copyright © 2009, Bryan S. Wang. All Rights Reserved.