NO DIVING IN THE DEEP WATER
NO DIVING IN THE DEEP WATER.
The letters were peeling. The sign was rotting, tilted so far to one side that one solid kick would probably topple it over. We joked about it, even took a few heady, experimental swings at it, but no one went so far as to actually physically touch it. It wasn’t because we were afraid of some sort of severe punishment for destruction of government property or vandalism or trespassing. It was because there was something vaguely religious about the Deep Water, and so even the sad rotting titled sign was something of an altar.
Let me clarify: we didn’t regard the Deep Water as divinely inspired- if anything, it was probably the mouth of hell, and not even the intense Hell promised by late night TV and spittle-drenched preachers- but lowercase hell. A more muted agony. As far as I was concerned, fourteen and vaguely agnostic but half-convinced I couldn’t die, hell was far more common than Hell. hell was parking lots late at night and the radio warbling after I’d shut it off and the rattle of trains going by at night and finding the burned out clearing full of half-buried glass bottles and shredded newspapers.
NO DIVING IN THE DEEP WATER, the sign told us and our parents told us and the school told us at a yearly assembly in the gym where we sweated onto the bleachers and paid more attention to a lone balloon caught up in the rafters, half-deflated. NO DIVING IN THE DEEP WATER, we repeated in between class and in class, arching eyebrows and doing our best impersonation of whatever adult had said it most officiously: “Remember kids, stay in school, don’t do drugs, and no diving in the Deep Water!” We learned to chorus it gleefully like the kids in horror movies who are all glossy-eyed and pale skinned and happily possessed, heaving up an ax or brandishing a knife.
If someone was absent: “Guess the Deep water got her.”
If someone was sick: “Young man, have you been diving?”
If someone was upset: “Go deep yourself!”
The adults seemed vaguely satisfied that we were policing ourselves, if only because we found it so hilarious. But you could find the stilted manic expression of a martyr in a stained glass window hilarious, and still restrain yourself during church, beyond a few snickers and eye rolls when you got swatted with a bulletin. It was religious, yes, but only to a certain point. We wanted to poke around in it, if not take the plunge. We at least wanted the feeling of doing something foul, something slightly fucked up, without actually doing anything wrong. There was no punishment for diving in the Deep Water. The act itself was supposed to be punishment enough, like touching a hot stove.
“It’s cursed,” Hailey Todd explained patiently, “Because they used to throw people in it instead of hanging them.”
“What if they could swim?” I shifted from foot to foot and wished she’d get on with scanning the bar code on my ice cream, because it was gonna melt and I was pretty sure her electric yellow nail polish was generating heat.
She sighed elaborately, like I couldn’t possibly comprehend the reality of the nineteenth century and swimming, or the lack thereof, and handed me the ice cream as I shoveled pocket change at her.
“Hailey Todd told you what?” Quentin Acosta spluttered. “Yeah fuckin’ right! They didn’t sacrifice people, alright? What the fuck! People kept drowning in it! She’s so full of shit. Jesus…”
“I’m just… I need…” I gestured at the vending machine he was hovering in front of, still outraged at the mere notion of Hailey Todd knowing anything. Quentin had taken off his sweatshirt, he was so upset. He balled it up in his hands and stepped out of the way, still muttering to himself.
“I’m diving in it,” Danny told me, while we surveyed the sign, the road, the lack of traction on our bikes.
“Mhm, sure,” Shania drawled. “I bet.”
“Fuck you,” Danny said, good-naturedly. “I’m doing it.”
“You won’t,” called back Roman, who’d ditched the bike and was already half-way up the first slope, freckles on the back of his legs wavering as he reached the crest. Roman sounded certain. Roman sounded certain at all times, which was why we all resented him at least a little bit. Or maybe I was just projecting. I hated him at least a little bit. Roman said things, and they were true. He made statements. His opinions were factually-based. He’d never been wrong in his life. He raised his hand only after you’d gotten the question wrong. He asked out girls he thought were less attractive than him because he knew they’d say yes.
From that moment onwards I knew Danny was going to dive, whether or not I had to throw him in myself or not. It was going to happen, if only so I could see the look on Roman’s face.
“Huh,” I’d say. “Guess he really did it.”
Roman would eat shit and die. I would watch him. The sky would split open, God would descend, and Roman would eat shit and die.
Danny was diving.
I gave him a meaningful look, which passed over him like every object ever thrown his way. Danny was a flincher, a ducker, a dodger, a soft-spoken, easily provoken, tangible jumble of nerves. However. However. When pushed Danny transformed from a ragdoll of a human child of fourteen into a sociopath whose only goal was to end the pusher. Danny would back away from a fight, hands up, sheepish, placating grin in place, gap between his front teeth prominent, until a hit actually landed on him. Then he ceased acting like a fourteen year old boy and became something that probably should be put down instead.
He was not backing away from this. If I had to socially engineer a scenario in which Danny felt he had no choice but to dive, so be it. I was great at manipulating people. My mom said that was why I never got in trouble, because I was a cowardly little piece of shit who projected my own shortcomings onto others and let them take the fall for my mistakes, just like my father. Well, she said the first part, I finished the rest for her. I was a happy coward, a joyous schemer. It made me feel needed. Someone had to be the friend who was just barely tolerated because when confronted on their passive aggressive remarks they wilted like a sheet hung out to dry.
We’d reached the top, bikes forgotten. Shania was giddy, probably because she knew a fight was imminent, whether Danny dove or not. Shania liked to imagine our fights were in some way designed to impress on her that at least one of us was somewhat approaching would could maybe be called a man. Did we care what Shania thought? Collectively, no. We just wanted to fight, and if a girl wanted to watch us fight, great. Someone had to commentate during it. Individually, probably. I personally wanted her to see me prove that Roman could, in fact, be wrong about something.
There was another sign. DEEP WATER BELOW.
There was no wind. Never a good sign here. The dirt felt soft and crumbly, like the whole bluff might suddenly collapse into the dark corner of the lake below. A frog croaked nearby. Several crows flew away, cawing in irritation. Danny was pulling off his shirt, and then fumbled with his jeans. Shania grinned. Roman adopted an expression that was typical of him, one of annoyed bemusement, the way a parent looks at a child that is not theirs or a child they wish was not theirs.
“I’m doing it,” Danny insisted. I had no idea what he had set out to prove today, and I didn’t care. I felt good. Really good. I felt like this was the pinnacle of our summer, this dive. Danny was going to do it, I was going to profit off of his sudden case of growing a pair, Roman was going to eat shit and die. Shania was going to… well, I didn’t know because she’d only moved here two months ago and I was a little scared that if Danny dove she’d jump after him, mistaking this for some lighthearted teenage fun. It was. Sort of. I didn’t know, at this point.
hell waits, I thought happily. The water looked nearly black and very glossy. And utterly still.
Danny strode towards the edge, fists shaking at his sides.
Roman seemed to realize it before any of us. “Don’t.” It started off in a commanding snap, the voice he used when he decided he’d had enough of pretending to be our equal, but it ended in a faint mutter. The Deep Water swallowed it up. My ears were ringing. I thought about Hailey Todd and criminals tumbling down in rags and Quentin Acosta and the bloated bodies of dead drowned kids. Danny had very little ground to cover now.
I didn’t feel fear, I felt sick. I felt the way you feel right after vomiting, hot and shaky and convinced something terrible is about happen. Again. I considered that my poking and prodding all the way up the hill was going to remove Danny from existence. Not kill him. Delete him. He was going to cease to be Danny, he was going to be a hole in space, he was going to-
Danny wavered on the edge and started to turn back, an odd look on his face. Weary. “I-,”
There was wind. Shania wrapped her arms around herself and crouched low to the ground with a squeal. It would have been funny. But there was wind where there hadn’t been any, no build-up, just- still air-wind- I felt my toes curl in my sneakers, Roman gasped, and Danny didn’t dive. He didn’t have to, because the wind plucked him from the edge, and the Deep Water came surging up to meet him.
“Huh,” I said when I could breathe, when the Deep Water had retreated, when the wind was gone, when Roman stopped retching on nothing, when Shania uncurled herself. I didn’t say anything else after that. I could hear the Deep Water lapping contentedly at the base of the cliff. The crows hesitantly returned to their roost. The frog had never stopped croaking.