Thanks again to the folks at Chilling Tales for Dark Nights for another top quality production using one of my stories.
“It’s salty,” little Tommy said, cupping some of the water in the palm of his hand.
“Of course it is son,” I chuckled. “You know the ocean’s salty.”
“Too salty!” He exclaimed, and flung the offending liquid onto the sand. I came over and knelt down, leaving my paperback on the beach chair.
“Daddy! Ouchie! It burns!” I could see tears forming in his eyes.
“It’s okay, son.” I took his little hand and felt the wetness of the ocean water on my fingers. It was warm, and tingled. The tingling increased and the warmth turned to a heat. He was right, it did burn…
Tommy began to cry.
And then, from down the beach, I heard a scream.
“OH MY GOD!!!”
I stood and squinted through the bright sun reflecting off the sand. The scream was joined by others from all around me and I could feel the terror of everyone on the beach becoming one rising wave of panic.
I saw a young girl run in with the surf, screaming, her tanned skin melting over her bikini. A fat man in a speedo ran in the water and fell. When his arms came up they were bone to the elbow, with great flaps of dissolving skin hanging like cloth. A young man pulled his tiny daughter in by the arms, dragging behind her the stumps that had been her legs.
I watched them come in, running, thrashing, falling, all of their skin melting from their horrified faces and revealing the white bone beneath.
Tommy was crying. From high above, the sun beat down on the beautiful white sand of the beach.
“Come on you pansy! Jump! Jump!” Mikey yelled up from next to me. The water was cold and the only thing keeping me warm was treading water and the adrenaline from my taking the plunge mere moments ago.
“Come on Jeffy! Don’t be a pussy!” Jenny shouted next, from her place up on some of the other rocks. We all laughed and giggled self-consciously at her crude taunt. I heard Genevieve Saunders gasp.
Jeffy looked scared, and I didn’t blame him. Dead Man’s Drop had its name for a reason – it was a sheer wall of granite straight down to the dark quarry waters below. I remember the first time I jumped, four summers ago. It took me hours of watching the others plummet into the murky pool, and another half hour up on the ledge, before I had worked up the courage to jump.
No one had could ever quite agree exactly how high The Drop was; most of the others kids at school it was about forty feet. Mikey told me he thought it was fifty, maybe even more. The only thought I had when I stared at that dark rock wall, cracked and marred in places by tiny streamlets of water finding their way home to the pool at the bottom, was that it was high.
I measured the drop in seconds. Those seconds after that first time I closed my eyes and jumped and felt gravity do its work. Those seconds I prayed would not be my last, while I felt the cold spring air whoosh by me until I felt the bottoms of my feet slap the water’s surface hard, and the kersplash of the invigorating cold waters of the dark quarry pool.
One one-thousand. Two one-thousand. Three one-thousand. Four one-thou….
“Come Jeffy jump!” I yelled through my shivering.
“Awww, he’s not gonna jump,” Fat Tommy said from across the water. “He’s chicken.”
Before I’d thought Jeffy looked scared, but now I was worried because he didn’t look really scared, only a little. I knew from two summers ago that it was better for somebody to be really scared than just a little scared… what’s the word? Timid.
The new kids who were really scared, they never jumped. They’d watch the rest of us hoot and holler and plunge over the side, but they’d never work up to the courage to do the same. They could stand on the edge of Dead Man’s Drop for a bloody century and they’d never feel any better about throwing themselves over, they’d only feel worse, and then would climb back down amidst taunts of scaredy-cat scaredy-cat.
What was worse were the kids who were just a little scared, the kids who looked like Jeffy Combs did right now, his awkward pale little body with his gangly little chicken legs standing near the rock wall’s edge, with his thin face peering over. The kids who were only a little scared were the ones who’d hurt themselves. They’d jump and then change their mind in midair and go into the water with their mouth open, or land all funny, or not make it far enough out.
That’s what’d happened to Jimmy from Ms. Franklin’s class two summers ago when he broke his foot on the rocks, and what Dad told me happened fifteen years ago. A blonde boy from out of state had cracked his head, and then all the police came and then nobody snuck into the quarry for quite some years. But they came back. No one can keep us thrill-seekers away from The Drop for long, and people’s memories in a small town are short.
“Come on Jeffy, you fag!” Tommy yelled.
I saw Mikey looking up in anticipation, a big grin on his face. Now I wished I hadn’t said anything. Jeffy was a gangly like nervous kid and I was worried now that he was going to be one of those we’d heard about. One of the ones who was scared but not quite scared enough. One of the timid ones.
Or maybe not. I watched Jeffy adjust his glasses, take a few steps back, run, and jump.
Genevieve Saunders screamed.
He cleared the wall, but he didn’t jump out far enough, and we all knew it. Those four seconds when Jeffy fell were the longest I could remember since I first jumped and we all waited holding our breaths to see his pale little body go splat on those rocks that broke Jimmy’s foot two summers ago, right at The Drop’s bottom.
One one-thousand. Two one-thousand. Three-one thousand. Four-
But he made it after all. Kersplash, into quarry depths. All the girls up on the rocks yelled and the all the boys and I cheered and hollered despite ourselves, and how much of a little wiener we all knew Jeffy to be. I even heard some of the guys up at the top clapping.
One one-thousand. Two one-thousand. Three-one thousand. Four-
“Oh my god!” Jenny’s scream broke the spell of our excitement. Suddenly the quarry air was depleted of our youthful energy and felt desolate and cold. The only sound was the hiss of tiny bubbles coming up from where he’d gone in.
“Somebody! Do something!” There was fear underneath the words, and tears behind, waiting to come out.
From deep inside something took ahold of me, something I didn’t understand and had never felt before, and I swam toward the rock wall with all I had. I reached the churning circle of bubbles, took a deep breath, and dove. I feared the worst.
The quarry water was brown and stung my eyes, but I had to keep them open to find him. It was dark and I knew the water was deep here, probably twenty feet or more, but I had to look.
I pulled myself down, deeper and deeper into the icy cold depths. Pressure built on my chest and I could feel the pain of the water pushing against my eardrums intensifying with every foot lower I went.
I saw him. Through the brown haze was the bleached white skin of Jeffy right near what I reckoned must have been the bottom. My lungs were burning now and I had to act fast – I had to grab him and go or we’d both drown.
I swam closer and saw he wasn’t unconscious and laid out on the quarry bottom or doing the Dead Man’s Float like I would’ve thought. Jeffy was upright, just like how he’d entered the water, just like how all us kids entered the water – that’s why it’s called tombstoning.
As I came near enough to grab him, I saw the image that would mar my childhood and haunt the deepest darkest waters of my nightmares for years to come. I cried out and the sound of my horror was muffled in a cloud of bubbles. Through the murk I saw the mouth of Jeff’s pale body still open in his last silent scream, and in it the end of the rebar rod which had speared him.