Cast of Wonders 199: Leapling
Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
by Nicole Feldringer
My brother, Jack, parks his beater at the beach lot. Beyond the windshield, dune grass blocks my view of the Gulf, and I shift in my seat. My thighs and shoulders are slick with sweat against the cracked vinyl. Jack turns off the car and sets the e-brake.
“You going to go to this thing or not?” His voice is gentle. If I asked, he would turn the car around and take me home. No, not home. To our new house, still scattered with unopened boxes on account of Mom’s insane hours at the Department of Transportation.
“I’m going.” I feel like I am standing on the verge of a back dive, a clear blue pool beneath me. The board, rough against my toes as I test the weight in my heels. “Any tips?”
We get out of the car together. I didn’t expect to like Florida, and turns out I was right. Seattle traffic needed Mom’s expertise, I had argued, and Aunt Sue chimed in on my side. But Aunt Sue’s all about prophesies and fate, and it’s hard to know when to ignore her or take her seriously.
I head for the beach-access path, and Jack loiters in the parking lot. I crest the high point, my feet sinking ankle-deep into the sand, and trudge down the other side. One of my flip-flops falls off. Irritated, I snatch it up and walk the rest of the way barefoot. The sand is annoyingly perfect and sugary. Sand should be golden and filled with nuggets of charred bonfire-wood that turn your feet black and stain the carpet.
My eyes scan the beach, looking for any familiar face. The only kids I’m sort of friendly with are on the diving team, and they’re the ones who invited me to the end-of-summer bash. Sort of invited me. They asked if I was planning to come, which is like an invite, I guess.
“Hey Hannah!” someone calls, all long vowels and extra syllables.
I turn. It’s Amy, one of my teammates. I eye her pink tank top, bikini strap peeking from the neckline, and white shorts. She is tan is a way that Seattlites don’t bother aspiring to.
I don’t talk right. I don’t wear the right, cookie-cutter clothes. My gaze strays to the Gulf. And there’s no way in hell I’m getting in that. You never know what’s coming to get you in open water. I’ll stick with swimming pools, thank you very much.
I spot Jack up-beach with a bunch of boys I don’t know. They’re goofing off, taking running leaps from the dune tops. I frown. The dunes are off-limits, except for the beach access paths, to prevent erosion. I nudge Amy. “Do you know those boys my brother’s with?”
She shades her eyes with a hand and purses her lips. “That’s your brother?” After a moment, she adds, “Well, his friends are shady. They’re probably in a gang or something, always skipping school to drink at the beach.”
Jack’s shirt whips like a sail, and he slugs one of the other boys in the shoulder. I feel a pang. He’s always been one to make friends easily.
Amy’s attention shifts away from the boys. “You want to go swimming?”
I burrow my toes deeper into the sand. “I’ll stay here. I don’t like the ocean.”
The look she gives me says I am lamer than lame.
“Did you know the venom of box jellyfish is so toxic that human victims drown before they can swim to shore?” I laugh, too loud. The water stretches, blue-green where it should be grey, as far as I can see. Out of the corner of my eye, the high expressway bridge breaks the monotony.
“That’s ridiculous,” Amy says.
I want to kick myself but I don’t know how to back out of the conversation. I admit reluctantly, “My aunt Sue … she’s into the occult … She read my palm on my third birthday, then made me watch every horror movie that takes place in or on the water. Freaked me out enough that I still don’t want to risk it.” Mom didn’t talk to her sister for weeks after that fight, but Aunt Sue claimed it was for my own good.
Amy is horrified. “Your third birthday?”
“I’m a leapling,” I rush to explain. My mouth is running on nerves now. “Born on February 29. So I’ve only had three real birthdays. My mom celebrates every year, of course, on the 28th.” I trail off. It sounded more quirky and mysterious-in-a-good-way in my head.
“Uh huh.” Amy’s not looking at me anymore. “I’m going to go swimming now. Have fun.” She dashes toward the tide line. Eager to get away from my weird company. Great.
I shove my hands in my pockets, hoping another girl from the dive team will come talk to me.
The beach scene is mostly kids my own age, and I wonder if the kids all go to my school. Nearby, they cluster around an mp3 player with tinny mini-speakers. Down in the surf, girls ride boys’ shoulders and splash each other. A volleyball hammers the sand at my feet, and a boy makes an elaborate, last-ditch dive, spraying a wave of sand in my face.
Screw them. I take off in the direction Jack was heading in. Jack at least will be happy to hang out with me. Maybe his new friends are cool. Back in Seattle, we shared friends even though he was a year ahead of me.
I trudge into the wind, walking a high line on the beach. I know it’s easier going down where the sand is damp, but I don’t like the way the waves suck the ground from beneath your feet. The strip of sand narrows like an arrow, and the shrieks of laughter fade behind me.
The beach ends at a rocky finger pointing into the Gulf. There’s no way I’m climbing over that. Riptides are strongest near jetties. I’m about to give up and wait for Jack at the car, when low voices on the sea breeze reach my ear.
I wind my way through the dunes, following voices and the distinctive snap-pop of an illegal bonfire. The dune grass lashes my ankles, raising red angry welts on my skin.
Jack and three other boys sit on pieces of driftwood scattered around the bonfire. Empty liquor bottles and spent joints litter the camp. Blue candles spill volcanic islands of wax in the sand. Amongst all the debris, the boys do not notice me.
I hesitate. I’m not sure I want to approach Jack if he’s drunk or high. And I sure as hell don’t want him driving me home. I can’t wait till I get my license.
I dither in the shadow of the dunes.
“Are you sure we should be doing this?” Jack slurred.
The other boys laugh and nudge him toward the bonfire.
“It’s no big deal,” one says. “It’s just a game.”
I squint at the piece of paper in Jack’s hands. It bears a hand-drawn symbol in red paint. Stick-like lines remind me vaguely of a double helix. I have no idea what it means. I expect my brother to burn the paper, but he doesn’t. He clutches it to his chest and I can see his lips move. The other boys have gone silent. Reverent.
The wind turns, wafting cheap incense in my direction. I wrinkle my nose, desperate to hold in a sneeze. The fire is smoky, the wood, wet.
Jack closes his eyes. A hand forms of smoke. Then, maybe ten feet off the ground, the head of a fox looms over my brother.
I recoil in horror. Just a game my ass. Jack wouldn’t … I swallow as Jack’s knees thud to the sand. He shuffles forward like he’s trying to crawl into the bonfire. The smoke flows to meet him.
I tense on the balls of my feet, about to leap forward and haul Jack back, when one of Jack’s friends turns his head and looks in my direction. I freeze. His eyes are black all the way through. He doesn’t do anything so gauche as to grin. But he’s watching me, I know it. He tips his head to the side like a gull eyeing a sandwich crust.
I try to run away then, but at most manage to lurch out of the dunes. I power walk back to the beach party, glancing over my shoulder to make sure no one is following. It was nothing, I tell myself, chafing the goosebumps out of my skin. Just a wet bonfire and assholes with contact lenses.
It’s almost October, though you wouldn’t know it from the weather. I shove my key in the door knob. It’s already unlocked. Mom must be home early then, since Jack certainly won’t be.
I scowl as I wrench the door open and swing my loaded messenger bag across the foyer. It hits the tile floor with the solid thunk of books and comes to a sliding stop in front of the hall closet. Mom sticks her head around the corner from the kitchen. To her credit, she doesn’t say anything about the racket.
“You’re home early,” I say. She’s put out chips and salsa, and I hop on the bar stool, shoving a salsa-laden chip in my mouth. Spicy. Good.
“How was school?” Mom asks.
My chewing slows, to give me plenty of time before I have to answer. How is school? In the couple of weeks since the beach party, it’s gotten around that I’m a complete weirdo who talks about her crazy aunt and her crazy birthday, then disappears for most of the party only to reappear demanding a ride home. Oh, and my brother is in a freaky gang. Basically the only people who talk to me are my teachers and diving coach.
“It’s peachy,” I say. I don’t know if she believes me. I shove another chip in my mouth. The salt burns my tongue.
“I have to go back into work tonight.” Her curly brown hair is disheveled and her eyes look tired.
“Didn’t you already work today?”
She smiles. “It was a short shift. Abe’s out sick, and they need someone to switch the gates and check for breakdowns on the expressway reversible lanes.” Those reversible lanes are how DOT lured in Mom, after she did such a good job of reducing rush-hour traffic on I-5 and I-90.
“That sucks. Do you want me to make pizza?”
“Half pepperoni. I’ll put on the dough.”
Mom’s cell rings as I’m pulling the flour canister out of the cupboard.
She answers it. She wears an expression I’ve never seen before, like she’s been waiting her whole life for the other shoe to drop and here it is. I push the flour back onto the shelf.
“I’ll be there in half an hour,” she says.
“What’s up?” I ask when she hangs up the phone.
She won’t meet my eyes. “Your brother has been picked up for underage drinking. He’s being held at city jail.”
I snort. It’s lucky that’s all he’s been picked up for. It could have been, oh I don’t know, a demonic ritual or something. I’ve tormented myself for not jumping between him and the fire, for not stopping him from doing something crazy. For being scared. I’ve relived that moment a thousand times, and it still pisses me off. I still piss me off.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mom asks.
“I didn’t say anything.”
She squints at me. “You snorted.”
“I’m not surprised, is all. Jack’s been hung over every morning this week.” Normally I wouldn’t rat him out, but it’s the smallest crime he could be caught out for, and Mom needs to know something is up.
“Your brother, Jack?” Mom is rightfully dubious. Jack may not be a straight A student, but he’s always had a head on his shoulders. He could have gotten into so much trouble in Seattle, if he’d been so inclined.
I shrug. “Florida sucks,” I say, then regret it immediately when her shoulders slump. It’s so hard to manage parental feelings but dammit Florida does suck. I mean, I’m happy for Mom about her promotion. But that’s about it.
“Let me call my boss, get a replacement for my shift.” She goes into the office so I can’t listen in on her conversation.
When she comes back to the kitchen, I say, “I thought you were the replacement.”
“I was.” Her mouth is tight. “They’ll have to call the next person on the list.” Her car keys make a scraping sound as she drags them across the counter. “Come on, let’s go.”
My stomach drops. I do not want to get in that car. I also can’t abandon her to do this by herself.
She shoos me out the front door, and I get in the car.
The ride is miserable. Mom’s hands are clenched tight around the steering wheel at a respectable ten and two, and she’s leaning so far forward I think her forehead is going to smack the windshield. There’s nothing I can say that will cheer her up or get her to relax. The only silver lining is that Jack has been busted and now Mom and the authorities will fix things. Somehow. Maybe.
Mom lets me wait in the car in the police station parking lot. I turn on my iPod, but I don’t hear the music.
When Jack follows her out of the jail, I almost don’t recognize him. His shoulders are stooped and he scuttles from car shadow to car shadow. He crawls into the back seat. I turn to gape at him. His bloodshot eyes stare back at me, and I quickly face forward. Through the front windshield, traffic blurs by on the highway. My neck crawls. I remind myself it’s just my brother in the backseat. Just Jack.
A drunk Jack, I correct, as he fumbles and curses at his seat belt buckle. Mom slams the car door behind him, shutting him in with me.
He surges forward to grab my shoulder, his sour breath hot on my cheek. “It would be worse if I were sober, you know. The thing inside me can take control then.” He giggles, unnervingly. “I’m pickling my demons.”
I sniff, trying to hide my fear, and then Mom is back in the car. Jack falls back and stares out the window.
The car ride is tensely silent, but back home they get into it immediately. It starts with “What the hell where you thinking, Jack?” and goes downhill from there.
I slink off to my bedroom but I can still hear their shouts. Mostly it’s Mom yelling, with pauses in between that could be Jack mumbling back at her. I can’t hear what he’s saying. But her threat is loud and clear: boarding school if he doesn’t shape up.
I open my closet door and crawl beneath the clothes into the corner. Dresses that I never wear brush my face. I’m too big for hiding, I know, but it’s quieter in here. The screen of my phone glows blue, and I dial Aunt Sue’s number. Jack is my brother and my only friend in Florida, even though he kind of sucks right now. He can’t leave me. Something jabs my hip and I extract a boot. I toss it out the closet door, and it rebounds off my bed frame.
Aunt Sue picks up on the second ring. “Hey toots,” she says. “I’m glad you called. I have a brownie problem and need your advice. I promised to bring something to the neighborhood potluck this time.”
My aunt knows I’m a whiz at baking, whereas she can barely feed herself. It’s too this-world for her, I think.
My voice is shaky. The tears haven’t fallen yet, but they could at any minute. “I need your advice more.”
Mom’s raised voice again. “You’re almost 18! You’re lucky you’re still a minor.”
“Shoot.” Aunt Sue is serious and focused on me, and I love her for it.
“It’s Jack.” I snivel a bit. Embarrassing. “The cops picked him up tonight for underage drinking, and Mom is flipping out. The thing is, I don’t think it’s just about alcohol. I caught Jack the other day performing some sort of … ritual.” I can barely make myself say the words. He tried to reach out to me in the car, sort of. I should have asked how I could help and not been such a brat of a sister.
I’ve sparked her curiosity now. The brownies are doomed. “Make sure the oven is turned off, okay?”
A pause as I imagine her crossing the kitchen. “Done. Now, what is this about rituals?”
I tell her about everything that happened down at the beach.
“Well if you had read the books I sent home with you …” Aunt Sue’s always tried to sell me on the occult. Mom thought she was harmless, and I followed suit, brushing her off as my crazy but lovable aunt. And now the tables have turned and I need her. I’m not immune to the irony.
I cut her off. “Yes, leapling. Auspicious birthday. Got it. But Jack?”
She makes me go over the details again. Her voice fades as she traps the phone between her ear and shoulder. “I just want to look something up.”
I play with the hem of the leather jacket hanging above me, too hot to wear in Florida. It smells like rain. Mom would probably call it eau de mildew and think she was hilarious.
Aunt Sue interrupts my thoughts. “Tell me more about his symptoms.”
I don’t think she means drinking. “Personality replacement? He’s moody and acts like he wants to kill me for talking to him.”
“Sounds like a teenager.”
“Har har.” Fortunately, I know Aunt Sue is joking. She takes her calling seriously.
“Is he exhibiting an aversion to water? Maybe he’s stopped taking showers?”
I shrug helplessly. “Not that I’ve noticed, but he’s super antisocial. I haven’t gotten close enough to smell.” Besides, he’s my brother. By definition he smells.
She clucks. “From the ritual you described, I was going to go with demonic possession, but if he’s still bathing, then that’s out. Though a good water cleansing never hurt anyone. Except the evil spirit.”
I pull my phone away and stare at the display. Yup, Aunt Sue’s name and number. I shake my head. This is just too much. I shouldn’t have called. Late onset adolescence is way more likely than possession.
She’s talking to herself when I return the phone to my ear. I can imagine her with her books spread before her on the kitchen table, her knee bent in an unthinking tree pose.
“Thanks for trying, Aunt Sue.”
She protests. “I have a whole library here. Just need a little time for research. We’ll figure out what’s wrong with Jack.”
“Sure. Let me know if you find anything. Love you.” I hang up the phone and tip my head back to rest it against the closet wall.
The bell rings.
In the hallway, I stare at the outside of my locker. Strands of dried seaweed have been shoved in the vents. I pull them out, unwind more from the combination lock. Exhausted, I let the strands fall to the floor in a sandy halo around me.
“Hey Hannah, wanna read my fortune?” someone jeers as they brush past me. I stiffen. I feel the eyes of my classmates locked in on me, waiting for my reaction. A snicker breaks the tableau. One at a time, I stuff my books in my bag and wait for the crush of students erupting from school to subside.
When I shove the bar handle on the main entrance, the buses have already pulled out. A line of cars stutters past the stop sign to freedom. The usual hand-me-down beaters and sedans. But also convertibles and jacked up pick-up trucks.
I follow the sidewalk around to the east side of the school. I know what I will see–my road bike, alone, on a listing old bike rack barely bolted to the cement. I have just enough time to bike home, grab a banana, and get to the community pool for dive practice. The knife-edge of shade beckons to me.
I turn the corner and stop dead in my tracks.
The side of the building has been vandalized. A riot of color covers the bricks. A face as tall as I am screams back at me. Birds dive at its head. Thunderheads build. I take a step back. More faces, most of them screaming. More birds. Birds in flight. Diving. Pecking. Pecking at something I hope is supposed to be roadkill. Capping it all off is the sigil, the one that’s not quite a double helix. The graffiti is high on the building. I don’t see a ladder anywhere.
At the base of the wall are four tags, big and blocky letters that I can’t decipher. Except one. Jack. The letter J is crowned with an ellipse. I wonder if anyone else would recognize the Space Needle in his signature. My stomach turns, and I dash to the edge of the sidewalk. I throw up my lunch in the dead grass.
As I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand, my hair brushing my cheeks, I hear a snicker. My first thought is that a teacher has caught me at the scene of the crime, though teachers don’t usually snicker. It must be Jack and his friends, admiring their handiwork. Maybe laughing at me for puking. I fill my lungs with air and rage. What have these boys done to my brother?
For once I feel no fear as I stalk towards the sound, which sputters into a full-out guffaw as I near. The thistles lash at my bare legs.
I stare down at the boys. They are sprawled on their backs. The high, un-mowed grass is flattened in a circle beneath them. I can’t help but look over my shoulder. The graffiti stares down at me. Heavy. Malicious.
“Jack. We’re leaving,” My voice doesn’t sound like my own.
Miraculously, he clambers to his feet, then leans down to snag his army-green knapsack off the ground. “I was just going anyway.” He salutes his buddies. I keep my eyes off them, just as I keep my eyes off the vandalized brick wall. I’ll get my bike later, tomorrow–right now it’s more important to get my brother away.
I stalk toward the parking lot, Jack in my wake, and as I do, my fear returns, like a crow pecking the back of my neck. I walk with Jack to his car and wait by the passenger door. He starts the engine. I rap the window with a knuckle, but he’s staring straight ahead.
I frown. He puts the car in reverse. I pace next to the car as he backs out of the parking space. I slap the window with the flat of my hand. “What the hell, Jack. Let me in.” I bang harder.
He revs the engine. I stand there in the parking lot, choking on his exhaust as he speeds off.
My eyes travel to the side of the school. My bike. The graffiti. The boys.
Dammit. I run this time. I don’t care if I look like an idiot. I have eyes only for the bike rack. My hands tremble on the lock. I drop my keys, swear. I grab them off the sidewalk, scraping my knuckles on the concrete. I slide the key home in the lock and fling it away from my bike with a clatter. I yank at my bike, wrestling with it as the pedal catches against the rack. I jump on and it’s already rolling. I pedal hard.
Once I’m away from the school parking lot, I sit in my saddle and coast. I’ve sweat all the way through my shirt, and it clings to my body. I shiver a bit, despite the heat. My knuckles are bloody. Grit and gravel are lodged in my skin. This is going to take a lot of Neosporin.
With Jack’s buddies still at school, it’s a good bet he’s going home. I take a sharp right turn down the alley.
Thanks to the shortcut, I roll up the driveway just as the front door closes behind Jack. I drop my bike in the grass and slowly mount the steps to the front porch. The engine of Jack’s car clicks as it cools.
My hand turns the doorknob, and I cross the threshold. The entranceway is empty. I poke my head into the kitchen, the family room. No Jack.
I spot him in the hallway. The carpet deadens the sound of my footfalls. Jack flings his knapsack into his room, and it lands somewhere with the hollow clatter of spray paint cans. He turns and collides with me. I bounce back against the wall, and he drags his bedroom door shut behind him.
He makes to brush past me but I grab his elbow. “Jack, what were you thinking?” I say to him. “Vandalizing the school? They’ll know it was you. Your friends are setting you up.”
“At least I have friends, Hannah. We’ve been here for what, a month? Did you even talk to anyone today?” He shakes his arm loose from my grip. His mouth is set in a snarl. “You should leave, go back to Seattle. No one wants you here.”
Jack storms out of the house, and this time I let him go.
I hate him right now, but I’m not going to let him get himself sent to boarding school. I push my way into his bedroom. The door resists, backstopped by a pile of clothes. A sleeve catches on the carpet and trails under the door. I shove at the door with my shoulder.
Once I’m inside, I raise my arm to my nose. Ugh. Teenage boys are suppose to stink, but ugh. There must be something dead in here.
I scan the room. In the middle of the unmade bed are the cans of spray paint. They stare at me in their nest of rumpled sheets. My heart clenches. I walk to the bed, careful not to touch anything I don’t have to. I pick up one can and shake it. Empty. The drips on the outside of the can are still tacky, and I pat at the sheets. Stained with red spray paint. Mom is going to be pissed.
Resolutely, I collect the cans in my arms and retreat. I’ll worry about the sheets later.
It won’t do to throw the spray paint cans in the outside garbage bin–that’s the first place anyone would look. No, I’ll hop on my bike, find a nice unassuming dumpster behind a grocery store somewhere.
As I step away from the bed, my gag reflex gets the better of me.
What the hell is wrong with Jack? Hasn’t he ever heard of a shower?
I hesitate on the threshold. I glance at the chair back where Jack usually flings his towel. It’s empty.
I sprint to the bathroom, dropping the paint cans in my haste so that they roll down the hall. I rip the shower curtain back with a clatter of rings. The ledge that usually holds Jack’s Irish Spring is empty. I’ve probably showered for weeks without noticing its absence. I don’t use bar soap, especially not my brother’s.
Maybe Aunt Sue isn’t so crazy after all.
I sit on the couch working on homework with cartoons on in the background. The front door opens and closes. I ignore it. If it were Mom, she would call out for me, ask about my day. But Mom’s work schedule at the DOT still sucks, and she won’t be home for hours.
Jack slinks into the family room. He sits in the easy chair, and I narrow my eyes. Apparently my company isn’t that noxious after all. Is this us being a loving family now? The numbers of the algebra problem swim as I stare at my brother from the corner of my eye.
He pulls a laptop from his knapsack and settles it across his thighs. Boots it up with a whir. I can hear his finger jabbing the trackpad from across the room, followed by a click as he selects something on the screen. I want to yell at him that he doesn’t have to press the buttons so hard. I sigh and turn the volume up on the TV.
A squawk erupts from his laptop speakers, followed by the sound of broken-up voices. It reminds me of riding with Mom in her work car as she speaks with headquarters over the radio. Jack mutes the computer without looking at me.
Fifteen minutes later, I’ve almost managed to concentrate on my homework long enough to finish a math problem when Jack closes the laptop. I glance up before I remember that I hate him. He shoves the laptop in his bag, then he’s up again. His bedroom door slams shut. I grit my teeth and lower the volume on the TV now that I’m done trying to make a point.
I start the next homework problem, but my focus is shattered. It takes a moment to identify what’s bugging me. That brief glimpse as he put up the laptop. A green Property of Florida DOT sticker on the back of the screen.
What’s Jack doing with Mom’s computer?
This time, I won’t let him leave me behind.
I shift my homework off my lap and pad to the front door. I leave the TV on. I wipe my palms on my shorts and open the door with both hands. Just a crack so I can slip outside. I let out a breath when I find Jack’s car unlocked. I consider for a heartbeat climbing into the trunk but, whoa, too dangerous. I settle for curling in a ball behind the passenger seat where he won’t feel my elbows poking him in the back. I turn the dome light from automatic to off and hide my face between my knees, praying he won’t discover me.
I wait for a long time. I’m so busy obsessing over how I’m probably going to get kicked off the dive team for missing so much practice because of Jack, that I don’t even hear him approach. When the driver’s side car door is wrenched open with a screech, I jerk in surprise.
Jack doesn’t notice. He rolls down the window and backs out of the driveway.
From my position on the floor, I can see the tops of buildings as we pass, the bright-lit sign of the grocery store where I dumped the evidence of Jack’s vandalism. We leave town behind. The vibration of tires on asphalt lulls me into disjointed sleep.
I start as the car pulls onto the shoulder with a spray of gravel. Even from my place on the floorboards, I can smell the Gulf, briny and overpowering. The driver’s side door opens, and Jack gets out of the car. His shoes crunch in the roadside gravel. A car passes at sixty miles an hour, and Jack’s car rocks on its suspension.
I raise myself up to peek out the windshield. The car points at the high bridge, swoops of suspension cables holding it up in the evening sky. Jack passes in front of the closed gates that temporarily prevent southbound traffic on the expressway. Each red X winks out, eclipsed by his silhouette, then illuminated in his wake. He dashes across the road and hops onto the narrow shoulder on the leftmost lane of the bridge, his knapsack bouncing against his back.
I crawl out of the car, stumbling into the roadside ditch. Jack’s form is getting smaller as he ascends to the apex of the bridge. If he turns around he will spot me. I stay on the righthand side of the road, hoping the passing cars will afford me some cover, though traffic is light this late.
My quads burn as I follow my brother up the bridge. Driving, you don’t notice the incline so much. Another car passes and whips my hair around my head. My hand clutches at the hip-high cement barrier. The air feels thin up here, or maybe it’s just the wind that makes it hard to breathe. At this hour, the Gulf is no longer a pretty blue-green but is dark, darker even than the indigo sky, and full of secrets. The rising moon soaks into the cement until the bridge seems to glow.
I am dizzy with apprehension, half-blinded by headlights, and I don’t notice at first that Jack has disappeared. I run to the apex of the bridge and stare hard at the other side. I miss it at first. A small metal ladder hooks over the concrete retaining wall and disappears off the side of the bridge.
Goddamn it Jack.
I do not want to go under the bridge. I step back and something jabs my hip. I glance over my shoulder. A matching ladder is affixed to my side of the bridge. I lean over the edge, the concrete barrier biting into my stomach. A mesh platform hangs at the bottom of the ladder. My eyes go out of focus, and all I can see is the Gulf.
I study the ladder, unsure of how to navigate it. How does one crawl off a bridge above open, probably shark-invested water? A rusty chain holds up an “Official Use Only” sign, but it’s a joke, won’t keep anyone off the ladder who isn’t set on using it.
I grab the metal railings. Crusted bird shit breaks off under my palms, but I don’t loosen my death grip. What a ridiculously bad idea, I think, as I swing one leg off the edge so that I am straddling the retaining wall. My toe reaches for a rung. After flailing around, my shoe connects. I’m glad I’m not wearing flip flops today. I let out the breath I was holding. I hope none of the passing motorists phone in a potential suicide.
More confident now, I twist my hips and adjust my grip on the railing. I tell myself it’s like climbing the ladder to the diving board as I swing my other leg out over the abyss.
As I lower myself, the wind dies. A vehicle passes overhead. I cling as the ladder bobs down and up again, following the harmonic flex of the bridge. My feet hit the mesh platform, and I pry my fingers one by one from the ladder rails.
The platform I stand on is connected to the ladder on the other side by a narrow catwalk. Jack sits cross-legged under the center of the bridge. Twin knobs on either shoulder blade stretch against the fabric of his tee shirt. It is grotesque, whatever is happening to him. My eyes slide away.
Softly, I call his name. He doesn’t hear me over the throbbing bass of tires overhead. I glance up as another car passes, oblivious to us below. The supports on the underside of the bridge are covered in graffiti, though in the moon shadow, I can’t make out the details. That’s probably a good thing, I think, recalling the disturbing scene on the side of the school.
Jack has Mom’s laptop open. The glow of the screen illuminates his face, and I creep nearer.
I toe a crushed beer can out of my way. I am all too aware of the Gulf, visible beneath the open lattice that is so flimsily supporting me and Jack. I am not looking down.
I pause when I can see his screen. He has one of Mom’s work applications open. The top half of the display is scrolling columns of numbers, the bottom half, blocky graphics of a highway. The on-ramp has a series of bars across it. One by one, Jack selects a gate and toggles it red to green.
The only reversible highway in the county is on this bridge. I swallow hard.
“Jack, what are you doing?”
He hunches his shoulders but doesn’t answer. He drags the cursor across the screen and goes to work on the ramp on the other end of the bridge.
I watch in horror as he directs the flow of traffic into a massive head-on collision. I glance up at the underside of the bridge. This is where it will happen.
“I don’t think you can do that just from Mom’s computer,” I say, to convince myself as much as him. Someone from DOT always rides sweep before they reset the gates.
Jack doesn’t answer. He pulls up another app. A little oscilloscope display pops up, and he hits the play button. A cartoon ball bounces, tracking progress of the audio file along the sound wave. It’s a recording of Mom’s voice. “Lane is clear,” she says. “Opening southbound gates.”
“This is command center. Roger that,” a voice replies.
Not good. I shiver in my tee shirt and shorts. I need to get the laptop away from him before he can finish raising all the gates. This isn’t getting picked up for underage drinking, or spray painting the side of the school. People will die if he–if the demon–succeeds at sabotaging the reversible lanes.
I put my hand on Jack’s shoulder.
With a roar, he flings me away with one arm. I land on my back, skidding across the catwalk. Wide-eyed and gasping, I flail with my arms and legs, trying to stop my motion. At any moment, I expect the metal to disappear beneath my back, to be replaced by air. Frantically, I hook my elbow around the railing and jerk to a stop.
I’m belly down, diagonal across the catwalk. Blood or adrenaline or whatever is crashing in my ears and I think my heart is going to give out. The Gulf yawns below me. I remember the way Aunt Sue’s hand cupped my own as she predicted my future. She didn’t want me in the water, that was clear. I didn’t know she meant this, though to be fair, she would have told me had she known. We turned it into a phobia together, with the horror-movie marathon, and I fixated on sharks and jellyfish. Wrongly. I turn my head to look at my brother.
Jack’s body is curled gorilla-like over the laptop. I touch my face with one hand where he hit me. I haven’t been hit, ever. I wonder if all boys are so strong, or if it’s a consequence of his … situation. Possession. Or perhaps it’s just that he doesn’t care anymore about holding back.
“Jack?” I whisper past my busted lip. I miss my brother. I miss the solace of my family–the three of us against the world. I should have interrupted the ritual that first day on the beach, and I shouldn’t have brushed Jack off when he tried to reach out to me outside the police station. But I am done with regrets.
He scoots away from me, angling his back to block my view of the screen. I’m out of second chances. If I fail him this time, Jack will be lost for good, and so will all the people on the bridge.
I rotate my body back onto the catwalk and push myself to my feet. I’m trembling now, each step down the catwalk the hardest thing I’ve ever done. By the time I’m standing over him, there is one gate holding back traffic from a massive pile up.
Jack moves the cursor toward the last gate.
I grab for him again.
This time, I expect him to strike me. I clutch him around the chest, pinning his arms to his sides, and tuck my ear to his back. He is stronger than me. If I hesitate–if I doubt myself–he will wrestle free.
I lean back and twist to the side.
To the side and off the catwalk.
We fall through the air, twisting together. Jack struggles, but this, this I am good at. I count off the seconds to impact.
My feet knife the water, and I claw my way to the surface. I hope my brother has the sense to do the same. I hope that whatever power was lending him strength will protect him from broken bones. Jack never was a diver.
Our plunge was deep, and air is far away.
Our heads break the surface of the moon-soaked Gulf together. Be yourself, I think at him.
He shakes the water from his eyes and already I can tell he is lighter. He floats high as we tread water.
“Hannah?” he croaks.
It is the first time he’s spoken to me in a month. His eyes are haunted but aware. Of how much, I don’t know, but the monster is gone.
Tires squeal, and my head snaps up. On the bridge far above us, cars face off at the final closed gate, an arrested game of chicken. Car horns blare, and in the distance red and blue lights flash. The emergency responders will arrive soon to untangle and reroute what I’m grateful is only a traffic jam.
A breeze sweeps across the Gulf. We both shiver, and, in unison, strike out for the shore. I let Jack take the lead. His back, porpoising above the water, is smooth beneath his soaked tee shirt. The final knot of tension releases from my belly. I dive, blowing bubbles through the dark night water.
About the Author
Nicole Feldringer holds a PhD in atmospheric sciences and a master in geophysics. In 2011, she attended the Viable Paradise Writer’s Workshop, and her fiction has previously appeared in the anthologies Press Start to Play and Loosed Upon the World both edited by John Joseph Adams. She currently lives in Los Angeles.
About the Narrator
Michelle Ristuccia is a second generation homeschooling mom of three who enjoys slowing down time in the wee hours of the night to write, review books, and occasionally plan her students’ homeschool day. She writes genre fiction, educational material, and picture books. She also teaches and gives writing presentations in several homeschool and writers groups and has a BA in Psychology from NCSU.