The night before we went to the Shut-Ins, the five of us, Ax, myself, Crotch, Sammy P. and Trevor, were at Trevor’s place, playing Mario Kart 64 and Madden, drinking shitty margaritas Trevor swore he knew how to make. He stuck a wooden spoon in the blender while the damn thing was on; we kept picking splinters out of our watered-down drinks, from the roofs of our mouths. Sammy P. spent most of the evening in the bathroom, going on about his ex, Lindsey, who’d left him for his cousin. The heat hung in the house. Trevor’s family never turned on the air conditioning. We sat with the windows open, a warm breeze filtering through the stench of wet dog and cat piss and Trevor’s sister’s hair spray.
Trevor’s folks were out of town, and as he put it, his sister was probably out banging some random dude. We didn’t know the truth, just what Trevor told us.
There were five us, but the only one that really matters is Axel. You have to know something about Ax. He was a guy who liked to stand on the perimeter and look. This one time, when we were a little younger, we went to a party with a bunch of guys who were all like two years older than us, and the party was out in the woods, somewhere near Brandt’s Eddy. You could smell the river through the bonfire smoke. This big fight started because one of the guys we came with found his girlfriend making out with a guy from another town, and it went from there. We were all in it. Swinging, sweating. Punches and kicks landing on our faces and bodies from the blind side, the firelight flickering as if the devil had dug his way up, christened us demons, and let us go. But when I happened to look around, there was Ax, sitting on the wheel well in a pickup bed, sipping at a Natty Light bottle, surveying, cataloging every movement.
That night, in the living room, while Sammy P. moaned on and on about Lindsey, and me and Crotch and Trev sat in the living room playing MK 64 and drinking the margaritas and getting a little drunk, Ax disappeared for a while. No one knew where he went, or what he did. He moved in and out of places and situations without anyone knowing he was there or gone. He floated around us.
Crotch took a pack of cigarettes out of his jeans pocket, handed them around.
“Watch me fuck Neil up,” he said, the cigarette muffling his words. It twitched in his lips.
We switched to Madden. I started winning, by a lot, and yet Crotch thought he could somehow come back. He had a lot of fight in him, most of it talk. Still, he really was more than just a dude who got knocked in the nuts a lot. That’s where he got his nickname. When he was young, on the playground, he was always getting it in the balls. On the swings, on the monkey bars, playing kickball. That’s how the older kids started calling him Crotch, and it stuck.
We played until Trevor’s sister came home. She staggered into the living room, her body reeking of liquor.
“What the fuck is all of this?” she asked.
“Get outta here,” Trevor said. “Go to bed.”
She looked at us; we stared at her. We were seventeen, I hadn’t seen a girl naked, so I imagined her. She had the blackest hair of anyone I knew then or now. Streak black, shiny like the polished onyx pebbles my grandmother kept on her bedside table.
“Quit fucking staring at me, you little goddamn creeps.” She stepped over me. Her cigarette ash fell on my thigh, and she disappeared down the hall. Trevor passed me a bottle of Boone’s. I sipped the warm cough-syrupy wine.
“What a bitch,” Crotch said. He paused the game. “But I’d still fuck her.”
“Go ahead,” Trevor said. “She’d probably take anybody ‘bout now—” he looked over at Crotch “—Even you.”
We laughed. Crotch punched Trevor in the arm. Trevor punched him back. Sammy P. came out of the bathroom, his eyes red. I unpaused Madden while Trevor and Crotch wrestled on the couch and called each other motherfucker at the top of their lungs.
“Ya’ll some messed up sons of bitches,” Sammy P. said. “You know that?”
“You’ve been in that bathroom for hours,” Crotch said. “What the hell is wrong with you?” He looked toward the TV. “Hey, asshole,” he shouted at me.
“I feel like my gut’s been torn out, that’s what,” Sammy P. shouted.
“Shut the fuck up!” Trevor’s sister screamed from her room.
The door opened again. We startled, hiding the booze, thinking Trevor’s parents had made an early return. But it was Ax. He came in and plopped his slightly overweight body down on the couch. His shirt lifted a little over his shiny, hairless belly. He picked up a bag of gummy worms from the coffee table and began eating them two at a time.
“Did you fucking leave?” Crotch asked.
“Yeah,” Ax said. “Fresh air,” he said and cocked his head to the side a little.
“You’re a douche,” Crotch told him. “You gonna jump tomorrow, pussy?”
Ax looked up at him. Smiled. “Don’t know yet,” he said. “You?”
“You know it,” Crotch said, his eyes back on the television screen.
And see, that’s the thing. We’re all messing around. Causing trouble. Drinking shitty wine. Getting sick over a girlfriend. And Ax? He needed some air, and we never were completely sure where he went when he disappeared. Not that night. Not ever really. And so many times, when he returned, he’d regard us as if we were the ones doing something out of whack.
The next morning, the hot and sticky air of an early Missouri summer clung to us, and we loaded up in Sammy P.’s Beretta, bound for the Shut-Ins and a day of swimming. Someone would jump off the cliff, which would make the day a little more exciting. At the Shut-Ins, you could cliff jump and swim in the old quarry hole that was over a hundred feet deep, not much else. Some people say there’s a bunch of dead quarry workers at the bottom of the hole, and that’s why the owners let the river back in, to cover the bodies and hide an accident that killed like ten people. My grandpa said he knew men who worked there, and he said those stories are a bunch of bullshit, that the Johnsons ran out of money and flooded the whole thing for the insurance before the quarry closed for good forty years ago. But nobody really knows. Above the quarry, the Black River cascades through the crevices, making natural slides, and then past the quarry it rolls on down to Taum Sauk Lake. Sometimes, not often, swimmers get caught in the current through the rock slides and drown. Some people say the cliff above the quarry pool is fifty feet high. Others say it’s over seventy feet. It’s the truest form of freedom, falling through the air toward those supposed dead bodies trapped at the bottom of a hundred-foot-deep grave, pressed by the weight of all that Black River water. Aside from Sammy P., there’s only two of us, me and Crotch, who have ever jumped off the cliff.
Ax sat in the backseat, watching oaks and maples pass outside the window. Sammy P. comes down here, near Viburnum, with his uncle to hunt deer on their family’s old farm plot. He gets a buck or doe every year. There’s pictures of him in a pickup bed, holding up a deer’s head by the antlers or ears, one for every year since he started hunting. Lined up on the mantle the way some people display football trophies.
Crotch reached up and shook my shoulder.
“You gonna jump today, boy?”
“Hell yes,” I said and drug out the l’s for emphasis.
“What about the rest of you pussies? Sammy, jumpin’ will get your mind all off of Lindsey’s snatch.”
“Shut the fuck up about Lindsey,” Sammy P. said. His voice rose a little with each word. “I don’t want to talk about it. I swear to God almighty, Crotch, someday somebody’s gonna knock the shit outta you.”
“All right, man, chill.” Crotch leaned back in his seat. “How the fuck long does it take to get there?”
“Three hours, dumbass,” Sammy P. said.
“Fuck off,” Crotch said. He laughed, but Sammy P. didn’t; just gave Crotch a sideways glance.
Crotch craned his neck around to look at Ax whose knees were up around his chest from Sammy P.’s seat being pushed back so far. “What about you, Axel Grease? Gonna jump?”
Ax turned to him, his face still. “Guess we’ll see,” Ax said.
Looking back, I wonder what Ax thought of us, of all of it. He didn’t hunt. Didn’t ogle Trevor’s sister. He didn’t jump.
We pulled into the mostly empty parking lot. A white Ford F-150 sat in the far corner, a Missouri Conservation Department insignia stamped on its door. Two other cars, a brown Dodge and a red Chevy Caprice, were parked next to each other near the trail that led down to the river. To the trail’s right, two single-stall outhouses. They were run down, the wood worn and thin. Human smells wafted from them in the heat. The gnats buzzed and hovered in front of our eyes as we made our way down the trail. We heard voices echoing off the bluff.
“Goddamn,” Crotch said. “Fucking beautiful out here, ain’t it.”
“Sure,” I said, “if you like this kind of shit.”
“Who wouldn’t?” Crotch asked.
We went down the hill, the mud caking our shoes. Sammy P. up ahead of us, always in the lead. A racehorse, that guy. The voices, a dull echo at first, became clearer. We could tell they were female and male. Several of them. They sounded young. Crotch tugged at his swimming trunks, grinned at me. He had sun-blonde hair, surfer hair some people called it, though we were nowhere near an ocean. He took his shirt off and tucked it in his waistband. It hung there like a tail. The path opened up and the river lay below. Heavy old oaks hung over the river; spindly ash and cedar stood higher up the hill where their roots could hold. The split and jagged rocks broke out of the water, their edges like slick sabers. The Black bubbled and spit through the crevasses, hissing as it churned. We still couldn’t see anyone. They were probably down at the quarry hole, swimming. I looked behind us. Ax sat on an outcropping, his legs dangling off, staring down into the water.
“Hey man,” I said, “let’s swim.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Cool.”
He came down, and we removed our shirts and threw them on the little rock beach at the trail’s foot.
The first time you dip your toe in the Black, you shake. It’s spring fed, that river, cradled beneath the limestone then birthed in a rage in Iron County. The Black is fast and cold. But it brings you back to life, too. And it did for all of us. Sammy P. was the first to slide down. He disappeared in the small pool below and popped up, shaking the water off, running his hands through his red-brown hair.
“Fuck me!” he shouted. “That’s the shit right there, boys!” He smiled for the first time in three days.
Crotch followed him down, then me, then Trevor, then Ax.
“Wish your sister was here,” Crotch said to Trevor.
“That’s exactly why I wish she was here,” Crotch said. He laughed and splashed Trevor, the chilled water sprinkling all of us.
We went down another natural slide and then climbed up on the rocks to look down river. We could see the quarry hole from here, and up on the cliff stood three boys. They were thin, shirtless, and below we could see two girls, staring up at them. One of them shouted at the boys, “Bunch of chickenshits,” and then two of them jumped, their arms spinning in the air, the heads tipped downward, as if they were paddling through space. They hit the water with back-to-back smacks, the sound reverberating off the walls. The girls laughed, and the third boy stood at the cliff’s edge, holding onto a sapling, leaning out just a bit. Below him, we could see the shallow water at the cliff’s base and then the edge of the quarry hole where the deep started and the water turned dull green. You have to jump away from the edge, not just straight down. The girls applauded, then turned back to the boy at the edge. He stood for a while longer, and then moved back and climbed down the hillside. We made our way around and came up to the little makeshift trail that led up to the top just as he emerged from behind a tree. He stopped, a little startled. We all stood for a moment. It couldn’t have been long. But it felt long.
“Pretty damn high,” Crotch said.
“Yeah,” the boy said. He was younger than us. Maybe fourteen. Maybe younger and just big. We knew what lay in wait for him at the quarry pool. A bunch of shit-giving, that’s what, and we knew what standing up on that cliff was like; how it felt to look out across the river, as if level with the clouds, and look down at that inky green-black water, brown around the edges. I had done it, and I had lived, but some didn’t. Or, at least, those were the stories. He went by us, headed to his fate. His friends, jabbing at his arm as they sat next to him on the rocks. Water glistening on their shoulders like little spots of honor while he sat dry. We climbed up and around, over a fallen spruce tree, to the spot where the trees fell away and the cliff loomed. Across the quarry hole, clouds kissed the highest peaks in the distance. The air cooler up there, the breeze in the spruce and dogwood trees like a whispered song. Down below, the five of them sat by the pool on a big boulder, dug up at some point and deposited unnaturally at the foot of the shoal that rolled white and bubbling into the quarry hole. The water swirled before settling in the hole’s stillness, an oversized eye, black with a green edge, glaring back as we stood on the cliff’s edge. Trevor took a step back. His eyes a little glazed. His face a little pale. He looked ready to puke.
“What the fuck’s wrong with you?” Crotch asked. “We said we’d all do it. What are you doing?”
“Naw,” Trevor said, “it’s not worth…” He trailed off.
“You’re as big a bitch as your sister.”
Trevor didn’t say anything. He glared at Crotch for a moment, then turned and headed down the path. Sammy P. shrugged his shoulders.
“Lindsey’s gone,” he said. “What the fuck does it matter anyway?” He jumped, his long limbs swirled in the air, and he hit the water with a smack that sounded like a thick steak slapped on a countertop.
“Shit,” Crotch said, peering over. Sammy P. emerged, shaking his head.
The wind picked up. I looked at Crotch. He at me. “Remember,” I said, “you have to jump out.”
“Fuck it,” he said, and we jumped together.
You are in the air longer than you expect. It has to be more than seventy feet, though if you ever said so, you’d be called an idiot, a liar, a fucking fool. But when you are falling, you have time to think. I thought about Ax. Up there at the top. How he watched things all the time, never doing, never getting involved. Like that night at the fight, with the firelight on his face, squatting up there, reveling in the chaos, but maybe he wasn’t that at all. Maybe he just saw it all a little skewed, as if the world was turned at a fifteen-degree angle for him while the rest of us all saw it straight. And when I hit the water, I was sure he was watching, and when I came up, I was sure he was watching, and when Crotch didn’t, I knew he was watching, peering over from the ledge, recording it all like some kind of goddamn videographer. A documentary of our lives existed in his head. I knew it, because when Crotch floated up, his face down in the water, his legs wickedly curved, I looked up and saw Ax’s face, his head, peering out from the cliff’s edge, as if he laid there, closed up in himself. Ax always knew when to watch.
Ryan Stone is the author of the short story collection Best Road Yet. His work has appeared widely in journals and magazines including The South Carolina Review, The Madison Review, Natural Bridge, Whiskey Island, and many others. He directs the creative writing program at Paradise Valley Community College in Phoenix, AZ.