The moonlight shined on your brown hair, wet and wavy from the sandy river’s flow. My toes clung to the bark underneath my feet, and I kept my hands steady on the branch above my head as I looked down. We were fifteen and down at the river at eleven o’clock at night, just the two of us. The air was thick, warm, and tasted like June. Like it was supposed to. Like I wanted it to.
“Grab the rope and push off, Clara,” you said, your voice rising above the water. Everything from your chest down was submerged in swirling silks of black, concealing a dozen mysteries as you floated in the river, calling me down to join you. “It’s easy.”
“I don’t want to,” I said.
“Come on, don’t be a baby.”
“It’s too dark, Quentin. I can’t see.”
“There’s nothing down here but me and some mud. Besides, you promised.” You flashed a smile, the one that meant you were up to no good, the one that lit up everything inside of me at once. That damn smile. It was so bright against the murky browns of the water. It drew me out of my room, out of my parents’ house, and down to the river in the middle of the night. I would have dived off the top of the Grand Canyon for that smile.
“That’s not fair, Q.”
“Life’s not fair, C.”
“What if I hit my head on something?”
“I’ve been down here the whole time and haven’t felt a thing, and no monster has nibbled on me yet.”
“Yet,” I said, twisting my grip a little harder around the limb.
“Come on, you can’t go into the tenth grade without jumping into the river.”
“Well, maybe I don’t care. This seems like a really dumb idea,” I said. Your expression fell flat and your smile vanished. A pebble of remorse skipped across my gut. You swam to the edge directly below me, the brown sand mushing between your toes as you stepped onto the river bank. “What’re you doing?” I asked. You didn’t answer but walked to the base of the oak and started to climb. “Q—”
“I’m coming up there.”
With each step you took against the trunk, my heart beat a little harder. I shifted my legs and arms to make room, to steady my perch and the drumming between my ribs. You slid across the limb and the leaves on the oak shook like baby rattles. I glanced everywhere but directly at you. The water on your skin smelled like a summer afternoon rainstorm, and you reached for the rope that dangled in front of me.
“Don’t push me, Q.”
“I would never.” You rested, sitting so easily I was jealous. “Relax, C. Here, just sit down.” Your hands landed on my hips and a zing shot through my spine. I let go of the branch above my head and allowed my arms to fall to my side, resting on my buttocks, angled toward you and the rest of the night. “You don’t have to jump if you really don’t want to.”
“I don’t understand why it’s such a big deal,” I said. You pulled the rope across your lap and settled in and we dangled there on the tree, side-by-side. The water from your shorts ran onto the limb and then politely down to the ground below us. I was as dry as the humid evening air allowed me to be.
“Because we don’t have anything better to do.”
You were right. Even now, when I think about it. We sat there, the crickets filled out the gaps in our conversation, joined in by the bullfrogs up river now that you were out of the water, leaving them in peace. I tried to count the stars. I let the breeze swirl around my toes and ignored the goosebumps prickling away at your skin. No pressure of time. We had everything at our disposal in that tree. No rush to get anywhere. No worries to weigh us down. Nothing to stop us either. Life was an infinite expanse like the night sky.
“Maybe I can do it during the day,” I said.
“Maybe.” Your voice moved like the mud in the river. I stared at the reflection in your eyes. I should have said so much more.
“Are you mad, Q?”
“Of course not, C.”
“But you said everyone will make fun of me.”
“How are they going to know?” You weren’t looking at me or the ground or the stars. You were just staring ahead at the empty field curving along the edges of the river. I think about that look now and everything you must have seen. “Though, it would be kind of cool to say you jumped in the dark.”
“No one else has tried?”
“I think they’re too chicken.” You twisted the rope in your hands and the fibers in the weave let out a humble squeak. I kept looking at the side of your face. It was too hard to look away. “Think about it,” you continued. “You, me. Walking the halls of the high school, everyone looking at us. The Night Jumpers. That’s what we’d be.”
“Instead of?” I asked.
You let out a sigh. “Instead of what we are now.”
I finally looked away. “And what are we now?”
“We…” you paused, waiting, thinking, drawing that perfect verse to your lips. “We are on the brink.”
“Of?” I hoped you’d say love.
This was the answer all along. You weren’t just looking at an empty field, you were seeing all the possible things, and it makes my heart ache for what you were and wanted to be. My vision wasn’t nearly as acute. I had only just realized that it was only you I wanted to see in that expanse before us.
“What do you want to do, Q?” I said. “Save the world?”
“I want to do everything.”
“You can’t do everything.”
“I can try.” You turned your head to the trunk of the tree and my chest took in a quick gasp because I felt the shift in our splitting universe. You were headed in one direction, and I was meant for another. I wanted to cling to you and keep you here. It was a selfish move, and many times I think about what would have been had I never done it. Where we’d be if I’d just let you go, but your turn towards the trunk was like a flame to the fiber of hope I kept buried deep within myself.
“Ok,” I said to keep you from pulling away. You stopped and turned toward me, this time allowing your eyes to settle on mine. There was so much curiosity in them. I thought about reaching out and kissing you. “Jump with me.”
It was like slow motion. Your relaxed brow, how you leaned in closer to my face, my eyes holding on to yours, pulses up and down my arms and legs, and then…
Your skin was drier now, and sticky as you placed the rope in my palms. You guided me toward the edge of the branch, your hands on my back, your arms wrapped around my torso, your feet following mine, your breath on my neck. I remember the rope, the scratchy fibers between my fingers. I can still feel the limb, its barky roughness under my feet. I can hear your voice exactly as it settled into my ears.
“Ready, on the count of three. . . .”
Heart beats on fire. The darkness of night faded away.
“One. . . .”
Your touch was like adrenaline, pushing us forward to the edge.
“Two. . . .”
The breeze kissed our skin, and with you at my back, I was already soaring.
We flew. No sense of time. I could feel your smile in the air and it carried me farther than you, and I saw the world so bright. Both of us suspended between the stars and the water, so much above us to reach for, but pulled to the fate that waited below.
And we hit the icy darkness.
And you were gone.
I’ve been searching for the insight you flashed that night. I want to go to the place of confidence and dreams you inhabited, the life you jumped from, and live it for you and all that you once were. I’ve tried so many times over these years, coming to our place along the river, but like the water, the confidence moves, hidden, down the creek like the stump that stole your life. Absent for centuries. Present for one life-changing second. I can’t help but feel I will always be on the brink of bringing you back to life.