“Why’d they have to kill the swing?”
“It wasn’t ‘they’. He did it.”
“You don’t know that”, Candy told him though she was pretty sure it was true.
“Ruined it for all of us. Fucker! Like it’s our fault his daughter’s a spaz. “
“Come on Driscoll”, Candy said. “Don’t talk about her like that…not now.”
He kicked the gravel on the path-chastened-but still pissed. “It’s not like she’s dead.”
Shannon Twist had started coming around early in the summer. Coming into her sophomore year, this was her time to find her high-school group; the clique that would ease her move into the big building up on the hill. She knew-they all knew without being told-how the layers in the township were stratified. She didn’t have sports-that would have run her with one of a couple of groups. She didn’t play an instrument nor was she particularly cute-she knew she wasn’t. And she didn’t have a big house with a pool that would she could bring kids over to. There was not even a picnic table outside the trailer she shared with her father.
She had spent a month or two on the sidelines of this scuzzy coterie of juniors and seniors-flitting about just outside the orbits of Driscoll and Larry and the rest of the motley planets. She tried to fit in the same way that many girls in the valley did: by holding out the promise of-if not actually granting-sexual favors of one kind or another.
That day was like every other that long summer. Meet at the field, throw some Frisbee, maybe play a little hoops, then head to the river and get high. Not to the town’s park-which had its own beach-but a mile downstream literally across the tracks where the red dog and ballast from the railroad bed made for a sharp and slippery climb down to Stoner Cove-which is what they called the place. It was the perfect hard-to-get-to shitty kind of place where they could do what they wanted. Their crowning achievement for the summer had been the rope swing.
It was too high and swung over too much rocky shoreline to have been permitted anywhere near the town’s beach. Even a town council as brain dead as the one they had would have deemed it too dangerous. For the townies, anyway. But here-in Stoner Cove-nobody really paid attention. In fact, nobody would say it out loud, but the whole crew of them could break their necks for all anyone cared.
Driscoll, like most days, had been the first one off the swing. Slight and limber, he scampered up the tree wearing nothing but cut-offs and sneakers and pulled in the guide rope that tethered the thick, knotted barge line. Then, standing on the main limb, just before jumping into space a full fifteen feet above the rocks, he unfastened his belt.
“Oh boy-here it comes…”
It was his signature move. Beltless, his ratty blonde hair trailing behind, his oversized shorts would slide down his legs just at the highest point of the swing revealing his skinny ass to the approving whoops and hollers of everyone gathered. This time they slid all the way off to flutter into the water as he turned to take another pass this time his cock-not quite erect but not soft either-flapping in the breeze.
Larry turned away and lit a joint that he had taken out of a crumpled cigarette box that was secreted in the crook of an old sycamore. He mumbled something about seeing more of Driscoll’s balls that he did his own and the kids around him tittered waiting for the doobie to come their way.
Larry’s brother was the sergeant of arms or something with a local motorcycle club. What they used to call a gang. What his rank meant in the hierarchy of the club no one knew but in this world it meant he was a bad motherfucker not to be trifled with but who dealt in truly hellacious weed which Larry seemed to have unlimited access to. This access made Larry-even with his many and severe social inadequacies-a much sought after friend. He ignored all entreaties and chose to live at the bottom with his mates, perhaps knowing that if he didn’t have a brother or the drugs, this would have been the only group he could have hung with.
Shannon was beside him and got the joint first after him. Her constant presence at Larry’s side was a recent occurrence and one that he didn’t seem to be discouraging-or really noticing. Maybe she saw something beyond the menacing size and glowering countenance but probably not. Maybe she just judged his formidable shadow to be a safe haven. And if it took a hand job or something else even to keep her place there, she was probably up for it.
They were all surprised when she giggled and, handing off the joint, ran on tip toes over to the tree. She hadn’t been on the swing all summer and really had only been in the river once or twice. But there she was, cutoffs, halter top and bare feet, climbing the tree tentatively and carefully. Driscoll was out of the water by now yelling encouragement and taking too freaking long to put his shorts back on.
She was in trouble from the moment she grasped the rope out on the main branch. She laughed loudly playing at bravado but Larry could see in the way she hunched and wouldn’t stand up straight and how she was gripping that rope like she would never let it go-that she was frightened. Too frightened. “Hey”, he yelled up to her stepping toward the tree. “Don’t jump…Come on back down.”
She didn’t even look his way as she stepped off, squeezing the rope to her in a death grip. Below, his shorts at his knees now, Driscoll hooted following her flight. “Let go!” he yelled when she paused in the air-at the height of the swing. But he knew immediately that was too high for her and she swung back in. Then back out, then back again-the swing shortening each time. Larry moved toward the tree where he could grab the guide rope and pull her back in, when she let go. Or slipped off.
Whichever, she fell flat onto her back into a foot of water in the rocky shallows. Driscoll, letting his shorts fall again, was the first to reach her. She was unconscious, her face lying just below the surface bubbling from her nose. He reached under her arms and dragged her up onto the shore.
“Careful moving her”, Larry yelled seeing the trail of blood on the muddy rocks from where she came out of the water. Her top had come undone in the fall and her young breasts, tiny and white as oyster shells, rose and fell with her breathing-seemingly mesmerizing the naked boy hovering above her.
Larry-not given to physicality as his size and demeanor usually sufficed-grabbed Driscoll by the arm and yanked him away from the girl. “Would you get your fucking pants on”, he growled then yelled for a towel. He covered Shannon as Driscoll quickly retrieved his shorts.
It wasn’t easy for the EMS team to get down over the hill with the litter and the backboard but they managed after rigging a pulley to a signal pole next to the tracks. Most of the kids had scattered before the ambulance and the police made their ways down the rail bed. Larry, used to cops hassling his family, stood calmly staring at the water smoking a Newport that he had cadged from the ambulance driver.
They had almost pulled the litter to the top of the path when a rusty green pickup slid to a stop along the tracks. Larry, Driscoll and the few others left there looked up to see Shannon’s dad half running-half sliding down the hill to meet the litter coming up. His movements were frantic until he saw his daughter and came up short-digging his feet into the sliding stones to take her hand and follow back up.
As the EMT’s loaded his daughter into the ambulance he stood at the top of the hill and glared down at the kids left there. Having come straight from the tipple, his eyes burned inside two white scallops etched in the coal dust by his safety goggles. He settled his stare on the biggest and most adult looking of the crew.
Larry met his raging glare with his own baleful dead eyes, neither pushing nor backing away. He didn’t feel any fear but would remember a tingle of anticipation across his chest and shoulders. Shannon’s father recoiled slightly from what he saw in the boy’s face and broke the stare to jump into the ambulance, a deep chill settling in his chest.
“Maybe the cops did it”, Candy said nodding at the crime scene tape at the top of the hill. The main over-hanging branch of the tree had been sawed off and felled into the river. “She coulda died.”
“She didn’t”, Driscoll said flatly.
Larry reached into his pocket and pulled out one of a half dozen thick joints that were stuffed into the cigarette pack. He fired up as they gathered around.
“Is anyone going to the hospital?” Candy asked anyone. No one answered.
The thin mist that had been falling since they arrived increased to a drizzle. They closed ranks as if to protect themselves from the rain and smoked in silence.
© Tommy Ranalli- 2016