On those days that neither of us felt like living, we bought candy cigarettes and Twinkies, drank soda until our eyes swam rheumy, feet dangling over the wooden bridge edge, promising each other we’d be the first to jump, that the one left high above would watch the other until we no longer struggled against the mild current. “Look for the air bubbles,” you said, hands pulling out your ponytail for the eighth time that morning. Thirteen, but so small, I knew you’d never even make a splash, a dragonfly finally landing, coasting down the river, the fallen queen of a Coors light box. I played along because I’d let you get away with anything, even death.
I promised I wouldn’t follow, that I’d have to stay alive, because the people would demand a witness. Sure, they’d blame me, but you thought I was strong enough to take it. The accusations, the threats, the whispers and the stares, the way adults would look at me sideways, wondering. “You’ll be famous, Gavin. Famous is always better than dead.”
I promised I wouldn’t love you either, that I wouldn’t keep the strings of hair I cut away the time we got lost in the woods, the ratty strands caught on a gasping tree limb, the one we thought had come alive for those frightful five seconds. You hugging yourself, elbows rubbed raw from cutting our own trail, you swearing the river road was just around the next hill. The little dot of blood on your cheek, a dollop of frosting I couldn’t resist.
“If you’re gonna kiss me, you better do it now. I can’t escape or nothing.”
“Let me just get my knife,” I said, because even though your words said yes, I knew you really meant no.
“We agreed it had to be the river.”
“I’m just cutting you loose, Candy,” I said. Maybe even then I knew, goosebumps and that waving in and out feeling creeping over my back, the way you feel when a VCR tape ended and the screen went all scrambly like you were the last person on Earth.
The day it happened, the day you didn’t float, the day you didn’t wait for me, the sheriff showed up at my door. I’ll admit, for once, I wasn’t thinking about you. Your crooked smile with those bucky rabbit teeth, the way your knees turned in toward one another, how your breath always smelled like a Jolly Rancher baking in the sun. No, I was playing Sonic, battling my way into the Metropolis level, thumbs aching from pressing so hard on the controller, caught up in the blur of colors, collecting rings.
They sat me down in the living room, my mother wadding up her robe in her hands, not even apologizing for the state of our house, the fact that she hadn’t gotten dressed yet, the bowls of half-eaten cereal, the milk gray and warming.
After the sheriff cleared his throat for about the tenth time, I said, “I was supposed to be there.”
“At the river. That’s what this is about, right? Tell me Candy sent you. Tell me it’s a joke.” My voice cracked, and I remembered the way she used to mock me, her own voice going higher and higher until I laughed, pushing her shoulder away, because I couldn’t handle being so close.
“Honey, there’s been an accident,” my mother said.
“You can do better than that, Mom,” I said, bouncing up, feet pointed toward the kitchen.
“Gavin,” the man said, chewing on my name like a popcorn kernel stuck in his teeth. “We need to talk about Candy.”
“If you’d just go get her,” I started, but my mom’s hand was on the back of my neck, and the sheriff looked away.
“I should hit you,” I whispered, but the man didn’t move, didn’t reach for his gun, wouldn’t even look at my face.
If it had been a joke, you would have begged him for more flair. He would have waved you away, citing regulations about unholstering his gun. His resolve though wouldn’t have lasted more than a minute. Your tilted eyebrows would have said it all. I know you’ve already fallen in love with me, so do this one thing for me.
But love never guaranteed breathing or floating or safety or pride in being alive or the last second remembrance of your voice, all gone like the last drop of water circling the rim of a drain. Your name mentioned every night after supper, my children innocently asking for a little reward for eating a third of their food. Candy, they whisper, or laugh or rage, or shout. And a little of your fame flames up in a story my wife has forbidden me to tell.
Tommy Dean lives in Indiana with his wife and two children. He is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. He is the Flash Fiction Section Editor at Craft Literary. He has been previously published in BULL Magazine, The MacGuffin, The Lascaux Review, Pithead Chapel, and New Flash Fiction Review. His story “You’ve Stopped” was chosen by Dan Chaon to be included in Best Microfiction 2019. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.