Featured Short Fiction: Ethan Leonard

ethanleonard

Creeley’s Drop

Ethan Leonard

for Byron

It was easy to keep the bottomless pit a secret. Once a person stood at its edge, there was no way to put it in words. The new girls on the track team came to me in the locker room, and I saw what they’d seen reflected in their eyes, so I started talking. I told them about the time I was four and climbed up of my grandma’s casket to hold her hand one last time. I told them about the skunk that my brother killed with his pellet gun and buried in the backyard–how in the mid-July heat, when my father mowed the lawn, the stench of the body mixed with grass and exhaust. I told them the ways Creeley’s Drop feels like all of these things, and more, at once. I could almost see the hair on their necks stand up.

One of the freshmen spoke. “Would you jump it again?”

“No.”

“Brenda told us what it was like watching you make that jump, how the edges seemed to widen like a mouth. A lot of people are convinced it’s alive. We want to see the jump for ourselves.”

“It’s not that special,” I told them.

A pixie-cut freshmen named Leslie asked, “What if we paid you to do it?”

I shook my head. “You couldn’t pay me enough.”

She must have taken that as a challenge. “What’s your price, hypothetically speaking?”

“A million dollars.”

“Be honest. If we flashed a certain amount of money in your face, how much would you do it for?”

Another chimed in. “You’ve done it before; it should be easy.”

“One thousand? Ten?”

I thought of a number: the tag on a blue 2010 Ford Mustang. “Twenty thousand, I guess.”

Leslie popped her gum with her tongue. “Cool,” she said. “It’s a deal.”

After I jumped Creeley’s Drop as a freshman, the track and field team saw an increase in popularity and attendance for both home and away events. Our fundraisers began setting record highs for the school. For the first time since 1987, our track team attended the Pacific Northwest Regional Junior Olympic Championships and won the long-jump, shot-put, javelin, and 1600-meter dash. The publicity caused the school board to increase our funding. The funding increased interest in the women’s division, this interest boosted demand for ticket sales, the demand hiked the prices which continued to help fund us more than ever before. A year later, the team was able to redesign its jerseys, clean and repair the mascot suit, and focus a portion of the budget into national competitions. The administration, as middle-aged adults receiving incoming money from the students, felt no obligation to ask any questions about why kids suddenly liked what they liked.

Almost everybody tried to convince me to jump again, so I didn’t take Leslie seriously. Still, it didn’t stop me from thinking about the Mustang as I cut across the football field heading home, its body and windows

washed to a shine, its carpets shampooed and vacuumed, and its seats conditioned every one or two weeks. And Michael Lang, captain of the men’s track team–my crush, my neighbor–was out there on every dry weekend to keep it in good condition.

#

For a long time, Michael represented the dream boyfriend. I had it so bad that Brenda began using him in tutoring sessions to boost my grades. “If you walk fifty feet from the gym toward the main doors,” she’d say, “and Michael Lang walks seventy feet at five miles an hour from the wood shop room towards the doors leading to the tennis courts. How fast would you have to travel to accidentally bump into him, thus beginning the type of awkward but meaningful romance that you never shut up about?”

I felt comforted by those questions. There was always an exact answer, and work to show for it. In mathematical terms for my desire for Michael to be my boyfriend, to go to prom and experience what a track star’s legs could do on the dance floor, it felt like dividing fractions. Splitting any number of minutes spent with him into seconds only made the moments feel bigger. I told Brenda, “The only way he’ll even talk to me is if I do something extraordinary.”

That’s where Creeley’s Drop came in: the mysterious hole that appeared suddenly in the middle of an empty hillside several miles outside the city limits. People got together there in the spring and summer mainly to smoke and drink, and like anything having to do with kids smoking and drinking, it was something every student saw as theirs. It was a part of the town that was untouched by the adults, whom we knew would see the danger of the pit and shut it down, and so it was guarded with absolute secrecy. I’d heard about it for my entire first year, but wasn’t officially let in on the secret until it was almost summer break.

I’d no initial intention of jumping across the pit. I showed up in sweatpants and a hoodie: no pot, no booze. Michael was there in his car, a senior chatting it up with some juniors who sat in the back with the windows open. I tried to join other people’s conversations, but with no success. I might have sat by myself the whole night, my knees curled into my chest, if Michael hadn’t called me over.

“You joined the track team this year, right?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“How are you liking it?”

“It’s good.”

I could barely even look at him. He kept the conversation going. “What are your events?”

“100-meter, high-jump, and long-jump.”

“I do long-jump too!”

I knew what his events were. I began long-jump because of him. I figured it would be an ‘in’ for talking to him.

He held up a flask. “Do you drink?”

I shook my head, then nodded. “I mean, I’ve never drank before.”

“Well, try a swig. It’s whiskey, so swallow quickly.”

When I first told people the story, it was the drink that made me do it, but I knew better now: I saw the part of the flask where Michael had put his lips and took in a generous amount and thought only of what it was like to kiss him. Everything after that is legend.

#

With the late afternoon sun in my eyes, I took to staring mostly at the ground as I walked. It wasn’t until a dog yapped at me from a driveway that I realized I was approaching Michael’s house. I bent down at the gate and placed my palm against the bars. The dog, a pure-bred Scottish Terrier, sniffed before licking it once, wagging its tail, and spinning in place before barking again. I heard the front door open. I stood up. Michael’s mom called from inside the house.

“Gruffy, inside.”

As the dog trotted back to the house, I craned my neck to take a look at Michael’s Mustang. In the driveway, it was an arrangement of contradictions. The hubcaps were polished while the tires’ pressures were slack beneath the body’s weight. Michael would never have used a cover either. It made the car look like the kind of unused furniture stored in an attic.

I got the sense Mrs. Lang was still watching. I tried not to seem suspicious when I glanced at the house, but the blinds were closed except for one small opening, big enough only for somebody to peek through. I hurried down the block to my house.

#

The next morning, browsing Facebook on my phone, I got a message from Leslie.

20,000, right?

You don’t have the money.

Let’s say I do. Are you in?

I typed Yes. There was a pause, followed by a link to a GoFundMe account. I clicked on the link. The page’s title read “She’ll Do It Again.” The event description read the same thing. The photo used for the account was from a year-old online sports article in The Nomesburg Scoop, doubled in its size and almost pixelated beyond recognition. The goal amount: 21,000.

It’s official then, she responded, signing out.

That weekend, the town center blew up with events run by students, all of them requesting donations or flat rates. There were the usual things: a carwash, bake sale, a jazz quartet playing in businesses. Then there were those who charged thirty dollars to let others do whatever they wanted to them with box dyes, hair clippers, and gel. Instagram photos, promoted with #NomesHighHair, were encouraged. One former student with decommissioned prison buses created a month-long carpool system for employees who made the long commute to Seattle. The parents loved it. “It’s not easy to find a job in a town like this,” they told each other.

“In an economy like this!” others said.

After the second week, I was a celebrity in the way only a Nomesburg kid could be when it came to Creeley’s Drop. People in heated conversations would stop mid-sentence to meet my gaze. Rumor had it that Russell Moss was taking photos of me with a high-zoom lens and selling extreme candid close-ups for thirty dollars apiece. I was informed of this by Brenda, who set a pair of Ray-Ban knockoffs on my desk during chemistry. I wrote her a note on a scrap of paper.

This doesn’t change my mind.

“I don’t expect it to,” she said. “I don’t expect anything from you anymore, but I care, and I don’t want some creepy dudes leering at pictures of you.”

I tore off another piece from my notebook: Are you going to stop talking shit about Michael?

She snorted, which got the teacher’s attention. She glanced over her shoulder and shook her head. When the teacher returned to her review lesson, she whispered. “I wouldn’t forgive anybody for doing that, especially to my friends.”

The teacher cleared her throat. “Brenda,” she called. “What helps organic molecules remain soluble in water?”

“Polarity,” she answered, without even looking up.

She nodded. “Save the chatter for after class.”

The period went by in silence for us. When the bell rang, everybody stood and filed out the door. Brenda watched me expectantly. When I finally looked up, she gestured to the door. I shook my head.

“Look, I get the vow of silence. I get that you’re mad at me, but we can’t go on like this.”

I looked back down at my feet, biting my lip. It was chapped from the early dry weather. The skin was tender beneath my teeth.

Brenda sat back down with her head on the desk. “You’ve got to take it easy on me here.”

“Why should I when you won’t take it easy on him?”

“He was an asshole! I was in your position once too. Remember me and Troy during freshmen year?”

“This is different.”

“It only feels different because the shoe is on the other foot.”

The week after I jumped Creeley’s Drop, I left my number in Michael’s locker. In return, he sent one of his friends to find me at lunch to hand-deliver the note back to me, along with the message that he didn’t want to talk to me. When I asked why, they shrugged. “He won’t tell us either.”

I saw him that evening at the bowling alley. I excused myself from Brenda to talk to him. His laughter fell quiet as I approached him. He wouldn’t talk to me in the company of his friends, so we stepped into the empty video game arcade. Among the sound effects of gunfire, speeding cars, and a pinball machine playing The Addams Family theme song, he told me that he’d been planning to jump Creeley’s Drop for years. “I probably would have done it sooner if I’d known it was that easy.”

I tried to defend myself. “It wasn’t easy,” I said.

“I’ve seen you in the events. Your form, your times; you’re an average athlete at best.”

Michael’s insults didn’t end there. I remained in the arcade when he left, and played the crane game until Brenda came looking for me. I’d been trying to grab the same stuffed toy for seven minutes, and when I realized I’d spent over twenty-five dollars on a cheap pink rabbit and had no more money to pay for my games, I started to cry. Brenda went to pay for both of us, and I snuck through the bar exit to avoid Michael and his friends.

“Remember when I was sitting in the front seat,” I said, “still wearing my bowling shoes? I felt even more helpless then. I remember saying, I’m such a mess! And you started laughing, and I got frustrated.”

“Then you started laughing,” she said. “I miss that! I want to have those moments again. I want to help you through this.”

I picked up my backpack from off the floor and stood. “If you want to help me,” she said, “then hear me out.”

“Haven’t I been listening from the start?”

I stopped on the stairs. “He jumped and missed. He’d been training for the jump. His average speed and distances were far above mine. But I think because I jumped it, he thought, this must actually be easy. I just feel like if I didn’t jump, he might’ve practiced harder. He might’ve made it.”

Brenda shook her head. “He’s blaming you for how he underestimated your ability? It’s an abuser’s tendency, I’m telling you.”

At the bottom of the stairs, I stepped into the bathroom and locked myself in a stall. I leaned against the door and scrolled through Facebook until I heard her come into the bathroom. “You almost done?” she asked.

I didn’t say anything. I clicked the phone off and shoved it in my pocket.

“Sadie,” she said, “You going to answer me?”

When she didn’t get a response, she sighed. “Fine, fuck it. I’ll talk to you… whenever.”

I knew she wouldn’t be waiting for me just outside the restroom. There was a comfort in the fact that she was still the same impatient person I’ve always known. It was good to feel like we were close.

#

On the day of the second jump, I got a ride from a kid in my English class. The dreams I experienced about Creeley’s Drop in the nights before weren’t as strange as the actual thing. The prison buses were parked thirty feet away from the circle, with bodies of students shifting in the windows, pressed against the reinforced glass for a better view. Others students clambered up the front wheels for spots on the hoods and roofs. The bake sale people had a cooler of soda and mineral water, selling each can for two dollars. The photography club appointed members to various points around the pit, securing every angle. The people sitting closest to the hole, it was rumored, paid Leslie over seventy dollars to reserve their spots.

As we pulled up, I noticed Brenda’s old Odyssey minivan parked on the outskirts of the pit. I made my way into the crowd, keeping my eye out for her. As people began to realize I’d arrived, everything went silent. I walked around the pit to Leslie, who was reclining on a plastic pool lounge chair.

“So what do you want me to do?” I asked.

Her sunglasses were so large they obscured her eyebrows. I couldn’t read her expression. “Jump,” she said.

“Want me to say anything before I go?”

“Jump,” she said. “Jump.”

The command became a chant that moved around both sides of Creeley’s Drop, then died as I climbed to the top of the ridge, where two parallel runs of red tape led to the edge.

Waiting for the headwind to ease up, I tried to find Brenda. In a crowd, it was usually simple. She had the type of personality where if she wanted to get my attention, she would flail and cry my name. But I’d no luck seeing or hearing from her. The wind settled, and I started my sprint. My footsteps echoed off the ridge. A surge of excitement went off in my chest. I pounded my feet harder into the ground, pushed off faster. Not even twenty feet into my sprint and I could feel my arches growing sore. I clenched my teeth enough to make my jaw ache. By the time I jumped, my whole body felt heavy.

The landing was rough. A cooler stuck out too far into the clearing. As I ran out of the jump, my shoe sideswiped it, sending me into the dirt. People crowded around me. I didn’t take time to catch my breath; I shot up and marched to Leslie, waving her over. “The money,” I said.

She nodded, and reached beneath her chair. She pulled out a small gym bag and held it open by the mouth. “One-hundred dollar bills,” she said. “Eight packs with twenty-five bills each.”

I didn’t bother counting. I turned around, head still spinning from the adrenaline. As I walked, the mass of people ebbed and flowed. It was like a movie where the horde of zombies paused, waiting to strike all at once. I called out for Brenda but got no response. I dialed her phone and it went directly to voicemail.

I stopped. I turned to Creeley’s Drop. I walked to the edge and peered over. A group of freshmen tried to get between me and the pit. I stood there, expecting Creeley’s Drop would offer some sign, some feeling, that Brenda was or wasn’t there.

One of the boys began pulling at the other’s collar. “I want to see it,” he said. “I want to see what she sees!”

The other boy shoved him off, but his grip remained. There was a gasp, followed by another silence as the two boys tumbled into the pit. I stepped away, dizzy. I fell backwards and remained in the dirt as others shuffled around the pit and began muttering, “Going home, agreed?”

“Yes,” others said. “They were going home.”

Soon the audience dissolved into a steady, monophonic hum: “Timothy Barr and Matthew Weller were going home.”

#

I went to Michael’s house that evening. Mrs. Lang was walking alongside the property as Gruffy weaved between her grasswidows and feverfew. He soon came running and barking. Mrs. Lang followed.

“You can pet him if you like,” she said.

Her cheeks were thin between her jaw and ears. Her hair, which was once routinely colored, was an un-sunned taupe swept behind her ears like cobweb. Even her eyes had lost the fastidiousness that trademarked her incumbency as Nomesburg’s mayor. All that was left of her rigidness was her face, angular with grief.

She picked up her dog and held it up to the gate. “He’s very friendly.”

Gruffy licked the knuckle of my index finger, his tuft of tail wagging excitedly.

“Are you in high school?” Mrs. Lang asked.

I nodded. “Was.” I said. “Graduating this year.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thank you.”

I scratched the dog’s chin.

“Did you know my son?” she asked

I nodded. “We were both part of the track team.”

That made her smile. “I remember the first track meet he ever attended. He wanted to run the mile, so I said, pace yourself. The gun went off and he ran as fast as he could. I called as he came around the first lap, Pace yourself! But he just kept running that same speed–this small, skinny kid racing against others twice his size. There was no stopping him.”

Gruffy wriggled in her grasp. She lowered him to the ground and he immediately set his fore-paws on the gate. “Any plans for college?” she asked.

“UT in Austin offered an athletic scholarship. My parents pressured me into not saying no.”

“Smart parents.”

Gruffy’s paw came through the bar and scratched my leg. “I’m actually here,” I said, “because I want to buy the Mustang.”

Mrs. Lang let out a thoughtful hum. “You’re the first in a long time.”

She looked back at the car, then clicked the button to open the gate. “Come on in, then,” she said, picking up her dog again. “I’ll show it to you.”

She pulled the cover from the Mustang and dragged it to her front porch railing. From the shade of the top step, she observed me as I peered in through the windows at the leather seats. Mrs. Lang unlocked the doors, and I took a seat behind the wheel–letting the lingering heat from the leather sink into my back. The tree air freshener probably hadn’t been replaced since the accident.

Mrs. Lang called. “It has about 72,000 miles on it.”

“Yeah?” I said, opening the glove compartments and consoles.

“It also needs an oil change.”

“Good to know.”

“I had a mechanic look at the brake pads. He told me it wasn’t unusual in dry places like this for the brakes to wear down faster. Michael hadn’t changed them yet, so…”

I ran my finger across the dust on the dashboard. “Beautiful car, though.”

“That it is,” Mrs. Lang replied.

I got out of the car. Mrs. Lang locked it up and grabbed the cover from the banister. “Unfortunately, I can’t go any lower than twenty-thousand dollars.”

“Sounds fair to me.”

She seemed surprised. “Just like that?”

“Why not?”

“Most people usually think it over before buying a car.”

I shrugged. Mrs. Lang stared before letting out a brief sigh. “All right. twenty-thousand it is.”

I swung Leslie’s bag from my shoulder. “I have the amount in cash,” I said. “If it’s more convenient to write you a check, I can come back tomorrow after I deposit the money into my bank.”

I unfastened the rope-tie. Mrs. Lang’s placed her fingers on her lips. “I didn’t realize you would be this ready,” she said. “I’ll have to find the paperwork. Please, come inside.”

Mrs. Lang showed me to the living room, and I took a seat in the middle cushion of the couch. “I’ll be right back,” she said. “Can I get you anything? Lemonade? Soda? Water?”

“I’m fine.”

She nodded, turned, and disappeared around the kitchen corner. From where I sat, the house opened upward three stories, capped with a vaulted ceiling. I slumped back in the leather and saw a chandelier high above the coffee table. The house’s air conditioning swept across its silver frame. The prismatic ornaments, twisting in the light breeze, guided slivers of rainbow from the top floor, across the walls, to the brick chimney. It felt enchanting. I might not have noticed Mrs. Lang returning if she didn’t speak up.

“Here is the Odometer Disclosure Statement. It’s a little dated. I had the paperwork completed the day I put the car up for sale. The only thing is that I’ve had no interested buyers at the time, so there it sits and I assure you this is as accurate as it was a year ago.”

I scanned the emissions report, and the title. I fidgeted with the corners of the papers to make sure they weren’t stuck together. “And the bill of sale?” I asked.

Mrs. Lang seemed distracted. “Yes,” she said. “Here.”

I held out my hand.

“To be honest,” she said, pulling it close to her chest. “I’m not sure if you are aware of this vehicle’s price.”

“Twenty thousand.”

“I mean, its average asking price for its condition.”

“I am.”

The bill of sale crinkled in her fingers. “I’m just saying, maybe you want to give it more time. Look at more cars. There are plenty of completely new cars you can buy for less than I’m asking for this used one.”

“I want this car.”

“Why?”

The question almost came as a shock. At one point I expected somebody to ask, and I had an answer. It was Michael’s; I loved him, loved how I could look out my bedroom window and see him taking care of his car. I saw the love he had in his eyes for it. But now, with Brenda missing, and Timothy and Matthew…

“Can we please just finish this?” I asked.

I pulled myself up from the couch by the armrest, reaching for the bill. Mrs. Lang drew back her arm. “My son loved this car. Cared for it. Couldn’t imagine selling it–even for more than it’s worth. The amount of time he spent on the car, for him to suddenly pack up with no intention of returning for it? I don’t believe it, no matter where he went in this world.”

This is what Mrs. Lang knew about her son’s disappearance: Brandon Finley was waiting for his grandma at the bus terminal when he saw Michael Lang wearing a Letterman jacket and a mesh trucker hat pulled down over his face. Brandon called out to him but Michael didn’t acknowledge him. Michael got on the bus headed for Seattle and departed. It was a lie of course – one that was guided by everybody’s intention to preserve the hole. Even now I didn’t say anything. I still dwelled on how the pit made my whole body become light with a numb, tingling sensation; how intense it was after the first jump: bunchgrass stuck to my clothes, sweat soaking the back of my shirt, my heartbeat pounding in my shoulders as I lay in the dirt, and Michael as a witness. It was a desire, despite the pain, that felt so extraordinary and necessary.

“I have the money,” I said to Mrs. Lang. I was getting insistent. “What more do you want?”

“Please understand…”

“It’s lousy business, what you’re doing,” I said. “It’s selfish.”

Mrs. Lang retreated momentarily into herself, eyes closed, face pensive. When she opened them again, her look was firm. “You need to leave.”

“Not without the car.”

“Leave!”

Her raised voice seemed to shake the living room into silence. The chandelier still swayed and clinked above us. I stood and took the gym bag from below the coffee table. Mrs. Lang showed me to the door and slammed it as I descended her front steps. Looking back, I saw her blinds part. As the gate opened, I pulled a round, smooth stone from the walkway. I dropped the bag of money in the walkway and ran to the side of the car, where I began smashing the rock against the driver’s side window. Beneath the cover, there was only the muffled sound of a crack. I wanted to be sure I broke it. I struck it several more times, the rock tight in my grasp, my fingers straining to hold on. Mrs. Lang came running out the door and down the steps, screaming after me. I turned to her with the stone in my hand. She backed away, and I dropped it and ran.

I ran as hard as I could and didn’t stop. My lungs, my feet, my calves ached with resistance. Soon it became the only feeling in my body. By nightfall, I’d passed Ellensburg and was heading north.

Somewhere along Route 97, my phone began to go off in my pocket. I slowed to a walk. I didn’t plan to answer it until I saw Brenda’s name on the screen.

“Hey!” she said. “Finally got to charge my phone. Saw you called, and I was like, better call back to make sure she’s still alive!”

“Jesus Christ,” I said. “I thought you had fallen into Creeley’s Drop.”

I told her about the jump, how I saw her minivan there, but couldn’t find her. She laughed. “I sold that thing to Daryl Hutchens like seven months ago. You might have known that if you were still talking to me.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ve been nothing but a bitch to you lately.”

“Don’t sweat it; I knew you’d come around. Where are you?”

“Route 97.”

“Why the hell are you all the way out there?”

I started with Michael’s car, how I left the money behind and broke the driver’s side window. It seemed like one of those things that got funnier as I said it aloud. Brenda was not happy. She told me to stay on the phone until she arrived. As soon as I opened the passenger door, she was at full volume, reminding me how easy it was to go missing on the interstate. The conversation eventually calmed down, but the peace only lasted a moment, as the sound of a 400-horsepower engine came up fast behind us and passed us going at least thirty over the speed limit.

“Good god,” Brenda muttered. “Fucking maniacs at night.”

We watched it disappear into the dark, red taillights burning through the layer of dust kicked up from the road. I couldn’t help but push my foot into the floorboard as if I were driving, intending to catch up. The fresh blister on my right foot stung against the tip of my shoe, and I knew that when I got home I would find the toe of my sock soaked with blood. But I just couldn’t ease off.

###

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