fresh new fiction from Mikola De Roo
Mikola De Roo
No one had gone there to die. Not one of us. We didn’t think about death as an unyielding force that could choose us. When we thought of death at all, we thought it was something we could choose or taunt but evade at the last moment. We were teenagers.
We drove from Otis to the Vermont quarry in a caravan of three beat-up cars. The all-day mountain hike and the afternoon quarry swim were to be the highlights of a long weekend trip.
The seven of us had planned for the trip all summer, each of us saving money from the crappy jobs we were working, telling our bosses that we’d be taking the last Friday before Labor Day off. Luke taught swimming at a day camp run on the local community college’s campus. Marla worked at Hot Soxx at the mall. Will pumped gas off of I-90, but his real money came from a brisk business out of the garage—crystal meth to truck drivers and shrooms and weed to high schoolers and college kids. Lexi and Brian both worked at the local copy shop that had been bought by Kinko’s in July, and they had to wear a uniform that included a purple apron all through August. I don’t know what Gregory did. All that June and July, when we met up in the Store 24 parking lot after we all finished our shifts, Gregory was the one who would approach someone with an ID to buy us beer. He had a crooked smile that adults seemed to trust, and he liked to wear a pair of brown coveralls that had “Chip” sewn on the pocket because he thought it was cool.
The money I made in tips at the sandwich shop that summer was bullshit, like the clip-on tie and paper cap I was required to wear with a smile. That money was supposed to be most of my pocket cash for the upcoming school year, too, so although I squirreled away a little of it for the Vermont trip, it didn’t cover my share. Luke wouldn’t float me any money, so in mid-July, after my older sister Miranda had been gone without any contact with our family for six months, I began skimming more money than usual from our mother Jeannie’s wallet to fill out my stash for Vermont.
I had only been calling our parents by their first names—Jeannie instead of Mom and Leo instead of Dad—for a few months, and I wasn’t used to it, but I had stolen money from our mother all my life.
At first, it had been for Miranda.
“It’s for chocolate,” she’d said when we were small.
“It’s for that tiara at Levinger’s Toy Mart. For my birthday."
Then years later: “It’s for cigarettes.”
“It’s for beer.”
“It’s for shrooms.”
“It’ll be fun.”
“I need it.”
I never took much. Ten dollars here. A fiver. Twenty dollars two or three days after our mother went to the bank, but before she did the weekly grocery haul.
It never occurred to me to question why it should be me. Miranda and I both knew I wouldn’t get caught and that of the two of us, I would hold up better than she would under our mother’s scrutiny if it should come to that.
After Miranda had left her college that night in January and not come back—simply packed up, driven away, and disappeared, according to her roommate, no destination or address, nothing—I kept a hand in, to keep in practice, mostly to see whether the talent of robbing Jeannie bit by bit would hold up when only one person could possibly be the thief. I got more daring, careless even, as the weeks, then months, of Miranda being lost, or perhaps more accurately lost to us, went by, because I wanted to see if Jeannie or Leo were paying attention. They weren’t. I never bought anything excessive. I bought little luxuries I didn’t even want, much less need, because I wanted to give myself things I wouldn’t miss if they should break or disappear or if suddenly the money that had brought them to me should become inaccessible. Sno-Globes from the convenience store that depicted various American landmarks in a swirl of white—the Liberty Bell, Bunker Hill Monument, the statue of Paul Revere. Pez dispensers. Sunglasses. Make-up with sparkles in it. The expensive kind of shampoo Jeannie would never buy.
When the Vermont plans were fully underway in late July, I got even bolder in how much money I took and how often because I had to, and the day Jeannie caught me stealing, I lied to her, and she let me lie. I stared her down in the wake of my lies, daring her to call me on it. Jeannie tried to show me up with a direct command, pulling out the full name—“Maggie Leonard, you”—but she never made it past the accusatory pronoun. I waited for her to deflate and retreat and she did. I didn’t blink. I knew she was too frightened to lose her other daughter to piss me off by making a federal case out of some missing tens and twenties.
The prospect of that camping trip had become everything. The summer had started off dull and swampy, and the days and nights, weighed down with a shroud of humidity that never lifted, seemed interminable until the evening in late June when Luke floated the idea of going to this Vermont campsite in the mountains, a place he had heard about from his older brother. Talking about an end-of-summer trip, where we’d go, what we’d do, the drugs we’d bring, had eased the silences between the seven of us, a conversational tide ebbing and flowing between friendships formed by circumstance more than design. Plans were formed, gear and supplies were borrowed and purchased. The Vermont border was only 50 miles away, but the two-lane local roads we planned to take north so we could drink and get high without getting nailed by the cops were winding and slow and unlit at night. So few people left Otis or the surrounding smattering of depressed, pastoral New England towns and small cities to begin with, and a 120-mile trip through the mountains into Vermont could take more than three hours. By virtue of those things, the river campground south of Rutland seemed like another world to us. All summer long, our band of seven talked it up and drank and worked for minimum wage and talked it up some more.
We talked about it so much, the trip itself could never have measured up no matter what happened. Predictably, most of the weekend was a bust before it began. At the last minute, Marla, Will, and Lexi all said they couldn’t get out of work on Friday. The rest of us—Luke, Brian, Gregory, and I—could have driven up early without them and set up camp that afternoon, but going up together was supposed to be part of the fun, so instead the four of us spent the day getting high and drinking Kahlua on ice in Luke’s basement while we waited for them. It was dusk when we finally left Otis. Within an hour, the woods that flanked us on both sides were hooded and dark, our legs were cramped from sitting all day, and the ribbons coming from the headlights of our three speeding cars, one behind the other, were the only light on the road. We were almost at the campground when Luke got a ticket for driving 65 in a 35-mile-per-hour speedtrap somewhere on Route 7. Instead of being thankful that the cop didn’t notice he was stoned, Luke grumbled about why a statie had strayed from the easy speed traps perched on the bends of the interstate, and the second the flashing headlights from the police car were no longer visible in Luke’s rearview mirror, he gunned it to 75, surging us into the darkness again.
We got to the campsite after eleven, and I held a flickering flashlight for Luke and Gregory while they hammered tent stakes into the hardened ground with flat, heavy rocks from the river shoreline. The fire we’d all been excited about building took an hour to catch because the wood in the area was either green or damp from rain or both. The fire was small and died quickly, and in any case it was too late to cook any of the grill food we’d bought, so we ate from bags of gorp for dinner, got high again to the dying ember light of the fire, and went to bed, shivering with cold even huddled in our sleeping bags. We had two big tents and I shared one of them with Luke, his girlfriend Marla, and Gregory, who had been my chem lab partner all year. Marla had been no help in getting camp set up. Her main talent seemed to be her ability to French-inhale the Parliaments she chain-smoked as she watched the rest of us work. The word around school was that Marla gave a great blowjob, too, but when I was feeling mean and honest, I suspected this was more a comment on her willingness than her technique. As we zipped up in our sleeping bags for that first, cold night in Vermont, Luke and Marla sharing theirs, I prayed I wouldn’t have to find out whether I was right or not.
When it started to rain, I was relieved at first. The patter on the tent tarp drowned out the unmistakable smacking sounds of Luke and Marla’s kissing and the shushing of the sleeping bag as they rubbed against each other in the mountain darkness. I was turned away, my back to them, and I tried to focus on the sound of the river flowing over rockbeds, but Luke and Marla were too loud and urgent to ignore. The rain drummed down heavier, and I shivered as I felt a puddle forming in the air bubble between the tent bottom and a slope in the uneven ground underneath us. My hand-me-down sleeping bag from Miranda was old and lumpy and not waterproof, and before long, I was freezing, my hands and feet clammy. I yanked the cuffs of my sweatshirt over my hands, clenching them into fists for makeshift gloves. The last thing I remember before falling into a dreamless trance of a sleep was blowing through the cotton layer of the sweatshirt to warm my fingers and then the length of Gregory Siegel’s body, still in his brown coveralls and wrapped in his own sleeping bag cocoon, curling around from behind me, the heat of him radiating through the layers. Gregory, who rarely spoke to me directly unless he had to and then in monosyllables about whatever chem lab fuck-up we were perpetrating at school. Gregory, who had stopped speaking to me altogether in a manner so stealthy, I could not pinpoint when the fumbling fragments had faded into a silent nothing. Still, in the clammy dark of the tent, he slid his arm under my neck and head to cushion it from the cold ground turning to mud beneath us. His breath on the back of my neck was a warm pulse in the darkness, its heated waves against my skin pushing and then receding, the only thing other than the building storm around us that reminded me of who and where I was. The rain continued to fall harder and harder until we couldn’t hear anything else, not even the river. I fell asleep frozen by the possibility of even small joy. By now, I was used to disappearance. I was less prepared for return.
The next day was Saturday, our only full day away. We might have time for a short hike and a swim in the river on Sunday morning, but that afternoon would be spent driving back to Otis because most of us needed to be back early Sunday evening. So we got up earlier than was comfortable on Saturday to go on our long, day-hike up the mountain. Everyone was slow and hung over as we stumped our way through the muddy trails and made our way past the treeline, everyone except for Will, who seemed to have boundless energy despite his drug intake being higher than anyone else’s. I could have been happy staying in the campground, spending the morning reading, the afternoon climbing a tree, going skinny-dipping in the river. But the bravado of the boys in one-upping each other during a breakfast of instant oatmeal—betting who could climb highest, farthest, quickest; who could carry the heaviest pack; who could roll the fattest joint and smoke it fastest while climbing up the gorge—made it impossible to even get a word in much less voice a more cautious alternative plan.
Before I could muster the nerve to say anything, Lexi started complaining she must have slept funny on her ankle because it felt swollen and sprained. Within thirty seconds of her whining, she had managed to annoy Will enough for him to snipe that if she was wounded, she should stay at the campsite all day and tend the kitchen like the housewife she was meant to be. Lexi looked conflicted, possibly relieved at being let off the hook on the hike, but smarting from the insult. Instead of retorting, she stared down Brian, who quit flicking the wheel on his lighter to watch it spark and light and extinguish. He took the hint, and jumped in to volunteer to stay with Lexi for the day. Then it got quiet, too quiet, everyone thinking about what was being decided in this game of hiking musical chairs, and suddenly we all understood something had happened between Lexi and Brian, maybe the night before, maybe all through July. Whatever had or hadn’t happened, that Saturday in Vermont, they wanted to be able to fuck all day in one of the tents, undisturbed. So at that point, there was no way for me to hang back at the campsite, too.
We Leonards aren’t big hikers. I liked the woods and lakes, but my mother had never camped in her life and my father was a New York City guy at heart, a transplant who grumbled that he had managed to end up in a small New England town surrounded by damp greenery and wildlife from all sides. So all my walks in nature had been near Otis, short and on flat ground, amidst scraggly blackberry bushes, with no one to join me but Miranda when we were younger, and when we were older, it was me on my own. We lived a stone’s throw from them on a map and they were part of the distant horizon, but I wasn’t used to the mountains. From a distance or from the apex, people gushed about the freedom, the great expanse they afforded, but to me, hiking up that morning from the valley below was claustrophobic. Only thin bluish streams of sunlight filtered through the thick canopy of pines, the trails quickly narrowed until we could only walk single file, and the changing, increasing elevation made my heart beat faster. But I liked that this walk was mine, that this weekend was mine, and ours, that no one had mentioned or not mentioned the cavernous absence that was Miranda for 24 hours and no one would or would not until I was home again.
At home, for weeks after her disappearance, so much of the panicked talk was of Miranda, Jeannie whipping herself with what-if scenarios that she spun into funnel clouds from nothing and then punishing Leo for his retreat further into the cellar of himself, something he did at even a slight sign of friction. In those early months, they pursued haphazard leads that led nowhere. When they ran out of language to both fuel and quell their hysteria, the quiet was heroin-heavy, and Miranda still loomed everywhere and nowhere no matter what we refrained from saying out loud. Especially not the obvious—that this new reality, this wait for the vanished to re-emerge as visible, might have no end. It was 1993. It was not hard to disappear.
Until I was walking through those Vermont forest trails, I hadn’t understood even my breathing had become shallow in the previous months. At home, I had been passing in and out of that deadened house only to eat and sleep. Nothing more.
Brian and Lexi ducked into one of the tents together even before we hit the trailhead. With only five of us left, it bothered me that Marla was the only other girl hiking. I was straining to keep up. I might have slowed down if it had been only me and the three guys, but Marla didn’t seem to be breaking a sweat and I needed to keep up with her, especially her. She was pretty, prettier than me anyway, with light, honey hair that she bleached even lighter with Sun-In or some other bottle of chemical magic but that managed to look natural nevertheless. Everything about Marla was like that. Fake but effective. She wasn’t smart but she always had something quick to say, quick enough to make people laugh and not push or examine what she’d said too deeply. Marla made Luke carry her stuff—“if you can’t ask your boyfriend to carry your hiking pack, what good is he?”—and all she wore was her bikini and cutoffs, with big, lumbering men’s logger work boots. And that swath of shimmery, glossy hair, swaying across her shoulders as she walked. The work boots were too big for her feet and the laces on the boots were loosened and untied, as though she didn’t care if they came off, so with each step as the trail grew steeper, the boots seemed to give a little when she tried to gain a foothold, her feet slipping inside them and making a hiss when her ankles hit the insoles.
As we approached the ridge, the air got colder and thinner. I could peer down and see nothing but a ledge of rock, a slope littered with rocks and clumps of dry earth the same color and shape and texture of the dirt and stone on our trail. It occurred to me that the narrow trail we were following had loosened from years of footfalls and erosion and the pressures of winter snow and ice, such that rock and mudslides had probably fallen from where we were standing with great frequency, showering all the tiers of mountain land below. I quickened my pace and tried to tread lightly, but the more I felt the give of the ground under my feet, the more I wanted to get to the next leg of the trail, where we would be climbing on more solid stone up the face of the mountain.
Gregory hadn’t said a word to me all morning. Not when he unfurled his body from the tight, curved shape it had made around mine all night. Not when he put my hoop earring, which had gotten caught on his sweatshirt during the night, in the well of my sneaker instead of giving it to me. Not when I handed him a collapsible tin cup of burnt black coffee. Not when I tried to grab his hand when we first hit the trailhead and he pulled away, quickening his pace so he was right behind Will, with Luke and Marla in between us. Nothing. Not a word or even a look. He had disappeared again into himself, a secret self who was a stranger to me, leaving me to ponder what we both felt, whether the touches in the darkness and the rush of soul-warmth that they brought meant anything or nothing or something mysterious in between that would remain unnameable.
As we climbed the rockface, his gaze was everywhere but on me. I kept my eyes on other people’s steps as I went, the choices they made that worked and those that made them stumble or falter or slip. It wasn’t easy climbing. If Gregory hadn’t been so evasive at the campground, after being so gentle and reassuring with his body if not his words—submarine-dark again for the second time that summer—I’m not sure where he was or wasn’t looking would have bothered me, or if I’d even have noticed. How often had I noticed him really? In fact, it wasn’t until now, when he was ignoring me that I understood: Most of the time in school, the main thing I noticed about Gregory, without even realizing it consciously, was that despite his general quiet and reserve, he noticed me. He didn’t stare me down like some sort of creepy stalker guy, like those lecherous patrons at the VFW after they’d had a few beers or ten and followed you home or offered you a ride in their wheezing Dusters. Gregory watched and took me in. He kept enough distance to give me room to move through myself and the spaces between me and the rest of the world without feeling self-conscious, and yet he saw me.
I didn’t catch Gregory watching me exactly. It’s more that now I could feel the empty space where he had been—him not being there. I understood that usually, if he was around, I felt him there, on me, in me, next to me, his focused attention, the way you feel sun on the back of your neck when the clouds have burned off even if your eyes are closed. Strangest of all, whatever it was he was seeing in me or about me, he didn’t turn away. Now that his gaze was no longer there, it was dawning on me how used to its constancy I was. I kicked roughly at the stones on the path with my toe and knocked them off the cliff. I heard nothing for far longer than I thought it should have taken for gravity to do its work, and then when the rocks finally hit the ledge below, a distant clatter like billiard balls knocking against each other. I didn’t like what any of this might mean. Without even making a decision, without even knowing who Gregory was or whether I cared, without having any sense of what his eyes might want from me or get from me, without even knowing I had something, anything, to lose, Gregory’s frank eyes were absent. And now that they were lost, I wanted them back.
If things had gone differently, I might remember the summit more. Only a handful of memories of those last climbs to the peak stayed with me, turning in my head like smooth pebbles you gather in your pocket without knowing why, so you can touch them later and know from their weight and sound and their hard separateness from the skin covering your bones and muscles that you are a body and that body is alive. What stayed was the burning of my thighs and feeling that stretch of pain recede into the pleasure-pulse of exertion. That and the crispness of everything my eyes fell upon. Leaves waving to the sky. The cracked eggshell silhouette of the mountain range. The red of Will’s vest against the rock he lay on as he ate, his back to the rest of us. The way Luke and Marla’s fingers were laced together as they held hands. The tiny stubble hairs I could make out on Gregory’s jawline as he looked out into the nothing of the distance. That’s it.
We leaned on rough rock slabs and ate our sandwiches—pre-packaged coldcuts on stale white bread. Each of us got a squirt of mustard from the plastic bottle of Gulden’s Will had carried in his pack, to make the round circles of bologna and salami more palatable. No one talked or photographed anything. No one had even brought a camera. All of which seems strange to me now. That the landscape of that morning was uncluttered by the layered, waterfall noise of language, that no one gave a thought to preserving the memory of all that terrible beauty.
The descent was jagged and loud. Our feet tumbling against, down, over. Hands bracing against roots. The suction and choking sound of each boot heel pulling up and out of the wet clay.
When we hit the treeline again we started talking as though no silence had clouded over the day, mostly bickering about where on the trail we needed to turn west to get to the quarry before heading back to camp. Here and there we paused to roll and light cigarettes and joints.
I was good and high when we reached the quarry. A cheesy wooden campground sign with crooked hand-painted yellow lettering proclaimed that the quarry had been first established in the late 1700s and had once been one of the biggest sources of granite in the country. But the mine had closed in the late 1980s, and in the years since the operation had been abandoned, groundwater and rainwater had crept back in and collected to form a deep lake. A pool at the bottom of a hole people had been digging for over two centuries. Generations of American stonecutters had carved into the earth, extracting rock sheets slab by slab, like dentists pulling enormous, uniform teeth from the mouth of the earth. The empty space their mining had left behind was an inverted pyramid of air, the glittery flat mirror of the lake daring us to look into it and try to see to the bottom. We can cut away to the center of things, said the echoing ghost voices of dusty stonecutters in the tiered canyon, the veins in the granite walls made bare by the saws used to slice into it. We can test gravity. We can make power from altitude and depth. We stand atop the hardened crusty plates of this earth. We rule over the vanished and the vanishing. We are in control.
“How high do you think it is,” Luke asked, his hand shading his eyes from the sun as he peered up at the cliff shelves. The cuts into the rock made so long ago had molded the terrain above the lake into three ledges of ascending height, three plateaus where the granite had been leveled off into a broad cliff overhang. The first ledge was about the same height as the diving platform at the town pool at home, high enough from the water surface that the quarry jumpers who frequented the spot all summer could get a rush, but not so high that they felt reckless in stepping off the edge. The next level was double or even triple that height, high enough above the lake to feel like a jump into an abyss. The third level was so high, we had to crane our neck to see it. A small group of kids, probably locals, were jumping from the first two levels, the older pair among them taunting the younger ones to dare a dive from the highest level. Their teasing echoed down to us, tinkling like wind chimes.
“Fuck, man, who knows how high,” Will said. “Higher than we are. And who cares.”
“If you figure that kid is a little more than five feet tall,” said Gregory, gesturing at the ringleader who kept cannonballing into the lake below to make as big a splash as he could when his body torpedoed the water, “the first ledge looks between two and three people lengths, ten to fifteen feet. Next one up is more than twice that, so I’m guessing 35, 40 feet?”
“Holy shit,” said Luke.
Marla stared down at her polished nails as though contemplating her next manicure. “I wonder what Lexi and Brian are up to,” she smirked.
“So that third level,” continued Gregory, “hell, that’s gotta be like maybe 75 to 85 feet up.”
“No way,” said Luke.
“Mister fucking wizard, aren’t you,” said Will. “Remind me to bring you along next time I need to tip a waitress.”
“Do people even jump from that high?” asked Luke, still squinting up at the top ledge.
“Of course they do,” said Gregory.
“Assholes,” I said.
“How do you know, genius?” laughed Will.
“You can make out some of the graffiti on the top ledge from here,” said Gregory. “People spraypainting their names, the date they jumped, whatever.”
“So stupid,” I said.
“Dude notices fuckin’ everything,” Luke said.
Marla had taken off her cutoffs and her socks and boots and was rubbing suntan oil on herself. The slick kind that left her glistening and that smelled like coconuts and vaguely of yesterday’s booze and sex. She stretched herself out on a flat slab and closed her eyes. “Wake me when we’re doing anything,” she said.
“Don’t get comfortable,” Will said. “Fifty feet or 100, assholes or not, we’re jumping.”
“Jesus,” said Marla, sitting up, but she didn’t argue. She put her boots back on and began lacing them up again.
“You fuckin’ moron,” jeered Will.
“Dude, you call her a moron again, I’ll fuckin’ push you off with your boots still on,” said Luke.
“What is the deal?” snapped Marla.
Gregory piped up before Will or Luke could answer. His voice was gentle. “You’re not gonna jump with your boots or clothes on. And it’s too far to wear them for the hike up, take ’em off to jump, and then climb all the way up to get them, only to put them back on and have to walk down again. All wet, too.”
“You hang on to this one, Maggie,” said Will. “With his kinda brains, he’s perfect for chem lab.”
“Fuck off, Will,” I said. “If you need to jump from the mountain top to show everyone how big your dick is, no time like the present.”
Luke hooted. Will glared at me but then smiled and lit a cigarette. When he said, “Let’s do it,” he, Luke, and Marla stripped down, Marla to her bikini, the boys to their boxer briefs. Before I could think of anything to say, they had walked across the clear plateau where we had paused to take in the view, around the eastern edge of the lake, and then stepped onto the uneven stone staircase that had been cut into the northern side of the remaining quarry rock, the only path leading up to the jump spots. Soon their outlines became smaller and smaller against the rockface as they climbed.
They were already out of sight and hadn’t re-emerged at any of the jump sites when Gregory finally spoke again.
“Wanna see something cool?”
“If it’s 85 feet up, I’ll pass.” The second the words left me, I was kicking myself. Why couldn’t I say “yes” or “no” like everyone else?Why did I always have to be difficult?
“Nah, it’s cooler than that. C’mon.”
I expected him to follow where the others had gone, but instead he led me the other way, walking along the flat path that made its way around the southern rim of the quarry. We walked for about ten minutes in silence, the caws and hoots and splashes of the kids jumping into the lake receding into a softening jingle of overlapping voices behind us. The path opened up again onto another broadened plateau. Cut into the rock wall to our left was a monolithic opening, a black void of an entryway into the mountainside, the rockface having had been chewed up and gutted by metal machines whose force and brutality I could not fathom. The only signs of life at the entrance were some rusted cables, a few of them still wrapped around granite slabs that had been abandoned when the quarry had shut down.
I started to ask whether we were allowed to go in, but I could see nothing to deter us. No guards or security, no alarms, no fences, no warning signs, no rockslides to block our way. Gregory kept walking into the blackness, and I followed the echoing sound of his boots crunching on the rock dust and gravel. The mouth of this manmade cave was huge, but only a soft halo of sunlight hit the entrance and within a minute of walking inside, we were in a darkness that seemed total at first, except that it deepened blacker with every step we took. Every few strides, I would turn around to look back at the bluish-white rectangle of light where we’d come from, each time the shape growing a little smaller. The air became cold and still, and the hair on my arms stood on end.
The crackle of Gregory’s footsteps and then my own behind his were my only guide. For a while, the sound of those footfalls one after the other—the volume, the echo they made, their steady tempo—assured me that the tunnel we were in was still broad and colossal, that the walls weren’t narrowing in on us as we marched forward. The only other sound, the sporadic trickle and plink of dripping water, was no help. It gave us no sense of where we were or if we were correct to assume that our solitude guaranteed our safety. So I concentrated on the trudge and drag of Gregory’s feet. I somehow knew not to say anything.
We kept going, Gregory walking ahead and me trailing behind him, for what could have been as little as a few minutes or as long as an hour. I couldn’t see anything. My other senses sharpened, so I noticed my body and the space around me through the small details that came at me blind, like radio signals emitted to me in the dark—the clammy smell of rock dust, the wet damp patches that quieted the shush of the gravel and rock and dust we tread on, the mossy taste in my mouth from smoking too much weed all weekend, the swell of my tongue pushing against my teeth, the raw rub of my ankle against the thinning wool of my sock, which would soon blister if I wasn’t careful.
I stopped walking only when I realized the footfall sounds ahead of me had ceased tumbling over each other and all I could hear were my own sneakers. The still and silent deadness around me seemed to be making its way into everything, like nothing alive had ever been here and never would be again, including me. The submissive plink of water droplets sneaking in from mysterious crevices only underscored that life, vibrating with strident sound and purpose, was somewhere else. Even my pulse quickening in the dark seemed unreal, like a doorway that was closing, like that little square of light behind me that I could no longer see.
I felt myself to starting to panic and was about to run, not caring if I slammed into the rockface wall or further into the tunnel’s void where all signs of Gregory had disappeared. Then I heard a familiar flick and snap followed by a tiny flame flickering in the dark. I moved toward it, and the closer I got, I could make out Gregory, a halo of soft firelight above him as he held his Zippo lighter overhead and turned to look up.
The tunnel had led into an even bigger atrium. This room carved out of the rock was like an austere cathedral, stripped of all the decorative elements. Just tiered flat planes of charcoal-grey rock walls extending upward to a ceiling so high up we couldn’t see it, with soft veins of lighter grey and white running through the surface. Inside this dead empty tomb of the earth, we were pebbles of bone and blood muscle strewn along its floors. I could not imagine where all the rock that had once filled this forever-night of emptiness, with its heft and seemingly impenetrable solidity, might have gone. That the granite monoliths had been dragged out to the surface and back to a world I could understand, had been whittled into smaller, more manageable, familiar parts, the harsh edges round off. Someone’s table. Another’s headstone. A crypt. A home. A war memorial. A statue. A school. A library. A monument to the human drive to privilege the self and its comforts above all things, including a natural world more forceful and vengeful than we can ever hope to be.
I was about ten feet from Gregory when he saw me, and as soon as he did, instead of doing what I’d expected, extending his hand or beckoning me to come to stand next to him and take the emptiness in, I heard the clap of the Zippo lid closing over the glow of the flame, and it was dark again.
It was quiet for a moment, and then I heard him whisper something, so softly at first I couldn’t make him out, and then again a little louder.
“Scream,” he said. “Scream.”
So I did.
The scream that came from me but did not seem of my body was wordless and endless, like the dark wormhole chamber we’d been traversing. It bounced off the granite walls and upward to the ceiling and then came careening back at me, the echo of me crashing against the scream wave still rushing from my mouth. It was a wail of aloneness and desperation, of the strangers my parents were to me and to each other now. My tongue was the wild sprawl of grief turned to sound, of whatever unmapped course and new territories my sister had veered into without me. Her new dark void of a life was a tunnel I couldn’t follow into a future I couldn’t identify, and whenever and wherever I tried to imagine the world she was inhabiting now, all I could see was blackness.
I had had glimpses of the spaces Miranda had been inhabiting away at college, I could picture the life she was leading there without me, and that small knowing and imagining had been a way of sharing that went beyond geography. When she vanished, nothing had filled that. The things I tried to imagine only frightened me, in part because of my uncertainty about them, my inability to choose between such incongruous and unreliable stories about where she was and who she was becoming. Miranda had left us nothing we could be sure of. I couldn’t even picture the things I thought I knew about her because somehow they had led us here, to the inexplicable vacuum of her absence, to a place somewhere far off the map I’d used to chart and understand her.
My scream through the granite quarry gallery cut through all those doubts and unanswerable questions, conquering the space where my sister had been, a space that had left pockets of dead air everywhere, inside me, inside our family, in the rooms I paced wondering whether she’d ever come back and if she did, if I’d recognize the stranger she said she was now, by choice.
I don’t know how long the scream lasted. I know my voice grew hoarse and the scream bled into something like a sobbing that had no tears but that brought me to my knees. When I stood up, quiet again, I felt older, like my body had gained a sense of its own rightful center of gravity. I didn’t yet know who I was or could be in the world without Miranda, but the sound of my own voice cutting and bouncing through the cave and then the creep of echoing silence after I’d stopped was the first time it seemed possible that some of me might emerge from this darkness without her.
Time sped up after that and the way back from the cave seemed quicker, shorter. I didn’t remember Gregory coming upon me while I was hollering into the blackness of the gallery quarry, but he must have, because when we walked out into the light of day again, his hand was holding mine, our fingers entwined.
Walking back on the same path that had led us to the underground granite chamber, I stayed half a step ahead of Gregory, pulling him along at a quickening pace. I didn’t realize I knew where I was leading us until he asked where we were going.
“We’re going to jump,” I said, my head gesturing upward to where the others were now coming back into view. We paused only at the plateau where our friends had left their clothes and shoes and stayed long enough to shed our own. I kicked off my sneakers and stripped down to my bathing suit, a black one-piece I’d bought earlier in the summer for swim-team tryouts when school started again. Gregory ditched his boots and socks, but he hesitated about the coveralls. At first, I thought he was being shy again or was worried about what his nude body would look like compared to Luke’s or Will’s. I was going to say he had nothing to worry about.
Before I could, he unbuttoned the coverall shirtfont, pulled his arms from the sleeves so he was bare-chested, and then rolled the excess fabric down to his hips, tying the sleeves around his waist.
When he caught me staring at him, he looked down at the brown pants and blushed a little.
“I’m fine with stripping down to my underwear,” he said.
“So why don’t you?”
He smiled, a little sheepish. “Not wearing any under these today.”
We both laughed and laughed as we rolled a few cigarettes to smoke on the hike up, and when we were ready to go again, we were hand-in-hand again, me leading the way, as though we’d been together that way all weekend. Comfortable. I hadn’t been comfortable, it seemed to me, in a long time.
Marla hadn’t been wrong in her instinct to keep her boots on for the trek up to the cliffs and then take them off at the top—even if it would have necessitated a second climb to retrieve them. The path that circled around the quarry lake was narrow and hadn’t been cut by the quarry saws with hikers in mind. On the northern side of the lake, the path shifted from a flat shelf of granite to uneven staggered steps and an incline that shot up and up and up, more like a wall than a viable route to any fixed destination we could see. No matter that the endpoint wasn’t visible because in truth, we couldn’t look up for most of the walk anyway. Puddles and slick spots overgrown with moss and lichen dotted the stone floor and meant that we needed to be watchful not to slip on those patches in our bare feet. So Gregory and I held hands and my eyes followed the steps that seemed surest. Gregory’s eyes followed my feet and when he was sure of my footing, he stepped where I had gone before him.
Our friends must have gotten bored of the mid-level dive because when we arrived, we found only the local kids we’d seen earlier, deciding to make one last group jump—all three of them in a line—before heading home again. We didn’t stop to watch, but we could hear them bickering about whether to hold hands before jumping. When they had decided against that, they continued to argue and rib each other about who would hit the water first if they all leaped at the same time.
Gregory and I hurried along to get to the top, and when the path flattened and opened up to the upper cliff ledge, we were both out of breath. Will, Marla, and Luke were all there, leaning against a boulder and passing around another joint, their bodies shiny and wet from the lake water.
“Where the fuck have you two been?” snickered Will, his eyes fixing on our clasped hands.
“We checked out a manmade cave,” said Gregory evenly. “Called a gallery quarry. Or a quarry gallery, I forget which. Where they used to store the granite slabs they cut before towing them onto trucks going to warehouses or wherever.”
Luke snorted and coughed out a stream of smoke.
“How long you guys been up here?” I said.
“Long enough to have done this jump a few times over and be tired of waiting for your asses,” said Marla.
Part of me didn’t want to believe her, but the cliff ledge was wet with multiple sets of footprints.
Looking me up and down, Marla added, “Be glad you’re not wearing a two-piece. My top’s come off every time I hit that water, and these two have been total dicks about it.”
Luke and Will both huffed with stifled laughter.
“All right. We’ve got time for one more jump before we ought to head back to camp and start collecting wood and shit for a fire,” Will said.
“Man, did you really wear that damn coverall up here?” said Luke to Gregory. “How fucking shy are you? We’ve known each other since, like, pre-K.”
“Let him be,” I said.
“Dude, shy or no, he’s better off. My balls still hurt from the last jump,” laughed Will.
Gregory looked relieved and ready to change the subject. But he hadn’t let go of my hand.
“Bottoms up,” said Luke, who tossed the roach from the joint over the edge, stepped back a few feet to give himself some starting ground, and ran out to the lip of the cliff, taking a long stride at the end before disappearing into the abyss of the canyon. He bellowed on the way down and I counted one, two, and almost to three before I heard his gravelly voice go silent followed by the splash.
Gregory let go of my hand to adjust the arms of the coveralls tied around his waist and then crept up to the edge and peered down, where Luke was paddling around at the bottom, moving out of the way so someone could jump next without hitting him.
“Fuck, that’s a long way,” he said. “Anything we ought to know before we do this?”
“Just that if you don’t want to do a running start, you still need to take a pretty big step out off the edge,” Will said. “If you look close, man, especially from the bottom, the base juts out farther than the top. You gotta jump out extra to clear it without getting fucked on the way down.”
“Good to know,” said Gregory, smiling at me.
Will prattled on about the adrenaline rush. Marla kept rearranging and tightening the straps of her bikini top. The longer we stood there gabbing and stalling, the bigger the drop to the bottom seemed to me as I gazed out into the open mouth of the canyon. Gregory couldn’t stop leaning over the ledge and staring down. I kept wanting to pull him back, but didn’t want Marla to see I was afraid.
“I’m freezing,” sighed Marla. “Time to do this.” And with that, with no run-up at all, she crossed her arms in front of her chest—I guessed to try to keep her bikini top in place as best she could—and with one long stride leaped out from the precipice and shot straight down. No holler, no squeal, just a faint, shrill whistle of her body moving through the air, and the eerie count in my head before she hit the water. There. Then not there. Then somewhere else out of sight.
Will, Gregory, and I stood there, looking at each other, like we were each waiting for something else to happen.
“You guys comin’?” Luke’s voice echoed up at us from far below.
“See y’all down there,” Will said to us, and he stepped out and down and gone. Swallowed.
One, two, three, I thought, and I could feel my toes curling. Now that I was up here, I wasn’t sure I wanted to jump. Not from this height. But when I thought of the reality of choosing the treacherous, slippery climb down on foot instead of jumping, I could already feel a different kind of dread and shame creeping up in me.
One, two, three, I couldn’t stop the counting. One. Two. Thr—
Gregory looked at me and put his hand on my shoulder. “You don’t have to do it, you know. It’s fine.”
I took a few deep breaths, and then said, “Nah, it’s too far and slippery to walk it again. Fuck it.” I gave Gregory’s hand, still on my shoulder, a squeeze, then back-pedaled like Luke had, and I ran off the hard rock edge into nothing.
The drop that had seemed like forever when watching the others was a mere blink when it was me in the air. Only a blast of wind through my hair, the rushing color-blend of the canyon sliding by my eyes, a metal taste in my mouth, my skin clapping against the water surface, the thick plunge of my body downward, and the cold of the lake curling around me. Barely time to straighten my body so I hit the water in a vertical line.
I drifted back up, pulling over to the right before I surfaced and inhaled. I could hear Will, Luke, and Marla hooting, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. They gestured toward the lip of the low ledge where they were standing. I couldn’t see at first how I could possibly pull myself up, but then realized they were pointing at a rope ladder with wood slats for rungs. Someone had lashed it to the side of the ledge so jumpers could climb out without having to swim half the rim of the lake to find a lower spot to pull themselves out of the water. I started to make my way toward the ladder, breast-stroking because I was panting too much to swim freestyle. When I tried the top rung to hoist myself and heard the wood slat clattering against the rockface, jittering in my hands, I realized my heart was still machine-gunning in my chest and my arms and my legs were shaking, not from the cold water, but from the rush of the jump. It was as though I had been dead and hadn’t known it until then, and now my body was reminding the rest of me what alive could feel like. Instead of trying to climb the ladder that way, my body an awkward and jittering electric live wire that made the ladder twist and turn, unsteady under my muscle spasms, I stayed put in the water and hung off the top rung in my hands, my mind a blown fuse. I remembered that Gregory was still up there and turned around to look.
I could see the tiny, foreshortened silhouette of him peering down from the cliff, waving at me. He had waited to make sure I was okay. I could see him futzing with something, probably adusting his coveralls again, and then he was a little moving speck stepping off the cliff and rushing down toward us.
The rest, I’ve revisited and relived in my head and heart many times, and I still don’t know how to describe it in any way that feels like a truth to me. Almost from the moment Gregory left the safety of the ledge, we all must have realized watching his body descend that he hadn’t jumped out far enough. Because even before his head and arm hit the side of the rockface about halfway down, the force of it pinging Gregory back off the cliff and hurtling him into the water at a diagonal angle, we were all shouting useless, unintelligible commands, willing him to correct his mistake, as though that were in his power now that gravity and velocity had overtaken him.
Memory has rewritten that portion of that day over and over again. Everything after Gregory hitting the cliffside was a shockwave, not unlike the slap of that water, one that rippled through the continuity of the time that followed. Those moments afterward, like all those before them, must have been strung together one after the other and suspended into a coherent sequential ribbon, but from below, all that was visible was that roiling wave and the pull and tear at the fabric of each second of Gregory’s descent, leaving only jagged, edited snippets that didn’t seem to form a whole. There was no story. Only flashes of images and sound and smell and taste that I took in and hung onto in the moment because I couldn’t wrap myself around the fullness of what we’d lived, it was so wide and so deep and so empty.
The hitting and splash of his body into the water, limbs splayed out.
The brown of those coveralls, wet and darkened and clinging to his legs.
The arms of the coveralls having untied themselves from around his waist, and waving through the water.
The hump of his lifeless torso bobbing, and then beginning to sink into the lake, and then the cloud of red mushrooming out in the blue-blackness of the lake water.
The penny-taste of blood in my mouth from where I must have bitten into my inner cheek as I watched from the water.
Luke or Will, maybe both of them, must have dove in, and dragged Gregory out and over the lip of the ledge. I don’t remember climbing up that ladder and out of the water, only the drip of water sagging out of those coveralls as they hauled him and pushed him up and onto the granite. I don’t remember the interminable wait for help, only that Luke and Marla were the ones to go because they were gone suddenly. I don’t remember how long Will did CPR on Gregory before stopping, only that he did—and when he did, he couldn’t stop heaving, his body a quaking, wet shudder. It took me longer than it should have to understand that Will was weeping.
There was the cold heaviness of Gregory’s hand as I held it. The chatter of my teeth. The way the park rangers and EMTs who showed up loaded him onto a spine board, how the ones who interviewed us kept calling him “Chip” when they asked us their stupid questions, and none of us could bear to correct them for hours.
It sounds strange to say there was no real end to it. When no end is more definitive. But really, where does such a story end, with all those images and sounds and smells and tastes floating in me still? Where is the end? Does it end with Gregory’s jump? In the cave before we ever climb up to the top ledge? Or is it over in the Rutland hospital where I visit him, tubed up and bound to a metal bed and whirring machines, because as dead as he looks in that water, as fish-dead as we all become inside seeing him floating there, Gregory has something left in him that fights on, near-silently, for weeks and then months before his body shuts down for good? Is it ever over, given that I relive that jump in my head? Which I did. Which I do.
Whose story even is it? If it’s Gregory’s, the beginning of the story of his end, which is what it should be, he is not here to tell it. When I’ve gone back and pieced together those torn rags of time in a new arrangement, again and again, it’s as though if I concentrate hard enough and get the placement right, it might repair some crack in the firmament of my deepest self. Yet the more times I replay, retell, revise, the less of a grasp I have on whose story I’m telling or why. The memory bobs up in my present like some strange buoy that rocks and clangs on stormy nights.
And yes, of course. Of course. Of course it occurs to me, how could it not—plunged under the water, lost inside the canyon, slapped against the rockface, curled into the bottom of the tent with Gregory’s warm body against me, my thighs and calves pumping up and down that mountain peak—if the story does not end, if nothing ends, perhaps it is because my story goes on beyond this one day. My body emerged and moved beyond that slow darkened ribbon of road that led us into the mountains. Beyond those people—my friends, who every day thereafter stumbled over each other and then kept running in different directions, fleeing, as though the sword of memory only comes down on those who stay still. Beyond that cold lake, beyond the dead slate open-heart surgery of the quarry and its crude cathedral of absence, beyond all the losses that I’d already weathered and those seasonal tornadoes of grief that were yet to come. Am I not also vanished from that day onward? At times I think yes. Would that end or even any end not be just? Yes. But the earth and the air did not, have yet to swallow my suffering. It carries on. With another chapter to narrate to itself before sleep. As I do. Even if I don’t want to.
It carries on. It’s been years of reliving without end now, and I feel I know less, I understand less, even as I see and feel more. The boundaries between what I, Maggie, experienced and each of the others lived—Luke, Marla, Will, even Lexi and Brian, holding hands back at the campsite, waiting for us—have blurred.
I’m me, I’m we, everyone, no one. I’m the cave, I’m the slippery slope up and down the mountain and the wet stone slide of rock up to the cliffs, I’m the ice of the lake water, I’m Miranda, I’m the echo in the cave Miranda left us in, I’m the bottom of the earth itself under the icy water, submerged, watching the force of Gregory’s body torpedo downward in a slurp and wash of white water bubbles, and that red plume haloing out from his head. I’m slumped in the lake surface, the blood seeping from my skull, a red trail drifting into the water around me. I see it over and over, this story retells itself anew.
We are one memory that shifts and cascades with contradiction. Everyone’s story and therefore no one’s. One moment, I’m in my own body, still in the lake, chattering against that damned ladder, watching Gregory’s darkened figure fall and helpless to stop it. Then I’m Marla on the ledge, cold and wet and picking at her toes, looking at Luke watching Gregory’s descent and only turning to the lake surface as she sees Luke’s expression turn to something mangled. I’m Will, lighting a newly rolled joint that he drops when he hears the splash. I’m Gregory, falling and vaguely annoyed and embarrassed as I realize the arms on my coveralls are going to unfurl, if not during the descent then in the water. I’m me again, not on the ladder but in the pool below Gregory as he jumps, and I’m underwater again, looking up as sunlight filters through the clear quarry waters, waiting to emerge from my own jump and pierce the surface.
Mikola De Roo has spent most of her career in publishing, as an editor of trade and educational books. At her current job at Housing Works, a New York City-based non-profit, she oversees advocacy communications and marketing, including the AIDS Issues Update, a weekly blog on HIV/AIDS policy and related issues. She received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, where she was a Colby Fellow and a recipient of the Tyson Award for Fiction. Her short story "Airport Bar" appeared in WV Magazine of the Emerging Writer, and she writes about cycling, training, and pistachio coffee cake on her blog The Blue Streak. "Gallery Quarry" is a chapter from a novel-in-progress. She lives with her wife in Brooklyn.