It was a hot day and they drove out along the Ottauquechee, the two of them sitting up on the pollen-yellow roof of the Volvo with their legs through the sunroof, kicking the headrests and reaching out for tree branches. When they hit pavement the car swayed on its soft springs and Peter’s dad pressed the gas. They clamped their feet around the headrests and tipped back, and as Peter’s dad hugged the shoulder coming around the bend in the river they reached out and tore off fistfuls of maple leaves.
The ropeswing was off the side of a dirt stretch of the road, down a steep mud bank, and to get down to it they’d have to scramble on their backs, sliding on their heels from root to root, and then Daniel would wade in. Just before the water got to his balls, he’d freeze for a second, tense, and then whoop and dive forward into the river. He’d swim to the sun line and tread water and then all at once kick up and reach for the stringy little tail end of the rope, a frayed scrap line tied like a kitetail to the bulging grapefruit knot at the bottom. When he got it he’d hang there for a second, feeling the whole rope wobble and sway sixty feet up, letting his joints fill up with air, and then swing it back and forth, arcing his whole body and kicking himself up so it was just his hips and legs in the water, and then jerk down and whip the whole bucking rope up to shore for Peter, who’d hang tight off a root, reaching out with one hand.
Today when they drove up there were two teenagers on the bank, shirtless and shiny wet. One of them held the rope, leaning back with his feet planted wide, braced against the weight. He had on black basketball shorts and white boxers, which puffed out over the side of his shorts. The other one was wearing sunset colored board shorts, so low that his pubes fuzzed out through the drawstrings. He had his hand on the trunk of the big tree. Daniel had on a dark blue bathing suit with itchy mesh that now he saw made his legs and stomach look white.
Daniel and Peter crept down from the roof of the Volvo, their backs stained yellow, stepping softly on the rearview mirror and swinging down from the roof rack. Daniel hadn’t ever realized you could climb the ropeswing tree, but now he saw that there were little footholds nailed all up its trunk. The guy in board shorts began climbing them two at a time. He had on fat white high tops with the laces untied and water dripped off the ends of the laces as he climbed. His friend with the rope whipped it up and down, sending waves rippling along the rope and up into the leaves.
Daniel backed up against a smaller tree and gently bumped his funny bone. “Fuck,” he whispered. Peter had left his flip-flops at the top of the bank and was lowering himself down the muddy rocks, glancing over his shoulder to make sure he was right in everyone’s way. The guy in the boxers stared out at nothing and pumped the rope up and down, with his other hand down the front of his shorts. The guy in the board shorts had disappeared up the trunk into the leaves. Daniel cradled his elbow.
From up in the tree a voice said, “I think I’m good.”
Daniel stretched out his fingers and a tingle washed over him. He shuddered and leaned against the tree and curled his toes in the dirt. He had to shit, or drink some water, or something. Peter was twenty feet down, hunched in the low rocks down the bank, staring up at the tree. They must be seventeen? Eighteen? The two guys hadn’t glanced their way since they got out of the car. Were they pissed? Daniel shuddered again and felt a tremor building in his wrists, which he washed out by swiveling them in their sockets. It moved to his neck and he rolled his head in a circle. Daniel would be, pissed. Four was too many for this little spot. Five, with Peter’s dad reading the newspaper in the car. And Peter crouching like an asshole right where they probably wanted to swing. Daniel glared at him, but Peter’s eyes were locked on the tree. Daniel held out his thumb and closed one eye.
The guy in boxers stood wide-legged in the dirt above the jumping rocks, nearly in the street, and leaned against the weight of the rope. He went up on his tiptoes, took a quick step forward, and then a couple of steps closer to the tree, moving at a lean. Daniel pressed, tingling, against the rough trunk of a tree. His bathing suit looked frumpy. Up in the tree a branch shifted and a shower of drips glinted down.
He pictured a sharp branch sticking up exactly level with the water. He’d swing out and grab his ankles in the air and break the surface of the water, skewering himself along the branch right between the knobs of his jackknifed knee. Right between the muscle and bone, all the way up to his hip. He wouldn’t even sink, just ragdoll off the branch as the whole submerged tree groaned and finally rolled him underwater. Daniel shivered and clenched his tingling kneecaps and sunk half an inch against the bark of the tree, scratching himself in sharp little stripes that heated into an itch. He pressed into the little points, rolling his shoulder blades to even out the prickling sensation, to make it symmetrical across the skin of his back.
The guy in boxers stood at the base of the tree, hanging onto a nailed-in foothold with his arms outstretched, and he had ahold of the rope by the butt of the knot. He started swinging the rope side to side like a jump rope and then swung it hard around and it flopped lengthwise over the trunk of the tree. Up in the leaves it tightened, and when the guy below let go of the free end it swung out on a shortened arc.
Daniel had never seen anyone holding that part of the rope before. For thirty feet it hung slack and vulnerable, where it would have been outmuscling Daniel, bucking and yanking as he scrambled root to root up the bank. At the tightest moments, outstretched like a cross as he climbed, he’d feel half-gravity, the rope like a living thing trying to pluck him off the bank and fling him out into the river. This was a different rope: tame, purring from a soft belly up in the leaves, shuddering down in jerks and ripples that dead-ended into the knot, whipping the kitetail in tight circles.
What if, as he swung, the wind whipped the little kitetail around his ankle, got a wrap in it, and just as he let go the wrap caught on itself and clung? He’d jerk back, and for a moment everything would go slack as he freefell. Then he’d hit the edge of the arc and start swinging, head down, arms forced overhead by his momentum. Would he be able to crunch up and grab hold of the rope, and just barely keep his head above the low rocks? And punch flat against the sloped dirt with the crack of a whole row of ribs? Could he hang low and cup his hands, open his mouth, and try to create enough drag in the water to slow his swing before the rocks? Or maybe everything would happen too fast, and the force would be too great, and he’d swing back in a half curl, reaching for his white ankle, only to collide ear-first with the highest of the low rocks, and spill out like a cracked egg into the yellow-green eddies of pollen.
Whenever he got up to swing, he’d let the rope spin out first, holding it up as high as he could reach and letting it hang out over the bank until it stopped twirling. He’d take the thin tail and hold it in his bottom hand against the fat rope, making a fishhook loop, which he’d rest against his thighs, the grapefruit knot knocking against his crotch. Then he’d swing out, lifting his knees on either side of the loop, and when he released he’d throw the whole loop hard around to his left with his bottom hand where it would unfurl out into nothing. Pissing Peter off to no end, as it came jerking back across the bank ten feet from shore.
The dripping from the tree had stopped and the rope danced, hooking and jerking in the open air above the rocks and the riverbank.
Daniel’s head was where the investment was, according to his mother. His undiversified asset. It was protected by an eggshell.
If the person who woke up from the coma was wired differently than the person who fell into it, then that slightly different version would be an enemy of the real Daniel, who had worked so hard for his life up to this point and wasn’t ready to give it up to some ungrateful post-accident version of himself.
Daniel scrambled down to where Peter was standing at the water’s edge and from there he could see the guy in the tree. He was standing on a thick limb, his board shorts hanging in perfect cylinders, holding the rope with one hand and steadying himself against a higher branch. He’d tied his sneakers. He shifted his feet, spreading his legs wider, pivoting his top foot across the branch and then along it. Daniel watched him lean back against the rope with one hand, then tug it, and high up in the tree a thicket of sunny leaves shuddered.
The kitetail kicked gently toward the far bank. The guy at the base of the tree had his hand down the front of his boxers. The fragmented sunlight made Daniel feel sick to his stomach. He pinched and pulled the mesh of his bathing suit and it prickled free from his ass.
Daniel’s balls always tightened into shooter marbles as he stood vibrating on the high rock, braced against the egging of the rope, feet planted and ready to swing, an instant away from freefall. Every muscle hair-triggered, savoring that last shudder of anticipation one split second at a time. And then he’d lift off, and swing down, hurling the rope clear of his ankles, and reach back with one hand to grab his toes before ripping into the chilly river.
He squeezed out tingles from his toe joints, his ankles, his ass cheeks, his hips. He sponged them in as he inhaled, filling his lungs and feeling them uncrumple, and flexed the tingles out one joint and muscle at a time, chasing them around the limbs of his body. He exhaled as far as he could, and then even farther, hunched forward, wringing the air out of his body.
The high-up patch of leaves jumped in the sunlight and the big body came swinging out, fast. He was on a tight arc, swinging ahead of the knot, incredibly high up, his back arched and his knees cocked back. He swung high over the water and then just as he started to rise up out of the bottom of his swing he flung his hips forward and pulled up his knees and let go. The rope shuddered and slackened and pulled back and he grabbed his knees as he flipped, arced, peaked, and began to drop and then unfurled, his white sneakers emerging to smack soles-first against the flat water, way out in the middle where the sun lit up the current.
“Holy shit,” Peter said. Neither of them reached for the rope, which came pulsing back at them a moment after the splash. They stood in the shade in their dry shorts, arms crossed tight. Then the swinger broke the surface of the water and shook out his hair like a dog, and lay back and floated on his back and whooped. He flopped over and swam, his sneakers plunking, and when he got to the rope he launched out of the water and grabbed it above the knot, arched and backswung it, his hips rising above the water, and slung it toward shore where his friend caught it easily halfway up the rocks.
Peter had his dad leave them at the edge of the parking lot with fifteen dollars for sandwiches. They padded across the hot dust barefoot until it turned into asphalt and Daniel kept his flip-flops in his hand, letting dirt coat his wet feet.
The door jangled. It was air-conditioned inside the store and Daniel’s suit dripped onto his toes, liquefying some of the dirt. They were alone except for a woman sitting on a stool behind the register. Peter went into the aisles while Daniel looked at the menu board. She came over eventually and Daniel ordered. Then Peter came up to the front and Daniel went back into the aisles.
Soldiers got PTSD from war and it rewired their brains and messed up their chemistry and changed their personalities. It could happen to anyone after a traumatic experience. Could the same thing happen in a dream? What if Daniel had a dream so awful, so terrible and visceral and immediate, that it ravaged his brain like a car accident, and spent his neural pathways, and stung some folded, hidden part of his memory so deeply that he woke up wracked with phobia, unable to think or feel normally ever again?
In the small hardware section, hanging on a hook with no label, he found a clear plastic tube with three metal rods in it. They looked like what the dentist used to pick at the plaque on his teeth. Each point had a different shape: one curved, one elbowed, and one straight, and thin enough to fit through a buttonhole.
What if he couldn’t even remember the dream? If he went to sleep tonight and woke up with a smoldering hole in his brain? A ghost operation by a ghost scalpel, and no clues to the operation except for some faint pattern to his mental shredding, some sickening network of phobias that might light up at any moment, like a flicked spiderweb?
At the front Peter had the sandwiches and a Cookies-N-Cream bar and a bag of apples on the counter. Daniel put down a Skor bar. She punched it into the register and it came out to $19.25.
“Do you have any cash?” Peter turned to Daniel and asked, eyes wide.
Daniel patted his butt where his wallet would go.
They looked down at the counter and then Peter took the two candy bars and put them aside. Daniel took the candy bars and bent at the waist and put them back on the candy rack.
She punched it in again and said, “Seventeen.”
Peter put the cash on the counter and said, “We only have fifteen.”
After a few seconds of silence, Peter took the apples and put them back. The woman rang up the sandwiches and put them in a bag and gave Peter the change. They walked out and the front door jangled and Peter stopped in the doorway and cupped his hands against the screen door and shouted “Yeah, thanks!” The parking lot was empty. Daniel took a deep breath and walked toward the road.
He imagined that there was a pebble in his mouth, lolling around between his teeth, resting in the depression of his fattest molar. If he flinched he’d bite the pebble and shatter his teeth. If he stayed calm, and relaxed his jaw, and ignored whatever Peter was doing, he could slowly exhale, and wring out the tingles, and settle down. Some mornings he woke up tight as a drum, breathing like a piston. He conjured the pebble and horseshoed it, clicking, along his gums, clenching and releasing until whatever it was started to boil off and he could hear and blink again. When he finally untwisted, he’d roll the pebble onto his tongue, make a tunnel around it, and fire it out.
Once they got out onto the main road, barely off the parking lot, Peter fished out his drawstrings. He’d tied a buck knife to the ends. The handle was textured plastic, meant to look like wood, with an eagle printed on it, and the blade was about three inches long with a little knob on it for your thumb. He handed it to Daniel. It locked when he opened it and Daniel freed it by pressing in on a little piece of metal on the back of the handle. He opened and closed it a couple of times. He tried the blade on his thumbnail.
“That was on my balls,” Peter said.
Daniel dropped the knife in the dirt, and reached out, grabbing the corner of Peter’s towel, and jerked it free from his waist. He wiped his hands with it and tossed it back at Peter’s chest. “Check this out,” he said, and handed Peter a brushed silver Zippo. Peter flicked and it lit.
“That was in my ass,” Daniel said. Peter slapped it hard against Daniel’s chest and it dropped in the dirt.
“Ouch. Fuck you,” Daniel said. “What was up with the apples?”
Peter reached into his shorts and pulled out a Cookies-N-Cream bar. “I hid a bunch of stuff under the apples.”
Daniel reached over and broke off a chunk of chocolate.
“I put another knife in there and some candy and stuff.”
“And some chapstick?” Daniel asked. Peter looked up at him. “Yeah, some chapstick.”
“I saw you picking it out,” Daniel said, chewing. “Faggot.” Peter stuffed the whole bar in his mouth and grabbed his towel off the ground. He started twisting an end into a rattail and Daniel leapt away.
“You sure you don’t want to go back and get it?” Daniel asked from two parking spots pover. “Do you remember which one it was?”
“On the far left,” Peter said. “Someone’s going to buy it and be really confused.”
They crossed the road and moved onto the shoulder so a car could pass. They climbed down to the low rocks and took out their sandwiches. Daniel opened the plastic tube and took out one of the tools. “Think we could pick a lock with this?” he asked.
“Jesus, man,” Peter said.
When they got back to the ropeswing the older boys were gone.
Daniel stared at his big toe. There was a black band where the nail met the skin. It was bleeding under the nail, slowly, forming a bubble. It would grow out with the nail, and by that time the blood would have dried into a paste. Last night after dinner they’d gone out to the hot tub and Peter had leaned up against the side, with his dick against the jet, and they’d talked about girls. Falling asleep, Daniel had experienced a kind of zooming-in, as though he were flying forward microscopically into the backs of his own eyelids, faster and faster, and the feeling had gotten so intense that he’d had to open his eyes and sit up and crane his neck out over the matte black backyard, finally finding the low contrast of the treeline, to stop himself from puking.
Peter surfaced and flipped his hair and flopped onto his back, floating for a long time before reaching up and grabbing the rope. Daniel stood on the jumping rock, waiting, clenching his knees and hips, working out a tingle. It shuddered from one thigh across his ass and down his other thigh. He craned his head back, closed his eyes, and opened his mouth. Peter slung the rope up from the water and Daniel caught it.
He looped the kitetail and squared the heavy loop against his thighs, his dick tenting through his damp suit. Peter stood up in the shallows looking the other way, across the river, waiting. Daniel held up his thumb and closed one eye. He set his feet on the rock.
When he was little and first realized he’d been having nightmares that he didn’t remember, he’d lie in the dark on the top bunk, eyes wide, ashamed to go to sleep. In class he’d yawn so hard that his hearing would black out and his eyes would clench shut and leak tears.
He wasn’t sure what he was going to do with the rope. Throw it to the side, somehow. Peter was out of the water now and looking up at the road. There was gravel grinding and then a door slammed and a shadow, and Peter’s dad jutted out over the rocks. Daniel fixed his grip and squinted at the water. He spotted where he thought he might land, out past the sun line, and then almost went, felt his feet get a little lighter on the rock, and exhaled and imagined it again, watching himself swing. He saw himself holding the rope, forced himself to let go, and then he tensed, and felt the floodgates open, all the chemicals sluice and prickle, and he shuddered. His fingers pulsed on the rope. Click click click. He horseshoed one way and then the other.
If they did this forever, eventually they’d wash the mud right out of the riverbank. The rocks would roll one by one into the shallows, leeched out by the water they carried up in their dripping suits, and they’d tie on longer and longer ropes until the tree itself tipped sidelong into the river.
He mooshed his lips and sucked air through his teeth and made a tunnel out of his tongue. He let his head fall back so that his head bone rested on his neck bone and his Adam’s apple crested in the breeze. He closed his eyes and took a full breath, held it for a second, and then opened his throat and fired the feeling of the pebble hard out into the air, over the rocks, past the shallows and into the slow bright water at the center of the river. He opened his eyes and saw where it had landed, squeezed the rope, leaned back, and lifted off.
Photo by Paul Kline