Authors: Michael Koryta
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General
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This one is for Ryan Easton—from Stout Creek to Republic Peak, with a couple decades and a lot of good miles in between.
n the last day
of Jace Wilson’s life, the fourteen-year-old stood on a quarry ledge staring at cool, still water and finally understood something his mother had told him years before: Trouble might come for you when you showed fear, but trouble doubled-down when you lied about being afraid. At the time, Jace hadn’t known exactly what she was talking about. Today he did.
It was a sixty-five-foot drop from Rooftop to the water, and Jace had a hundred dollars riding on it—a hundred dollars that he didn’t have, of course—all because he’d shown a trace of fear. It was a stupid bet, sure, and he wouldn’t have made it if the girls hadn’t been there, listening to the whole thing and laughing. But they had been, and so now it wasn’t just a hundred bucks, it was a hell of a lot more than that, and he had two days to figure out how to pull it off.
Not everyone who tried Rooftop succeeded. They’d pulled bodies out of the quarry before, and those were older kids, college kids, maybe even divers, he didn’t know. He was certain none of them had been terrified of heights, though.
“What did you get yourself into,” he whispered, looking behind him at the cut in the wire fence that led out of the old Easton Brothers quarry and into his yard. His house backed up to the abandoned quarry property, and Jace spent hours there, exploring and swimming—and staying far from the ledges. The one thing he did
do in the quarry was dive. He didn’t even like to get too close to the drop-offs; if he edged out just for a quick glance down, his head would spin and his legs would go weak and he’d have to shuffle backward as fast as possible. Earlier in the day, though, all of his hours alone in the quarry had provided the lie he needed. When Wayne Potter started giving him shit about being scared of heights because Jace hadn’t wanted to climb the ladder that some maintenance worker had left leaning against the side of the school, allowing access to the roof, Jace had blown it off by saying that he didn’t need to climb a ladder to prove he wasn’t scared of heights because he did quarry dives all the time, and he was sure Wayne had never done that.
Of course Wayne called him on the bluff. Of course Wayne mentioned Rooftop. Of course Wayne had an older brother who would take them out there over the weekend.
“You’re an idiot,” Jace told himself aloud, walking down a gravel path littered with old cigarette butts and beer cans, out toward one of the wide slabs in the old quarry that overlooked a pool he was
was deep enough for a dive. Start small, that was his plan. He’d get this jump down, which was probably fifteen feet, and then move on to the next pool, where the jump was a good bit higher, thirty feet at least. He looked across the water and felt dizzy already. Rooftop was more than
“Just try it,” he said. Talking to himself felt good, out here alone, it gave him a little added confidence. “Just try it. You can’t kill yourself falling into the water. Not from here.”
Still, he was simply pacing the ledges, giving himself a good three feet of buffer, as if his legs might just buckle and send him sliding down the stone on his face, leave him floating in the water with a broken neck.
“Pussy,” he said, because that was what they’d called him earlier in the day, in front of the girls, and it had made him angry enough—
—to start up the ladder. Instead, he’d used the lonely quarry to defend himself. In retrospect, he probably should have climbed the ladder.
Thunder cracked and echoed back off the high stone walls and the water, sounding deeper and more dangerous down in the quarry than it would have up on the road. The wind had been blowing hard ever since he got out of school, and it was really gusting now, swirling stone dust, and out of the western sky advanced a pair of pure black clouds, trapped lightning flashing within them.
Bad time to be in the water,
Jace thought, and then he latched on to that idea because it gave him an excuse not to jump. “Wayne Potter is not worth getting electrocuted over.”
And so he started back, was almost all the way to the hole in the fence before he stopped.
Wayne Potter wasn’t going away. Come Saturday he’d be there with his brother, and they’d take Jace out to Rooftop and watch him piss down his leg and they’d laugh their butts off. Then Wayne would go back to school Monday and tell the story, assuming he hadn’t called everyone first. Or, worse yet, brought them to watch. What if he brought the girls?
It was that idea that finally gave him some resolve. Jumping was frightening, but
jumping in front of the girls? That was scarier still, and the price was higher.
“You’d better jump it,” he said. “Come on, coward. Just go jump it.”
He walked back fast, because dawdling only allowed the fear to build, so he wanted to go quick, get it over and done so that he knew he
do it. Once that start had been achieved, the rest would be easy. Just a matter of adding height, that was all. He kicked his shoes off, then pulled his T-shirt and jeans off and left them in a pile on the rocks.
As thunder boomed again, he squeezed his nose closed with his thumb and index finger—a baby thing, yes, but he was alone and didn’t care—and then spoke again.
“I’m no pussy.”
Since he was holding his nose, his voice came out high and girlish. He took one last look at the water below, shut his eyes, bent at the knees, and sprang off the ledge.
It wasn’t much of a drop. For all of his worrying, it ended fast, and it ended pain-free, except of course for the jarring shock of cold water. He let himself sink to the bottom—water didn’t bother him in the least, he loved to swim, just didn’t like to dive—and waited for the feel of smooth, cool stone.
It didn’t come. Instead, his foot touched something strange, an object that was somehow soft and hard at the same time, and he jerked back in fright, because whatever it was, it didn’t belong. He opened his eyes, blinking against the sting of the water, and saw the dead man.
He was sitting almost upright, his back against the stone, his legs stretched out in front of him. Head tilted sideways, like he was tired. Blond hair floating in the current Jace had created, strands rising off the top of the dead man’s head to dance in the dark water. His upper lip was curled like he was laughing at someone, a mean laugh, mocking, and Jace could see his teeth. There was a rope around his ankles and it was attached to an old dumbbell.
For a few seconds, Jace floated there above him, suspended not five feet away. Maybe it was because he was seeing it through the dim water, but he felt separated from the scene, felt as if the corpse down here had to be something imagined. It was only when he realized why the man’s head was leaning to the side that the terror he should have felt initially overcame him. The man’s throat was cut, leaving a gap so wide that water flowed through it like an open channel. At the sight, Jace began a frantic, clumsy churn back up. He was no more than fifteen feet down but still he was certain he wouldn’t make the top, would drown down there, his body lying forever beside the other corpse.
When he broke the surface he was already trying to shout for help, and the result was awful; he inhaled water and choked on it and felt as if he’d drown, was unable to get air into his lungs. He finally got a gasping breath in and spit out the water that was in his mouth.
Water that had touched the dead man.
He felt a surge of sickness and swam hard, only to realize he was angling in the wrong direction, toward the steep walls that offered no way to climb out. He panicked and spun, finally getting his eyes on some low rocks. The world echoed with more thunder as he put his head down and swam. The first time he tried to pull himself out, his arms failed, and he fell back into the water hard enough that his head went under.
Come on, Jace! Get out, get out, you’ve got to get out…
On the second try he made it, flopped up on his stomach. The quarry water was pouring off him and it was in his mouth again, dripping from his lips, and for the second time he thought of the way it had flowed through that gaping tear in the man’s throat. He gagged and vomited onto the rock, throat and nose burning, and then crawled weakly away from the pool as if the water might reach up for him, grab one leg, and pull him back in.
“Holy shit,” he whispered. His voice trembled and his entire body shook. When he thought he could trust his legs, he stood up uncertainly. The storm-front winds chilled the cold water on his skin and his soaking boxer shorts and he hugged his arms around himself and thought stupidly,
I forgot to bring a towel.
It was only then that he realized he’d also come out of the water on the wrong side of the quarry. His clothes were piled on the ledge across from him.
You have to be kidding me,
he thought, looking around at the steep walls that bordered this side of the pool. It wasn’t easy climbing. In fact, he wasn’t sure that it was
climbing. Nothing but vertical smooth stone above him. Farther down, below the pool, there was a drop-off that led to an area littered with brush and thorns. Going in that direction would be slow and painful with no shoes or pants. The fastest option was simple: get back in the water and swim across.
He stared at the pile of clothes, close enough he could throw rocks onto them easily. The cell phone was in the pocket of his jeans.
Need to get help,
need to get someone out here, fast.
But he didn’t move. The idea of going back into that water…he stared into the murky green pool, darker than it had ever looked before, then suddenly lit bright by a flash of lightning, the storm sweeping in fast.
“He’s not going to hurt you,” he said, edging toward the water. “Not going to come back to life and grab you.”
Saying that made him realize something he hadn’t processed yet in his desperate attempt to get away—the man wasn’t going to come back to life, no, but the man also wasn’t far removed from life. His hair, his eyes, the lip curled back against his teeth…even the skin around the wound in the throat hadn’t begun to decompose yet. Jace wasn’t sure how long something like that took, but it seemed like it would go pretty fast.
Hasn’t been there long…
This time the thunder made him jump. He was staring around the quarry, eyeing the top ridges of the stone walls, looking for a watcher.
Get the hell out of here,
he instructed himself, but he couldn’t bring himself to swim for it. Couldn’t imagine being immersed in that water again, swimming right above the man with the dumbbell tied to his ankles and the lopsided head and gashed throat. Instead, he walked down toward the drop-off. There a ledge connected one side to the other: the pool he’d just been in, on the right side, and another one to the left. The drop to the left was the thirty-foot monster he’d intended to use as his practice for Rooftop. For some reason, the narrow ledge was home to plants, but only mean ones. Anything that grew in stone seemed to have thorns. He narrowly missed a broken bottle as he entered the weeds. With his first steps, the thorns began to rake his flesh, and he grimaced but pushed ahead slowly, warm blood mingling with cool water on his legs. The first drops of rain started to fall and the thunder boomed overhead and then echoed back through the quarry as if the earth wanted to respond.
“Ouch! Damn it!”
He’d managed to step right on a thorn, and the sticker remained in the bottom of his foot, so his next step drove it in farther. He was standing on one leg and had just pulled the thorn out of his foot, blood rushing to fill the hole, when he heard the car motor.
His first thought was that it might be a security guard or something. That would be nice. That would be
because whatever hell he was going to catch for being in the quarry was worth it to get back out. For a long moment he stayed just like he was, balanced up on one leg, holding his bleeding foot in his hand, and listened. The engine came on and on, someone driving up the gravel road that was blocked by a locked gate.
Killer coming back,
he thought, and now the frozen indecision turned to wild terror. He was standing in the middle of the ledge in the most visible spot in the entire quarry.
He turned and started to return to the place from which he’d come, then stopped. There was no cover there. The rock face was sheer; there wasn’t even anything to duck behind. He spun and headed in the other direction again, trying to plow through the weeds, indifferent to the thorns that raked him and left ribbons of blood along his chest, arms, and legs.
The engine was very close now.
He wasn’t going to make the other side. Not fast enough.
Jace Wilson gave one look at the water below, one quick attempt at picking a safe landing zone even though the water was too dark to show what waited beneath, and then he jumped. Talk about doubling-down on your fear—he was scared of heights, but of whoever was coming? That wasn’t fear. That was terror.
This time, the drop felt real, felt long, as if he’d started from a truly high place. He was thinking of rocks and pieces of twisted metal, all the junk that was left behind in these quarry pools, all the things his dad had warned him about, when he struck the water and tunneled down. He tried to stop himself early, but his velocity had been high and he sank even as he tried to rise, plunging all the way down. The pool wasn’t nearly as deep as he’d expected. The landing jarred him, his feet striking stone and sending a sparkler of pain up his spine. He pushed back off and let himself rise slowly. He didn’t want to break the surface with much noise this time.
His head cleared the water just as the sound of the engine cut out. The car had come to a stop. He swam toward a slab of limestone that jutted up at an angle, offering a narrow crevice that he was sure he could slip into. He’d just reached it when he chanced a look up and saw a man walking toward the water. Tall and broad-shouldered, with long, pale blond hair. His head was down, following the path, and he hadn’t seen Jace yet. The quarry had grown very dark as the thunderheads moved over, but in the next strobe of lightning, Jace saw the glistening of a badge and realized the man was in uniform.