Me and Jeremy spent most of that summer down by the railroad bridge, jumping off the edge and plunging twenty feet into the water. The river was so clean you could see the trunk of a fallen tree all the way at the bottom of the deepest part.
I’d tried to swim down and touch it, but it was so deep, my lungs burned and my head pounded until I finally turned around and came back to the surface.
“That trunk is probably twenty feet around,” Jeremy said, skipping a rounded river rock across the surface of the water. “Where do you think it came from?” We both stared at the riverbank all around, but couldn’t find anywhere that looked like it was missing a tree.
“It’s probably been down there longer than the railroad bridge has been here,” I said, leaning back in the water and watching my toes bob. “I bet they cut it down to lay the tracks.”
“Maybe. Or maybe it fell from somewhere else.”
“What do you mean ‘somewhere else’?”
“I dunno. Maybe like another universe or something.”
Jeremy shrugged and skipped another rock. I swam to him, pulled myself out of the water and lay back in the grass. Green sunlight fell through the tree tops in clumps that warmed my damp skin.
“I’m gonna do it one day,” he said. “I’m gonna touch it.
“It’s too far. Nobody can swim that deep.” I felt Jeremy’s eyes on me but I kept gazing up at the bits of sky between the branches.
“You don’t think I can do anything.”
“That’s not true.”
“If I did it, what would you give me?”
I sat up. “If you did it--” Jeremy smashed his lips against mine, hard, awkward, and sloppy. When he pulled away, I asked, “What was that?”
Jeremy smiled. “When I do it, I want a kiss. A real one.”
“Then why’d you kiss me like that?”
“Cause I wanted to make sure it was worth it.”
I rode on the back of Jeremy’s four-wheeler, my arms wrapped tight around his waist. He stopped and hit the kill-switch turning the engine off, about half a football field before we got to the bridge. The woods were quiet, like they should be, but it felt weird after having the growl of the engine vibrating beneath me.
“Why’d you stop?” I asked. Jeremy didn’t answer and I followed his gaze to a muddy puddle in the middle of the trail. Something bright orange floated in the center.
Jeremy got off and I slid into his seat. He squatted next to the puddle, took a stick and poked the orange thing, making it bob like a buoy in the muddy brown water. One glossy round eye surfaced and Jeremy pushed it back down until the whole thing was just a blur of color down below.
“It’s a fish,” he said, but I’d already realized it. “It’s dead.”
“How did it get there?”
He shrugged. “Guess it swam here and then the creek dried up some and it got stuck.”
Watching him poke the fish, the way it floated up and sank back down, made my stomach pinch. “Let’s just go to the bridge. I wanna go swimming.”
Jeremy looked up at me. “Want me to touch it?”
“Gross. No. C’mon.”
“It’s not alive anymore. It’s just a body.”
“It’s gross. Leave it alone.”
He pushed it down and watched it float back up one more time before climbing back onto the quad.
Jeremy called me a few days later. “Meet me at the bridge,” he said. I rode my bike as far as I could until the trail turned too rocky to pedal, and I shoved my bike into the trees, half jogging the rest of the way. Jeremy sat on the bridge in just his shorts and ratty sneakers that he wore outside. His mama wouldn’t let him wear his “good shoes” down to the bridge.
“Hey,” I huffed, clutching the stitch in my side and trying to ignore the burn in my shins. I hadn’t ridden my bike much that summer and I regretted it.
“Hey.” Jeremy held a railroad spike, reddish-brown and flaky from years of laying out in the weather, discarded.
When I caught my breath I sat down beside him, setting my flip-flops next to me so they wouldn’t fall off into the river. The sun beat down on my shoulders and made the tar on the tracks look wet. The smell of it mixed with rust and iron was a comfort, as much a part of summer as Jeremy.
“What did you wanna meet for?” He didn’t look like he wanted to go swimming, and I didn’t see a fishing pole or a tackle box.
Jeremy dropped the spike down into the river. We both stared after it as it descended toward the tree so far down that we couldn’t follow it all the way. “Just had to get out, you know?” His voice sounded deflated, tired, and sad. When he looked at me I saw a darkening bruise on his cheek.
I didn’t ask him anything else. Sometimes I wish I had.
It rained the next day, but the day after that it was hot as the dickens again and I raced down to the river to wait for Jeremy. I sat down on the smooth rocks that lined the bank on both sides, letting my bare feet bake on their sun-warmed surface. Watching the water skippers swirl around in tiny circles made me wonder if they ever got dizzy.
Jeremy came walking through the trees with his hands in the pockets of his cut-off shorts and a frown pinching his face. He didn’t say anything, just sat down beside me. After a long time he said, “I’m gonna prove that I can do it.”
“Swim down to the tree.”
“Yeah, okay.” I nudged him with my shoulder.
“I’m gonna do it. Right now.”
“Don’t be dumb. You can’t—” He leaned in so fast our foreheads bumped and then his teeth hit mine in another messy kiss. I pushed him back. “You know, if you did do it, I wouldn’t kiss you now.”
He smirked, but it kind of looked sad, and started toward the water.
“What are you doing, Jeremy?” He wasn’t wearing his outside sneakers. He was wearing his good shoes. “Your mama’s gonna kill you if you get those wet.”
Jeremy didn’t stop, didn’t hesitate. He walked right into the river up to his knees, his waist. Then he turned around to face me. “Be my girlfriend.” His bottom half wiggled the way things sometimes do underwater, making it look like it didn’t belong to his top half.
He shook his head, walking backward deeper into the water. “If I touch the tree, will you be my girlfriend?”
“Sure.” There was no way he’d be able to do it, but part of me kind of liked the idea of being someone’s girlfriend. Jeremy’s girlfriend.
He smiled at me in a way I’d never seen him smile, like he was really, really happy for the first time ever, and he dove into the water. He kept going, and going, until I knew his lungs must have been on fire, but he didn’t come back up. I'd never seen him so determined.
And then he just stopped swimming.
He didn’t sink like the railroad spike had, but he didn’t float back up like the fish either. The crystal clear water made his hair fan out around his face. His skin looked paler under water than it had been above. All I could think about was that fish. It's not alive anymore. It's just a body.
The smell of tar and iron laid heavily on my tongue, the feel of Jeremy’s wet lips still on mine. Everything was so normal and so summer. It seemed impossible that he wasn’t there anymore, not in the real way that he should’ve been.
Jeremy was as unreal and untouchable as the tree at the bottom of the river.
We come back on Monday with an all new tangle started by Natalie!
Welcome to Tangled Fiction, where three YA writers collaborate to complete one story!
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday one TF writer will post a piece of the same story. Each of us will be responsible for one beginning, middle, and end in a single month. The fourth week will be full of surprises, we're sure, and we'll share them with you when we know what they are.