Thursday, January 3, 2013

My First Short Story

So this is my first short story. It's actually pretty long, but not as long as a book. Cuz then I'd have written a book.

This is a story about a bridge in Cohasset that I've jumped off since I was little. No one has ever touched the bottom of the river on one side of the bridge. So I decided to write a story about what might happen if someone did.


The Bridge
Robbie Vogel

Technically it was called Mill Bridge, on account of the old salt mill that hung over the water on the harbor side. Or Border Street Bridge, on account of the street it was on in Cohasset. But everyone just called it The Bridge.

The Bridge was a summer staple. You couldn’t drive by (everyone always said they were driving “by,” not “over,” as if The Bridge only existed in the three feet of curbing where the jumpers crowded) on a summer day without negotiating a throng of people. I’ve seen kids as young as four, second-generation Bridge jumpers goaded on by their parents, take their maiden voyage from the pebbled stone to the water fifteen feet below. One afternoon, our high school’s athletic trainer (a gray-haired stringbean of at least fifty) came up the street on his daily jog. “How’s the water?” he asked me and my friends, then promptly peeled off his sweaty shirt and hopped over the railing, still wearing his lime-green Nikes.

While The Bridge catered to young and old, it made its living on teenagers. Summer days were planned around that bridge. If we had taken the time to write down what a typical day would entail (a completely alien thought to a teenage boy), my summer entries would have read something like this:

11 AM – 12 noon: Wiffleball
12 noon – 1 PM: Football
1 PM – indefinite: Bridge

Evening: Manhunt
There was just something magical about that bridge. The mystique it held over a teenager almost can’t be explained, but I’ll try.

First, it was kind of far away. Not too far, you understand; not far enough where there was any possibility of getting Lost. But far enough away to be both cool and a little dangerous. And, in the paradoxical world of teen thought, far enough away to be both Safe and Ours. About a half-mile of winding downhill blacktop separated The Bridge from the Scituate/Cohasset town line, and then it was another two miles to our neighborhood between the golf course and the beach. A decent bike ride, in other words.

Secondly, it was a damn great bridge. It was about thirty yards long with a slight arch shape to it, so the middle gave you the most airtime. Most people preferred to jump a little to the left of the middle, just so their swim wouldn’t be as long. High tide jumps saw twelve to fifteen feet between sidewalk and water, but on a good day at low tide you’d be looking at twenty feet easy. Add the railing into that and you get a pretty good rush. You could jump off either side, but almost everyone preferred the river side. A good sidewalk, as I’ve mentioned, plus no danger of being swept over the rapids and into the harbor if the tide was going out. Granted, they replaced the grippy, eight-inch-wide stone railing on that side with a treacherous and slippery metal one, but that just added another element of danger. Most kids pencil dived, but there were always a few whose parents paid for ski lessons up at Attitash or Loon, that threw the occasional misty or laid-out backflip. I always scoffed at those kids because I couldn’t do their tricks.

From what I’ve heard, the day Eric McCarthy went to The Bridge for the last time was pretty normal. I guess the only strange thing was that no one was there. Granted, it was early in the summer (June 18th, in fact), but the temperature was hovering around 70 and the clouds were behaving themselves. Eric was four years younger than me, and I had only seen him twice. His sister Katie had been in my Pre-Calc class that year, and we went to her house for a couple of study groups (read: parent-sanctioned times for girls and guys to get together outside of school, where little to no studying got done).

So I had seen him a few times, and he seemed like a pretty normal kid. Now, I know what all the news outlets reported. Believe me, when something like this happens to a little town like Scituate, there’s gonna be some coverage. Especially when it happens at the beginning of the summer. But I don’t think they got the story right. That’s why I’ll never jump off that bridge again. In cases like these, oftentimes the kids’ stories go unreported. The adults take one look at a traumatized 13-year-old and discount everything that spews out of him. But we know what really happened to Eric McCarthy.

No one has ever seen the bottom on the river side of The Bridge, much less touched it. “You’ll break your ankles on the bottom,” my mom used to say. “You’ll snap your shins. Your feet will get tangled up in the stuff down there and you’ll drown.” According to her (and most parents), people had thrown everything from shopping carts to TVs to wheelchairs off that bridge, and they were lurking down there, waiting to snatch unwary jumpers.

I know from countless jumps that it is, in fact, impossible to get near the bottom of that water. I have executed at least four perfect feet-first pencil dives at dead low tide, and nary a glancing blow with anything. That was fine with me, though. It’s not like I wanted to hit the bottom. I never even really paid attention to what my mom was saying about all that crap that was supposedly down there. She had never jumped, after all. And if no one knew how far down it went, how could anyone really know what was at the bottom anyway?

Eric McCarthy was a pretty inquisitive kid. That’s how I met him in the first place, because when we were at Katie’s house he came down and wanted to know what kind of math we were doing. I’ve got no recollection of what we were working on, but I remember Eric’s thin face screwing up in concentration as he looked over his sister’s shoulder at her marked-up worksheet. He was tall for his age, and on the skinny side. He wasn’t especially memorable, except I guess he was a good swimmer. There were some swimming trophies around his house, and the press really focused on the swimming thing after what happened to him. Like it was somehow worse because it happened to someone with an above-average 100-yard breaststroke time.  

I guess I believe part of the reported story on Eric’s death. The beginning. According to The Patriot Ledger (“Serving the south shore of Massachusetts since 1837”):

It is believed that McCarthy went to the Border Street bridge with the intention of measuring the depth of the water. One flipper, a pair of swimming goggles, a buoy with string attached to it, and part of a tape measure were found floating in inner Cohasset harbor on the afternoon of the incident.

Additionally, one of McCarthy’s friends (name withheld due to age) related to this reporter: “He was talking last week about how no one had ever hit bottom. He thought he could swim down there, I guess.”

So that’s pretty self-explanatory. From there, though, the story is just wrong.

Based on empirical evidence, it is believed that McCarthy was injured during a jump attempt. Blood samples taken from rocks on the eastern side of the river below the bridge have been found to match McCarthy’s. The authorities are working with the hypothesis that McCarthy either injured himself severely enough to be unable to reach shore, or was knocked unconscious.

Aside from the previously mentioned items, no sign of McCarthy has been recovered at this time.

To the uninitiated, this might seem plausible. Ok, the kid messed up a jump and hit the rocks. Every parent’s worst summer nightmare finally happened. It’s tragic. It’s senseless. But it’s also a lesson.

Because just like that old Jack Nicholson quote from A Few Good Men, deep down in places they don’t talk about at parties, quite a few parents are ok with it. As long as it wasn’t Their kid, Their precious Tommy or Chloe or Scotty, it’s almost a necessary evil. Because one death can scare a kid more than ten thousand parent’s lectures.

Hell, the police department of Cohasset made a YouTube video a few years ago talking about the danger of The Bridge. The chief of police was casually leaning on the railing droning on about how kids absolutely, positively, Must Not Jump. If you know anything about teenagers, you know that the surest way to get them to do something is to tell them not to do it. I’m surprised no one threw a superman frontflip in the background while the camera was rolling.

So yes, the parents will get what they want. From now until The Bridge falls in they’ll be telling their kids never to jump. Some will use reason, and talk about the currents and the riptides and the rocks. Some will bargain, and try to steer their little angels to safer pursuits like boogie boarding, or swimming at the Knights of Columbus pool that’s jammed with fat toddlers and their bored babysitters tanning and sneak-reading Fifty Shades of Grey inside Seventeen magazines.

But eventually, before their kid gets bored and turns up the iPod, or unpauses the newest Call of Duty, they’ll break out the Eric McCarthy story. The only recorded instance of a death at the Border Street bridge. They’ll use the story the papers told, believing it unquestioningly because it is the worst thing their parental minds can fathom. They’ll go on and on about how it could be You, Jimmy, You at the bottom of that river, or getting washed out into the harbor unconscious to sink into the mud and never be seen again. And the kids will believe them, because they know it happened. The death, I mean.

And the further we get away from what happened to Eric McCarthy at the beginning of this summer, the more kids will believe the reported version of events.

I can see it now, actually. I can see exactly what’s going to happen. Ten years from now, or maybe even less, no one at Scituate High will have met Eric McCarthy. He’ll just be a name, not thought of as a human but as a tale, like that kid a few years older than us who went up to college in New Hampshire and froze to death after wandering away from a party. But Eric’s story will live longer. It’s really the ultimate summer scare. It will be passed down in that special oral history that small town kids have developed. The same way that everyone knew about Jason and Danielle getting caught “doing it” in the history wing bathroom the afternoon that it happened.

I’m guessing for the next five to ten years, and probably a little longer, the real story will be passed around. It will die out a little bit each year, though, as older siblings go off to college and get jobs in the city and move to Quincy and Brighton and Southie. The younger kids, the recipients of the story, will be listened to. Then they’ll be haltingly scoffed at, as their story sounds more and more like a cheap summer blockbuster. Then, as kids have a way of doing, people will back the scoffers and the real truth will be buried. Eventually, we’ll only be left with the tale and the archived news articles, and that’s how history will remember Eric. As a bad bridge jumper who hit the rocks.  

Like I said, the beginning of the newspaper article got it right. He was going to try and find out how deep the water was on the river side. I got this from the same source as the paper, but I can name him. It was Joey Bell, one of Eric’s friends, and the little brother of Tim Bell, a kid I play golf with sometimes. About a week ago, Tim, Joey, and I played 9 over at Widow’s Walk (the public course in town), and Joey told us the whole, awful story.

Before I start that, though, I’m not trying to get this published or anything. Actually, I’m not sure why I need to get this down. But I do need to. Maybe just so that I believe it myself. But since I don’t really care about narrative style or voice or whatever else that crackpot bitch English teacher Ms. Maybin was talking about last year, I’m just gonna take what Joey said and write it in third person limited (ha! Check that out Maybin!) so it’s easy to read.

This is the true story of how Eric McCarthy died on June 18, 2008 at The Bridge.

Joey made plans with Eric and two other friends to meet up at The Bridge around 1 pm. He had to mow the lawn, plus do some other chores around the house. Katie was already down at the Yacht Club babysitting, aka lying in the sun making money. Eric said he was going to get there early. He didn’t say why, but in the days after he died Joey remembered that Eric had been talking to a lot of people about the depth of the water under The Bridge. He did take all that stuff that the paper talked about, flippers, goggles, buoy, etc. His plan was to tie one end of the string to the buoy, the other end to the railing of the bridge. That’s how the cops found the buoy: it was sitting at water level, with the string connecting the top of the buoy to the railing 20 feet above. Then, from what Joey could gather, he was going to attach the tape measure to the buoy, swim down to the bottom, and try to gauge the depth.

No one had ever touched the bottom, like I said. June 18, 2008 was a full moon, and Eric planned to get there a few minutes before dead low tide. If Eric didn’t touch the bottom that day, I think he got very close. Close enough to disturb something.

When Joey rode up to the bridge that day on his bike, he first saw the pile of Eric’s stuff: towel, shirt, shoes, cell phone, wallet. Those were tossed carelessly next to the concrete piling on the eastern side of the bridge. Standard. Then he noticed the string attached to the railing, leaned over to see where that went, and witnessed a nightmare become reality.

The water under The Bridge, almost 25 feet below Joey’s feet, was a churning maelstrom of pink foam. The creature that killed Eric McCarthy was at least 30 feet long, and so dark green it was almost black. The monster’s wedge-shaped head thrashed violently from side to side as it clung to Eric’s midsection. Joey glimpsed slimy green teeth as long as his foot. Its body rippled back into the river, buoyed to the surface by some internal ballast. Its heavy tail swung lazily, keeping the beast stationary against the incoming tide. Ropes of green and purple seaweed lay between the ridges of scales covering its body. Barnacles of varying size crusted the thing’s back and tail, shining white and yellow in the first sunlight they had seen in millennia. Because that’s what this thing is, Joey thought, it’s prehistoric. It’s amazing how clinically the mind works, especially when faced with unthinkable horror.

It was obvious that Eric was already dead in the creature’s jaws, and equally obvious that the monster was enjoying its most recent meal. As this thought sparked in Joey’s brain, he vomited his breakfast over the railing and heard it splat the water, despite the sounds of the carnage. He sank to his knees behind the metal railing, and could only see the massive creature’s rear half as it finished its business and began to sink beneath the dark green water. Joey noticed a bloodstain on the rocks on the east side of the river, but his traumatized brain was shutting down by this point and refused to present an image of how the stain could have been created.

Tony Devine and Alex Marsden, the two other boys that had planned to meet Joey and Eric at the bridge, found Joey unconscious on the sidewalk several minutes later. They called the cops for a few reasons: the bloodstain on the rocks and Eric’s disappearance chief among them. They were understandably frantic; their best friend was missing presumed dead. Joey was in the most acutely horrific mental state one can imagine. He knew his best friend was dead, and dead by the jaws of something that was not of this eon. And he had to convince his friends of this now. He knew once the cops came, it would be too late. As the tide began to turn, and Tony and Alex raced around the edge of the bridge and climbed down the steep rocks usually used by jumpers climbing up after a plunge. Joey followed them, head still groggy, legs barely following impulses from his brain. He knew he could never negotiate the steep slope down to the riverbed, and the last thing he wanted was to black out again. He stumbled back around to where Eric’s clothes still lay, warning his friends to never, under any circumstances, go in that water again. The two boys called Eric’s name and looked up the riverbank as far as the rocks would allow, to no avail.

Joey crossed the street to the harbor side of the bridge and leaned on the railing, and all the shock and horror and pain hit him at once. His legs collapsed and he wound up in a sitting position in the right hand lane of traffic. That was the position in which he found himself when he saw the creature for the second and last time. It rose from the depths of the river, slithered over the foaming rapids, now moving with the tide as it filled the harbor back in. Joey watched, mesmerized, as the mammoth reptile slid noiselessly over boulders half its size, powered by legs as thick around as car tires, and dipped itself down into Cohasset harbor. The outline of the behemoth that killed his best friend wavered and disappeared into the deep, as the tip of its colossal tail entered the water again with a small splash.

Of course, there was a search. A search that Joey knew would prove fruitless. The police sent divers to the bottom of the river, and they found everything our parents said was down there. Televisions, shopping carts, wheelchairs. They also found some stuff that no one could have predicted. Like a 1973 Ford Pinto. But they didn’t find Eric.

Adults didn’t believe Joey. Not the police, not his parents, not even the psychiatrist his parents had to hire. The psychiatrist didn’t tell Joey that he didn’t believe him, but Joey knew.

Tony and Alex had seen nothing. They were on the other side of the bridge, shielded by an elevation change and a slight bend. But when Joey refused to change his story, they started to believe him too. It’s amazing how persuasive a 13-year-old boy can be. Three of them? Forget it. Within two weeks, the whole town between the ages of 9 and 19 had heard the tale. I don’t know how many of them believed it, but I do know one thing. It’s four years later, and I’ve driven over The Bridge countless times since that day. Every time I do, I look up the river to where it bends away left into the salt marshes.

After Eric McCarthy’s death on June 18, 2008, I’ve never seen another person standing on that sidewalk.

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