By Laura Carnes Williams
“The Jump Off” placed third in Southern New Hampshire University’s 2020 Fall Fiction Contest.
Deke is let into the fraternity house by a baggy-eyed Bro in insignia-branded pajamas, gnawing on a chicken wing. The Bro shuffles away to join the others, sprawled around the flat-screen in the living room, loafers raised.
In the kitchen, Deke puts on heavy-duty vinyl gloves and gets a bucket from beneath the sink. He always focuses on the red Solo cups first, dumping their contents—stale beer, cigarette butts, pizza crusts—into the bucket, then stacking them into tall columns.
Earlier that morning, Deke had stopped by his parents’ house to peruse a pile of his old belongings destined for a garage sale. He’d been surprisingly nostalgic and had vetoed a lot, including a box of Choose Your Own Adventure books he’d enjoyed as a kid. As he dumps and stacks cups, he imagines his own story.
You are a college-bound boy practicing free throws in your driveway on a lovely summer’s day when a car pulls up in front of your house. It’s your buddy, Jamison.
“Get in,” he says. “We’re going to City Reservoir.”
In the front seat of the Corolla is Jamison’s new girlfriend, Jill, and in the back is her best friend, Kenyata, a very cute sophomore. Bikini strings, tied around her long neck, hint at what’s beneath her halter. You’d like to see the rest, but as a D-1 athlete you need to be regimented about your training. After shooting hoops you’re supposed to hit the weight bench.
Turn to Page 12 if you accept Jamison’s invitation.
Turn to Page 35 if you decline.
Outside, Deke pours his beer bucket into a sewage drain. He shovels the filtered solids, dumps them into the trash, and places the Solo cups into the recycling bin next to the side door. This is just the first round, from the ground floor. Next is the cavernous basement, privately referred to as “the den of iniquity”. He never knows what he will find down there.
When he opens the basement door, he’s confronted by a waft portending the heinous task ahead. Definitely urine. Definitely barf. He reminds himself to be systematic and focus on collecting cups and garbage right now. It’s important to ease into a job like this. Acclimate. If he lets his mind wander toward the toilet stalls he’d lose fortitude.
Armed with his bucket and a box of garbage bags, he descends, tending to his bum right leg, sticking and unsticking the bottom of his shoes with each step.
Page 12: You get into the car. The whole back seat smells like strawberries, emanating from Kenyata’s skin. She flashes you a full smile.
“You got your braces off,” you say to her.
She slides her tongue over her teeth. “I still can’t get over how smooth it feels,” she says.
Everything about Kenyata looks smooth.
Jamison turns the music up, way up,—Clipse, Grindin’—making the whole car, your whole body, vibrate. This is what the summer before college is supposed to feel like.
Kenyata’s hand is just inches from yours on the middle seat. Her nails are shiny with a line of white on the tips. Classy. She is straight-up prototype.
Turn to Page 22 if you make a move, letting your fingers mingle with hers.
Turn to Page 40 if you’re too much of a wuss.
Deke moves through the main room, conscious of every step. On the bar is a train of shot glasses next to an empty bottle of Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey. As expected, he finds vomit next to one of the stools. Cups and garbage, cups and garbage, he repeats to himself, walking away. Mopping comes later.
In the corner, beyond the beer pong table, is a pile of pink plastic. Upon closer inspection he realizes it’s a partially deflated blow-up woman with yellow hair and a red mouth, open like a big “O”. Air exits a puncture wound in its chest. He stuffs it into a garbage bag.
Page 40: Though the space between your hands seems to hold a charge, you do nothing. You tell yourself the last thing you need before starting college is a girl messing with your head, but really: you’re scared she’ll pull back from your touch, disgusted by your sweaty hands and/or your nerve. You’ve never been good at making the first move, unless a girl has made her interest blatantly obvious. Maybe at the reservoir she’ll give you more of a sign. If not, that’s okay. You’ll be meeting plenty of cheerleaders soon.
City Reservoir is a place of legend. You feel the weight and excitement of initiation as soon as there is gravel under the tires. A mile in on the access road, Jamison pulls over. Signs saying, “No trespassing” are nailed to trees, but you and your crew take the dare, plunging into the woods. You hike a hill, meander off path, bushwhack a bit, and begin to think you’ll never find it, until “Yo and Behold!”—a clearing, a cliff, and down below, the pristine baptismal waters.
A flat rock juts out over the reservoir, perfect for four lithe bodies to sit, legs dangled, passing a flask, as if geologic time has this occasion as its purpose. Jamison says something to this effect and you try to come up with a deep thought of your own to offer, but nothing seems quite as profound as skin to skin, your leg pressed against Kenyata’s. You taste her ChapStick on the lip of the flask after she drinks.
Jill talks about a book she read recently where a man is abducted by aliens that look like toilet plungers and learns that all moments—past, present, and future—exist for all of eternity. Linear time, as we know it, is an illusion. This literary talk is refreshing after spending so much time with jocks and you realize you’ve underestimated Jill as just a pretty face.
It’s high noon, the sun directly overhead. You’re baking and the water beckons. Jamison stands, tilts his head back to drain the flask, and shoves it into a deep pocket in his cargo shorts.
“Arrest your inhibitions! It is time!” he announces triumphantly. “My dear?” he says to Jill, holding out a hand. She accepts, placing her palm in his and he pulls her to her feet. Without hesitation, hands still clasped, they count to three, and jump. As they plummet, they whoop ceremoniously, a strange duet—his soprano, her alto. They smack the water, swallowed. The splash subsides, concentric circles growing outward from the center of impact until all is still. Seconds pass, all hushed. Then, out of the depths, Jamison and Jill spring victorious, radiant in their inauguration.
“Come on, you cowards!” yells Jamison, shaking out his hair.
“Cowards!” echoes Jill.
You and Kenyata stand. She looks at you expectantly.
Turn to Page 100 if you extend a hand valiantly and say, “My dear?”
Turn to Page 145 if you admit you’re a coward and end up bushwhacking back to the access road by yourself.
Cups and garbage. Cups and garbage.
Page 100: Actually, let’s skim… Past being dragged out of the water by Jamison and Jill. Past looking down at your leg and seeing exposed meat and bone. Past realizing Kenyata can’t be found at all. Past hearing she had to be dredged out later that night (her halter caught on the roots of the submerged tree you both hit). Past your first operation. Skip all that…and you will end up in the basement of a fraternity, a tower of Solo cups in one hand, a garbage bag in the other, walking into a side room set up like a tiki party, strung with colorful lights.
Piles of pink and green leis lie like fluffy caterpillars on the cement floor. Wooden torches lean against the walls, etched with black haloes from extinguished flames. Pushed in a corner, you find a kiddie pool. Come closer and you see a turd, floating in frothy, pale-yellow water. This is the culmination of your story, ending in this grand moment, a moment that will exist for all of eternity.
Just for fun, turn to Page 145, to the alternate ending, but skim the humiliating part where you’re walking the access road and your three comrades (heads blessedly wet) yell from the Corolla’s window, “Get in coward!” in one unified voice. Skim past the glory days of collegiate sports, the hard work, the payoffs, the losses, the cheerleaders, the newspaper articles in your mother’s scrapbook. Pass over the part about the ACL tear junior year. Skip forward to the alt-present, that parallel dimension, What Could Have Been: You are lying on the seniors-only leather couch, comfy in black and red plaid pajamas, loafers raised, gnawing on a chicken wing, waiting for the hangover to subside so you can start again. Meanwhile, a shadow moves through the house collecting red Solo cups.
Category: Competition, Featured, Fiction, Short Story