A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a Writing Seminar. One of our projects was to interview a classmate and turn an incident from their life into a short story. Since then, I’ve revised and added to this story, and the result is what you have here. It is shared with the permission of the person who lived it (or a variation of it, anyway).
Boys Will Be Boys
It was the sort of moment that should have given him reason to pause. Late afternoon light illuminating the shallow valley tucked away in the hills just outside of town; a comforting breeze; a beautiful view and loved ones to share it with—they were all sufficient motivation to hold for a moment, to slow down and take in the richness of the surroundings. But not for Josh, not that day. He strode out confidently toward the dam, his brother David eagerly snapping pictures behind him, and David’s girlfriend Liz trailing further back, her misgivings ignored. The giddiness of the moment overcame him, and so a dam, a photograph, a competition, and an appalling lack of judgment led to what Josh would on occasion refer to as the worst decision he ever made. And once he had made it, there was no turning back.
Or rather, there was a turning back – there simply had to be. The issue was just figuring out how.
“What’s this for again?” asked Liz, uneasy at the height of the narrow dam, in spite of the supposedly reassuring fences along each side.
“It’s the competition,” Josh called back, as if that explained everything.
“Between us and the boys on Forrest Street,” said David, generously pausing his experiments with his new camera to remember his girlfriend. “They took a bunch of photos from crazy vantage points, and challenged us to replicate them. We had to sort out where they took them, and then climb the same tree or cliff …”
“…or the same church steeple…” Josh added, from up ahead.
“…and copy what they took. Now, it’s our turn to throw the challenge back out to them…”
“…and this is just the place!” finished Josh, reaching a low concrete wall at the halfway point. “I came out here with Troy and Dinks yesterday, but they weren’t keen to give it a go. So if we can get a shot of those rocks from the middle of the spillway, there’s no way they’ll copy it, even if they do figure out where we got it!”
He jumped up onto the wall, and stood above the spillway of the dam. Liz, still catching up to the brothers, started to call out, “Wait, isn’t that dangerous?” But before she could get the words out, Josh had let himself over the edge with a confident drop.
But then his voice came back up, with a tinge of uncertainty.
“Uh oh, what?” asked David. He looked over and down at his brother, and saw with a start that Josh was quite a bit further away than he expected. The change in his brother’s confident expression was immediate. “Um, you okay down there, Josho?” he asked.
Josh didn’t answer. Instead he stood directly below David, and raised up his hand, as high as he could. David lay on his stomach, and reached down, as low as he could. There was nearly an arm’s length between them.
“Um…I don’t think I’m going to come down there,” said David, apologetically.
“No, that was a bit a bigger drop than I thought it’d be,” Josh replied, his best efforts to keep calm only barely passing muster.
“What?!” cried Liz, running up to David, and looking over as well. “Didn’t you look first?!”
“I did, I just didn’t quite…uh…yeah….” Josh’s voice trailed off, his nerves continuing to slide dangerously down. The irony of the metaphor was not lost on him, but he tried not to dwell on it. Instead, he looked around, taking stock of the situation. There was no obvious way back up—it was more or less a shear climb back up to David, and the other side was no easier. There was also no safe way down. The water was low this time of year, so there was no danger of it actually pouring through the spillway, but on the other hand, the surface was a long way below him, so it wasn’t likely that he’d be swimming his way out. Even if he wanted to, the stone wall sloped steeply away from him, so there was no way to jump to the water without first crashing into the side of the dam. And the other side was no better: it led to rocks, and they were even farther away.
“Josh…what are you going to do?” asked Liz
“Can you jump up? Maybe get a running start?” said David.
That had been Josh’s plan, such as it was. He was agile, and strong. But not only was spillway lower than he’d estimated, its surface wasn’t entirely flat. It curved a bit toward the rocky side. If he tried to jump and ended up slipping, well, he definitely would not be winning any contests against his friends on Forrest Street.
“David, pass me down the camera. If I’m going to be stuck here, I may as well get some of these pictures.”
David looked at Liz, shrugged at her disapproval, and then lowered the camera by the strap to his brother. Josh busied himself with a few shots, including a memorable one of Liz with head buried in her hands while David seemed to stare vacantly off into space. Through the lens of the camera, he became more aware the unique view that he had from this unusual vantage point. Quite a lot enjoy, in fact, beyond any obscure shot of rocks at the other end of a drop he was hoping to avoid. The prospect of competition victory was proving slim comfort in the face of imminent death.
Well, probably not death, he amended to himself. After all, he was in no immediate danger. He could stand on that spillway indefinitely with no risk of falling, as long as he paid attention. And his brother could go get help. Find a rope, or call someone…whomever one calls when 23-year old local boys make such monumentally short sighted choices. Images flashed through his mind – rescue workers reaching down for him, his name plastered across the media, a news helicopter capturing the whole absurd scene—
And then a new problem occurred to him. He was wearing a hoodie which was adorned with the logo for a church outreach group that he was part of, who went to the shore each Summer to reach out to the kids on their break, especially the ones who got into all manner of trouble when time off turned them into drunken idiots. He considered himself, dangerously perched in the spillway of a dam—Who looks like a drunken idiot now, Josh-o?. He just imagined what his team leader would say when he showed up on the local news in that hoodie.
They had been told—no, they had been drilled—to remember that this hoodie was their identity. It was how members of their team recognized each other on their excursions. And whatever they did in that hoodie would reflect back onto their organization. Well, no problem, Josh imagined to himself, I’ll just take the hoodie off…
Until he remembered dishearteningly that his t-shirt had the same logo on it. Could he take that off as well? The options stood starkly before him: either misrepresent his church outreach group, or be found stuck on this dam half naked. Neither was particularly appealing.
He began speaking slowly as panic crowded his thoughts: “So…what if…I were to sort of run and slide down the dam toward the water, and then when I was close enough, I sort of jumped or pushed myself off the wall so that I’d reach the water without crashing into the dam first…?”
His brother stared at him incredulously. “Josh, that’s forty meters down, at least!”
“You’ll definitely die,” added Liz, bluntly.
Not really the third option I was looking for, Josh admitted to himself.
Minutes passed, and the sun began to set, drawing out the beauty of the valley more sharply. How did this happen? Josh wondered to himself. Usually, I’m so careful. No, that wasn’t true. He’d always enjoyed a bit of adventure. It’s just that usually he had an escape route. But this time, his better judgment had been trampled and left for dead at the side of his enthusiasm, and he’d gotten himself stuck, all for the sake of…well, for something that really didn’t matter at all. Not exactly like the kids at the shore, but not too far off. It’s like I’m being judged for my foolishness and arrogance, Josh began to wax philosophically. And truly, yes truly, I deserve my fate. A truly stupid decision yields a truly stupid death. His found his nerves calming as a certain zen-like stupor began to settle in.
Yet in the end, Josh didn’t die. Nor did he bring shame onto the name of his church outreach group. It was the light of the setting sun, glinting off of his brother’s belt buckle, that inspired him. He belt was identical to David’s, so he asked, “Davey…what if we use the buckles to attach our belts together?”
When that didn’t prove quite strong enough, they instead tied them to one another using a climber’s knot they both knew, the sort of knot that was handy for just this sort of situation (though perhaps nobody had this exact situation in mind when they developed it). That resulted in a loop that David could lower close enough for Josh to safely jump and grab onto. The belts strained and creaked as Josh pulled himself up and swung his other hand round to meet his brother’s. David was pressed flat on the cold surface, lifting his brother with all his might, while Liz added what strength she could to securing David’s legs.
There was a fair amount of swinging involved as Josh pull himself up, an inch at a time, including alarming tendencies to dangle over the rocky side of the dam. His fear began re-asserting itself with a vengeance, forcing Josh to steel his will to continue gaining ground against the ledge. His thoughts during this had started with as series of noble resolutions, including to have greater maturity, deeper appreciation of his surroundings, and a more sensible approach to life in general. However, with each swing of his legs, Josh found these were giving way way to lower sentiments, from the fearful At forty meters, I’ll definitely be conscious when I smash into the ground to the self pitying Liz must really think I’m an idiot to the random I never got to travel to Mongolia. Finally, they settled on the miserable I’m going to wind up half naked anyway, as he realized that his baggy and now belt-less pants were not coming up at the same time as the rest of him.
Still, if Liz was bothered by the sight of Josh clambering over her exhausted boyfriend while simultaneously trying to pull up his trousers, she didn’t let on. Everyone was far too relieved to bring that up, at least not until much later, well after profuse and divine thanks were offered for Josh’s very literal salvation.
Josh and David never used those photographs in their competition, and years later, they couldn’t even recall who had ended up winning. But they did decide to permanently exchange belt buckles that day, as a bit of a memorial of these things, and as a reminder, hopefully, of the lesson that he’d learned – to never again purposely put himself into such a situation, where such dire risks were demanded and could not be walked away from.
And Josh continues to wear that belt buckle, even to this very day.