Merrill Montgomery graduated from Agnes Scott College in Decatur, and she has previously worked as a lab technician at the CDC. She has been published or is forthcoming on the websites of Saw Palm, 100word story, RiverLit Magazine, and Black Heart Magazine.
They finished the dam during my last year of high school. With steel and concrete they collared the Arkansas River, and White Plume Lake grew out behind this tourniquet like blood spilling forth from a broken vein. Adam Kyle’s older brother was encased within that dam, his bones pulsating with baritone frequencies whenever they ran big water. Indelible for our frame of reference; we’d all be dead before his bones were freed and swept away in the deluge.
Adam hadn’t been a drinker before his brother died, but he was after. He sat next to me in Spanish, a too-thin figure wearing dirty plaid shirts, his dark hair uncut since his brother’s death. We all knew about his brother, about how Joseph Kyle slipped and fell and joined the three other men already in the mausoleum of the dam. I knew how Adam drank alone on the new Lake Road, standing a hundred feet over the skeleton that had once been his brother, looking back over the mirror of the lake, the place that had once been houses, fields, and trees. I never spoke to him in Spanish class or when we accidentally fell into stride next to each other as we walked through the halls. But I smelled the alcohol on his breath and kept my distance, out of fear, out of respect, out of anger. It had been nearly a decade since Adam and I had talked to each other, and even Joseph’s death couldn’t close the gaping hole of such a silence.
Before White Plume Lake existed and before Joseph Kyle ceased to exist, Adam and I almost drowned together. We were ten. I lived north of the refinery, and my neighborhood was crisscrossed with drainage ditches that roared to life during brief summer downpours, the Oklahoma soil shedding water with the same efficiency as the oil hidden beneath it.
It was my idea, the inner tube. I knew it was dangerous, and I suggested it anyway.
“It’ll be fun,” I said to Adam, holding the rubber donut out like an offering.
He looked from the inner tube, to my face, back to the inner tube.
“Kelly, how’d you get that bruise?” he asked, reaching his hand toward where I knew a purplish bruise was visible along my hairline. .
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, glancing toward where the drainage ditch was testing its banks, feeling my heart beat faster at the thought of my mom’s boyfriend’s knuckles against the side of my head, feeling the familiar rush of anger and fear and shame. “We can pretend we’re white-water rafting.”
Patrick Hennessey, the son of the refinery foreman, had gone white-water rafting the summer before. Adam’s dad had a shitty operator job and my mom and her boyfriend both worked at DollarPalooza. An antique inflatable toy and a flash-flooded drainage ditch was the closest analog to white-water rafting I could find. Adam looked at the bruise again.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s go.”
It was still raining as we walked down to where the ditch passed under the road. The water, which was usually an oozy ribbon ten feet below the pavement, roared only inches from the bridge’s crossties. Adam looked at me, one of his hands hovering close to my own as though he would’ve liked to hold it, water droplets pearled on his long, dark lashes, beading like freckles on his cheeks. Adam probably wanted to back out right then, leave me to plunge into the water on my own. He didn’t though. He flashed a straight white smile and laughed.
“Come on, you chicken or what?” he asked.
I wasn’t afraid at all, not even as we threw the inner tube into the ditch and jumped in after it. Not even as we misjudged the distance and were swept up in the current.
I didn’t realize I was drowning until I exhaled, until the water tore me away from the air, from the light. I felt Adam grab my arm under the water, and both of us sank and rolled together and I knew I was going to die. I opened my eyes against the muddy water and then slammed them shut against the stinging grit. The water was full of flotsam, of bits of boards and bicycles and tree limbs, of oil. Adam and I clung tight to each other and fought our way toward what we thought was up. Perhaps we clung to each other because we thought the other was salvation, or because we simply didn’t want to die alone, but we grasped the parts of each other’s arms we could find in the murk and struggled toward the surface. My lungs burned. The current brought us to the surface only long enough to scream, to catch a reflexive gasping breath of air, and to be thrown down again.
It was Joseph and three of his friends who saved our lives. They’d seen us on the bridge, seen us jump into the water, and had run at full speed to where the ditch went under another bridge. They were in high school then, Joseph a basketball player, and they lifted both of us from the water and laid us on the road. We lay shaking, shining with water and filth and oil scum and blood from scratches, like selkies stolen from our skins.
“You retards are lucky to be alive,” Joseph said, panting. “You’re a crazy little kid, you know that?” he said to me.
Adam and I were too stunned to say anything. Joseph and his friends walked away and Adam started to cry. I didn’t cry though, I just looked up at where the sun was only just starting to show through the clouds, where tiny rainbows appeared in the mist, and I wondered what it was to be lucky, to feel lucky to be alive.
If the newspaper got the time right, I was high as a kite and parked with Patrick Hennessey behind the El Patio Cantina when Joseph Kyle fell into the cement. I don’t know what Adam was doing. He was probably working on a college application or something, because that was the life he’d made for himself, the life he’d made while I was trying to drown myself in a million different ways.
There were a lot of us packed into the low brick church out in White Plume City, a church that would be covered with water when the lake filled. As we sat in the crowded pews listening to people cry and tell stories about Joseph, we could hear the men in the churchyard digging up the graves of our ancestors, taking their bodies to higher ground in preparation for the flood. They’d already taken the crucifix down off of the wall to move it to the new church, and behind it the paint was a brighter blue, not faded by the sun, unchanged over time.
Adam didn’t tell the story about Joseph saving our lives and neither did I. There were plenty of other stories about Joseph that people were ready to tell, and my head hurt and the grave dust filled my lungs, kept me silent.
. . .
By the time I graduated high school, I was living out in the Osage with a cattle trucker named Billy. Billy let me borrow his pickup when he was out on runs in the semi. Every time I took the Lake Road over the dam, I looked for Adam. Joseph had been dead for over a year, and yet, on occasion, Adam still stood on the dam with a bottle of Thunderbird long after the sun set.
The sun wasn’t to set for another hour, but a light summer mist was falling and the sky was grey, a wet twilight already engulfing the world and blurring the edges of things. As I passed over the dam, I saw Adam standing on the cement wall that ran along the road, his feet hooked under the metal handrail that ran the length of the wall. He was facing away from the lake, looking down the hundred or more feet to the riverbed. His hair was wet and plastered to his head, and his hands were empty, limp at his sides. Even with his feet under the handrail, he looked poised to jump, to fly away. I’d seen him on the dam a dozen times at least, but every other time he’d been looking toward the lake, every other time he’d had a bottle of something or other in his hands. I stopped the car on what there was of a shoulder, leaving the emergency lights flashing but taking the keys out of the ignition, sliding them under the seat. Adam didn’t turn when the car door slammed, he just rocked slightly, almost imperceptibly, shifting his weight as if to test the ease with which he could launch himself to his death. I wasn’t sure if he’d heard me because the dam was shaking and the air was full of the sound of humming turbines and crashing water.
“Adam,” I said, when I was at his back. He was high enough off of the ground that my head came just to the crook of his knee. “What are you doing?”
“It’s the first time that they’ve run big water,” he said, not looking away from the riverbed. “Do you want to see?”
I hesitated, looking up at Adam with his soaked clothes and hunched shoulders, at the way he stared so intently at the torrents of water, the sheer drop. I assumed that he was staring but his eyes could have been closed. I hoisted myself up on to the top of the wall using the handrail to pull myself up and balanced next to him, hooking the toes of my cowboy boots under the metal railing before letting go and slowly standing next to him. I teetered for a moment, casting my weight backward, and then caught my balance. Below us, the water rocketed out of the side of the dam with terrific force, sending spray high enough to hit us.
“Wow,” I said.
He looked at me for the first time since I’d arrived, since I could remember.
“This would have scared me once, not that long ago,” he said, and looked back at the riverbed. “I would never have stood up here like this. I hated heights, and water. And rainstorms. They terrified me.” He paused. “You terrified me.”
I didn’t say anything for a long time. Away, back behind us, over the lake, thunder rumbled loud enough to be heard over the sound of the dam.
“I’m sorry I almost killed us,” I said finally.
There was a brief moment of silence, of stillness, and then he grabbed my wrist, hard. His hand was shaking, his nails digging into my skin hard enough to blanch it. He kept his eyes straight ahead, not turning to face me.
“Do you want to?” he asked me. “Do you want to go? It’ll work this time.”
It would work because Joseph was dead, because Adam knew what it was to be so tired of feeling an emotion that any other emotion, no emotion, death, seemed welcome, because hitting water from a hundred feet up was the same as hitting stone, because by the time we crossed under the next bridge, all we’d be was a broken collection of bones.
I didn’t say anything, I just closed my eyes, felt adrenaline surging with my blood, felt my heart rate rise and my own body start to shake.
“Are you afraid, now?” Adam asked, voice choked. He started to lean forward, and in that moment, I threw myself backward with enough power to send us both toppling onto the shoulder. We hit the ground and he released his grip on my wrist.
He’d broken the skin, and rain mixed with the blood that trickled down toward the ground. Adam’s palms were open, facing skyward. His eyes were closed.
When my lungs could fill once more with air, I sat, turned, scooted until I was leaning against the cement wall. In the gloom, I held my throbbing wrist and waited. Adam’s chest rose and fell, a deep sigh, and he pushed himself up slowly, and our eyes met.
This time, neither of us cried. We just stared at each other with shocked relief, like the lone survivors of some sort of horrific accident. All around us corpses were littered, our own corpses, the corpses of the men interred in the dam, the corpses of memory and innocence and time. And here we were, manifestations of all of our selves, former and current, hearts beating atop the trembling dam, alive for the moment, alive as rain fell on the lake beyond us and the river below us, alive as the sun set in the west, alive and aware that we were the only ones who could lift us free of ourselves, that all we could do was forgive.