“Just jump,” said the girl. “What are you afraid of?”
A golden trail danced on the water in the morning sun, blinding Callum where he watched the other two from the upper trail. The silhouette of the boy shook a little where it perched on the edge of the cliff above Blackbird Lake. The shadow of the girl stood on a boulder nearby.
“Cora, it’s 50 feet!” the boy said.
“Yeah, right,” she said. “Thirty maybe.”
In all the summers his parents had dragged Callum to this forgotten water hole, the only people his age had been his cousin Randy. That crazy kid jumped no problem when they were 7. Then he’d made fun of Callum when he couldn’t do it. Callum hated Randy.
Callum was jerked back to the present, suddenly aware he’d been caught gazing. His face felt hot. The girl laughed. “If you’re done spying, come convince my little brother to jump.”
He had no choice but to join them on the rocky path off the main trail. He remembered to put on a smile. “Um, hi.”
The girl stepped down from the rock, separating herself from the light. “I’m Cora. My family built the house over in Feather Cove.”
Callum was aware she was still talking, but her smile and the electric warmth in her handshake rendered him helpless to hear or speak or move.
“Um, Cal,” he finally managed to say.
During the summer before high school, some girls had walked by in the mall wearing tight shirts and very short shorts. Callum’s face had burned when his mother said, “A girl always knows you’re sneaking peeks. Look at her face, not her lace.” Cora wore bikini bottoms and a green T-shirt with SPOKANISTAN in faded red letters, but Callum focused on her hair – the color of a golden beach – her dark brown eyes, and her freckled nose. He wanted to hold her hand forever, but he was glad he remembered to let her go.
“My brother’s too chicken,” Cora said.
“I’m not!” He said. “But my teacher said never jump into shallow water.”
“Never dive into shallow water,” Cora said. “Hundreds of people have jumped from here.”
“Dad says they call this Dead Man’s Drop,” the kid said.
“They call it that,” Callum said, “because some drunk staggered off the edge about 50 years ago. No running start. Went down head first, hitting rocks all the way.”
Callum was happy when Cora laughed, even though he hadn’t been joking. The scared kid crouched low when Cora lightly punched his arm. “See, Eric? You’re not drunk, you’ll get a running start, you won’t tumble down the rocks, and it’s not 50 years ago.”
Eric tried again, but skittered to a stop at the edge. “I can’t do it!”
Cora shot Callum a look like they were both old pros at leaping to the water from this high cliff. “You wanna show him how it’s done?”
A welcome breeze did nothing to cool the nervous heat building on his face and in his armpits. “I would.” He scrambled for an excuse. “But I’m not in my swim trunks. And I gotta get home. My parents need to go to Spokane for something today.”
“Cool.” She slid off her shirt. He kept thinking, Look at her face, not her lace, but he couldn’t resist a peek at the perfection in that purple bikini. When he returned his gaze to her eyes, she smiled. “Maybe next time you can jump with me.”
She leapt out over Blackbird Lake, flailing and kicking. She whooped as she plunged into the water, coughing and laughing when she surfaced. She waved as she swam back toward the rocks, and Callum headed down the trail to his cabin, thinking about the beautiful girl with the courage to fly.
“It’s different from when your dad brought you here. Kids today need their phones and video games.” Callum’s mother’s voice came from the kitchen window as he approached the cabin. “He’s miserable.”
“That’s what I thought when I was his age,” Dad said. “Maybe not with the cellphone, but with the Nintendo.”
“He doesn’t like it here. But he will want to go to college, and half a million would cover it all.”
Callum frowned and crouched below the kitchen window to hear better.
“My grandfather built this cabin,” Dad said. “We’re not selling! I don’t care how much they offer. It’s bad enough that they built that McMansion over in the cove. They’re not turning this end of the lake into some expensive resort or millionaire row.”
Half a million dollars? Dad had an offer to sell this musty old cabin? With that kind of money his family could take real vacations to fun places. And this shack would be gone. No more wilderness isolation. So lost was he in these thoughts that he didn’t notice that the conversation in the kitchen had stopped.
“Hey, buddy.” Dad said from the porch. “What are you doing?”
Callum stood up straight. “Oh, I just got back.”
“Well, you’re just in time. I need your help fixing the dock.”
Callum sighed and followed his father to a dull day of maintenance.
• • •
The next morning, Callum stood in his swim trunks, shaking like Cora’s brother had the day before. Just three running steps and a jump. For the 10th time that morning, he rushed ahead, only to stutter-step to a halt at the edge, his heart thumping as it flew ahead of him. He checked again to make sure Cora wasn’t coming. Looking down at the water far below, he wondered why he couldn’t jump. When voices echoed from down the trail, he hurried away. If Cora asked him to jump today, the only excuse he’d have left was that he was a coward.
• • •
“How was the Drop this morning?” Dad asked him a week later. The two of them paddled past the cliff, dragging their fishing lines. Callum hated fishing.
“Cal!” Cora shouted, seconds before her mostly bare body came flying off the jump. “Come jump with me. Eric still won’t do it.”
“Can’t.” Callum held up his fishing pole.
“Go if you want.” Dad grinned. “I see how that would be more fun than fishing with your old man.”
“No, it’s great,” Callum said quickly. “Let’s catch some fish. But, we should get away from the drop.”
Dad nodded. “The fish will be scared.”
The next week continued the same way, only Callum had decided to try to make the morning jump in jean shorts. That way he could spend time with Cora with the excuse that he couldn’t jump because he was only on a hike and didn’t have his swim trunks. On the best days, the little brother didn’t come with her. The two of them talked and laughed, and sometimes his heart trilled when she offered a smile or a certain special look. Over and over Cora took the plunge.
“You should try it, Callum,” Cora climbed the little trail back up to the landing, water dripping from every part of her. She was standing in front of him, so close he could feel the coolness of her damp skin. “It’s like flying.” Her wet hair hung down on both sides of their faces, tunneling the two of them off from the world. The usual excuses were on their way to his lips, when he felt her hands on his. “I’ll go with you.”
Years of summer fears melted away from the heat where their hands met, and Callum didn’t hesitate, didn’t think, but watched her smile as the two of them launched out into the air.
They surfaced at the foot of the towering cliff, and when they found their footing on the same underwater rock, their fingers wiggled together until the two of them danced in the water. And they drifted together. Closed their eyes.
When their lips met, he worried for a moment that she might find him awkward and inexperienced. But like cliff jumping, it all took care of itself as soon as he tried. Their kiss pulled him into a flash outside of time, a moment to which he would return from time to time for the rest of his life, always with a smile, always almost able to feel her still pressed against him.
“You’re right,” he whispered to her when they inched apart. “It is like flying.”
• • •
“Hey, Cal.” Dad pounded a nail to secure a plank to the dock that afternoon. Callum could still feel the press of Cora’s lips, the perfect pressure of her arms around him. He wished his father would stop the hammering. It wasn’t the right day for that kind of violence. “How was the Drop today?”
“It was the best, Dad.”
Dad stopped hammering and followed his son’s gaze toward Feather Cove.
“Pretty great, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Callum said. “The best.”
The late afternoon sun paved a gold trail on the water, and he relaxed his eyes as his world filled with light. The canoe tapped against the dock on little waves from the breeze. Everything else was silent and still.
“This place. It’s ours. You know you can’t sell it, right?”
His father didn’t answer, but Callum knew that, just like it had been between his father and his grandfather, they had an understanding here.
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