It’s funny, looking back, I remember that day as being hot. It was late spring, on a Saturday, and the sun was high. It must have been early afternoon. I know the sun was high because it was shining directly in my eyes as I lay on the ground. And I am sure it was hot because the grass was especially cool where I could feel it on my skin. I remember that contrast – the skin on my face getting steadily hotter as my friends stood around and stared, and the cool of the grass that reminded me where I was.
However, if you ask any of them to tell the story—the four others that were there that day—they’ll all say that the weather was cool. They’ll tell you that the temperature had dropped sharply the night before and hadn’t recovered. I think they’re wrong, but that’s what they’d tell you if you asked.
From where I lay, I could see the broken gutter. More specifically, I could see the section where the broken gutter was supposed to be. Part of it was lying in the bushes above my head, and I couldn’t bring myself to turn enough to see what had become of them – the lilacs that Dad spent so much time working on. Every weekend, no matter what the weather was, he pruned them, watered them if they needed it, checked the soil, weeded. And now there was a gutter laying on them, crushing those precious branches until they broke.
A few leaves lay on the grass around me. Not fresh leaves. They were old, brown, and wet—leaves newly freed from the gutter when it came loose under my weight. They lay in two or three soggy piles near my head. I could see them if I turned just enough. I only did it once though—for two reasons. The first was that it hurt to move, more than I would have thought possible. The pain shot up the left side of my neck like a needle. But if I stayed still and stared at the sun, all I could feel was the warm air and the coolness of the grass. The second reason was my friends. Eric seemed to have become the spokesman for the group. He always was the most outgoing. He was the one who thought to call an ambulance when I couldn’t get up again. He was the one that made me stop trying.
“Don’t move, Tom.” That was what he said when I tried to see the old leaves. “Don’t move. Help’s coming.” I remember his face had gone white. He had a halo around his head because, whenever he leaned over to talk to me, the sun was directly behind him. Even then, I could see how pale he was. Afraid.
The other three clustered together a few feet away. They didn’t say much. They just clenched their hands and watched me not move. They were afraid too, just like Eric. I think I was the only one who wasn’t afraid. Everything had happened so quickly, and what pain I was feeling in the moment was distant and dull, almost as though it belonged to someone else.
I remember smelling fresh bread. Our neighbor must have been baking. None of the others remember that either.
There is a gap in my memory before that point. I remember being on the roof. I remember seeing the Frisbee further up, near the peak. It was bright green with some sort of design on it. We used to play with it all the time and now, no matter how hard I try, I cannot remember what the design was. I remember how relieved I was when I made it from the porch railing to the roof. But I was determined not to let any of the others see my relief. That was easy. That was what I wanted them to see.
After that, I remember losing my balance. I remember stepping backwards. (They tell me that was when I stepped on the gutter.) I remember knowing I was going to fall. Crap—the only word that ran through my head. Then I was on the ground. It was that simple. Everyone was standing around me and there was that dull aching—somebody else’s ache.
They hadn’t wanted me to get the Frisbee; at least they said they didn’t want me to. But I had seen the excitement in their eyes. None of us thought about the consequences. None of us thought anything would really go wrong. That kind of thing always happens to someone else. Someone else’s pain. (Of course, the fact that each one of us had already been hurt in similar pursuits had no impact on the conversation. No one even remembered those days).
Their excitement. My determination not to appear weak. My pride – though I never would have called it that at the time. Their words still ringing in my ears… I had walked to the railing, pretending not to be afraid, pretending that I could not hear them calling me back, aware of the subtle something in their voices which urged me forward.
It had all started about two minutes before the Frisbee landed on the roof. The question was innocent, but it made me feel cold when I heard it. It was the question I spent so much of my summer avoiding. Yet, as Eric tossed the Frisbee at me again, it slipped out, almost innocent, almost like it meant nothing – “Why won’t you come diving with us?”
“I told you; I’m busy.” I couldn’t meet his eyes, couldn’t let him see the truth.
“Does it matter?”
“It does if you’re making it up.”
“Shut up! I am busy.”
“Then what about a different day?”
“I dunn’o.” I refused to commit, refused to let them trap me.
“I think you’re scared.”
“Then prove it. Come diving.”
“I can’t!” I was angry by then, but that didn’t stop them. They were sure of it now, sure of my fear. It drew them like dogs that have caught a scent. I whipped the Frisbee across the yard, harder than I had intended.
“Sounds to me like you’re chicken,” Eric had chuckled. He couldn’t see the anger, not really. He couldn’t see the fear. I wouldn’t let him.
“Chicken. Chicken. Afraid.” They were the words I feared – the words I could not hear.
“Shut up!” I whipped the Frisbee again. It looped up, far off target, debated for a moment where to land, and settled onto the roof.
“Nice going. Now what do we do?”
It only took me a moment to decide, not that I ever really thought about it. I started walking toward the porch. Toward the railing. Toward the roof and the gutter and Dad’s carefully pruned bushes.
“Don’t do it,” Eric called after me. “Don’t be stupid.”
“I’ll be fine,” I called back. “What’s the worst that can happen? You don’t even have to do anything. You’re not chicken are you?”
I set my foot on the railing, and they stopped calling me. They wanted to see. We all did.