FICTION

LORI D. BOWERS

June Bug Days

I saw a crowd gathered along the low bank of Park River. They pushed forward, straining their necks, hoping to catch a glimpse of the action below. They moved strangely, as if the summer heat had melted them into molasses. I felt that there was a sense of comedy to the scene. Everyone was draping over each other, leaning to and fro, trying to get a better view. The faces were morphed; their jaws unhinged and mouths gaping. I thought how much they reminded me of a Saturday morning cartoon show, Scooby Doo or perhaps Bugs Bunny and Friends. I giggled under my breath, embarrassed and amused that at fourteen my Saturday mornings were still spent watching kiddie shows. However, I knew for a fact that many of my friends had the same routine, but would deny it in public.

No one had noticed my giggles. In fact, no one had noticed me at all. I had just returned from the public bathrooms, which were a half-mile walk away. I had taken my time climbing the steep road. How I hated that climb; over the bridge, up the incline, and finely to a straight drive leading out of Fall Creek Falls Park. Every summer was the same; an exhausting hike to the bathrooms, usually with little time to spare. Then after the bathroom, a quick duck into the nature center to cool off. I could always feel the cool air rush over my sweat-soaked skin immediately upon entering the low dark building. There was a man-made waterfall inside, near the movie room. That was where I had been for the last thirty minutes, knowing that I shouldn't have lazed in front of the trickling water for so long but the darkness of the hallway had kept me from being in any hurry. Outside, the air was overheated and filled with a stagnant scent that rose from the green river nearby. I had seen enough of the searing July sun for one afternoon.

My cousins had been swimming earlier and I had waded in the shallows on the other side of the bridge. That was my favorite spot to explore when I visited the park, catching crawdads and watching the fish swim just out of reach. It had been more exciting today because my favorite cousin Wendy had decided to come along for a swim also.

We always hiked down into the gorge after swimming. It was always a challenge to see which one of us could get closest to the shower of water falling from the cliff edge above. Wendy was a tomboy, just like me. We kept our blond hair chopped short, just below the ears. Our parents were more than a little upset the first time we cut each others hair. I guess they eventually got used to it, just like they got used to Led Zeppelin and Motley Crue grinding through our bedroom walls. Mom didn't even yell when I buzzed down the hair just above my ears.

When Kelly had shown up with his parents a couple of hours ago, I knew that he would hang out with us. He was a typical eleven year old boy, catching garter snakes so he could scare the other kids with them.

Kelly was rough and uncontrollable. He watched wrestling and had showed me all the moves that Ric Flair used inside the ring; his scrappy legs kicking invisible opponents, while his shaggy brown hair fell over his eyes. We had been watching the wrestlers toss each other out of the ring every weekend since last year. He kept talking big about how one day he would toss Hulk Hogan out of the ring himself. His dad kept telling him to forget it and pay more attention to staying out of trouble. Uncle Bobby always wanted Kelly to act like his older brother, but that was not likely to happen and I was glad about that.

I turned my head from the crowd when a speeding park officer truck came to a sudden stop just off the pavement. Two men stepped out of the vehicle and ran toward the river bank yelling as they went.

"Move over. Step back. Where is he?"

Suddenly, I felt frightened but didn't know why. I could see Wendy across the road sitting under the picnic pavilion. Her mom was there but there was no sign of anyone else. Where had everyone gone? I had only been away for less than an hour. If the group had decided to visit the gift shop and snack bar, why hadn't Mom stayed behind?

"We've got him!" someone shouted.

I turned and ran into the crowd, pushing aside those that refused to move. When I emerged from the tangled group, my eyes immediately focused upon another crowd of people in the water. A few of the older cousins were bobbing up and down some distance from the shore. They had probably been diving from the cliffs on the other side. That was something they always insisted on doing even though their parents had forbidden it.

Closer to the bank several of my uncles and the officers were pulling a limp form through the murky water.

"Where the hell's that ambulance?" Uncle Bobby roared.

Moments later, we heard the siren as it echoed down the ravine. It came into view and drove straight across the small field, rolling to a stop behind us.

Somehow, I didn't notice the paramedics rushing past me. All I noticed was the drenched brown hair covering Kelly's purple face.

Uncle Bobby launched demands in my direction.

"Where the hell were you? Where's Wendy? What the hell were you thinking?"

Uncle Bobby continued to scream. He was pale from fright and at the same time red from fury. The older cousins just glared and began to swim back to shore.

"I just went up to the bathroom! I was only gone a minute! I thought Wendy was still swimming! What's wrong with Kelly? Where's Mom? What's wrong?"

I sobbed knowing it had been more than a minute. When I left Kelly, Wendy must have gone across the field to the pavilion. The older cousins were still swimming. They knew I was going up the hill. They knew I wouldn't be watching him. He wasn't my responsibility then. It was their turn to watch him.

Only moments ago I had been giggling at the crowd and now the thought of it was horrifying. Now that I knew what was happening, the people did not look comical at all. They looked twisted, tormented, and ghastly. Everything had changed. The heat of the day suddenly turned into an icy chill.

I was no longer aware of the commotion at the water's edge. My focus was upon the older cousins. They had left the water and were walking directly toward me. They wore blank faces, their hair still matted from the river water. The two oldest whispered under their breaths as they walked by. I noticed that despite their lack of emotion, there was a look of fright deep in their eyes. They knew I could see it. As they shuffled across the field, I noticed how one of them made a diving sign with his hands while continuing to whisper. It was at that moment I knew what had happened.

They had let Kelly cliff-dive with them. Whether they had dared him into it or he did it voluntarily did not matter. It was their fault. It had happened on their watch. That wouldn't matter to anyone else. I knew that the blame would fall squarely on me. I could sense it. The older cousins would not take the fall for this one. They had a plan already brewing. This would not have been the first time that they had gotten away with bullying the younger kids; shaming them into doing something they shouldn't. However, this was different. Kelly was being pulled out of the water and I was not sure if he was alive or dead.

I watched the pavilion, waiting for Mom to arrive. The only person sitting under the shelter now was Wendy. The day was not supposed to have turned out like this. We were going to spend the evening cooking out by the river. Now I couldn't even look at the river. I focused my attention on the field; shutting out all the noise of the world, except for one sound. The one sound that always made me remember the joys of summer. There must have been thousands of them swarming across the clover filled grass. They always reminded me of miniature green robots with wings. It seemed strange that I had not noticed the sound of them until this particular moment. How could I have missed the immense sound that these little creatures were making? I remembered the times when we would catch the bugs and tie a string to their leg. The three of us had done it a thousand times.

"Michelle! Michelle, there you are! Where were you, young lady? I've just spent the last thirty minutes looking for you! You are in serious trouble! Do you understand me?"

I knew Mom would be upset, but I didn't expect her to be this furious. Surely she wouldn't blame me for this. She knew herself what the older kids were like. She had even warned me to stay clear of them. Mom snatched my arm and we marched across the field. I noticed how quickly the June Bugs swarmed away from our trotting feet. How could this be happening? What could I do to convince her that this was not my fault? As my mind began to race, the noise from the river bank came roaring back into my ears.

"Is he breathing?" echoed across the field and slapped the back of my head. It felt like the time I was hit by a baseball. It had left my head ringing. I remembered the searing pain at the base of my skull. However this was much worse. The pain cascaded down my spine and ended up exploding in my stomach. I felt a panic sweep over my body, warning that something bad was on the way.

Mom sat me down next to Wendy and told us both to stay still. Tears were flowing down Wendy's cheeks as she watched the chaos.

The paramedics were pumping Kelly's chest with their fists. It was strange to see Kelly lying so still. He was always moving, always looking for another adventure. They put Kelly on a stretcher and wheeled him toward the ambulance. The paramedics never stopped pumping his chest, never stopped breathing into his mouth.

My mind whirled and my eyesight grew wavy. How long were they going to pump his chest? Kelly was still limp. It had been at least ten minutes, maybe longer and Kelly was still limp.

Kelly was gone.

The paramedics would be putting him in the ambulance and driving away with sirens wailing in our ears if he was alive. They would be on their way to a hospital. They knew he was gone.

I couldn't stop hiccupping between sobs. I couldn't breathe right; the air kept getting caught half-way down. Mom was across the field, covering her face. I knew she was crying. Everyone was crying except Uncle Bobby. He stood permanent, like the cliffs behind him.

I raised myself off the splintered bench and tried to walk toward the crowd. I only moved a few yards before stopping. The look on Uncle Bobby's face made my legs ache. He looked different, not like a person. He marched hard in my direction. Mom was close behind him, her mouth uttering words that I couldn't hear.

I wanted to hear them. I wanted to understand what was happening. All sound disappeared; no voices, no crying, no buzzing. Something was different. The world appeared strange.

The world cracked; not in half, but like those tiny cracks that trailed in all directions when a rock hit our car windshield last month. The cracks ran across the grass, into the water, and traveled up the cliffs into the sky. Everyone seemed damaged. Feathery cracks crawled across their skin, making them look like the ancient Greek statues in my history book at school.

My arms felt dry, like baked dirt. I didn't move.

Uncle Bobby looked down at me, his chipped mouth spitting twisted words into my tingling face. Mom tugged at his arm and I thought how strange it would be if his arm just crumbled to dust. He shook Mom's hand off with a shrug. Then I saw it. A red blur with swollen fingers lashed across my face.

A scream tore against my eardrums, shattering the silence. There was a searing pain moving across my cheek, into my eye. Mom pushed at Uncle Bobby. He hobbled backwards, losing his balance.

A small group gathered around us. They stared with cracked eyes. They were staring at me; not Mom, not Wendy, not Uncle Bobby, but me.

I felt a warm tickle in my nose. Blood dripped across my lips, seeping into my mouth. It tasted bitter, almost metallic. My fingers brushed the liquid away. I looked down at the sickly red color sticking to my dry hand. My eyes glanced back at the crowd. The cracks had gotten bigger.

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