Written by Thanisha Chowdhury
Art by Tatiana
The summer before high school, Jackie and I collect watches off the rocky shore by his house and drag them behind us in a shiny black bag.
“Look at this one!” he calls out from up front. I catch up and he holds out his arm, rotating it like he’s in some sort of TV ad. “Isn’t it nice?”
The watch must have been silver once, but now it’s caked in dirt and he has to pick a pill bug off of it. “Y’know, I’m not sure it’s the best idea to put that on before washing it off. ‘Specially when it’s someone else’s. You want the money, don’t you?”
“God, you’re so uptight.” He wipes it on his shirt, and it doesn’t do anything but leave brown streaks up his side. “If they cared so much about it, they’d be back by now.”
And we keep walking along the rocks, same as we have for weeks.
When the sheriff’s office put up a poster saying they’ll pay anyone who brings back the things people leave behind at the beach, Jackie showed up at my door with a garbage bag from his kitchen and told me to come along. I told him I’d do it for the money, which is as true as it needs to be. Someone has to make sure he doesn’t crack his head open on a rock to see if there’s confetti inside.
The thing about Jackie isn’t that he doesn’t care about danger or disease (or weird bugs). Really, it’s the opposite. He chases trouble like he was born for it. The balding policeman who came to our school last year would call it an “addiction”. I call it a craving. He calls it going after what he’s made for. When we were in fifth grade he nicked his dad’s pocket knife and brought it to the lunch table, stabbed it between his fingers until he skinned the inner side of his thumb pink. I don’t think I’ve seen him smile as wide since.
Once we’ve picked the ground clean of everything shiny, we walk up to the bluff and share a cigarette he nicked from the corner store.
“How’re the folks?” I ask once we’re sitting with our legs swinging from the edge.
“On my back. Like always.” He takes a drag. He’s always been better at doing the things he’s not supposed to. “Can’t even come up here unless they know you’re babysitting.”
“Sounds rough. But maybe it’s for the best.” An elbow to his ribs, a crook of the mouth upwards. “Who knows what you might get into otherwise.”
He doesn’t laugh, only looks out at the water. There’s a bed of fog gathering behind his eyes.
“There’s nothing left when you take away the thrill,” he says, “life’s just black and white and grey once you’ve filed away anything labeled ‘fun’. What’s the point if it’s all just tying your shoelaces and keeping your head down? What’s the point if there’s just one path we’re all s’posed to go down?”
“It’s not about paths, Jackie, it’s about not getting yourself into trouble.”
“Trouble! You all love that word, don’t you? My parents, the teachers, even you. You follow me around ‘cause you care, is it? If you cared any, I wouldn’t be living like a prisoner. There’s nothing left of me if there’s no fun. There’s nothing left of fun if there’s no wrong.”
There’s something sharp at my back. “Jackie. Don’t do this.”
“I need this. I need it so badly.” His voice is shaking, but when he looks back at me, he’s smiling the same smile from fifth grade, ear to ear, freckle to freckle. “You won’t have to worry about me down there. I won’t take anything else.”
His free hand clasps itself onto mine for a breath, and I almost think he’ll pull me back and call me an idiot for falling for his joke. But instead, he slips something smooth onto my wrist, caked with dirt and big enough to slide up and down my arms, still warmed from the heat of his skin.
“Here. You need it more than I do.”
When I go over, the fog reaches out for me and wraps around my ankles, and I swear I fall a little slower. Jackie’s still on the bluff looking down with his fingers in his back pockets, and even after I’m under and gone, I still see him.