CW: non-graphic nudity, fear of deep water (thalassophobia)
Marcus held his ice cream cone between the ring and middle finger of his left hand. His thumb and forefinger clutched the steering wheel. A particularly syrupy dribble of Rocky Road threatened to slip down the rim of the cone and onto his cargo shorts.
I twisted the knob of the radio to my favorite station. Hip-hop blared out of the speakers and blended into the harmony of cicadas. My own ice cream, strawberry, had been reduced to a soggy nub of a cone. I clutched it fruitlessly in my lap, rationalizing that I would finish it at some point.
It was the first week of August, the day before I finally left my hometown of Scowle, Ohio. Like every summer, the air was hot and buggy. Not even the wind whistling through the Jeep, ruffling Marcus’s curls over his forehead, could kick off the smothering blanket of humidity.
“So, Arizona, huh?” Marcus gazed lazily ahead.
I turned the music down. “Yep, for geology.”
“Remember when we used to dig holes in my garden? We would take my dad’s hammer and smash every rock we could find.”
“Because there could’ve been a geode inside!” I feignedly protested.
Marcus shook his head. “I don’t think we found a single one. But even then, you were obsessed with rocks.” He gave an exaggerated sigh. “Arizona, though? You hate Ohio State that much?” He rotated towards me, grinning in the way that formed dimples deep in his cheeks. “I mean, I know you parents are Michigan fans, but still…”
“No,” I countered, “even though the Buckeyes do suck,” he snorted in response, “Arizona has a better geology program. But I will miss Ohio. It has such a rich geological history. Especially here, with the local karst formations and such.”
“Oh, for the geological history,” he mocked, “I see.” He returned his right hand to the steering wheel, “I know, then,” he drummed his fingers, “Since it’s your last day, let’s go to The Hole.”
“It’s what’s known as a cenote, actually,” I corrected in my best nasally voiced professor impression, “but sure, let’s go.”
Marcus turned left, down the dirt road that led to the edge of town.
The Hole was the biggest sinkhole in Scowle. It was located in a densely wooded area; authorities had deemed the ground there too unstable to develop. The copious rainfall Scowle received gradually bore through the limestone bedrock. As the layers dissolved over time, vast networks of sinkholes, caves, and underground rivers formed. It was generally off limits due to a few accidents over the years where a kid had wandered too deep and got trapped. But that hadn’t stopped us from exploring the area as kids, shimmying into nooks and crannies, creating our own hideouts. We had gone everywhere–everywhere except, that is, The Hole.
The leaves from last fall crunched underfoot as we walked up to The Hole. It was fifteen feet wide and perfectly circular; the earth having given way all at once decades ago to reveal a tunnel to a world beneath. Steep steps were carved into the soft limestone; they snaked their way around the perimeter, leading down. Some steps had rounded away and others had crumbled off completely. It was easy to imagine taking a single step and plummeting below. Accordingly, a sign was posted by the first step, with a message that read: DANGER–DO NOT ENTER, in big bolded words.
Marcus strolled past me, up to the edge of the cenote. He crouched down, leaning over. My breath hardened into a lump in my throat.
“Wh-what are you doing?”
Marcus swung his legs over the side, dangling them over the edge. He twisted his body back towards me, catching my glance. “Come closer, Daiyu!” He called.
I was still ten feet back. “Um, I’m good here.”
He rolled his eyes, “Oh, c’mon, don’t tell you’re still afraid of what happened then! That was in first grade!”
I swerved my hair over my shoulder and put my hands on my hips. “Yea, but that was only twelve feet of water! This is at least four times as deep!”
“You don’t have to jump in, just at least look at the water! I thought you liked geo-stuff like this!” He brought his arms to his chest, cupping his hands and fluttering his long eyelashes in a poor puppy-dog impression. “Please? I promise I won’t push you in.” He curled his lip in a pout.
“Alright, fine,” I shuffled closer to The Hole, my stomach dropping like an elevator with each step. I could now see the bottom. Below, the water was as smooth, green, and opaque as old sea glass. The surrounding forestry and the cloudless sky reflected onto the green like a coat of lacquer. The cenote widened at the bottom, casting a rim of shadow around the edges of the circular pool, and I knew the water extended further beneath.
“Pretty, huh?” Marcus swung his legs back and forth and looked up at me. It suddenly struck me that the water, with its deep greens and shards of mirrored blues, was almost a perfect match for his eyes.
“I wonder how deep it goes.” Marcus swung his feet a little too fast, and one of his orange flip-flops flung off. “Whoops,” he said, and we watched as the flip-flop fell. It landed gently on the surface of the water with hardly a tap, like a leaf floating to the forest floor. Fine ripples echoed from where the flip-flop landed, radiating outward–and the surface became still once more. Not even surface tension broke.
“Huh.” Marcus stared at the water for a moment, before removing his legs from the ledge and bounding to his feet. “Well, there’s only one thing to do.” He reached one arm behind his back and began tugging his t-shirt off over his head.
I instinctively took a step back. “Wait, what are you doing?” I blurted.
Marcus stared at me quizzically. “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m getting my flip-flop back.” As his shirt rose past his midriff, I found my eyes tracing the dark trail of hair up his abdomen. I quickly directed my gaze upwards. His muscles flexed, straining against the confines of his t-shirt as it shimmied up over his head. He began kicking off his shorts.
“But–but you don’t need to strip! I ultimately sputtered, breaking my gaze away. His smooth brown skin glowed even in the dappled light of the forest.
Marcus seemed to catch my glances. He smirked. “I mean, why not? It’s soo fucking humid out, and I’m dying–” he tossed his head dramatically, shaking the curls off his forehead, “to cool off. Besides, you don’t mind, do you? We’ve known each other so long that we’re practically siblings, anyway.”
I knew what Marcus was doing. Anytime that mischievous, brilliant white grin became plastered across his stupid face, he was egging me on. I wasn’t about to be outdone by him, either. He would never let me hear the end of it. The time I got flustered by him taking his shirt off, of all things.
“Fine,” I said shortly, “I’ll strip too.” And before he could respond, I yanked my shirt off over my head and rolled my shoulders, letting the cloth glide down to my forearms. I unceremoniously unbuttoned my shorts; they dropped to the ground with a plop.
Marcus's eyes trained on the foliage overhead, his neck straining to keep his head as tilted as far from me as possible. His cheeks had darkened. “What’s wrong?” I teased. He was pretty cute when nervous. “It’s basically a bikini. You’ve seen me plenty of times in those. What makes this different? After all, we’re practically siblings.”
He took a moment to recover; his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down slowly as he swallowed. He furtively darted his eyes up and down before directing his gaze back to me. His expression was once again a grin. “Alright. You know what I’ve always wanted to try?” Marcus slipped a finger between the waistband of his boxers and let it snap against his skin. “Skinny dipping.”
As if in slow motion, he slid his boxers down over his hips, his thighs, lowering them inch by inch until they finally fell to his feet. He wrapped his arms across his chest in a triumphant gloat. I focused on his face, that fucking smirk, like it was the target through the scope of a rifle. I refused to look further down. My stomach was in freefall, plunging with a dizzying velocity, as it had been when I peered over the edge of The Hole. I knew my cheeks were on fire. I always had such a fantastic ability to blush.
My stomach lurched; something inside me–like an elevator’s wire–had snapped. “Ok, I’ll do it, too,” I responded coolly, feeling behind me for the clasps of my bra. The soft foamed shells brushed against my skin as I unfastened it. Now grasping the elastic band of my underwear with both thumbs, I peeled the last of my undergarments off in one fluid motion. Flicking it away with my heel, I thrust my chin out and stared him down. I didn’t even bother to cross my arms across my bare chest.
We stood there–a tiger and a hunter–sizing each other up, meeting each other’s gazes with quiet ferocity. Marcus had become so tall and lean, the only remnants of his softer childhood self in his rounded cheeks. Everything else, from his elegant, sculpted hands to his thickly textured, wild hair betrayed maturity.
I broke away first. I turned to face The Hole–it yawned in front of me, an ancient wishing well, a passage to Wonderland. My toes curled over the edge as I traced the steps with my eyes, spiraling around and around until I reached the pool below. I caught my reflection: a small, pale figure, black hair fanning out across the shoulders like threads of mycelia. A ghost forgotten in the forest. My elevator stomach sank below ground, deeper and deeper through cold stone to a dimension unfathomed. The water waited, preparing to swallow me in its depths.
The dense, muggy air swiftly became penetrable, and my body sliced through it like a knife through butter. The air whizzed around my ears–and then I had already plunged through the murky green.
The water’s warm, was my first thought. Like bathwater. It was dark, and my heart thudded out through the darkness, blood rushing through my temples. I clenched my jaw, preventing the water from flooding my mouth. I struggled to orient myself, grasping for the light.
My head finally broke the surface, and I gasped, but sucked in clumps of hair instead of air. I clawed the hair out of my face, and once I could breathe, I hungrily sucked in the air–as humid and oppressive as it was.
“Are you ok?” Marcus’s voice carried from high above me.
“Yea,” I blinked the water out of my eyes, “I’m fine. Come on in!” I shouted back. My voice bounced against the stone walls of the cenote, amplifying my words with a booming intensity.
“Are you sure it’s deep enough?”
“Yes! Look, I’m ok, aren’t I?” Marcus’s figure still shifted in place, “Just jump, you scaredy cat!” I barked, slapping the water impatiently.
Marcus hesitated for a single second, before he backed up out of view. A moment later, he was back in sight, running towards The Hole. He leapt off the edge, tucking his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around his legs. “CANNONBALL!!!” he yelled as he fell.
SPLUNK! Marcus hit the water. The water sprang up and crashed together, sending rolling waves out in every direction. The ripples furled underneath the walls of the cenote, sloshing into shadow.
He finally surfaced, tossing his wet hair around like he was a shaggy dog. “That was fantastic,” he said, catching his breath. Marcus swiveled around, spotted his flip-flop. “There we go,” he picked it up and swam over to me. Each splash he made reverberated against the steep walls of the cenote. As we treaded water, Marcus’s eyes roved all around, taking in the view around us.
There was a six-foot gap between the walls of The Hole and the water. We floated in a pool of light, but between that gap the water stretched into obscurity in all directions. I squinted. The light was faint, but I could make out a few twisting tunnels and caves here and there.
“Alright, this is pretty cool.” Marcus eyed one of the caverns. An outcropping jutted out—a little ledge of rock above the water. “We should go there.”
“Alright, but not any deeper.” I wouldn’t admit the darkness scared me, not when we had made it so far.
Marcus offered me a beaming grin. “Feeling brave today, aren’t we? Ok!” Still gripping his flip-flop, he began swimming over to the ledge, his arms cycling in broad strokes. I followed, albeit slower. I held my breath as I ducked into the shadow. The temperature dipped cooler.
It took me a while to find footing against the sharp rock, but Marcus lent a hand and with his firm grip I was finally up. We sat there, two heaving, dripping bodies on cold stone, and I was keenly aware of his resonating body heat. I could almost feel his heart pounding through his chest.
I turned my cheek, staring back out at that bright circle of light we had escaped from. The cenote seemed so small, so contained. We were in a quiet, distant universe all to our own.
Our thighs accidentally grazed one another–Marcus’s arm jerked backwards at the touch–but his fingers ended up landing atop mine. They fluttered, and I could feel the calluses on his palms. His breath tensed up, becoming barely a whisper. I, too, had frozen. Our bare, wet skin against each other. We were on a precipice.
“Alright,” I said abruptly, “Let’s go.” I began edging off the ledge, away from the warmth, from him. My eyes and head swam with vertigo. No, no, we needed to head back. It was getting late.
“Wait, Daiyu, be careful–!” I felt Marcus’s fingers grasp my wrist from behind, but it was too late. My right foot slipped–I was already falling.
I slammed into the water, unable to control my flailing limbs. It surged, enveloping me. Pulling me back into the fading, shifting bliss of unconsciousness. I slackened, embracing the warmth.
The air filled with the chatter of mothers and the smell of sunscreen. The concrete floor around the pool, baking in the midday sun, burned my bare feet as I ran.
“No running!” A lifeguard shouted in the distance.
I ignored him, “Haha, I’m faster than you, I’m faster than you–!” I jeered behind me.
He hobbled after me, his large tummy bouncing with every step. I reached the end of the pool, near the deep end, and stood, relishing in my victory.
“Slow poke,” I taunted, as he wheezed up to me. I put my hands on my hips like I had seen my mom do. “You can’t even beat a girl,” he bit his lip; I seized my opening, “Prolly cause you’re so fat–”
He lunged and shoved me with all his weight. I cried out, tumbling backwards into the biting blue chlorine.
Everything stung. I couldn’t swim, I couldn’t breathe. I was sinking, further and further…
His strong arm wrapped around my waist, and my head burst through to the surface. He pulled me, chest pressed to mine, back to the ledge. I collapsed to my knees and hunched over, gagging. Marcus’s hand patted my back–grounding me–as I coughed up lungfuls of water until I could cough no more.
Marcus tilted my chin up to meet his gaze. “Hey,” he said, eyes wide with worry, “Are you ok?”
I was shivering. I stared, barely being able to nod. Over his shoulder, I could see his flip-flop: forgotten, bobbing in the water. Half of it was in shadow, half touched the light.
“Yea, I’m ok.”
I hugged my arms around me as we drove back. My clothes clung to my skin, still soaked through, but Marcus said it was ok if we got his leather seats wet.
He pulled up in front of my house. He had gone quiet. Perhaps I had shaken him too much. I gnawed my cheek. I should leave before I fuck something else up. Swinging open the car door, I prepared to clamber out.
“Wait,” I paused. Marcus opened the glove compartment and pulled out something wrapped in silk. “I wanted to give you this,” he said, extending the item towards me.
My hands quivered as I unwrapped it. In the very center of the cloth, a sparkling silver chain lay coiled. On the very end there was a gleaming jade stone.
Marcus’s words spilled out, “Well, I know how much you liked rocks–so I thought–because you’re leaving, right–that you should have this.”
I blinked. The stone was the exact shade of Marcus’s eyes. My fingers tightened around it, and I strung the chain around my neck, clipping the ends together. I tucked my damp hair back over the chain and adjusted the necklace, letting the stone rest on my collarbone. It was cool to the touch, like the caves we had explored not long ago.
I smiled. Then reaching up, grabbing the back of his neck, I kissed him. Our lips met, a soft and flush compression. I pulled away. “Thank you.”
Now Marcus was really blushing. His skin from the tips of his ears to his neck had darkened to a red umber. He ran his fingers through his locks. “I’m really going to miss you,” he admitted.
I imitated his signature eye roll. “Don’t worry,” I grinned at him, “I’ll see you next summer.”