Before the boy fell, tourists milled about the edge of Crater Lake, midnight blue a thousand feet below. Families posed by the low wall, dividing sidewalk from gaping cliffs of the caldera, Nature’s exhaust port of buried molten fury.
Sitting on a picnic table, a freckled fat kid wearing overalls sucked on a lollipop while Pops swilled beer. Pops occasionally glanced back at his pickup truck where his wife had nodded off in the front passenger’s seat.
Two teenage brothers and sisters laughed, rocking on that wall beneath yellow sign warning about death-by-cliffs. Bald, bearded Papà with glasses muttered “non sio muovono” and rechecked the settings on his camera, propped up on a thick tripod, an alien insect poised to twitch across the road into the woods.
A small Mexican boy tapped the top of the wall with his stick while his smaller brother and sister sang behind him on the other side of the wall, along the band of dry even ground patched with dirty snow.
Past this strip, the cliff arced downwards, flecked by stubborn dwarfish firs and dotted by boulders poking out from snowdrifts that sloped more and more steeply to a vanishing point where cliff met water’s surface.
Smiling with folded arms and raised eyebrows beneath baseball cap, corners of his lips disappearing beneath thick moustache, Padré watched his kids’ progress along the wall.
His wife pushed the baby carriage, holding a fourth child who shook a small pink rattle, a rhythm of fits and starts punctuated by her gurgling cry. “Silencio, silencio,” the mother whispered, stroking curly braids.
Gasping from the brief hike from lower parking lot to the overlook, an aging motorcyclist, Mr. Muir, glanced at the fathers with their families as he smoked his cigar and stared out at Wizard Island, the lone isle poking up a few hundred feet above the azure waters. Cold as hell down there. He’d tested the water more than once. In younger days, he’d hiked the trail down to the boat launch in the last thirty years he’d been visiting Crater Lake National Park.
Mr. Muir’s wheezing disturbed a tall woman with green hair and a jacket far too dark and warm for the June sun. As she stared out at the tranquil blue, voices in her head kept urging her the way they usually did when she neared some precipice. “Jump, Ally! Just go ahead and jump!” Would she jump today? If she left this miserable world, her last thoughts might be: “How wonderful” — as pure beauty immersed her.
Hot stench of Mr. Muir’s sweat and cigar seeped into her nostrils. A couple of voices politely suggested that she push the “red-faced capitalist pig” over the edge, but he was as solidly planted as the stony benches sunk on the paved path bordering the caldera.
A long-haired thin man with both ears pierced with what looked like wine-bottle corks scowled at Mr. Muir as he passed by. The hippie’s girlfriend, wearing a “Grow Organic” purple shirt, coughed and glared at Mr. Muir too, whose eyes smoldered with amusement as he exhaled in their direction.
“Schau mich an! Vater!” A blond-haired, blue-eyed child had climbed to the top of a mound of snow about level with the top of the wall.
“Gunter, sehr gut! Very good!” Vater praised him while squinting at the camera. His wife with her long hair wrapped up in a ponytail smiled and nodded at the boy who stared with a grin so wide and fixed it seemed paralyzed by delight.
Ally watched the child’s smile. The voices were silenced. What did this child have to tell her today as it danced in front of its vater and mütter? This shining elf upon the mound of snow?
The boy’s right foot slipped forward.
His left foot slid back, catching the lip of the wall and propelling the child backwards over the wall in a lopsided somersault.
He screamed as he fell. A jowl of fat pushed up from underneath his chin, giving him the uncanny face of a startled yowling marshmallow.
Mesmerized by this procession of mortality, Ally envied and feared the terror and release the child must feel, hurtling headlong into the abyss of blue.
Then she vomited.
His father had dropped the camera, which landed with a loud crack on the pavement.
He clutched the air above where his son was rolling, spinning into a slide that carried him with a shriek out of sight beyond the bony snags of trees that somehow perpetually clamped into the sheer angle of the cliff. His wife had her arms around her husband as she sobbed and stared down the slope.
“Shit!” Mr. Muir said, hobbling over to the cliff next to the screaming German.
The Mexican father turned around, barked something to the brothers and sister on the wrong side of the wall. His children came scampering close like a group of young quail.
The Italians all got up, jabbering in a frenzy of whispers, and hovered a dozen feet away from where the bereaved German father continued to call down the rocky side of the caldera.
Mr. Muir’s fingers burned, so he dropped his cigar and stomped it out.
Italians, Germans, Mexicans, and various Americans swarmed the low wall.
Hippie guy had already run across the street to the Visitor Center and shouted the tale of woe to the Ranger on duty. The search would be on, and another body would be culled from the icy waters below.
“My God, my G-God,” the shuddering hippie girlfriend repeated in a breathy chant.
Ally wandered in a nauseous daze, mouth soured and burning, along the low wall.
“See?” the voices whispered. “A religious experience. Blue darkness. Sacred death.”
But she had stopped listening to them.
The Clark’s nutcracker clicked and knocked in the distance while billowing cumulus clouds began their gradual march across the sky.
All tourists stared down at the waters, seeing nothing but what they had seen before.
Jason Marc Harris graduated with a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Washington, and an MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University, where he served as Fiction Editor of Mid-American Review. Stories in Arroyo Literary Review, EveryDay Fiction, Masque and Spectacle, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, Cheap Pop, Riding Light Review, Psychopomp Magazine, and Midwestern Gothic. Books includeFolklore and the Fantastic in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction and (with Birke Duncan) Laugh Without Guilt: A Clean Joke Book and The Troll Tale and Other Scary Stories. He teaches creative writing, folklore, and literature at Texas A&M University in College Station, TX.
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