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First place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2017.
This story will also be published in our 2017 Summer Newsletter.

"Walking" by Ross Clifford

The secret is in finding the perfect rock, one that is heavy enough to keep you a biped below, but won’t become cumbersome. I like the rounded river rocks that sometimes make up the mantels of the rich. They’re hard to find, but the weight is solid, and they’re so smooth I think of eggshells. I find the perfect one, tighten my goggles, lift and keep it close to my navel, and simply walk off the boulder that protrudes five to eight feet above the river. Shoes are a must because the bed is about as jagged as the land above. Plenty of sticks have jutted up into the soles of my feet when I haven’t worn them, some even drawing blood. 

I’ve spent enough time down there to see parallels to dry land. When I’m walking, I sometimes kick up silt that mimics dust churned up, although much slower: an eruption that plumes and gradually dissipates, softly pulled apart before either settling back down or being carried downstream. I love watching the trout swim overhead. Some, usually the smallest, dart with the nimble speed of goldfinches flitting branch to branch in a congested birch, but others, the full-grown rainbows men will wade waist high in waders to hook, simply hover, as if a hawk stationary in the air with outstretched wings, only the slightest movements of their tails and pelvic fins keeping them in place.

On sunny afternoons, in the deepest swimming holes, light reaches the bottom in ropes. The rainbows glide through, the scales glinting momentarily like hundreds of tiny, variegated coins at the bottom of a fountain. 

I used to only be able to stay below for just over a minute, but recently made it to three. I think the world record is something like twenty minutes. I wear this waterproof watch my mom got me for Christmas. It’s bright yellow and I always look at the time when I’m in mid-air. The numbers, the almost neon wristband, are the last things I see before bubbles and the clay-colored riverbed. It’s been going on like this for weeks. Saturdays and Sundays, sometimes even after school, I go to the river for my walks. In the courtyard between classes, I stroll over many of the pebbles I’ll possibly see three to four hours later. That space at the bottom of the river I keep with me, another plane of existence that runs next to this one, but so much quieter. There’s never that cacophony of clicks reverberating off linoleum.

Most go to the river to party. I know this because of Sarah. Not that she would talk to me about it, but her locker neighbors mine, and I accidentally eavesdrop. There are always guys shuffling around her and inviting her to things. Last week, John stepped up between us: “You wanna launch at the church this Saturday?” By launch, he means push out in inner tubes near the church swimming hole to lazily drink and drift for hours. Sometimes they bring kayaks or blow-up rafts loaded with booze, the alcohol concealed under life vests, suntan lotion, towels, etc. “Call me later, I gotta get to class.”  

Sarah wears hemp sandals that look like ropes wrapped around her feet and is really into gemstones. She has a few different ones that she keeps close to her heart, hemp again tied around her neck. That day she was wearing lapis lazuli. She says it stimulates wisdom and good judgment. I tell her I think it’s cool even though I can’t say that I do. She also has this toe ring. Mid-lecture, she’ll stretch her legs out from her desk, and there it is: this sparkly pink distraction wrapped around the big one.

What has always interested me about Sarah is hard to explain. When she looks at me, her stare is an embrace and I feel like I’m wearing earmuffs. Sometimes she asks me simple questions like “Where are you from?” or “Are you an only child?” and I have to pull the answers up from a deep well. Plus, she’s super smart, even though she never raises her hand in class, and I’ll admit, I don’t think she looks it. When we split off for group work, she always corrects my answers.

I finally worked up the courage and asked if she wanted to go with me on one of my walks. I mentioned Saturday, the day she might launch off with John. I had never told anyone about them before, the river being my own protected cloister. She said, “It sounds fun, but I think I’m going shopping with my mom.”

That Saturday I walked upstream alone. There’s a submerged tree that fell a long time ago in a storm that’s a visible goal. It marks the end of the swimming hole, having landed on a steep rise that returns the river to normal depths. I try to touch it with my foot and return to my starting point without having to breach. It’s hollowed out and partially rotted and trout like to hide within it, furtively peeking out or threading through its branches. A toppled bastion of fish fortification, it’s war-torn and scarred. Lures snagged on its side occasionally shimmer and there’s broken line that drifts from its limbs like wind-dancing filament. I had just given it a small kick when the saucer shapes appeared on the bottom, moving quickly. I followed the shadows up and saw four butts filling the doughnut holes of four black inner tubes, two male and two female. The yells and laughter made murmurings by water reached me. Their legs dragged in the current and occasionally a hand slapped the surface, creating ripples. The lead tube was almost out of sight when I saw the foot dip daintily in the water. There, on the big toe, was that sparkly pink toe ring. It didn’t register until they were gone, having passed overhead while I held my rock. I let it drop and began my swim up, feeling as seen as I often did at my locker.

After a gasp of air, I checked my watch: new record.

Ross Clifford is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Portland State University. Although his emphasis is poetry, he often experiments with short forms of fiction. He currently lives in Scotts Valley, California, but much of his writing takes place in the mountains of Idaho, where he was raised. He has work forthcoming in the literary magazine Gravel.