I Dare You
Written and Produced by H.M. Radcliff
Performed by W. Keith Tims
Music by Aud Andrews
EXT. KILLEARNEY BRIDGE - NIGHT
[Sounds of violent rushing water]
VOICE OF COBB, A MAN IN HIS 60s
Everyone has that one scene that sticks with them for the rest of their lives. Something that made them turn the other way and left shudders down their spine. The thing that haunts their nightmares, and in those quiet waking moments when all seems lost, it just creeps in.
[Sounds of chilling winds and rushing water intensify]
Mine is this one, looking over the edge of Killearney Bridge at night, not seeing but hearing the rush of the water below. Now, I know that it’s an 88’ drop, but when you’re looking down and all you can see if blackness, and you can hear is the violent churn of the undertow beating the earth and feel the gentle vibration of its force, you might as well be bending down to meet it face to face. And on a cold night like this one, the air feels like a ghoulish breath, just to remind you of the river’s cruel intentions.
It’s a spot I keep coming back to and have been ever since I was a boy growing up in this cursed place.
It’s not the fall from the bridge that kills them. Even on days when the water looks calm, it ain’t. And this time of year, it’s cold. You hit the water, and if you don’t get swept away by the undertow or sucked down into a whirlpool, or embedded feet first in the mud, you’re one of the lucky ones who surface. But you won’t survive the swim.
It don’t matter how strong of a swimmer you are, the river is stronger. Your body might be found by cadaver dogs weeks later, fifty miles downstream, at the very least giving your loved ones closure. But most of ‘em? They ain’t never found. The water is so thick with mud you can’t see your hand in front of your face, and the shape of the river changes frequently to satisfy its many changing moods. They’re still down there somewhere, gobbled up by hungry forces of nature that we have no right to try to control or understand.
I didn’t grow up aspiring to be a ranger, or anything like that. My degree was in psychology. My hope and intention was to lead people away from the edge, hand them a pamphlet, and see them home safely. I didn’t anticipate that my job would end me up pullin’ bodies from the water. In fifteen years I’ve pulled four dead, saved three, and watched two go in and never come back up.
The question on everyone’s mind is: why so many?
44, in fact, is how many stood exactly where I stand right now, a patch of concrete decorated with feeble chain link fence, and a sign with a 1- 800 number on it and the promise of a kind soul on the other line who will convince you to go back to whatever broken life you were living and...well...break it less.
I can’t imagine living a life where I might walk up to this spot with God’s eye bearing down, look down into the swirling black hell below, and see it as more inviting than whatever hell I was livin’. Tonight I might be one step closer to understandin’.
[Sounds of rumbling truck engine and tires on gravel]
My shift began like any other. I drove the old truck down the little dirt road to the ranger station at the edge of the water, just a click downstream of the Killearney bridge.
[Sounds of coffee pouring]
As always, I was fifteen minutes early so I could make a strong ass pot of coffee. By 5:30pm, everyone else is usually outta there, and no amount of common courtesy could compel them to hang around long enough to start a new pot.
They won’t say it out loud, but they don’t want to find themselves tangled up with the ghosts in this place. They leave that to me.
[Contemplative sounds of nature and rushing water, feet walking on a dock.]
Anyways, twelve hour shifts, 6pm to 6am, three days on, three days off. Two on, two off. I spend half my shifts watching a monitor and the little red light that turns on when there’s motion detected on the bridge. I spend the other half out on the water.
[Sounds of boat starting.]
The sun had gone down behind a thick curtain of gray clouds. The kind of sunset that gives you no closure, and instills the sense that winter is really just one long day punctuated by periods of darkness. A cold, colorless time of year--and the time when the most people try to end it all.
It had been dark for about an hour. I took Chrissy out for a pass under the bridge and shone the spotlight up into the old ironworks. It’s like lookin’ up at the ribcage of a colossus. In its heyday, the bridge was painted a very proud shade of red. Now it was red with rust. I’d be lying if I said I never wished it would just give into its condition and join the souls it's taken at the bottom of the river.
[Big Splash, music stops]
Suddenly, something hit the water just to Chrissy’s larboard side. It hit the water with enough force to give her a good jolt. I reacted quickly and met the hand that emerged from the cold, black water, and pulled a boy not much older than twelve or thirteen into the boat. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out where in the world he came from. I’d just been shining my light up toward the old jumpin’ spot, and I didn’t see him. Not motion sensors, not nothin. Yet here he was, and he seemed just as confused as I was. The shock of the cold water can certainly do that to ya.
I wrapped him in a wool blanket, and did what I could to help him regain his senses, but nothing seemed to be gettin’ through.
We made our way back to the ranger station, and I made the kid a cup of hot chocolate, hoping that getting some heat in him would get him talking. It wasn’t until I picked up the radio to call the incident in to the police that I heard his voice. A voice so cold and whispery it might as well have been the wind.
“No,” he said, in a sad, pleading tone. “I don’t want anyone to know.”
I said “There’s no shame in asking for help, son. Is there anything going on at home that I should know about?” then continued the standard line of questioning meant to rule out domestic abuse, of any need for child and family services intervention.
“No,” he replied. “I’m just embarrassed. I think I’d really rather just go home.”
Something in my bones just didn’t feel right about the whole thing, but who was I to make assumptions? I was a teenager once, and knowing what I know about those who survive ordeals like this, they ain’t likely to do it again. All that added up to my concession: “Ok. Why don’t I just drive ya home? That sound good?”
The boy nodded, and then I let him sit by the heater for a bit and finish his cocoa. As he sat there, I watched him from behind, and noticed that he had a strange look about him. He was sitting on his knees with his little feet stickin’ out behind him, lookin’ a little too big for his scrawny little body. In that position, it was the treads of his shoes that got my attention first. He was wearing chukka boots, which hadn’t been in style since I was around his age. And then I noticed that the cut of his jeans was a bit wider than what kids wore these days. My first assumption was that he could be homeschooled, which he dispelled almost as soon as the thought had entered my mind:
“My backpack. I Left it at the top, and it has all my homework,” he said. As he spoke, his gaze never left the glowing red metal of the space heater. I couldn’t help but feel like I’d seen the kid somewhere before. I was anxious to get him to a safe place, because everything about him was sending up red flags all over the place. In hindsight, I should have followed my gut, which was telling me to call the authorities and hang tight. But my helping nature got the better of me.
“Why don’t we get you home?” I asked after a while, and
loaded him up into the truck. We drove up the dirt road to the bridge above, him wrapped in that gray blanket, eyes straight ahead, saying absolutely nothing. It was a silence I was anxious to break.
“You like music? I’ll turn on whatever you want to listen to.”
“The Who,” he said. “My mom won’t let me listen to it.”
“Ah, so you’re into the classics?” I asked, making an attempt to lighten his mood.
“Classics?” He responded, seeming genuinely confused.
I didn’t run into many kids who listened to The Who these days, at least unironically.
[Truck engine and tires on concrete. Truck comes to a stop, door opens, followed by heavy footsteps on concrete.]
The old truck rumbled to a stop near the jumpin’ spot, and I could see a backpack leaning up against the median. I climbed out to get it, and that’s when my flight response really kicked in. Every step I took toward it required every ounce of strength I could muster.
I knew that backpack. Bright blue, with Superman in his famous pose, flying in to save the day--the one that I had been so jealous of because Christmas after Christmas went by without one. I’d looked at it with envy just about every day as a kid, and the back of the head it belonged to. The head of my friend who I now recognized as Joseph Tarny.
Joseph Tarny who used to come over to my house and we would listen to my dad’s records in the basement, including The Who, because his mother wouldn’t allow the influence of the devil in their house. He was sitting in my truck right now, and he was the first soul that the bridge ever took.
I fought the urge to vomit as I turned around to see if he was still where I’d left him. The gray blanket lay in a crumpled heap in the passenger seat, and Joseph was standing right behind me. He was soaked again as if I’d pulled him from the water only moments ago. I didn’t hear him walk up, and at that point wasn’t convinced that reality had anything to do with it. He opened his mouth and said the words I knew he would say. It came out as a whisper:
“I dare you.”
I remembered the tragedy as if it were happening again right before my eyes. Us and some other friends went to see the new bridge at night, and had dared each other to jump from one side of the bridge to the other. Back in that day, there was a gap between the lanes. Well, at night that gap looked a lot smaller than it actually was.
Joseph was the first to take the dare....and the last. I remembered how he set that backpack down in that very spot before climbing up and over the railing, and looked over his shoulder laughing before leaping into darkness. We just watched in horror, not fully understanding what we had just witnessed. It took us twenty minutes to ride our bikes to the police station and report the incident, and by that time there was little hope for any kind of rescue. Joseph’s body was never found, which was a weight that the entire town never really recovered from.
It was that tragedy that brought me back to Killearney, and one that would likely follow me for the rest of my days. Because I was the one who made the dare.
Fifteen years on the job, and I’d silently hoped to find some closure; that saving others would serve as some sort of redemption. But something in this encounter was vengeful. It’s clear that even after all these years, there was no redemption to be had. And I’d left myself little else to live for.
[Sounds of rushing water]
And now I stand right in the spot from which I watched Joseph take that fatal leap. An old man, tired of livin’ and scared of dyin’ as that stupid old song goes.
“I dare you.”