We’re in Trouble
By Christopher Coake
I. Back Down to Earth
ERIC AND KRISTEN ARE IN UNFAMILIAR TERRITORY. THEY have only known one another a few weeks, but they have decided they are already deeply, madly in love.
This love, this unexpected boon, has come to them with amazing speed and intensity. And at the right time. They're young—Eric is twenty-four, Kristen twenty-two—but they met as each was concluding a long and tumultuous relationship. Kristen had just left her boyfriend of four years. Eric's divorce, after three years of marriage, has only this week been finalized.
In celebration, they have taken a hotel room downtown, and have barely left it for an entire weekend. And, here in the late hours of their last night in it, they've just finished making love. Now they talk softly, sweetly, in the dark. About their memories, their secrets. This tumble of words excites them as much as the warm, damp shape of the other's body beneath the blankets. Everything they say and do now seems to carry weight, meaning, a symbolism of great and private importance which exalts them, and what, together, they hope to be.
Kristen says, in a whisper, I want you to tell me something. Anything. As long as it's important to you.
Tell me what you want to know; Eric answers. I'll tell you anything. I have no secrets from you.
Something only you could tell me. Something that is you.
Tell me the most vivid thing you can remember. Then I'll do the same.
Eric is quiet, but she can feel his hand, warm and flat on her belly. His fingers curl and uncurl.
Well, mine's a bad thing, he says.
Mine's good, she says.
Kristen plans on telling him about the first time she saw him, which is not, perhaps, the memory that's most important to her—that would be her mother's death, to which she's only alluded, and about which she tries not to think. But for now; topmost in her mind is the picture of Eric, barely a month ago, in the next line over at the movie theater—the broad wedge of his back and the slow smile on his face, the hesitation which she saw him fighting, as he kept his eyes on hers. He was going to the movies alone; so was she. She saw him and he smiled at her and kept looking, fought his shyness, and she knew—knew it completely—that he would end up with her. She wants him to know this. Kristen approached him—she'd never been so bold before—and after making their halting introductions, they laughed at themselves, the obviousness of their shyness and desire, the pleasure of their bravery, and then they sat together during the movie. And she was right. He did end up with her. Here they are, together.
She wants to tell him she was never in doubt.
Mine's exceptionally bad, Eric says. I don't know if I should tell you right now.
Tell me. It's good you're going first. We'll start with the bad and then we can finish with the good.
I feel like we can handle anything, she says. Just like this. Don't you feel that way?
He shifts a bit, kisses her dry lips, and tilts his mouth close to her ear.
I WAS SEVEN when this happened. My family went to a state park down in southern Indiana, and in this park were a bunch of deep ravines and cliffs. It was my mother and my father and my younger sister and our—my—dog. His name was Gale—I named him that because he ran so fast. I was proud of the name, to have thought that one up. Gale, he was a mutt, mostly German shepherd. Maybe a couple of years old, but we'd had him since he was a puppy. I'd raised him. He slept with me at night. I loved that dog. He was one of the great playmate dogs, waiting for me when I got off the bus, protective of me when I was around other kids. Always wanting to do a good job—like dogs do, you know?
He had this ball, a rubber squeaking ball, that was his favorite toy. We brought it with us to the park. At midday my father took us to a picnic area and started up one of the grills. My mother and sister went to wade in the river. Me and Gale climbed a slope, into the woods, to play. I started throwing his ball, and he started chasing it, and we kept going on and on into the woods, away from the trail. Gale kept getting more and more frantic and excited, and he'd catch his ball and run with it, tearing off into the bushes, with me just trying to keep up.
We kept climbing and I got the ball from him finally. We'd climbed high enough to get to the edge of a cliff overlooking the river. So—I don't know why, I know I didn't mean any harm by it—I started tossing the ball close to the edge of the cliff. I wasn't trying to do anything—I mean, nothing wrong. I was testing him, you know, to see how fast he was. I was ... proud of him. He'd tear off and get his ball before it got close to the edge, and I guess I thought he knew what we were doing as well as I did.
Then I gave the ball a stronger toss, and it bounced too close to the edge, and I saw I'd messed up; it was going to fall off, Gale was too far away to get to it. But he went for it anyway. The ball went over the edge, and he didn't slow down—he was too keyed up, I'd gotten him too excited. I shouted out, No, trying to get him to stop, but he didn't until he was just at the edge. Then he realized where he was, and he skidded in the dirt and went sideways, and then his back paws went off the edge of the cliff, and he was stuck there, hanging on with his front paws and his elbows, trying to push himself back up over the edge.
I ran to him, and when I was close to the edge I saw how far down it was. Maybe a hundred feet, I don't know; A long, long way. I saw it all like I'd taken a picture of it, and I can still see it. The cliff was old, dark, rotten limestone, and it was covered with moss, and I can remember how it smelled, all wet, like turned-up soil, and vines went up and down it, and at the bottom was this dark shadowed bank, covered with old black leaves, and some slimy-looking dead trees. The edge of the cliff was crumbling and covered with gravel, and I felt dizzy looking over it. And instead of grabbing Gale's collar I kind of ... kind of stared for a minute, you know, I just froze, looking at the drop.
But only for a second, a half a second. It couldn't have been long. Gale was trying his best to get back up, kicking against the rock with his back paws, and scraping at the gravel with his front paws. He almost made it, but then lost it again and started to slide. He was looking at me with his eyes bugging out, and making this ... this huffing sound. That's when I got on my hands and knees and went to him and tried to grab his collar, but a rock must have given or something, because he fell right when I got to him. He made a ... a yelp. When he knew; I was at the edge, leaning out over it, to get his collar, and I could see him fall. His paws kept moving, like he was trying to get at the rock still, but he was falling in air. He turned over once or twice. Halfway down he hit an outcrop of limestone, and I think that was what killed him. He bounced off of it, but he didn't move on his own after. And when he hit it, he made ... this sound, real quick and sharp. Kind of like a scream that got cut off in the middle.
He hit the bottom where the cliff turned into a slope, and slid down it like he was made of rubber. The old wet leaves bunched up in front of him and slowed him down. He left a trail through them, and underneath the leaves was this glossy wet rock. It looked like something had gotten skinned. I looked at Gale just once when he stopped sliding. I was a long way up, but even from there I could see his teeth were bared.
I was on my hands and knees, crouched at the top of the cliff, looking over. I got vertigo—I still can't go near heights. The whole cliff started to tilt forward, like it was trying to dump me off—kind of like the whole world was a wheel and it was turning forward. I thought—I thought I could see the vines start to lean away from the rock. I remember I wanted to scream, but my throat was all closed up.
And ... I almost jumped. I almost jumped after him. I can't explain it, not exactly. I mean, of course I was upset—I was seven, and I loved that dog as much as anybody in my family. But it was more than that. I wanted to die, too. I'd done such a horrible thing that I had to. I knew it. I knew even at seven what it was to want to die.
And ... it was more than that. It wasn't that I wanted to. It was that I had to. They took me to church then, my folks did, and it didn't just feel like I'd done something wrong—it felt to me like the world was tilting because God wanted me dead, because I'd done something so wrong that all He could do was sweep me off the top of the cliff, send me down after my poor dog. It was like I didn't have any choice in the matter at all. My hands were sliding across the gravel and I kept seeing Gale, the way his legs kicked in midair, like I knew mine were going to, any second. Just as soon as I stopped fighting it and gave in.
KRISTEN IS QUIET for long time. Then she says, You didn't fall.
I lay flat against the ground. I put my cheek against the dirt and closed my eyes and grabbed clumps of grass and held on as hard as I could. And after a while the vertigo stopped. When I could make a noise again, I shouted until my parents came.
Then what happened?
I cried for a week, and I had nightmares ... I still have nightmares. Maybe once a week my head sends me right back there, and we play it out all over again.
He sighs, a long deep sigh, and says, Except that most of the time I fall.
She turns and puts her arms around him. He can feel her cheek against his bare chest. It's damp. She holds him tightly.
Your turn, he says, after a moment. Tell me the good thing.
She tightens her arms.
Come on, he says, tell me.
He puts his nose into her hair, which smells like strawberries and sweat. He closes his eyes and tries to see her face, but part of him is still somewhere else. He sees the gray wet rock.
Please, he says. Please tell me.
Editor’s note: “Back Down to Earth” is part one of a three-part suite of stories that begin Christopher Coake’s highly acclaimed collection of short stories, We’re in Trouble (Harcourt, 2005). Since publication of the book, Coake, an assistant professor of English, has received the prestigious PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship for Writers. Lire, a leading French literary magazine, named the French translation of We're in Trouble one of the 20 best books of 2006. The British magazine of new writing, Granta, named him as one of the top 21 "Best of Young American Novelists," an honor bestowed each decade. The book has been published in the United States, Britain, Italy, France, and Germany, where it's in a third printing.