g r a v e l
A L I T E R A R Y J O U R N A L
Raising the Ante
“That’s poison ivy,” Steve said, and scratched the crook of his arm. The ovate leaves hung ankle-high in clusters of three, and covered the pitched earth like a green blanket.
I nudged a patch with the tip of my shoe, bending the delicate stems into submission. “It doesn’t bother me none,” I said. “Never has.”
“Right,” he said, and chucked a stone into Deer Creek.
“I’m serious, ain’t allergic.”
“Go on, touch it then,” he said, and dug into his pocket. “Five dollars says you won’t.”
I thought about how Kimberly Evans once missed an entire week of school because of poison ivy. I saw her at the Dairy Queen that week—quarantined in the box of her parents’ Chevy pickup with arms blistered and split like a leper’s—and her daddy used rubber gloves to feed her a strawberry soft serve. Of course, I didn’t want to end up like Kimberly, but I knew, from playing in woodlands all my life, that poison ivy had no effect on me.
So I reached down and touched a waxy leaf. “There,” I said. “Now where’s my money?”
“Screw you, Keith,” he said. “You didn’t even touch it.”
I squatted alongside the ivy and uprooted a clump, held it out to him like a flower bouquet. “That better, sweetheart?”
“Damn,” he said, and moved away, wide-eyed.
“It’s nothing, a milkweed,” I said, and crushed the veiny plant between my fingers until sap wet my palms. Then I rubbed the crumpled leaves on the side of my face to raise the ante.
Steve wadded the money into a ball and tossed it at me. “Dumbass,” he said. “You’ll probably go blind now.”
That evening my face tingled and a rash developed, and the following morning four scabs formed along my jaw, near my right ear. The scabs were small and smooth like glass. After forty-eight hours the blemishes faded, and the skin flaked with the scratch of a fingernail.
Two weeks later, when our bet seemed forgotten, we stood atop Deer Creek’s rusty culvert, the roar of rushing water below sending vibrations through the soles of our shoes.
“Who’s got the balls to go in first?” Mike asked.
I nudged Steve.
“Fine,” Steve said. “I ain’t scared, but if something happens you guys better come in after me.”
“Of course,” Mike said. “We wouldn’t let you drown.”
“Yeah,” I said.
We stepped down the embankment to the water’s edge. Sunlight pierced the surface like tinted glass and shimmered against the gravel bottom.
Mike said, “If a beaver tears your calf off, we’ll help you out.”
Steve nodded and waded into the creek. The water level seemed high for August. “It’s cold,” he said, and gasped.
“You’ll survive,” I said.
“Hurry up,” Mike said.
Steve stepped slowly into the dark mouth of the culvert, and we climbed the bank and crossed the gravel road. We laid our stomachs down on the hot steel, leaned our heads over the edge to watch. Steve stood upright and used the walls for balance, and he ducked often to avoid spiders that hung, still and dark, above him.
“Lots of crap in here,” Steve said, his voice echoing. “It’s like a cave.”
“Keep an eye out for water moccasins,” Mike laughed.
Steve inched forward. The water was waist-high and it pushed on his lower back, swirled and gurgled around his hips. Then Steve walked into a cobweb. He brushed the fibers away and slipped, shot underneath us before we could stand.
“Holy shit,” Mike said.
The whirlpools pushed Steve in circles, and his arms slapped the water. “Help me!”
“Do something,” I said.
“Christ,” Mike said, “how?”
“Help!” Steve said, and his head slipped under, and when he emerged he vomited yellow fluid.
Then Mike jumped, and as soon as he hit the water, the current swept him away. I tried running downstream to hold a branch over the water and drag them in, but I couldn’t get through the thick limbs of the Russian olives. I also thought about jumping, just going for it, but if they were both carried off, surely I would be.
All the while Mike and Steve bobbed in the water. The whirlpool forced them back and forth across the creek and they splashed, cried, “Help me, please!” And it took them longer now to resurface whenever the current dragged them under. Then Steve touched ground about twenty yards downstream. He stumbled and fell and stood again, and when Mike reached him they hugged and stooped to catch their breaths in ankle-deep water.
“Thanks for helping us, you bastard,” Mike yelled. “We’re about drowned.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Steve followed. “We ought to throw your ass in.”
Steve and Mike plodded through the neck-high olive shrubs, their bodies covered in mud from the waist down when they reached the gravel road.
“I thought for sure I was dead,” Steve said, and punched me on the arm.
“So what was I going to do, die too?” I asked.
“Damn right,” Mike said. “At least then you’d die a man.”
“Yeah, like a man,” Steve said.
All three of us sat on the lip of the culvert. Mike fingered a tiny cut on his shin and scratched around it. “God, it itches.”
I kept thinking about Mike’s so-called idea of being a man. A man probably wouldn’t take bets to prove his power or prowess; rather, he’d always think before acting in moments of uncertainty and do the right thing.
Then Steve scratched his leg. “I sure hope I don’t get poison ivy,” he said. “I should’ve never listened to you guys. But man was that cool.”
“You got the listening part right,” I said, and stood near the edge of the culvert; I knew then if I jumped that I’d at least come out like a man. So I did the only appropriate thing.
Keith Rebec resides in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He’s a graduate student working on an MA in Writing at Northern Michigan University. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Shenandoah, The Portland Review, Monkeybicycle, Hobart, Midwestern Gothic, Devil’s Lake, and The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, among others. He’s the managing editor for the literary journal Pithead Chapel, and you can learn more about him here.