“If you could talk to a dead person, anyone at all, who would it be?”
Jeni Taylor let her question hang in the air, her expression hard to read. She wore the strangest smile I’d ever seen and even though she was busy treading the slow-moving waters of the Elk Ridge River, her eyes sparkling in the bright summer sun, it seemed to me nothing about her question was light or casual.
The four of us were all together that day: Jeni, Ember, Willow, and me. We enjoyed swimming in the Elk Ridge because none of us could afford a membership at the Y, and the community pool was always overflowing with younger kids obsessed with splashing. Besides, the river had a bridge running over it that provided an excellent diving spot about thirty feet above the surface of the water. The Elk Ridge ran deep in the middle, shallow to about five feet out. None of us had ever touched the river bottom in the middle, and not for lack of trying.
Two of us stood at the edges of the shallow area, one on either side, while the other two would take turns diving into the deep. As we did this, we would swim to one shore or the other to take over spotting duties while the spotters took their turn to dive.
“Shada, watch me!” Willow, the youngest of us, shouted. I looked up as she performed a cannonball from the bridge into the deep water. Her blonde hair trailed behind her as she dived, and when she came up, it had turned dark. She swam over to Jeni, wiping the river water from her eyes and blowing water out of her nose.
“That’s easy,” Willow told Jeni. “I’d want to talk to William Kirby.” As Willow turned around, I could tell she enjoyed the idea.
“Who’s that?” Jeni asked.
“I think he’s the guy who created the Fantastic Four with Stan Lee,” Ember shouted from the bridge.
“That’s Jack Kirby, Embie,” I said.
My brother Robbie was big into comic books, especially classic ones from thirty years before he was even born. His closet was filled with more white boxes of the things than it was with clothes. Such a nerd. I liked superhero movies with hunky male actors. All four of us did. But the comic books they’d come from? That was my brother’s obsession, not mine, but even I knew who Jack Kirby was. Robbie had left for college two months early and I already missed him.
Willow giggled at Ember. “I said William Kirby, not Jack.”
“So who’s that?” Jeni asked as she began climbing up the steep river bank, a familiar path through the weeds that lined the way, tramped down by frequent use, mostly from the four of us. She reached the top and walked out on the bridge toward Ember.
“Only the father of entomology,” Willow said, rolling her eyes in astonishment, as though all of us should have learned this long ago. “He lived in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and coleopterology was one of his specialties. Just like me.”
“Does anyone know what Willow’s talking about?” Ember said.
“It’s all Greek to me,” Jeni said, climbing over the railing to stand next to Ember.
“Actually, it’s Latin.” Willow could get annoying after a while with her tendency to correct others. We were probably her only close friends. “Entomology is the study of insects in general. Coleopterology is the study of beetles in particular.”
“God, I should have known,” Jeni moaned. “Willow and her beetles.”
“I think it’s nice Willow knows things,” Ember said. She seemed to be stalling, keeping the conversation going instead of the diving rotation moving.
“Yeah,” I yelled up at Ember, “you think it’s especially cool when you’re in science class together and she sits next to you. Your test scores improve dramatically.”
Jeni snorted in amusement and Ember saluted me with one finger extended. Willow, the only one to take the comment seriously, said, “She’s a grade ahead of me! We’ve never been in the same science class.”
“It’s called a joke, Willow,” I told her.
She pondered for a moment, and then, speaking in a deep monotone voice like a Star Trek Vulcan, she replied, “I find your humor … illogical.”
We all burst out laughing, and Jeni took Ember’s hand. “Let’s get this line moving,” she said.
“Just a second,” Ember replied, but even as far away I was, I recognized the mischief in Jeni’s eyes.
“No. Now,” Jeni said. Pulling Ember with her, holding hands, Jeni stepped out to the edge of a wooden beam and, reluctantly, Ember did, too. They swung their arms together in unison, in a silent three count. Then they both leaped forward and straightened their bodies out, pointing their feet down at the water so they led with their toes, and pierced the water like twin needles, the pair of them kicking up a splash big enough that some of it reached me on the north bank. They’d been standing closer to the north bank than the south, so Willow missed out on the splatter.
They broke the surface almost simultaneously. Jeni was smiling again, and Ember came up coughing, spitting out river water.
“You two are crazy!” I yelled at them. They were already ten yards downstream and didn’t seem interested in swimming back to the river banks. Willow and I knew that meant they wanted to drift down river on their backs for a while, so we left our positions and swam east toward them to catch up. Since they were just going with the flow of the slow stream, it didn’t take long. Then we were all floating on our backs, letting the river carry us along, staring up at the cloudless blue Wisconsin summer sky.
Once we were all together, Jeni spoke up again. “Okay, so Willow wants to talk with creepy bug dude.”
“William Kirby,” the youngest girl corrected.
“Fine, whatever,” Jeni said. “What about the rest of you? Shada?”
I was silent for a moment, pondering my options. I must have taken too long, because Jeni called my name again.
“I’m thinking!” I protested.
“Well, think faster,” Jeni sniped, and then laughed.
“Probably some cool musician type guy,” I said. “Mick Jagger, maybe?”
“Pick someone dead,” Jeni said.
“Mick Jagger’s dead, isn’t he?”
The others girls laughed and Ember replied, “Mick Jagger is definitely not dead. Unless it’s something you read on the Web before coming here today.”
“How’s Mick Jagger still alive?” I asked. “He’s gotta be, like, older than my grandma, and she died two years ago.”
“So, your grandma’s dead,” Jeni said. “Why not talk to her instead?”
“I didn’t like talking to her when she was alive,” I said. “She was always grouchy and smelled like stale prunes.”
“That’s not nice,” Ember said.
“It’s the truth,” I replied. I noticed I was veering close to shore and kicked a few times, using my arms like oars to steer myself back closer to the center of the river. “Anyway, I don’t want to talk to her. I’d rather talk to someone famous.”
“What about Michael Jackson?” Willow offered. “He’d dead.”
“Michael Jackson was gross,” I replied. “My dad loves Johnny Cash music. So maybe him.”
“That’ll work,” Jeni agreed. “So we’ve got Willow down for that bug guy, Kirby, and Shada wants to talk to dead singers. What about you, Embie?”
“Who do you want to talk to?” Ember replied. “It’s your question.”
“I’ll tell you soon enough,” Jeni said. “I asked you first.”
“Then I pass.”
“You can’t pass.”
“I can if I want to.” Ember’s voice sounded firm, resolute. “You go.”
“God, okay!” Jeni huffed in frustration. “I know who I’d choose anyway. Sacagawea.”
“The girl who guided Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Ocean?” I asked.
“That’s the one,” Jeni said. “She was only like seventeen and pregnant when she did that, and she died when she was, like, only twenty-four or twenty-five.”
“Was she Lakota, like you?” Willow asked.
“No,” Jeni said. “She was Lemhi Shoshone, but that doesn’t matter. She’s just someone I admire. So now we know who everyone would like to talk to except you, Embie. Time’s up.”
Ember stopped floating then and began treading water. “Hey, I can barely see the bridge. We’ve drifted a long way downstream. We should probably start swimming back.”
“Yeah, I’m hungry anyway,” Willow said, “and our lunches are back there under the bridge.”
“Fine,” Jeni conceded. “But you’re not off the hook, Ember. I still want your answer.”
We all swam hard against the mild current, doing front strokes, and for a few minutes we couldn’t talk. But even though she hadn’t said anything out loud, all of us knew Ember well enough to know who she’d want to talk to if she could.
He died one year ago.