Theo Mackey only remembers one thing for certain about the fire that destroyed his home: he lit the match.
Sure, it was an accident. But the blaze killed his mom and set his dad on a path to self-destruction. Everything else about that fateful night is full of gaping holes in Theo’s mind, for good reason. Maybe it’s better that way. As captain of the Ellis Hollow Diving Team, with straight A’s and solid friends, he’s only one semester away from securing a scholarship, and leaving his past behind.
But when a family history project gets assigned at school, new memories come rushing to the surface, memories that make Theo question what he really knows about his family, the night of the fire, and if he can trust anyone—including himself.
The paperback of Dive Smack by Demetra Brodsky will be available on June 4. Please enjoy the following excerpt!
Every human reaction has to be silenced before doing a single twist. Then it’s go time. The more twists the better. That’s why I like to chuck it at the break of dawn when no one is watching or keeping score. Once the school day begins, I’m Theo Mackey, Ellis Hollow springboard diving captain. People expect me to behave a certain way in the classroom, at home, on the diving board. Especially on the diving board. But out here, I can blow as many new dives as I want before bringing them to the team. Like the 5337D I’ve been working on for the past hour.
The Reverse 11⁄2 Somersault 31⁄2 Twist was my mom’s favorite dive, the one she claimed got her into Stanford. Adding it to my dive list this year isn’t optional. Not in the official sense. Voluntary dives are required at meets. Optionals are a diver’s choice. Don’t try to wrap your head around voluntary dives being required or your brain will explode. Just trust that diving has some strange rules. The important thing to know is that the dive has a high degree of difficulty. A 3.5. That’s still lower than the dive I’d call my own favorite. But the reverse entry will help set me further apart from the rank and file and secure my position for a scholarship, which is the only way I know how to honor my parents now that they’re gone.
So far it’s not going great.
My thoughts keep shifting from my dad, for good reason, to the fucked-up dream that left me sleepless for most of the night. I’m not sure dream is the right word since I wasn’t fully asleep at the time. Maybe I never was. More like in a trance, trapped between awake and sleep, watching my actions unfold in another space and time. I saw myself running down this long deserted hallway under humming fluorescent lights. Pushing open doors that lined both sides while fresh dirt spilled in alongside me. My goal was to get to the last door but my Uncle Phil slithered around the corner like a snake and blocked my path. A heart-pounding urge to clobber him with the garden shovel in my hand took over my senses. But as soon as I lifted the tool to strike—bam—I was right back to staring at the ceiling in Chip’s room.
I wipe my arms dry with a shammy and rub my feet across the springboard’s pebbled surface. Diving is also like slipping through a door into another world. Everything goes hush quiet after entry, and for a few seconds I can pretend life is back to normal. Mom is watching, Dad is watching. And all is right with the world. But reaching that door in just the right way takes practice, hours of twisting and turning just to whoosh through that addictive portal for less than a minute.
“You need more height,” Chip announces.
I didn’t see him coming and the surprise of his voice makes me circle my arms for balance so I don’t fall into the pool. “I’m already six feet tall.”
“Hilarious.” He straddles a lounge chair by the edge of his family’s pool and takes a seat. “You need another six inches on your flight if you want to make the last twist.”
“How long have you been out here watching?”
“Long enough to see you eat shit on your last two dives. Where’s your girlfriend? You know my mom would freak if you got hurt.”
I fling the shammy over a diving rail and search for his dog from my 3-meter height advantage. “She was here a minute ago. Maybe she saw you coming and gave up her post to look for a bone.”
“Or she got tired of watching you almost crack your skull open.”
I know what Chip’s getting at. Flying solo is a diving no-no—a safety issue—but I wasn’t entirely alone. The Langfords’ black Lab was looking out for me, the way she’s done for as long as I can remember. Chip’s mom trained her to follow us to the pool and bark like hell if anyone is floating facedown in the water. It’s a cool trick I’m glad I’ve never seen used in a real emergency. But now, I can’t hear a dog barking without thinking something is wrong.
Belly comes running to the sound of our voices, paws muddy from digging holes in the yard, and leaps into the pool with a giant flop, true to her name. Water splashes everywhere. Not that it matters. The rain last night already left everything slick, and the air heavy with the stench of fresh dirt and dusty old basements.
“Why didn’t you wake me up?” Chip shields himself from Belly as she shakes dry. “I could have kept an eye out and done some laps with the snorkel to power up my lungs.”
“I needed to get my head straight before school.”
He understands. For the most part.
My dad died a year ago today, making me an orphan, more or less. Chip and I talked about it on the way home from practice last night, what it would be like if one variable had changed. But I live with my grandfather now, who I call GP. He used to be a hero, the Ellis Hollow fire chief, but he fell into a bottle of whiskey after my dad died and hasn’t been the same since.
I get it. And I don’t.
It’s not like he’s the only one who lost people.
“What do you think The Mack Attack would say if he saw you balking every other approach on the board today?” Chip asks.
My dad, Mitch Mackey, was a sports psychologist known as The Mack Attack by his clients because he attacked whatever problem they were having. He usually had plenty to say to me when things weren’t going my way. But it’s not my dad’s words that haunt me today. It’s Mom’s. When I first started diving she said, “Your mind will betray you before your body; acknowledge your fears and do it anyway.” I get that now more than ever. Diving is as much mental as physical. She was selective with how much she’d coach me unless I asked for help. But she also had a way of knowing when I needed her before I ever said a word.
Drove my dad nuts.
He used to call Mom The Diving Whisperer, like it was some big joke. Dad made his living fostering excellence in others, but it was Mom who had a knack for spotting which of his clients would go to the big leagues. And she was usually right. But I could tell something about those coincidences drove him a little crazy. That’s what killed him in the end. Not the accident— work—his obsession with being able to pick the right athlete after Mom died. He had a heart attack while driving to see an important client. I kind of saw it coming. He was on edge after Mom died, flying off the handle without much provocation. I wish I’d said something about the way he was acting when I had the chance. But I didn’t. In a way, I guess that’s my fault too . . . It’s complicated.
“Never in your father’s life was silence an answer.”
Right. I almost forgot the question.
I clasp my hands behind my neck and squeeze. “He’d probably ask something obvious like, ‘What did you learn from your last mistake?’ ”
“I need more height, like you said. I’m coming in short and fast.”
“Then take it up. Girls don’t like a guy that comes too fast.
Take it up, then slow it down, but speed it up. Control is the name of the game.”
“Sounds like a personal problem, Chip.”
“If you don’t believe me you can always ask Iris. Inquiring minds want to know.”
“Idiotic minds want to know. Maybe you should take it up with Amy.”
“No can do, brother. I already know the answer to that question, and I value my life.”
“You mean your sex life.”
I flip him off and walk back to my starting position.
There are lots of things I’d like to ask Iris Fiorello, but none of them have to do with how she likes it from a guy. Not that I wouldn’t want to know if ever I got that lucky. It’s just that I lost whatever ask-a-girl-out nerve I had the minute Mr. Malone assigned her and Les Carter as my sociology partners for our family history project. Chip likes to call me the King of Avoidance. Especially when it comes to girls. But I disagree. Sometimes caution and self-preservation are warranted.
I crack my neck from side to side and twist my trunk to loosen up my muscles.
When we talk about inertia in diving, this isn’t what we mean. The moment of inertia happens inside the dive when we interrupt rotational motion, controlling the speed of somersaults by the lengthening or shortening of our bodies. A serious screw-you to gravitational pull I’m usually on board with (pun acknowledged, not intended).
What I’m doing now is stalling.
Chip says, “What’s our mantra?”
“I got this.”
“You got this. Visualize the dive and chuck it.”
I haven’t been able to see myself nailing this dive yet, but I’m willing to give it another shot. I close my eyes and envision myself leaving the board. This time it looks good. I’ve got the height, the rotations. I take three big steps to the end of the board and lift my right knee for the hurdle. When I come down I land the perfect ride. The board springs me higher into the air this time and my flight is perfect. I rotate backward for the reverse somersault, and twist. Once. Twice. Third time’s the charm and—
Chip yells, “Yeah! Chinga tu madre,” as I end the final half twist and I crimp the entry.
When I surface his eyes are bugged out like he can’t believe I screwed up. “What happened?”
“Fuck your mother,” I tell him. “That’s what you yelled. I’m pretty sure that’s not a regulation call-out.”
Chip sucks at Spanish so I’m never sure if he understands what he’s actually saying.
“Oh.” His eyes go wide. “That’s some disrespectful shit, especially today. I meant to say for your mother. Like an homage.”
“That’s para tu madre. Don’t stress about it too much. I doubt Señora Torres will put the verb chingar on our midterm.”
“I like it, though,” Chip says. “Chingar! It packs a punch.”
I flick my eyes at the house. “You do know your folks have the windows open, right?”
“My mom doesn’t know Spanish,” Chip says. “Not that kind of Spanish anyway. And my dad already left to pick up his crew, where I’m pretty sure he’s heard worse.”
Mr. Langford owns a pool company. He uses their backyard to showcase his work to clients, but really went to town on the lap pool once Chip showed promise in swimming, adding special year-round heaters and extra lighting. He put the 3-meter board in for my birthday after Mom died. I’d stay here forever if I could.
“You don’t give your mom enough credit,” I tell Chip. “If your dad knows, she knows.”
“You’re probably right. But that’s your job, son. Especially since she’s in the kitchen right now making a special memorial breakfast just for you. A situation I’m inclined to let slide under today’s circumstances. Because nothing says I’m sorry for your loss like a pound of bacon.”
I chuckle and shake my head. Mrs. Langford likes to show us she cares through food, no matter the occasion. And since my dinners at home usually consist of either pasta and jarred sauce or sandwiches, who am I to look a gift horse in the mouth?
I’m glad Chip isn’t walking on eggshells around me today. Not that he ever does. The best thing about having him as a friend is I never have to guess what he’s thinking.
“You want me to hang out while you rip that dive one more time? I swear I won’t say a word.”
“Nah. I think I’ll just do a 305B and meet you inside.”
“Why not try the Triple Lindy instead,” he says. “Maybe you’ll finally get some respect.”
“If it were that easy, everyone would be doing it. Leave me some bacon.”
“I make no promises I can’t keep.”
I wait until Chip reaches the sliding glass door before inching back up the ladder. He knows I don’t like leaving the board on a bad dive because the failure sticks with me all day. I think it’s a side effect of having trained under the nonstop motivational maxims of my dad. I still find maxim the SAT word more inspiring than any of my dad’s psychobabble, but thinking about him that way today is also some disrespectful shit.
I breathe deep, visualizing my Reverse 31⁄2 Tuck. I approach my hurdle and hit the end of the board, shooting up and backward, hugging my thighs to create a tight fold. My pike is clean. Core tight. Toes pointed so hard they might cramp. All my rotations are good. I come-out and grab the top of my right hand, thumbs interlocking, and rip the entry with zero splash.
That’s how every dive should be done. Without distraction, paying attention to the dive during every twist and turn until there’s nothing but the rush of water and silence.
But the conditions are never perfect. I think that’s what my mom was ultimately trying to say.
Copyright © 2019 by Demetra Brodsky