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Michaela Keeble

Michaela Keeble is a white Australian writer living in Aotearoa with her partner and kids. Her poetry and short stories have been published and anthologised widely, including in Intimate Relations: Communicating in the Anthropocene (Lexington Press, 2021). Her chapbook intertidal about change underway in our oceans was published by Anemone Press in early 2020 and she has a children’s book, co-authored with her son and illustrated by Tokerau Brown, coming out with Gecko Press in late 2022.

Dare Devil

Danny dragged his skinny arse up the ladder of the three-metre board. His speedos sagged and his skin went full goosebump in the cold air. The old man was on the ground, tapping his foot on the wet concrete. Old man could wait. This was the only time Danny had to himself and he’d make it count. His tangled hair slapped against his back and fat drops of water escaped one by one down his legs. The stench of chlorine in his nose and brain. Sandpaper steps beneath the balls of his feet. Hand after hand on the silver guiderails. Over the edge on to the narrow board, and he lay down. The non-slip grain like velcro against his skin and hair. He stared up into the maze of ventilation pipes snaking around the ceiling. He wasn’t as far out of sight as on the ten-metre platform, but it was a few seconds of invisibility at least. Drove the old man crazy. “Why d’ya have to lie down on the bloody diving board, Danny?” Hairy eyebrows waggling up and down. “No one lies down on a diving board. It’s not a bed. It’s a bloody diving board.” Whatever. But the longer he stayed out of sight, the more agitated the old man would become. Danny could only hold out for so long.

Danny felt for all the places the old man couldn’t fix. His hipbones jutting out of him like hooks. His ribcage, too wide for his body. Every one of his joints, that wouldn’t lock into perfect lines but stuck to him like growths. Still, it was what was inside him that his coach hated the most. His “lack of discipline,” as if Danny didn’t try hard enough, as if he was wasting all his talent, as if he could make his body conform if he just had more conviction. As if Danny was the problem.

He thought about that girl in the shallow children’s pool, always hiding half-submerged, a crocodile. Dragging herself along with her hands, legs slinging side to side. Too old for the kids pool. She was always watching him, amphibious eyes, never blinking.

She’d been watching earlier, while the old man pushed his bony fingers into Danny’s shoulder, then his hip, then around into the back of his knee, correcting his posture. “Go on then, sort your face out, get up there,” the old man had said.

Danny had turned away from his trainer, picking the girl out of the crowded shallows. He knew what she was waiting for. He put one hand to his face, prying open his eye socket. He pushed the eyebrow up and the skin beneath the lower lid down. He dug the fingers of his other hand deep into this eye socket and popped it out – a glass ball. He held the eye up to the girl so it fixed her with its stare, but she escaped the blue gaze just in time to peer into Danny’s eyeless socket, a pocket of pink flesh and muscle. He snapped his hand shut around the eye and tucked it into his speedos. He gave her half a smile, not exactly making fun. Her reptile eyes went wide and she slid under the water, then reemerged, grinning. He laughed, then stifled it. Wouldn’t do the girl any good getting caught up in his drama.

Now, Danny stood and walked to the edge of the board. He balanced, forcing the plank up and down, bringing the weight and rhythm of it into his legs. He double checked for the eye in his togs. Backtracked four long steps. Settled.

Breathing, he felt the hard pain in his chest retreat. There were only two ways to calm it, and this was one of them, doing something dangerous. Maybe why he was still diving, even though he’d never get where the old man wanted him to go, where the old man could never get himself, and both of them knew it. Danny felt freakish in so many ways, but especially in the ways no one could know, like how he had to risk himself just to get some relief.

He took three steps, hopped, felt the board quiver, then drove both feet down, scarecrow thighs doing all the work. The planks had massive flex in them and Danny liked to push them as far as they’d go, near to breaking point. The board responded, and Danny was propelled upwards. At the top of the arc, close to the seven-metre platform, he threw his arms down and hugged himself into a tight ball. He began to spin, comet-like, sparks of water flinging away from him, spinning so fast he’d keep spinning forever or crash and burn in a planetary collision. He passed very close to the dive board, perfect 10s. But competition wasn’t the point. He was invested in extremity, not in high scores. His hair licked around him in a catherine wheel. He moved through three and a half saults before reaching for the water.

As soon as the entry was complete, he swam down to rest at the bottom of the deep pool. The soreness dragging inside chest returned.

Danny pulled himself on to his elbows at the edge of the dive pool. The girl was standing above him, an ambush.

“I want to do that,” the girl said, nicking her head towards the diving boards. “I want to do what you do.” She even smiled like a crocodile, pure muscle. Her turn to shock him. He hadn’t seen her coming.

“Nah, you don’t,” Danny startled. He tried to recover, to sound bored, but his voice came out cracked and anxious. “Believe me, you don’t.”

“I do,” she said. “You can’t stop me,” and started to walk for the boards. Then she reconsidered. Turned back and dropped her disguise. “You can’t stop me, I guess. But you could help me?” She smiled again, unnerving. “It’d take way too long for me to figure it out on my own.”

Danny felt the old man watching from the steps to the office. He needed to keep him away from her. She looked older up close, maybe only a couple of years younger than him, 12 or 13? Old enough to be a target. He had to do something now, intervene. But in a breath or two, the old man was striding down the steps, and Danny had lost control.

“Come here, girl,” the old man said. The girl stared at him, and then at Danny.

“Climb out, Danny, get outta the way. Come here girly, stand here at the edge,” he said again. Water began seeping up into the fabric of the old man’s slacks. Danny flushed with shame. The girl did as asked, but she didn’t seem to be afraid.

“Here, girly, I want you stand like this, facing away from the pool, that’s it, toes at the lip, heels in the water. Now, I want you to spring up, not out, and do backflip. Get it? But you gotta land the jump facing outwards. You gotta do half a turn, 180 degrees. Get it? Don’t mind the concrete, you won’t hit it.”

In all the years the old man had repeated the exercise, Danny had never seen a kid respond well. Most got lost in space, looked as dizzy on the outside as they were on the inside, brains scrambled from so many mixed signals. But this muscly one. Only her body listening. Her mind and face gone quiet. Not just a lack of fear, but a presence of something like bliss. The girl followed the instructions perfectly. She landed the half-twist with precision.

“Get up the tower, then,” the old man said to the girl. “Show us what ya got.”

Danny felt done in. He turned and started for the change room.

“Nope,” the old man barked. “Not finished with you.” Danny returned to the pool, miserable.

“What’s your name, kid?,” the old man asked.

She thought about it for a second and then addressed Danny instead. “I don’t wanna tell him,” she said to him. “But you can call me Ray.”

Danny looked at her, dazed.

The old man grinned meanly, trying to get the girl to look at him. “Wanna start lessons with me, then? Danny here’ll show you the ropes. You’ll be ahead of him in no time.”

Ray gave the old man a death stare. “Maybe,” she said. “You could ask my mum, but she doesn’t come inside much.”

The old man faltered at the girl’s confidence.

“Second thoughts, nah,” she said. “Reckon I’ll just watch from the edge. Danny can show me in his own time.” Her tone softened. “Can you, Danny?”

Danny froze, afraid to disobey the old man. Who was this girl? She wasn’t like him at all. She wasn’t gonna fall for the old man’s shit.

“Sure,” he said, despite himself. And before the old man could do anything about it, Danny skitted away to the changing rooms.

The other way Danny found escape was more private. It started after the car accident, when he was already used to the fake eye. He’d hit the water hard after a dive, and the eye must have fallen out of his bathers. By the time he realised it was missing it had vanished into the water. Groping around on the pool floor, fingering every fleck of chipped paint, running out of breath, he thought the eye was gone. He thought about how expensive it was. The cost of the car accident: one mother and one eye. For his uncle, and the family he lived with now, it seemed like the cost of the eye was by far the worst. His uncle was always angry about money, not that Danny ever asked him for any. Dive training was paid for out of his mum’s super – $50 a week for a decade – and his uncle liked to remind him often that the money was nearly gone.

Then, at the limit of his breath, he caught an image of himself, as if in a mirror. As if he was inside a mirror, looking out at the boy in the pool. He watched his own ungainly feet kicking through the water. The pressure on his chest released, was gone. He turned and swam towards himself, hidden in the far corner of the pool. He found his own face in the eye, gazing back at him. When he picked the transcluent glass ball up off the pool floor, the double sight vanished and the pain in his chest returned.

Over the years he’d learned to control it. He’d leave the eye under his pillow at the house and practise walking away. He’d toss the eye out of his window and feel a kind of flight. He’d tuck it into the garden bed and feel the thick dark grain give way to colour and the scratching lines of insects in the earth. It gave him a sense of detachment, more numb and less lonely. Like relief from panic; shelter from the old man; from the lightning strike of losing his mother.

But he could never leave the eye hidden for long. He’d eventually have to find it, wash it and put it back in. Without the eye, he looked like an animal with buckshot through the head. Life was shit enough without looking on the outside the way he felt on the inside.

Danny and Ray starting mucking around in the dive pool, any time the old man was gone. They practised forward saults til Ray could manage a clean double. They jumped from both of the one-metre boards at the same time, entering the water feet first, like two people standing in line. Danny showed her half a twist at a time, adding inwards, reverses, pikes and backwards dives. Ray picked up everything, hungry for more.

Then, at the top of the tower one day, she had a stupid idea. She’d been watching stunt diving on the internet, and wanted in.

“Stand still, Danny, don’t move.”

Ray gathered his messy hair into a rope, twisting until all the strands came in. She reached for his shoulder with her free hand. He bent his knees awkwardly to accommodate. She wriggled up his back and clung on, completely attached and yet somehow independent.

“Go on, Danny, go on Danny. Go on!” Ray rocked back and forth, shunting Danny forward to the edge of the platform. “Go on, Danny.” Breathless now.

“One and a half, yeah?” he said.

“Yes Danny, go.”

They fell from the platform. They shared their centre of gravity perfectly and weren’t forced apart the way it seemed it should happen. It felt easy, working together with Ray, rather than against himself. He didn’t know he was capable of grace. They entered the water with a split second difference, Danny first, with a drum roll that continued in his ears all the way to the bottom of the dive pool. They were separate again. Danny pushed off the bottom of the pool with his stringy legs and shot back towards the surface. Ray swam through the bubbles and broke the water, grinning.

The old man closed the door to the office.

“Danny,” he crooned, and came to stand behind him. Then the old man did as he always did and when it was over the trainer handed Danny one of his endless supply of handkerchiefs, old-fashioned and perfectly ironed. “Here, wipe your face. I always have a clean hanky for you, don’t I, Danny.” Danny nodded and straightened up and turned for the door. Ray was looking in through the small glass window. Her eyes were blazing, but it made Danny feel safe rather than caught out, which was a surprise.

Diving with Ray continued, and Danny’s training continued, and nothing really seemed to change, except maybe Ray told her mum something, because she started coming to the pool, sitting right down close to the water. She was like a spell against the old man – he kept away when she was around. But when she wasn’t, the old man ratcheted it up a notch. If Danny slouched or his mind strayed, the old man barked, “You’ve gone again, boy,” and Danny dragged himself back into the present. The old man rotated Danny’s arms till the strain felt dangerous, but Danny said nothing. “Lift out of here,” he snarled, and pulled Danny up off his hips. Over and over again. Grinding him into the concrete, making him apologise for mucking up and then apologise again for crying.

His thoughts returned obsessively to the day the old man “discovered” him. He’d been swimming up from the deep one day when the old man held out a hand and pulled Danny clean out of the pool.

“You like to dive kid?”

“I dunno. Yep?”

“Wanna learn something? You look like a bowl of spaghetti.”

The old man had been laughing, but Danny had seen the disgust in his face when he clocked the gap where Danny’s eye should have been. He’d known it from the get go. Danny hated himself for letting the old man in, letting him play some kind of parent. All these years he’d been telling Danny he’d help him win the nationals, maybe even the Commonwealth Games. Told him he was going places. Danny didn’t really want to go places, but it was hard to say why. Most of the kids his age gave Danny a wide berth. Sometimes other coaches told Danny that the old man was out of control. But none of them ever did anything about it. No one ever told the old man to stop. Danny wanted out but he never had anywhere else to go, and he wasn’t brave enough to try. He couldn’t have explained this paralysis to anyone, though Ray seemed to understand and never asked questions. The old man had him in a vice grip. Danny couldn’t leave, and he couldn’t give up on Ray either, the one thing the old man was holding out for.

Ray, it turned out, loved the public thrill that came with daredevil diving. She loved to make people afraid and then to come up from their risky tandem dives, alive and smiling. She kept pushing them harder and further. Then she came up with a new plan. She and Danny would set themselves on fire. Danny said no way, at first. He wasn’t scared. But he didn’t want to be responsible for Ray getting hurt. And his skin crawled at the idea of drawing so much attention. But she’d done the research. She showed him fire-eating and circus acts on her phone.

He made her talk to her mum, and was surprised when she did it. He was even more surprised when Ray’s mum came and sat next to him one afternoon. “What do you think of this idea?” she asked him, as if she was actually considering it. “I know Ray’s out there. But she’s showed me how it works.” Ray’s mum smiled at him like he was normal. She seemed to like him, to trust him even. “You worry about yourself, Danny. Ray’s on my watch.” It was unfathomable to Danny just how much Ray was her own person. She wasn’t doing this to please anyone except herself. Eventually, he came round.

Together, they picked a weekend at the start of the summer holidays, when the pool was packed. In the changing room, they slipped liquid heptane all over their skin and Danny tucked a lighter into his bathers’ pocket, along with his eye. At the top of the tower, Ray climbed up on to his back like a possum.

“Are you sure, Ray?” he said. “Sure? I mean seriously, we don’t have to do this.”

“Yeah we do, Danny. You know it.”

So he lit up their skin and they stood for a shocking half-second in flames on the edge of the platform, before he lifted them both up on to the balls of his feet, and they fell, head first, into a slow-burning one and a half.

They could hear someone screaming below, but more thrilling was the sound of the fire itself, then the flash of blue as they hit the surface and the flames extinguished. They came up to clapping and a few kids crying and the YMCA guys running down off the stalls towards them, furious and terrified for their jobs. The old man looked so angry he might have a heart attack. Ray’s mum had her hands over her eyes but her face was delighted.

Ray’s mum asked him to go away with them for the weekend, camping at some place down the coast.

Somewhere along the highway, a distant coastal cliff loomed into view. They could see it for miles before they even got close. It seemed to act like a magnet on the car. It curved skyward like a breaking wave. They parked and started walking, the track sometimes heading for the cliff and sometimes veering away. Ray couldn’t handle it, she just wanted to get there. She’d step off the track and try and beat her way through the bracken, but Danny always ended up in front of her. Ray’s mum lagging behind, bending to check out the wildflowers or looking up through her binoculours at the birds. Eventually Danny and Ray were close and the track began to incline, first gently and then it was hard going. Sheep tracks, mainly, zigzagging up the shoulder of the cliff, protected from the wind, until suddenly they were at the top.

The wind roared and tried to lift them, plucking at their hair and clothes, shepherding them along like a parent.

Ray broke away from Danny, a grin full of teeth splitting her face in half. She went running along the cliff track. Danny felt the wind entering him, slipping through him, circling inside his chest, picking out fragments of bone and metal. But when he followed the track away from the lip and into some scrub, he saw Ray ahead of him, standing at the cliff’s edge, no land beneath her. It had only been a minute. What the hell was she doing?

“Ray!” he shouted. She didn’t seem balanced. She was tilting outwards, like she might actually fall. She looked back, smiling wildly, and stepped back from the edge, to safety.

“It’s alright Danny!” she shouted into the wind. “I want to jump! But I’m not stupid!” She stepped back from the cliff and laughed and laughed, Danny baffled but relieved, and they both collapsed into the scrub, facing the sky.

They watched the clouds for ages, till Ray spoke again. “Can I hold your eye, Danny?”

“What the fuck?” he asked, but he wasn’t really surprised.

“I wanna look into it,” she said. “See what you see out of it. What do you see, Danny?” No one had ever asked him, of course. People assumed his eye was inanimate, collateral for their benefit mainly.

“Nothing. What are you talking about.”

“Come on, Danny. Like I said, I’m not stupid.”

“Not saying you are.” He’d never talked about this before. No one had ever asked. “What are you getting at?”

“You think you’re a freak,” Ray said. “You think you’ve got a thing for danger. But I don’t. I don’t see how any of this is your doing.”

Danny picked out his eye and gave it to her. Ray held the glass sphere right up to her own eyes. Up close, it looked like a polished gemstone. It had little threads of blood running through it and the iris was a kaleidoscope of blue and gold. She turned it around and around in her blunt fingers. She looked at him and smiled her crocodile smile.

“Don’t you dare, Ray!” Danny said, realising what she was up to. But Ray stood and hurled the eye as far as she could throw it. It carved through the sky changing towards dusk, over the tidal pools below, past the weed and shadow, and into clear water.

As it hit the surface, colour washed into Danny’s mind. Not that familiar numbing distance, more like having his mum nearby again. The feeling came in waves, washing in and out, and remained with Danny for the rest of his life. The colours always changed, sometimes even the entire marine landscape if a fish sucked up the eye and spat it out again in a different place. Over the years, as the eye rolled against rock and seafloor, and the waves polished and polished the eye, his vision became refracted, as though he had a stake in even the grains of sand billowing across the sea floor.

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