Volume 34, Number 1

Leaping into the Sky

Dominick Copas

From Coach Marquez’s position on the pool deck, it looked like the sun was setting within inches of the concrete bleachers. Its scattered crimson and yellow turned the water into a molten, Olympic-sized amount of gold.

He stared into the water, and, as is common with swim coaches, thought for a moment that he spotted a body hanging towards the bottom. Caught in between waves of light and shadow. He stepped to the edge, having experienced enough near-emergencies that usually turned out to be players messing around or a fault in his sight, but still, the fear of self-preservation was there. Reaching the edge, he saw the shadow disappear. A trick of the light.

Practice had run long but only because a few of his players had been teaching one another how to properly dive while Coach Marquez idly looked on, his whistle dangling at the crest of his belly. There had been a time where he had, at least when speaking to other people about his job, practically bragged about how swimming is the only sport connected directly to one’s own survival. Drawing directly upon an ancient skill, an instinct, of fighting for one’s life. But he no longer spoke like this.

Occasionally scratching at the patchy whiskers dotting his cheek and upper lip, he continued picking up trash his players left behind. Granola bars and torn swim caps, the rare pair of goggles. Lifting a towel to the light to better see the name etched in the tag, another shadowy mass caught his attention. This time in the sky. It appeared like a blob ascending into the heavens, stretching and pointing like an amoeba, but this stretching became too much to bear for it. It broke apart as he shielded his eyes to get a better look, and when he squinted, he could see those parts stretched and tugged, too.

Before the inevitable realization came, Marquez had a moment to ponder what it could be. Birds were his first guess, though their outstretched wings would be too wide to match the figures’ shapes. And then he saw these parts grow smaller as they separated even more, and their outlines suddenly became more defined. Each with arms, legs, a head and torso.

They were bodies ascending. From their position above the quad, he knew they must have been students, though he wouldn’t find out until the next day that one of his players was one of them. Dangling, but not unsure, gliding and true in the opposite direction of the sun.

He knew that he would need to make a report about the incident. Let the counselors know what was going on, document it on the school’s online system and maybe even call the police, but it was 5:30 p.m. Most everyone had gone home, and even if it had been during the school day, there wouldn’t have been any chance of saving lives. Ascending like that doesn’t happen unless the people are sure they want to die.

He returned to the trash and garments of clothing, packing it all into the storage bin set just behind the bleachers, shielding his eyes from the sun when he finished.

* * *

The player who flew into the sky was Ignacio Guevara. He had been East Covina Hills’ top breaststroker since his freshman year. He would have graduated eight weeks after that day when he and 17 other students ascended.

In the staffroom the next day, Coach Marquez stirred his coffee morosely and sifted through his feelings as one does with rubble, trying to examine why he was angry rather than sad about his player’s death. Around him, there were mostly unoccupied chairs and tables while a few teachers spoke to each other about their weekends.

It could have been because out of all the choices he had in his life he had chosen a passionless love of coaching. Not that he had any choices much more romantic, but what drove him towards madness was how he could have quit and had a chance to comfortably start a family. In his thirties when he actually did have children, he had given up little and saw his wife and kids suffer for it. The most he had lost were sleep and a creative writing class, which came more out of obligation to his aquatics program. The program was one of the few things in his life that he could truly claim was his, though this meant little to him. The tender but short lived appreciation from the principal: “You have no idea what you’re doing for your swimmers. No idea. They look up to you. They really do.” The appreciation didn’t do much to stop Marquez from considering ascension for himself.

But that wasn’t why he was so angry. It turned out to be something much simpler. Ignacio had killed himself in the middle of season, and now, Marquez was in need of someone to fill not only his relay spot but also his two other individual events. But he couldn’t say this out loud.

He sipped his coffee and started to stare at a science teacher and a Spanish teacher when he realized they were talking about what happened the day before.

“It got so easy when the kids found out how easy it was,” the Spanish teacher said, pausing between words for effect. “You could almost say the trend really took off.

The science teacher ignored this and bit at a pen she had been using to idly scribble on a notepad. “Well, there’s something that must happen to a body traveling so quickly through the earth’s atmosphere without any protection. I mean, even if it doesn’t look painful, there’s something about bodies traveling past the sight of what we can see from the ground.”

“Well, I don’t think it should be about that.”

“Well, what is it about then?”

Despite the crassness, it was true. Once the phrase “ascension” was spoken on a single news broadcast, it seemed that people all over the country were leaving. “Suicide by gunshot or hanging have absolutely plummeted, but overall, suicide rates have soared.” Marquez remembered a news anchor chuckling after reading this particular line, and his look off-camera seemed like a confident confirmation to someone who had dared him to read it.

Once people found out that ascension was painless, there was little hope of keeping people on the ground, the ones that really wanted to go. No pain, not even a body to discover. The only pain came from the rumors that you had to take a running start beforehand or break into a sprint up an outdoor flight of stairs. Despite being untrue, this didn’t stop the track coach from tackling a player to the ground, breaking a couple of their ribs, when “she looked a little sad at the start of a race,” or the janitor who threw her mop at a student’s head, causing a concussion, when the student had incorrectly chosen an outdoor flight of stairs for their day’s workout.

“Kids think their lives today are so hard,” scoffed the science teacher. She bit into her hard-boiled egg, and before swallowing, added, “They’ve got it too good to know it. The problem with this generation is that they feel too good to be grateful for any of it.”

Coach Marquez downed his coffee and left the room with the intention of scraping his chair, but he only left little drag marks across the tiled floor to show any evidence that he had been there. Again, he felt disgusted with himself, not her, for actually agreeing. He hadn’t even remembered a single conversation with his high school counselor let alone the option, no matter how far off, to speak with a therapist. And now these kids were killing themselves with as much flippancy as a passing fashion trend.

He spent most of the rest of the time before school walking around campus, keeping his head down though he had little chance of students running up to greet him or disturbing his solitude. Since losing his passion many years back, he could count on long bouts of staring at the sidewalk or changing foliage of the campus trees, uninterrupted by students wanting to talk with him. He got to his classroom just before the late bell rang, but the huge group of students waiting for him in the hallway didn’t complain when they learned that they would be watching a movie the entire period.

There was a moment of silence and a memorial rally planned for the deceased during first lunch, and for the students who had second lunch, the administration recommended that they put their heads down for five minutes or longer depending on their teacher’s discretion. Only the principal would speak, which Marquez was incredibly thankful for. He had no idea what he would have said, other than rambling off a few of Ignacio’s stats from the season.

The sun cast punishing rays upon the students and staff as they gathered in the grass. Campus security lined the edges to avoid an embarrassing outburst from one of the students screaming something foul as the principal read off the names of the deceased. However, the people were so tightly packed together that it would be easy for someone in the middle to shout something and disappear amongst the throngs.

Marquez stared at the ring of extra security brought in, totaling 81 armed guards for the day’s proceedings while a paltry four extra therapists were sequestered in a rarely used room in the history building. Students requiring any “extra emotional support” that day were sent there, but teachers mostly used it as an excuse to send out the problem students. And the students were more than happy to take their routine somewhere else so that the room became a zoo with even stranger sounds.

In the quad, Principal Bishop approached the podium adorned with flowers and streamers so that you might have thought he had just one elected office, the only difference being that people had been killed in the days immediately preceding his election rather than after it.

“Murderer!” a student called out from somewhere in the crowd.

Marquez couldn’t see who it had come from, but everyone around applauded the outburst. Mr. Bishop, a man who paled in comparison to the liveliness and emotional candor of the principal immediately preceding him, pretended not to hear.

“I can assure you that mental health is a deeply concerning issue to me,” he said. “There is nothing I wouldn’t do to make sure that our students are safe and secure. That their mental well-being is cared for. The eighteen lives lost yesterday is a tragic loss for this campus.”

A door slammed across the quad. The students sent to the extra room in the history building were spilling out. If they were not laughing, they were weeping. The therapists were nowhere to be seen, so well hidden by the surrounding bodies.

“Murder, murder” another voice taunted.

“I’ll have you know,” he said, stopping this time, readjusting and polishing his glasses, “that my own nephew died from suicide.”

“You killed your nephew, too?”

There was barking laughter from the students, and Coach Marquez surprised himself by smiling. He considered the principal’s position. Thought not what he would’ve said if he was in Mr. Bishop’s shoes, but instead, thought of what could possibly be said at all.

“All right,” Principal Bishop said, thwacking his prepared speech against the microphone. “Staff, please, escort students back to their classrooms.”

“You’re going to kill our lunch time now?”

Despite the order, the security detail kept their arms linked. Marquez looked to the principal again to see if he noticed that they had not listened, but Bishop was busy wiping his glasses. Students pushed against the guards, but there was no give. They had nowhere to go.

“People, please disperse,” Principal Bishop said.

But the more they pushed, the angrier the guards became until campus security reached for their wooden rods meant to dispel unrest.

The students at the center returned the fight to the man at the podium.

“How many students did you say were killed?” A student screamed.

The circle of linked guards marched closer so that more and more members of the crowd struggled to breathe. There was no camaraderie. Instead it was desperation that linked them, far greater unity that sought only retribution.

"Please, students," the principal commanded.

"How many?" another voice screeched.

"Go back to class." His outstruck finger stabbed at the air and seemed to point to all of the different school buildings at once. Coach Marquez couldn’t believe it. Principal Bishop’s floundering, his spitting. He would release the guards. He would grant the therapists more space. There would not be order but something messier and more healing. Marquez whispered do something, do something, but his words were drowned out.

Students began to scream inarticulately. Some were genuine. The fears of those succumbing to the horrid unknown urgency of the scene. The dawning realization that something was coming, something at their unseen heels, at the edges of the crowd hidden by so many bodies. But there were other screams as well. These ones served to mock. They were loud and long, always cut by laughter.

Still, the security guards at the rim of the crowd did not lose an ounce of their resolve, and Coach Marquez wasn't sure what to be more scared of. If the stern, inflexible faces could strike fear, what about the ones that were scared for their own lives? What would they do to claw themselves out of the crowd?

"Staff, please, escort students back to their classes so we can return to the school day."

Marquez tried to find a teacher in the crowd but could not. It was young faces gazing, glaring, grinning back at him. It was faces that trusted him and despised him. Turning to look all around, he gently pushed against the shoulder of the student closest to him, and she shoved his arm off of her with such aggression that it would have gotten the student suspended had it been properly documented in the school’s online system used for discipline. Yet, the offense was intensely minor in the midst of so much death, and in not finding a staff member, he found himself identifying with the students and their unrelenting pain. He muttered a sorry that went unheard and returned his gaze to the principal.

"There are eighteen students dead because of you!" another student bellowed.

"Teachers, staff,” said Principal Bishop.

"But that's only the beginning."

The screaming rose again, but in the cacophony, there were adult voices added to it then. Hearing but not seeing the staff no longer frightened Marquez. It only disoriented him. He sought out the source of the screams, and it was only until he followed the eyeline of the people around him towards the sky that he realized what had caused it.

There in the sky was a floating body, not struggling, no appendages stretching out and screaming out from their fingertips. Instead, a preserved posture of serenity, legs and barefeet together, head pointed up, until finally the body disappeared into the blind spot the sun created when one stared directly into it.

Coach Marquez only tore his face away from the body because there was suddenly stuttering from the speakers.

"Students" was all Principal Bishop could say. "Students."

Then, there were more bodies because more is always to come when there is one. Students, it felt like everywhere, flew into the sky after taking a few determined steps and looking towards the sky.

"That's twenty now. Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-seven, thirty-five!"

The students ran when the security guards broke the line. The huge knot of the crowd suddenly loosened, and students darted in all different directions, none of them towards their classrooms, as if the sky might swallow them all up, too. So many of them believed that the students in the sky had no choice but to be sucked into the light of the sun, and in a way, they did not. Some of these students running were so far from suicide, they could only understand ascension as a sort of murder. The security guards maintained peace the only way they knew how. They grabbed and yanked at the students who they thought may leap next despite it being impossible to hold onto someone once they've left the ground. They tore arms out of sockets and beat children until they lost teeth and spat blood. Groups of students held onto their friends' ankles, screaming, all of the screaming sincere now. The most sardonic critics of the protest long lost to the sun.

And still, there was the principal muttering over the microphone. This time, however, he was at least more sure in his command, just not the means in how to accomplish what he wanted.

"Stop them. We must stop them from hurting themselves."

He continued muttering this when some students and staff tore down the stage and audio equipment. There was still wailing across the campus just not so concentrated in the quad. The classrooms had emptied, and people only wandered. Coach Marquez had collapsed on the ground and stared at the sky, wondering if he could have done something. Wondering if he should have been there or over here. Wondering if any more of his players had gone.

He came to when he realized that his shrieking had become the loudest.

* * *

Principal Bishop had the number and size of the guards doubled. The number doubling was easy to calculate, but the increase in size drew controversy as weight and muscle versus fat content suddenly became intense issues of discussion. Did the 280 pound man with a 30 percent fat content have the poorer or greater ability to do the job of maintaining order as the woman who weighed 200 pounds and had less fat on his body than a rigidly preserved corpse? The seriousness of these discussions far outlasted and outweighed any similar conversation about mental health support and services; teachers were taught "mindfulness" techniques, handed construction paper and posters with positive slogans as the guards received ballistics training and a weightlifting regimen to increase their chances of tugging students towards the ground. In addition, guards were able to take optional lassoing classes, though horses would not be provided, so that another tactic of retrieving students would be added to the school’s utilities.

The debates and training were to last for weeks, likely through the end of the summer and up until the following school year, and as pointless as they may sound, real progress was made in the arming and training of the security guards on campus. Counselor and therapist numbers dwindled to a number that you could fit in your palm, but this was deemed necessary in order to battle the most severe war, which was how to battle and strangle these kids so that they would remain on the ground. This increased law enforcement presence and militarization worked incredibly well in protecting the school’s image and projected strength and stability to the entire community. More students continued to die, but less people knew about these deaths and even fewer people were able to believe things had gotten worse. The enlarged presence of officers comforted everyone except the people dying.

The administration had told staff not to say anything about the "disturbance." The "disturbance" was nothing to be concerned about. The "disturbance" was being handled diligently. They didn't even cancel school the following day despite having an over 40 percent absent rate, not counting the students who had died.

Coach Marquez had taken a few days off of practice anyway to allow himself and his players to grieve, but several days later when his swimmers stared at him awaiting their set, he had time to realize how strange it was. Normally, he wrote it on a whiteboard and brought it out while they warmed up, some set with no adjustment for particular skill or individual need but something from a list of exercises that he had built up over many years. So, when he thought longer than a few moments, he realized that they weren’t actually interested in knowing the set.

"What's going on?" he asked.

The two captains pulled him into the dank heat of the storage bin. Water polo balls, stacks of kick boards, damp towels, and goggles surrounded them.

"Coach, we really think you should say something."

"Or do something at least."

He nodded without looking at them. He thought about asking them, actually had to stop himself, what it is he should do but thought it inappropriate. The tone in their voices already held such low expectations.

Leaving the storage bin, his swimmers were even more tightly gathered, and despite the sun cascading behind him, they stared into the dark shadow that Coach Marquez bore into it. Awaiting something resembling guidance, comfort.

He stared at his feet and then the ripples in the water before reaching towards the sky. If he wanted to, he could leave. Felt the tingle in his legs, the sign that you were ready to go so long as you took the few steps forward necessary to leave the earth eternally. For years, he had considered the possibility that he had grown too heavy and comfortable in his sadness that he had exhausted the energy needed to die. But he could leave them there, and it wouldn't be considered brave but certainly comforting, consuming. It would be over.

Instead, he cleared a path through them, and let his eyes drop from the sky to the pool and leapt into it.

There were screams, not like yesterday, but there were genuine ones of shock, likely in dread of which direction his body would take, up or down, when his feet left the ground. In the water, his body rushed to the bottom as he blew the air out through his nose. He dangled, engaging in the first feeling of weightlessness when he had joined the sport in high school, but still, he kept eyes squarely upon the bottom of the pool. Half-expecting his players to follow, but none of them did. At the bottom, he felt alive though he did not look like it.

Returning to the surface, he began to flounder, to kick, and pull until, despite the weight of his clothes and the drag they caused, he began to swim to the other side of the pool and then back again.