This story is by Jacqueline Parker and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It was autumn in Candlewick and the same bridge in Jill’s dreams, the one that arched between two worlds, also joined the road to Kitsboro. Jill often thought about floating downstream—just her and the water and the sky sliding on by, following the outline of the trees against the clouds. It was a little colder up on the bridge and the wind stung her throat.
Walking the bridge never got easier. Jill would force her legs to move, willing each step into existence. One foot in front of the other she’d whisper to herself: one foot for remembrance, another for grief, one for acceptance, one for loneliness. On days when Carson’s loss bore an even bigger hole in her heart, she would face the bridge like a challenge. She’d reason with it, almost deify it, as if it alone granted her permission to cross. Lately, she and the bridge had approached an impasse. Jill regarded it like a spider in the corner of a wall: something to be respected and feared. In a way she wasn’t quite ready to admit to herself, she feared that Carson’s fate would rub off on her—that whatever Carson ran from would somehow find its way to her on this bridge, too. Still, she found herself visiting it daily.
This morning she crossed it once going to the store in Kitsboro . She sucked in her breath and focused her mind on her neighbors. She agreed to join Phil and his wife, Melinda, for Thanksgiving dinner. It wasn’t right, Phil said, that Thanksgiving should be spent alone. Reluctantly Jill agreed but insisted on contributing. She welcomed a distraction.
On her way back, she hadn’t expected to see anyone else, let alone Carson, but there he was leaning against the steel railing looking into the black water. Her heart and the apples in her tote fell with a thud.
“NO! Carson don’t’!”
Jill ran toward him in a panic. She couldn’t lose him a second time, she wouldn’t. As she neared the man she stopped. Disappointment sunk like a brick.
“Whoa whoa whoa, chill out, lady!”
“Oh I—oh god, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. I thought you were—“
Her cheeks flushed in embarrassment and she caught her breath. It wasn’t him at all. How stupid could she be?
He turned back toward the river. “It’s fine. You should go get your apples.”
Jill walked back to where she had dropped her bag and picked up the fruit.
“Sorry again to bother you like that.” She held up her tote as she passed.“Want one?”
“Sure.” Jill tossed him an apple, which he caught and rubbed on the knee of his jeans. “Thanks. Making a pie or something?”
She nodded. “My neighbors invited me over for Thanksgiving. What about you?”
“Trying to get away, I guess.”
Jack looked at her, the apple hovering below his mouth. “Everything.”
They crunched in silence side by side. Jack didn’t say much but it was nice to have the unexpected company. Jill guessed that he was just being polite. She hadn’t meant to react like that; he probably thought she was crazy. What kind of person does that?
Jack tossed his apple core and they both watched the ripples spread and absorb into the current. Reflections of clouds shimmied on the surface. Jill tossed hers. It made a plop and Jill followed the swells until they were digested by the river.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Jack,” he said.
He laughed. “Of course it is.”
“Want to talk?”
“About what? There’s nothing to talk about. Listen, I’m sure you have to be at dinner soon. I’ll be fine.”
“I’ve got time,” Jill said.
“I don’t. Really, I’m fine.”
“Mind if I stick around anyway?”
He shrugged. “Whatever.”
“I bet the river is freezing.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
A strong gust of wind sent hundreds of red and yellow leaves dancing through the air. They looked like brilliant little flames against the gray sky. It was beautiful. Everything seemed sharper, more vibrant; her world had color. She imagined what Carson felt when he stood here, knowing that one movement would end his life, all the minutes and memories from birth to death connected in one singular body floating in the river. She wondered if he, like her, suddenly remembered beauty.
“My husband. He was my husband. He died. He didn’t think anything mattered either.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It’ll get better,” Jill said. “Whatever it is you’re going through, it’ll get better.”
“Will it? Things are pretty rough right now.”
“We keep going, I guess.”
Carson’s absence ached constantly. Some days it hurt so much she didn’t think she couldn’t speak without sobbing. She wanted Carson back so deeply but no words could ever bring him back or make his decision any less piercing.
“Do you have dinner plans?” she asked.
“Nah, I’m not much for the holidays lately.”
“Why don’t you come with me?”
“No, thanks. I’m fine, really.”
“Seriously, my neighbor Melinda is a great cook.”
“I’m not good company.”
“Neither am I.”
He laughed. “Aren’t we a pair.”
“I don’t know about you, but I could use the company.”
Jack sighed. “I am a little hungry.”
“I make a mean apple pie.”
“Yep. Come on, why not? Listen, it would be nice to have a friend for the holidays. My neighbors are great but they, they look at me like I’m an orphan.”
Jack nodded and agreed to join her for dinner. They walked back to her house in silence. Jill made them coffee while he helped her peel apples for the pie. Phil and Melinda were surprised to see that she had brought someone but greeted him warmly as if he were an old friend.
At night they held hands and lay side by side in bed. It felt foreign to feel someone else’s warmth. When Jack asked about Carson, she told him. It was the first time she opened up to anyone about his death. Saying it made it real. She asked about his family and he told her, sharing his anxieties and fears like she was his oldest friend. He understood loneliness. Back and forth they went telling stories, sniffling in the darkness, and she cradled his pain like her own until they drifted off to sleep.