This story is by KG and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
White crosses were scattered around the ancient wood bridge. Most were anonymous, but Tony Burns stood in front of one with a clear name carved into it. The area was quiet and clean, even peaceful, except he never stopped seeing the spray of shattered glass, the overturned motorcycle smashed in on itself. The acrid, metallic smell that burned his nostrils always got worse whenever he came here.
Sometimes Tony found himself talking to the man he’d run off the bridge, but Alan Miller’s ghost never answered.
There had been a memorial, flowers and photos. The neighbors and friends of Alan had come out in full force. According to his obituary, Alan had been a loving husband and a doting father. Two years since and the cascading pile of flowers had dwindled, but Tony still brought a dozen white roses every week. He would stand in the spot where Alan’s motorcycle had swerved to avoid colliding with Tony’s Camaro, gravity clawing it over the railing and dragging it to the forest hundreds of feet below.
Today, he was not alone. A young boy, 8 or 9, marched along as if he had great purpose. In his hands he carried a small plant in a plastic container. Upon seeing the roses, he set his plant next to them. The bulbous cactus looked comically out of place next to the dramatic, sweeping roses.
“My name is Max.” The boy peered at the crosses, then looked up at him.
“Tony.” Tony dropped his chin as the rain started to pelt them in earnest.
It had been raining that night. Everyone told Tony it wasn’t his fault – the bridge was old and falling apart, dangerous when it rained. Tony knew they were right – he had been an architect at a design firm and loved every moment of it. He knew a bad bridge when he saw it.
But Tony had a secret. His phone had dingled that night and he had glanced down – it was an e-mail from a client he had been trying to woo for the past several weeks. He scanned and caught the words “accepted” and “look forward to doing business with you”. When he looked up again the motorcycle was bearing down on him, approaching too fast to stop. Both drivers swerved. The bridge, so slick in the rain, caused both vehicles to slide and the motorcycle hesitated, then flipped and went over the railing, disappearing as if it had never existed. Tony fishtailed before coming to a stop, panting. He fell out of his car and tripped to where the bike had disappeared, leaning over the railing, calling into the abyssal darkness.
The police arrived. Tony stood rooted to the spot until they pulled the bike and body from the forest floor. At seeing the sheet-draped figure being loaded into the ambulance, he had thrown up.
A well-meaning officer came over and assured him it wasn’t his fault, but Tony knew it was a lie.
“Do you think this was built by pioneers?” Max crouched and prodded one of the abutments.
“I don’t know.” Tony checked his watch. That didn’t seem likely, given that the bridge used enormous lag bolts. He had quit his design job after the accident; it felt wrong to do something he loved when another man was dead because of him. Instead, he took a job in construction. The work was endless, boring and left him too exhausted to think. He signed up for as many projects as he could.
“Did someone you know die here too?” Max looked up at Tony with such an innocent expression that he had to look away.
“Something like that.” Tony moved to leave.
“My dad died here.” All the air in Tony’s lungs expelled in one sudden whoosh and he deflated like a balloon.
“Mom said it was an accident.” Max sighed. He stood and crossed his elbows on the railing. “I really miss him, though.”
Thank God for the rain. Tony could feel the tears spilling over and dripping down his chin; he wiped them away under the cover of the raindrops as he walked away as fast as he could without breaking into an actual sprint.
“Hey!” Max came to a crashing halt on his bike in front of Tony.
“I know you.” Max said. Five weeks had passed since Tony had run into Max at the bridge. After their encounter, Tony had dug up Alan’s obituary. It had been easy enough to track down the widowed Julie Miller, and even easier to wait until she wasn’t home, then stuff an envelope fat with cash into her mailbox.
The week after that, an idea began to take shape. But it would take time and money. Tony talked himself out of it several times, reasoning that he was the last person who should approach the Miller family.
He started driving past their house each evening. The windows would be open and the smell of garlic in the air. Kids would be riding bikes as families pushed strollers. He put more cash into an envelope and dropped it off at Julie’s mailbox.
Julie came out on the front step and waved at them. Tony had finally approached her a few weeks ago and shyly introduced himself, admitted he was the one who had been stuffing envelopes of cash into her mailbox. Over coffee at Starbucks, she told him about Alan. It was surreal to hear stories about a man he’d never meet. Halfway through, Julie put her hand on his and looked him in the eyes.
“It’s not your fault.”
Tony had difficulty swallowing the lump that had suddenly formed.
“That damned bridge… I kept telling him not to drive on it.” Julie looked down at her coffee. “It’s so dangerous, especially at night.”
Tony took a deep breath.
“I wanted to ask you something.”
In his former life he had done presentations for multi-million dollar corporations and famous CEOs and he had never been more nervous than he was as he pitched his plan to Julie.
“Why are you here?” Max asked.
“I want to fix that bridge.” That was the plan that had been rolling around in Tony’s mind since he first ran into Max, and the one he brought to Julie. She had warmed to the idea as Tony showed her his designs for the Alan Miller Memorial Bridge.
“Max loves bridges. He’s always bugging me for more Legos.” Julie looked up at Tony. “You’re really good at this.”
“Thanks.” Tony felt shy, and covered it by taking a large sip of his coffee. He had poured everything he knew about design into the bridge, turning the wooden eyesore into a work of art.
“Can you do that?” Max seemed dubious. Tony nodded.
“Yes. I used to design buildings and bridges for my job.” Tony had examined the bridge on his subsequent visits. He could widen it and reinforce the joists, add new stakes, raise the railing and replace all the rusted screws and bolts. Add lighting along the side, so it would be bright even at night. Several of his co-workers had already volunteered to help, which was useful because Tony was pretty sure it was going to take more labor than he could manage alone. “Do you want to help me?”
“Really?” Max hesitated, looked at his mother. She nodded and waved at them.
“Yeah!” Max pumped the air. As they walked towards the house, Max bombarded Tony with facts about bridges.
“Did you know the Golden Gate Bridge is over 8,000 feet? And it weighs 887 tons?”
“That’s all true.” Tony felt a bit faint as Max continued to chatter. Max bounced inside, but Tony circumvented a pile of Legos and stopped in front of a family picture: Alan and Julie standing in front of his motorcycle with a baby Max sitting on the seat. Alan was holding Max with one hand and had his other wrapped around Julie’s waist.
“That’s my dad.” Max came up next to Tony. Max had his dad’s eyes. In the next moment, Max had sidled towards the Lego pile.
“I’m building the Brooklyn Bridge,” he announced. Tony crouched, slowly because he hadn’t tried anything as athletic as crouching in a long time.
“I went there when I was a kid.” Pause. “Did you want some help?”
Without answering, Max pushed a handful of Legos over to Tony, who dutifully began connecting the tiny bricks together.
“Is it true that 21 elephants once walked across it?” Tony nodded.
“It also has 14,000 miles of wire connecting it.”
Max grunted his approval. Tony handed him the pieces he’d worked on and watched as Max joined them into a shape resembling a tower, then looked at the photo again. In all the times Tony had spoken to Alan, Alan had never answered him. But Tony was certain Alan would approve of this plan.