This story is by Jarred Richard and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The cars ahead had stopped again, brake lights gleaming through the burnt orange sunset that now veiled the sky over the Hudson Valley in Upstate New York.
“Probably more construction,” Eddie said. “It’s been like this all week.” Eddie sat back in the van’s seat, picked up his phone, muttered something that sounded like “dead”, and set it back down.
It was Ameet’s first day back, but he couldn’t wait to get home to rest. Not that he had much of a home these days. Instead, they were stopping on the bridge that spans the Hudson River for nearly two miles once more.
“I don’t see any more construction vehicles; it seemed like they were finishing up back there,” said Ameet, peering at the vast expanse of the bridge they still had ahead of them.
“Maybe someone’s gonna jump!” Eddie said. He must have felt Ameet’s stare because he added, “Just kidding. Sorry, man.”
Eddie fell silent, eyes forward, looking guilty. That was worse. Ameet had increasingly despised the pity, disguised as empathy, from the people who knew of the incident.
Eddie thumbed the volume on the radio and Jon Jones, a right-wing conspiracy theorist with a radio show, came back to staticky life, ranting incoherently about frogs, liberals, lizard-people, and Armageddon.
Ameet abhorred Jon Jones (and blamed him for the radicalization of his late father) but didn’t have the energy, or desire, to get into what Eddie called an “intellectual discussion” as he always did when asked to change stations.
Instead, Ameet looked at the water-ripples reflected on the ceiling. He’d progressively found it harder to find beauty in such things, but he tried. With the help of Dr. Hartfield, he was hopeful he’d regain control of the vast expanse of his mind.
Eddie let out a sigh and jerked his head out of the driver’s side window, “Oh, man…”
Her hands trembled as she got into her white BMW and twisted the ignition.
Jon Jones’s voice rang out, making her jump and let out a terrified gasp. She turned the radio off just as he started spewing rhetoric about how if you loved your family, now was the time to prepare for the end of days.
She could no longer stand that voice. It’s all his fault, she thought, and then conflictingly, but it was for the best. The woman once again assured of what needed to be done, put the car in reverse.
“What!?” said Ameet, lowering the radio.
“There’s a car pulled over,” Eddie said as the traffic began to flow again. “Looks like someone was trying to talk to ’em.”
Ameet unbuckled without thinking and reached for the door.
“What are you doing?” asked Eddie, slowly beginning to accelerate.
“I’m gonna see if everything’s all right.”
“C’mon man, they probably just popped a tire.”
“Can’t hurt to check,” Ameet pushed the door open while the van was still moving and got out, “Wait for me.”
The woman headed south on Rt. 209, unconsciously compelled as if by some outside force. Looking from the driver’s side window she could see the vast expanse of the bridge, flickering between trees, its lights glowing in the sunset like a terrifying roller coaster.
She thought of the construction on the bridge and the possibility of being interrupted. She felt confident nothing would stop her. Certainty and doubt had both taken control of the vast expanse of her mind.
The woman grinned and wept as she entered the on-ramp for the westbound side of the bridge and saw several orange construction vehicles coming down the off-ramp.
Ameet didn’t know why he felt impelled to see if the driver was okay. Maybe because not long ago, he had been the one contemplating the metaphorical jump. Because he wished he had someone to talk to him, tell him to drop the pills he’d taken in an attempt to end his life. He pushed the thought away; after all, he wasn’t sure this person was suicidal.
Crossing the road on numb legs, he noticed a woman stepping out of a white BMW. The sunset was now a blood-red and hid the dark stains on the woman’s clothing.
Ameet noticed a metallic, penny-like taste on his tongue and unconsciously began to run. When she saw him, she ran too.
“Wait!” Ameet yelled. He hardly realized how oddly deserted the vast expanse of the bridge became. Aside from Eddie, who pulled onto the shoulder, and the flashing orange lights near the end, they were all alone.
The woman hardly glanced at him before she put her hands on the top rail, her left foot between that and the concrete barrier at the bottom, and turned indifferently toward him.
“Please!” Ameet pleaded, putting both hands in the air before coming to a complete stop on still-numb legs, “I just want to talk.”
The woman looked at him silently but had stopped climbing. Ameet breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe she wants help, he thought.
“It’s too late,” the woman said quietly, now looking straight out to the horizon, seemingly enjoying the view.
Ameet felt something he hadn’t in a long time. He thought the timing was wrong, but he felt the awe and saw the beauty all the same. The woman’s silhouette against the deepening sunset, the wind blowing her hair, was genuinely beautiful.
Ameet’s thoughts were abruptly returned to the present when the woman lifted her right foot off the pavement.
“It’s not too late,” he said, panicking, “I’ve been there too.”
The woman stopped lifting her foot and continued staring into the darkening sky. Ameet spared a glance at Eddie, made a pretend phone with his hand, and putting it to his ear, mouthed “Call 911!”
The woman spoke hoarsely, “They’ll lock me up.”
“They won’t,” he lied. Ameet knew she would be involuntarily institutionalized if he managed to talk her down. He stepped forward.
“You don’t understand,” she sobbed, turning to him, “I’ve done awful things.”
“Haven’t we all?” he opined with a smile.
The woman gripped the rail tighter and lifted her foot. “You don’t understand,” now whispering.
Ameet’s false perception of having the upper hand was rescinding, much like the sunset now fading somnolently in the woman’s eyes. Again, he felt that curiously misplaced sense of beauty.
“Please let me help you,” he appealed, “Step down and we can talk… Don’t make a mistake you can’t undo.”
The woman said, “It’s already been done,” with an unmistakable terminality in her voice, looking to the horizon again.
Remembering what Eddie had said about his phone, Ameet took this opportunity to point toward the flashing lights at the end of the bridge. Eddie must have understood because the van started toward them.
“Make him stop,” the woman said suddenly. Ameet tasted pennies again and his heart beat faster. He turned, the woman in his peripherals, and waved his hands above his head, hoping Eddie would see him and stop. He didn’t.
Ameet saw motion, and without conscious thought, leaped at the woman. He grabbed her around the waist and dropped to the ground, scraping his arm and face across the pavement.
Ameet struggled to restrain her while she screamed incoherently, swinging her arms.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” was all Ameet could say as the flashing lights approached. All at once, they were bathed in headlights. Unknown hands were pulling them apart.
“You probably detest me right now,” Ameet said comfortingly to the woman as she relentlessly struggled to get free, “but one day you may appreciate this.”
He suddenly felt extreme gratitude for the proprietress of the boarding-house where he lived. She had found him in the shared bathroom the night he tried to take his life. If not for her, tonight’s events couldn’t have occurred. He made a mental note to thank her properly when he got home.
The next morning started as usual. Ameet woke up early and drove to work, where he’d hop in the van with Eddie. The only discernible difference was the sense of gratitude he felt for life and the control he finally regained over the vast expanse of his mind.
Eddie and Ameet stopped at the gas station they frequented every morning.
“Good morning, Ruth,” Ameet said, putting his items on the counter.
“‘Morning! Hear about that lunatic who killed her family yesterday?” Ruth said, pointing to the stack of newspapers.
“Oh no, I haven’t,” he replied absently.
“I guess she’d been listening to some radio host, telling people it was the end of the world.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard about him,” Ameet said sardonically, glancing at the front page. His heart sank.
The picture was of the woman from the bridge. The headline read; Local Woman, 43, kills husband, 45, and two children, ages 2 and 6, before attempted suicide on K&R bridge.
Ameet felt his hold on the vast expanse of his mind slipping once again.