This story is by Teresa Coffey and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Bitter couldn’t remember the last time he’d caught a break. In his previous life, he’d managed to lose his job, his home, and finally, his family. So when that old man, Murk, turned up with an appliance box, it had grated on his very soul. But when he’d taken in that skinny kid and her dog, Bitter—true to his name—felt the familiar stir of malignant resentment deep in his gut. Their little street community barely survived. Two additional mouths would tip the precarious balance of the community’s existence and, instead of surviving, they’d starve.
He confronted Murk as he sorted through the trash behind a restaurant. “Must think you’s somethin’ special, old man.”
Murk straightened up from where he squatted in a dumpster, joints creaking audibly. He scowled when he recognized Bitter. “What’re you talking about?”
“You gots a sleeping bag then you finds a big box. Now you gots someone t’share it with. It ain’t fair!”
When Murk gave him a puzzled look, Bitter said, “Best get ridda’ that kid and her mutt—if’n you knows what’s good for you.” Bitter nodded in satisfaction at his threat even as he cringed inside. What am I sayin’? Kid ain’t bothered nobody. A sudden roaring in his head drowned out his thoughts. He swayed, squeezing his head in his hands.
Oblivious to Bitter’s plight, Murk gave him a puzzled look. “Now why would I do that?”
Bitter gave Murk a bleary glare. “I’m barely survivin’. But you’s flush. Gots a pretend family too.” Bitter clenched his fists against the acid bite of roiling resentment. Rage crept up his neck in a scarlet flush. “Ain’t no room for family out here. We live alone. We die alone.”
Murk shook his head. “You’re wrong. We look out for each other. We’re a family—whether you like it or not. Sorry you can’t see that, Bitter.”
“Be a shame if’n somethin’ happened to that kid—”
“Go away, Bitter.” Murk returned to sifting through the dumpster for edibles.
“No!” Bitter felt himself turning inside out. His vision darkened. As if from a great distance, he heard Murk’s voice telling him to walk away—as if he had a choice. He recoiled from himself even as his fists listened to his demons. He watched from afar as the rage and resentment he kept locked inside fought free, oblivious to the yells that turned into a scream then a whimper. The dumpster rang like a gong and blessed silence descended. Now he could get rid of the kid and then, he’d eat that mongrel, gristle and all.
Murk left what possessions he had to the girl, Ember. After his body was taken away, a few complained about the unfairness of his behest with the loudest voice belonging to Bitter. For years now, his only protection from the elements was a threadbare blanket so thin as to be almost transparent. If anyone deserved Murk’s waxed cardboard box, it was him, but the girl had been sleeping in there with her dog when he tried to take possession.
Over time, the more the community embraced Ember and her dog, the more resentful and withdrawn Bitter became. Every day, he watched and seethed. He knew it was only a matter of time before his demons took control again. One of us has to go.
Since Murk’s “accident,” everywhere Bitter turned, Ember was watching him. His demons whispered nonstop. “She’s dangerous. She knows what you did. She’s gonna’ turn you in. It’s you or her.” Slowly, a plan began to form in his head.
One night, after everyone dozed off and traffic slowed to the occasional luxury car prowling past the working girls lounging against street lights the next block up, Bitter made his move. He placed a chunk of concrete into a strip of cloth and, using the cloth as a sling, he broke out the street light on the corner.
Then he hid in the deepest shadows, stroking the cloth-bound shard of glass in his pocket, waiting. When no one stirred, he crept to the box. He paused at the opening. It was pure reflex that made him reach out as if to stroke the girl’s matted curls. His hand hovered over her head. She was so small. Vulnerable.
What am I doing?
He wobbled, falling to the ground as the demons inside him roared, “Kill her!”
Ember opened her luminous blue eyes. Their eyes locked for a long moment as the demons roared their displeasure. Bitter grabbed his head in his hands and squeezed, struggling against what he saw versus what he heard. “She’s only a child,” he rasped.
“You deserve that box. No one’s ever going to give you anything. If you want somethin’, you gotta’ take it!”
Bitter found he’d pulled the makeshift knife out of his pocket. Ember sat watching him, holding tightly to her dog. She didn’t seem frightened. In fact, he thought she seemed sad. Resigned. She eyed the jagged glass in Bitter’s hand.
“Thought me and Ariel’d be safe away from home.” Ember’s voice was little more than a whisper. She nuzzled the dog in her arms. “Guess no place is safe, Ariel.” The little dog licked her nose.
Ember’s voice sliced into Bitter’s thoughts and he stumbled backwards. Scrambling to his feet, he started running until he couldn’t run any further. Chest burning, he collapsed on a bench in a park near the suspension bridge connecting the urban commercial area of the city to the near-mythical realm of suburbia.
As Bitter gasped for air, he stared up at the monolithic structure and wondered about fate. He watched as, high above, vehicles seemed to inch across the bridge. Graying light heralded the approach of another bitter cold night. He started for the bridge as if drawn by an unseen force. The wind picked up, slicing through the layers of old clothing and folded newspapers he wore to keep warm.
When he reached the middle of the bridge, Bitter gazed out at the ice-dotted waters rushing below. As he leaned against the thick support cables, demons muttering, he realized that his choice was simple. Return to a community where, after tonight, the girl would surely expose him and he’d be thought of as the murderer he had secretly become, or he could leave. Except he couldn’t think of a place where he’d be welcomed. Bitter realized he faced a lifetime of privation and isolation. He ducked under the guard rails, the demons now strangely silent—as if they, too, waited for him to make his choice.
Bitter leaned out over the water, preparing to release his grip on the burning cold steel when he sensed a presence. He looked over his shoulder and was surprised to see the girl and her dog.
Wearing only a light jacket, Ember stood pale and shivering as she held tightly to her dog. She cocked her head as if puzzled. “Whatcha’ doing?”
Bitter worried at his beard. “Thinkin’.”
“Leavin’,” he said, turning back to the river.
“You gotta’ boat down there?”
“How’re you gonna’ leave?”
“It’s a permanent kinda’ leavin’.”
When Bitter nodded, Ember’s forehead wrinkled in thought. “I ain’t told no one this, but I’m scared all the time without Murk. He told me stories to keep the bad dreams away. But since he left, everything’s been a bad dream.” She wiggled through the railing to stand next to him. “Maybe I could permanently leave with you?”
Bitter looked down at Ember, horrified. “You needs to leave. I gotta’ leave and I can’t if you’s watchin’.”
Ember took Bitter’s hand in hers. For a long time, they stood, silent, watching the river. “Murk gave me that big box. It’s got lotsa’ room.”
Bitter found he was holding his breath.
“Maybe instead of leaving permanent, you could come live with me and Ariel. You know any good stories?”
Bitter nodded his head and closed his eyes. He could hear the icy river grinding past and the cars passing behind him. He could feel the vibrations of both beneath his feet. Ember’s hand felt small and fragile in his hand—exactly like his daughter’s hand used to feel—so many years ago now that it seemed like a different lifetime. Memories of reading bedtime stories flooded his thoughts. The idea of huddling in that box and telling stories sounded like paradise.
He looked down to see Ember and Ariel watching him. “Maybe it don’t make no sense to leave permanently.” When Ember nodded in agreement, he guided her away from the edge. “I guess home is where you make it and family is who you invite in.” He squatted so he could look her in the eyes. “I’ve been alone—and bitter—for a long time. You know this is gonna’ be hard for me. Harder even than leavin’ permanently.”
Ember squeezed his hand. “We can do it.” And for once, Bitter’s demons had nothing to say.