Author’s Note: This story got away from me. I always start with a premise and let the story go where it wants. It was hard to find the end of this one. Tim413413 spent a lot of time cleaning this story up. He is the reason it is getting posted. My mind is already lost in a new story.
I was sweating again. I closed my eyes and tried to calm my thudding heart. I saw her there, in my mind. The light brown hair cropped short and barely covering her ears. I remembered every detail, how her hazel eyes crinkled when she smiled, the way the left side of her lips curled more than her right when she laughed. The look on her face when we made love, her soft, sensitive neck. I could still see the few freckles that lay speckled across the bridge of her nose. All of that was still mine, but I knew it wouldn’t last. Holding on to her image for two weeks had been a miracle. I just had one last promise to keep.
I was jostled by the nervous girl sitting next to me. She was littered with piercings proclaiming her to be a courageous rebel; her jitters spoke of the same fear I felt. They had packed us in like sardines on little plastic chairs that looked like they belonged in some school lunch room. Most of us would leave disappointed and I prayed I was one them. I had only promised to show up — I hadn’t promised to succeed.
Most of the contestants were younger than I. I closed my eyes again, to shut out their youthful anxiety. I took a few deep breaths, and brought the image of Amber back into my mind. It was still so easy to see her. I knew my memory, such a weak tool, would begin to fail. I had pictures, but they weren’t the flowing 3-D I could call up in my psyche. Still so beautiful and perfect.
I heard the door open and hoped it wasn’t for me. “Sandy Riggers?” I opened my eyes as the smartly-dressed woman wearing a headset called out the name. A bouncing blonde three rows away jumped up excitedly. I was just as excited for her. I had been here for over half a day and knew the auditions had to be coming to a close. It was a long shot to be chosen and I had never won a lottery. I had my bad luck going in my favor. I closed my eyes again and spent more time with the memory of Amber, my wife.
“Ken Fischer?” The lady had returned, and blessedly called out a name which was not mine. I didn’t open my eyes this time as Ken gave a quick cheer, and I heard him head quickly to the door. I wished it would end. I was hoping he was the last, but no one dismissed us. I tried to breathe slowly. My pulse was still racing and I needed it to slow down. One way or another, this little bit of personal hell would be over soon. It was getting too late for it to continue much longer.
“Last one,” the woman called, when she returned fifteen minutes later. I could feel the emotions shift as one in the room. The silence was deafening. I closed my eyes again and saw Amber’s smile. Her face shifted slowly to a look I knew all too well. The mischievous one, the expression that lovingly told me I had no choice in the matter. My heart plummeted to my stomach and I knew the next words before they were spoken. “David Thaxton?” The groans were loud as hopes were dashed, mine included. My hands were shaking as I opened my eyes, armed only with a promise. I stood slowly, trying to stall as fear mixed with my sorrow.
“God, you’re lucky, man!” the pin-cushioned girl said as I stood. I looked at her, sweat forming on my brow. I was about to say something; maybe offer her my place. The promise kept me from that escape. I just shook my head and headed toward the door I wished was miles away.
The woman with the headset led me down the hall. She was babbling quickly, in an indifferent manner, about what I was to expect. I stopped listening after she told me I was to stand on a small red X on the stage. I was met, just off the stage, by a young man who fitted me with a wireless mic. He warned me not to touch my chest while I was out there. A man in a green shirt came up and wiped my brow and quickly put some kind of powder on my face. He warned me the lights would be bright, and I should just look at the judges. I closed my eyes again and saw Amber smiling. It didn’t slow my heart, but I didn’t feel so alone.
I heard my name reverberate in the auditorium. It quieted the low drone of the audience I hadn’t realized was so close. I stood there, my legs unwilling to move. Someone pushed me and I half stumbled toward that little red X. The lights were blinding; I could only make out the first twenty rows behind the four judges’ seats. A weak, cordial applause welcomed me to hell. I stopped on the X and turned toward the judges. I could feel the blood driving painfully through my veins.
“Welcome, David,” a man I recognized, the fourth judge on the right said. He had a wild frock of black, curly hair running down his shoulders and back. He wore sunglasses and an overly confident expression. I knew I should know his name, but I never watched these stupid talent shows. I found myself jealous of his sunglasses. I nodded to his greeting, not yet trusting my voice.
“Do you think you have what it takes to win?” the judge asked. He looked a little perturbed that I hadn’t really acknowledged him yet. At least he asked an easy question.
“No,” I answered truthfully. I didn’t expound on my answer which seemed to bother him all the more.
“Then what are you doing here?” he asked exasperatedly. I had a feeling procedures would change at the next tryouts. Another easy question. The answer was more difficult to get out.
“I promised my wife,” I responded. I remembered when I made the promise and the pain hit hard again. I had to take a long blink.
“So, your wife thinks you can win?” the man asked with a bit of whimsy. The thought that he would even pretend to know Amber’s wishes infuriated me. I know there was anger in my voice when I answered. It felt better than the fear.
“I don’t pretend to know why,” I answered thickly, “I promised her and I am going to keep that promise.” The audience gasped a little and the judges looked surprised at my venom. There was a pause while Mr. Sunglasses considered my response.
“What do you plan to sing for us, Promise Keeper?” the judge asked sarcastically. This elicited a small chuckle from the audience. I really didn’t like this guy making fun of my promise to my wife.
“Amber,” I answered. The judges looked at each other strangely.
“The reggae song?” Mr. Sunglasses asked incredulously. I kicked myself for not looking up the name before. Of course there was already a song called ‘Amber’. I really didn’t want to answer any more questions.
“No. I wrote it myself,” I replied. There was surprise and a bit of laughter at that response. I was gritting my teeth wishing this would just end.
“Well this should at least be entertaining,” Mr. Sunglasses said with a superior smile, “go ahead and keep your promise.” He made it sound so amusing. The audience was laughing openly at this point. I rallied around my rising anger, trying to hold the fear at bay. I had to close my eyes to make the faces disappear. I had never sung in public. Only for my wife. I saw Amber there, smiling and proud. I could always sing to her.
I wrote the words to fit to ‘Greensleeves.’ I had to borrow others’ music since I couldn’t read, much less write, music. The tune was almost as pretty as Amber, and fit our love as well as possible. I heard the music start in my mind and I slowly sang to her about how we met and how our hearts merged. I sang of her beauty, comparing it poorly to a sunrise. I sang of her smile, of our dreams and mostly of our love. Amber’s face changed, and I saw her concern as I got to the end. I sang about my loss and of her death. I couldn’t help the tears or the crack in my voice. My promise kept, I dropped my head and listened to the silence.
I raised my head and stared into the blinding lights. I think they were waiting for more. The applause started slowly and my anger flared quickly. The death of my wife was not a celebration. I raised my hand in front of my face, trying to shut out the din and the lights. The idiots went on, but my promise was kept. I headed off the stage at fast clip, my pain as sharp as when I last held Amber. The song had fully renewed the misery.
I heard the judges shouting at me. ‘Fuck them,’ I thought. The producer lady, the one with the headphones, wisely moved out of my way as I exited. The man behind her wasn’t so smart.
“You signed a contract,” he informed me as he attempted to block my way. I was glad of it — more anger to replace the pain. I tossed the microphone at him and I grabbed him by the collar.
“Sue me!” I shouted and threw him into a pole. He slipped and fell to the ground and quickly squirmed away. It took a couple of turns down the halls before I found an exit. The crisp open air hit me in a wave. I breathed it in deeply as I headed down the alley, darkness already cloaking the city. I had left my jacket, but the coolness wrapped my pain well. I heard a door open behind me. I ran to the street and disappeared into the city.
I was at the bridge when my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number so I hit ignore. I walked along the walkway, looking at the silently-lowing river. Cars passed, their occupants oblivious to the death of my wife. The whole world was oblivious. My phone rang again — another number I didn’t recognize. I ignored it as well and stopped at the apex of the bridge.
I closed my eyes as I leaned on the rail. I could see Amber again, so cheerful. I would begin to forget soon. I can’t see my parents’ faces any more. I didn’t want to lose Amber again. I knew it was grief, but that was all I had of her. I never wanted the grief to end. My phone rang again and I didn’t even look. I pulled it out of my pocket and dropped it into the river.
It was joyous to let it go. I laughed at the thought of it, throwing away the world and all its useless machinations. My watch followed and I wrapped myself in a cloak of my memories. I pulled my wallet out and looked at it closely. It was my connection to the world. My driver license, credit cards and the employee badge I should have turned in when I had quit. I opened the billfold and saw an old lottery ticket and a couple hundred dollars. None of it had meaning. I had kept my promise and everything else was moot. I threw the wallet farther. My keys were heavier, they went the farthest.
I walked to the east end of the bridge, where the river lapped up next to the rocks far below. I was no longer cold, or cared if I was. I climbed over the railing and aligned myself with the rocks the water was kissing below. I closed my eyes and there was Amber again, in all her perfection. Every freckle, every dimple, her arms outstretched and inviting. I didn’t jump, I just leaned into her arms. I saw the most precious expression, the same one I would see as we made love. I folded into her as I fell away from the world. I had kept my promise.
It was damn cold. My entire body was shaking and I could feel my back spasm with each shudder. I tried to lift my head, and pain shoot down my spine. I lay back down and tried to open my eyes. There was light, but not oppressive light. Slowly, my focus returned, and I glanced unknowingly at my surroundings. The light was coming through an assembly of cardboard and wood surrounding me. One side looked to be a pallet that had a series of flattened cardboard boxes woven through its slats.
I had a torn green blanket over me. I tried lifting my shaking hands, but more pain shot across my back. The blanket smelled foul, like the inside of a wet sneaker. I raised my head enough to see the white stains, obviously bird waste, speckling the blanket. I choked at the thought and tried again to move. The pain was too much so I collapsed on the hard surface making my bed. I was lying, slightly inclined, on cardboard sheets. I suspected there was unyielding cement beneath them.
My shaking was getting worse. I was soaked from head to toe, and the water was foul. Maybe it was I who smelled so bad. The bridge drifted back into my mind. The events leading up to it and then, Amber. Grief flooded back as the uncontrollable shaking continued. I couldn’t even fall off a bridge properly. It would be slow, but I was going to freeze to death. I could feel my fingers going numb and my lips weren’t moving right. I closed my eyes, they say it is just like falling asleep. Amber was there, in my mind. Something was missing and I couldn’t figure out what it was. My memory wasn’t perfect. I knew it was her, but something was off. It didn’t look quite right and I struggled, shaking, to bring back the perfect image and things got worse. I was losing her. I hated myself.
Footsteps, walking through loose gravel, echoed into my cardboard tomb. I opened my eyes, and turned my head toward the sound. The steps left the gravel and became quieter as they hit a harder surface. I realized this must be the person who unsaved me.
A small section of the cardboard cocoon was pulled away to reveal a cloudy, dismal day. I could make out some large concrete supports and the brownish iron underlying a portion of the bridge. An old black man, his hair graying on both his face and head, grinned at me. His teeth would furnish a dentist with months of work.
“You’re up,” he said with eyes brighter than his weather-beaten face. “They call me Houser. I pulled you out the water.” He tossed a bundle into the tiny shanty and it landed on my chest.
“Should have left me,” I chattered, not realizing talking would be difficult.
“This side’s mine,” Houser stated firmly, “you want to die, go to the other side.” He used his head to gesture along the bridge to the other bank. “Them’s dry clothes. They ain’t the finest,” he smiled again, “but they’s dry. Got them from the shelter so they’s clean.” He crawled into the hovel and reclosed the opening. He didn’t smell any better than I did. I tried to sit up and a sharp pain put me back down.
“Just roll me back into the water,” I groaned. Houser laughed. It was a halting laugh that didn’t speak well of his mental state.
“You missed most of the rocks, but found a few. Houser chuckled. “Bet you’re real sore about now.” That’s all I needed, some homeless guy laughing at me about my failed suicide. I took a few deep breaths and cried out as my muscles protested. I forced myself to sit up. The dirty blanket fell forward onto my lap and my upper body felt even colder. I sat shivering, trying not to move much. My lower back would have preferred I lie back down.
“Give me your shirt,” Houser demanded. I took a couple of deep breaths, trying to give my back time to get used to the new position. It wasn’t fast enough for Houser. “The shirt or you leave. You have to go somewhere else to die,” he said, while holding out his dirty hand. I was in no condition to leave and I guess he had a right to demand I didn’t die in his home, as crappy as it was. I tried to unbutton my shirt with my shaking hands. The mixture of the cold, and the shooting pains as I moved my arms made it very slow going. I couldn’t feel much in the tip of my fingers which made it difficult to shove the button back through the wet hole. Houser started laughing again. “Maybe you don’t miss the rocks next time.” He barely got it out before resuming his inappropriate laughter.
“My fingers are too cold,” I stuttered between shakes.
“I’ll do it, but don’t get no ideas,” Houser stated as he, and his stink, moved forward. I tried to give him my ‘are you out of your friggin mind’ look. I don’t think I fully managed it. He deftly undid the buttons and quickly scooted back again. It was agonizing pulling the wet shirt off my shoulders. I must have really bruised my back. The air hit my wet skin sharply, and my shuddering increased. Houser quickly took the wet shirt and handed me a dry one he had liberated from the pile in my lap. It was only an old t-shirt, but it was dry. Pulling it on was another slow, agonizing process. Houser handed me a worn flannel shirt that buttoned down the front.
“Layers, I learned that my first year,” Houser spouted proudly. There was more pain putting my arms in the arm holes. The shirt smelled clean. I truth, it didn’t smell at all and that was clean from where I was sitting. I was able to get the shirt buttoned myself, much to Houser’s relief, who seemed overly concerned about his virtue. The dry clothes started warming my chest quickly. The shivering didn’t stop, but the severity receded, and I had more control over it.
“Now the pants,” Houser said, and quickly stepped outside, “let me know when you’re done.” I smirked, my lips working a bit better, at his worries. Even if I was gay, Houser wasn’t my type. I laughed inwardly at that thought. He was old and homeless and had all the right in the world to be from the kooky side of the street.
It took a long time to switch my pants. My lower back must have taken quite a hit and the muscles were screaming. I more or less scooted out of the pants since I was unable to fully bend my legs. Houser had brought a pair of cotton exercise shorts and some old stained cargo pants. I replaced my boxers with the exercise shorts, almost screaming to get them over my feet. The cargo pants were even more difficult. I looked around and noticed for the first time that my shoes were missing. They were probably the same place my socks were.
“Houser, where are my shoes?” I asked as I rolled over onto my hands and knees. I wasn’t sure I could stand up without passing out. I certainly couldn’t stand up in the hovel.
“I put them on the vents,” Houser answered, “they’s be dry soon.” I crawled to the exit and poked my head out into the gray day. I was housed under the bridge, right where the supports met the land. My shaking had stopped. It wasn’t terribly cold now that I had dry clothes. Houser looked down at me. “There’s socks in there too,” he said, pointing into the hut. I crawled back and painfully donned a pair of dry black socks.
“What’s your name, jumper?” Houser asked with a bit a sarcasm. I decided it was best he didn’t know. I didn’t plan on staying, and I didn’t really trust him.
“Frank,” I answered. It was the first name to come to me. I subconsciously felt for my phone and remembered it was at the bottom of the river, along with my wallet. I really wasn’t planning to need them anymore.
“Why’d you do it?” Houser asked. I looked up at him and saw the glint in his eye. I could see he wasn’t really concerned about me. He was more interested in the story. I guess I was what passed for entertainment under a bridge. “You bankrupt, kill someone?” he continued. He gave me the best lie, the one that said I was not worth anything.
“Bankrupt,” I lied. Houser laughed his crazy laugh.
“I’m always bankrupt,” Houser said, “don’t need no money so I don’t care if I don’t have any. It’s you idiots that put worry in it.” I chuckled at that. He was right in his own way.
“You’re a wise man, Houser,” I praised, His face lit up like a Christmas tree. I have no idea why I found that pleasing. He’s an old man who lives under a bridge. Why would I care if he was happy? Nevertheless, his dental disaster of a smile made me feel good. I tried to stand and decided against it when my back fought against it with pain.
“Lie flat,” Houser instructed, “you might be stuck here a day or two. I will take care of you and then you owe me….that’s how it works.” I slowly rolled over on to my back and slowly straightened my legs. I smiled at him.
“What will I owe you?” I asked. I was thinking in terms of dollars.
“I don’t know yet!” Houser snapped, “you share what you get or do me solid. Nothing more than what you get. I’ll ask when I see it. Can’t live without helping each other out here.” He was talking at me like I was an idiot. It was a simple barter system, favor for favor.