She says hello, and I almost scream. I didn't know there was anyone else around. There shouldn't be anyone else around.
Thirty miles into the exact middle of nowhere, even the moon has better places to be tonight, there's nothing around but the deep dark of country night.
And some girl saying hello to me.
I try to keep emotion—any kind of emotion—out of my voice. I go, "Hey."
She goes, "This is private property."
I go, "Yeah." I go, "Not my biggest concern at the moment."
And she goes, "What is?"
I stare into the darkness, kind of in the general direction where I think she might be, and I consider my answer. I don't really know what my biggest concern is, but I'm sure it isn't whose property I'm on. As well as thinking about my answer, I think about how this is the first time anyone has bothered to ask the question.
I can't come up with a satisfactory answer—satisfactory in this case meaning something that wouldn't sound stupid and all kinds of pussy—so I ask a question of my own.
"This your property?"
"Nope. But that doesn't make it any less private. You avoiding my question?"
"Still thinking about the answer." I turn back around and run my hand softly along the wooden guard-rail, careful not to get any splinters. It's a familiar feel—I've been here many times before. In fact, I've come to think of it as my place. I guess I knew that someone owned the land—all land is owned by somebody, I suppose—but it never really occurred to me to think about it.
I come out here to be alone. It's eighteen miles outside of town on the main road, and then another thirteen and a half cutting East. This bridge really is out in the middle of nowhere, and the only reason I found it is because I got lost one time while delivering hay.
That's what I do, is deliver hay. Deliver hay and think about what a failure I am. And come out here, to this bridge. And think about jumping.
It's incredibly high, especially considering that it's in the Texas Panhandle, where pretty much everything is flat. There used to be a river, I think, but I've never done any research. All I know is you head south out of Canadian, Texas, on Highway 83 for a while, and before you get to Miami, you take a right. The road doesn't show up in any atlas or even on Google. You follow it for a bit, and then you'll see another road. You can't really tell if it looks more likely to lead you to civilization or not, but when you're numb-fuck lost, all roads look like the road to salvation.
So you take that one, and you find yourself even more lost than before, but then you'll come across this bridge, this ratty-ass bridge angled out across a canyon that's about a quarter-mile wide.
If you're anything like me, you'll turn around and head back the way you came. Eventually make your way back to civilization, and you'll even manage to make the delivery like you're supposed to. But if you're anything like me—and you better hope to God that you aren't—that bridge, it'll haunt your dreams.
You die each and every night in these dreams, but that doesn't make them nightmares.
And then one day, you'll find yourself back out there. Maybe just some Saturday, you got nothin' else to do, might as well take a drive. And your shitty-ass '92 Ford Escort doesn't handle the dirt roads nearly as well as your work truck, but whatever—it gets you there, right?
You pull off the road just before the bridge, and you walk out to the middle, enjoying the way your footsteps sound on the ancient wooden planks. And next thing you know, it's almost eight at night, the sun's setting, and you spent the entire afternoon just peering down at the canyon below.
Maybe thinking, maybe not, I don't know. But somewhere deep inside, your brain is already formulating a plan. As the summer winds down, you find yourself out on that bridge more and more, like every weekend for sure, sometimes Saturday and Sunday both. Spending the whole day out there, just looking over the rail, letting your mind wander. Contemplating, you might say.
And then fall arrives, and the days aren't as long, but even in the night you can find your way back. It isn't the same, though, when you can't see the bottom.
Whatever half-ass scheme you've been cooking up, whatever ideas that have been simmering in your brain, when there isn't any light, you can't convince yourself they aren't there. Your plan—and that's what it is, is a plan—can't be covered by rationalizations at night. You can tell yourself you just like the view, until you can't see it anymore. Then you have to figure out a new reason. A new rationalization.
You aren't careful, you'll find yourself asking questions. Questions like what the hell am I doing out here, looking down from this bridge? I'm not doing what I think I'm doing, right? Because that would just be stupid. But I sure ain't here for the view, not when there isn't one.
And by late November, you know exactly what you're doing—you're thinking about killing yourself, and you're procrastinating.
When December rolls around, you figure what the fuck—might as well get it over with before the new year.
"I think I've seen you out here before," She says.
I feel my face heat up, and I know that I'm blushing. I'm glad it's too dark to see anything. Just as I think it, she clicks on a flashlight, shines it at me.
I flinch away, not just from embarrassment, but also because it's bright as shit out here in a world of nothing. "Get that shit out of my face!"
"Don't yell—yelling doesn't go with this place." Still, though, she shines the light away from my face.
"Neither does a million-watt flashlight."
I can't make her out because my eyes are tripping from the sudden onslaught of light in the complete darkness, but the source of the light is coming closer. I sneeze—once, twice, three times, all right on a row. The light, man, bright lights always make me sneeze a time or two.
"You think it doesn't belong?" She asks. And then the light tumbles down into the abyss. It spins lazily as it descends, and the moment seems to last half of an eternity. There's the sound of exploding plastic, and then darkness. Shadows of light swim in my eyes as I stand in the darkness.
"Wasn't that beautiful?"
"It was," I say, without even thinking.
"This place, it was meant to extinguish light." It's kind of a dramatic thing to say, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't agree with her. "So you never answered my question."
"Still thinking about it."
"Tell me something in the meantime, then."
"Like who are you?"
I laugh. "Just like that? Like, I'm supposed to sum up my entire identity to entertain a stranger?"
"A, I'm not a stranger. B, yes."
"Who are you?" I ask.
"Do you smoke?" She asks.
"Only on special occasions."
"And is this a special occasion?"
"It might as well be." I hear movement, closer than I expected, and then I feel her presence beside me. She takes my hand—no searching for it, no fumbling around, just takes hold of it—and places a cigarette in between my fingers.
"Get ready for me to spark this lighter—it's gonna seem bright."
I squint my eyes and she lights my cigarette, then hers.
"Who are you?" I ask her.
"If I told you, you wouldn't believe me."
"No, you wouldn't. Not yet."
"Would I believe your name?"
"You would if I told you it was Kira."
"And is it?"
She takes a drag of her cigarette, and the brightening cherry reveals a smile on her face—she's enjoying this game. "It might as well be."
"My name's Joel," I tell her.
"Well of course it is."
"What does that mean?"
"The same as all things mean, Joel, old friend—absolutely nothing."
It's an odd exchange, slightly frustrating and more than a little juvenile, but it seems to fit the moment. Any other time, any other place, it'd seem like we were just a couple of high school kids trying to be clever with each other. The idea embarrasses me, and I tell myself not to be such a dork.
"How old are you?" I ask her.
"I see. So what, nineteen?"
She laughs. "You flatter me, sir. Older than nineteen, but that's all I'm telling you."
"Old enough to drink?"
"Even the newest infant is old enough to drink."
"You know what I mean—old enough to drink alcohol."
"You hate answering questions, don't you?"
"Actually, I really enjoy it. I just prefer to answer them in my own way."
"Fair enough." I take a drag of my cigarette, and then, because I can't see her anyway, I turn back to the railing. I rest my elbows on the rough wood, and stare out into the night, over the canyon that I have mentally claimed as my own. The desire to play her game has drained quickly, and I wish she would go away.
I don't hear her step up next to me, but when she speaks again, her voice comes from right beside me. I turn my head and see the glowing tip of her cigarette.
"I'm not fucking with you," she says. "I know that's what you think, but that isn't the case. It's just that I'm like you—I don't feel like answering questions about myself. So how about we cut out the dramatic bullshit—as much as people like you and I can, anyway—and we just enjoy a little time together out here at Mary's Heartbreak?"
"That's what this place is called. Or used to be called, when people thought to call it anything."
"How do you know that?"
"Read the stories. You telling me you've been coming out here all this time and you didn't even know that stories?"
"That's what I'm telling you, I guess. So enlighten me."
"You have anything to drink? I'm pretty parched, and a beverage would sure encourage my story-telling abilities."
"I've got a six-pack of beer and a bottle of wh…water…in the car," I tell her. I don't feel like telling her that I also have a bottle of Jim Beam and a handful pain pills and a tiny cardboard box of razor blades. I don't feel like mentioning that tonight was for sure the night, and I didn't want to take any chances.
"How about you grab that beer?"
"I'm on it," I tell her, and begin the walk to my car. I can't see jack shit, but I've done this enough times that I don't really need to. The slight nicotine buzz is making me a little unsteady, but it's nothing serious. What's serious is that I'm supposed to be all alone out here tonight. What's serious is that I was supposed to be killing myself, not making new friends.
I open the back door of my car, thankful that the dome light burned out long ago, and reach into the cooler in my back seat. I slip my fingers through the plastic holder and hoist out the six-pack. For good measure, I also grab the single bottle of water that I tossed into the cooler as an afterthought.
I don't see her on the bridge when I turn around, and for a brief moment, I nurture the hope that she took off. Just a moment alone, that's all I need. But then her lighter flares again, and there she is. The night around her is even darker than before. I make my way back up the dirt road to her side.
"Beer," I tell her. She takes the can from my hand and passes me her cigarette while she pops the top and takes several gulps from the can. I take a drag of her cigarette, and it tastes bitter in my mouth. That's the Valium kicking in—it always makes things taste nasty to me.
I hand the cigarette back, and she takes it, along with another beer.
I wait, letting the first wave of pills roll through my system. Hydrocodone, Valium, and Percocet. I'm going to have to be careful, I realize. I wanted enough to chill me out, but I don't want to waste so much time with this chick that I end up passing out.
"You had, what, a story to tell me or something?"
I look at her. My eyes are dilating with a wickedness, not sure which drug is doing that, or if it's a combo of a couple. The cherry of her cigarette seems as bright as a campfire, and it's casting shadows on her face in weird ways.
Her cheekbones are high, and although I think she'd be beautiful under normal circumstances, the odd shadows make her look a little creepy. Too much skull, not enough face. For a moment, she looks insubstantial, like the light from the cigarette tip is shining through her instead of just casting odd shadows onto her. Then she's done inhaling, the cherry dies down a little, and she is once again just some chick, kind of pretty, but not so haunting.
"Mary's Heartbreak," I say.
"It's not that great of a story." She places her second beer can on the ground and carefully stomps it, mashing it into a flattish disc of metal. "Do you recycle?"
I just look at her. I can't tell if she's fucked up on something, or crazy, or just rather stupid. I hate the idea of spending my last night in the land of the living with an idiot, but that's looking like how it's going to go.
"Sometimes," I tell her.
"It's a good idea. You throw it away, it's like killing it. Recycling, that's like…I don't know…giving it another chance, reincarnation or something, you know?"
"Ah. Okay, I guess."
She shrugs. "Yeah, whatever—just my personal thing. So yeah, Mary's Heartbreak. The name didn't stick, as you undoubtedly realize. But back when this was one of the main trading roads, everyone knew it."
"This was a main road?"
"Yep. Before the highway got built. So what, from about 1886 until 1922? I think that's right."
"Yeah, that sounds about right."
"Can I have another cigarette?"
"Yeah, if I can have another beer."
I hand her another beer and she hands me her pack of cigarettes. I take a beer for myself, and pull a deep swallow after lighting my cigarette. The cold beer feels good against my throat, and although the taste is a bit evil because of the pills, it still seems good. My last night alive, and I'm savoring it all.
The beer, cold and tingling against my throat, the pleasant nicotine buzz, the almost mystical light cast by the glow of our cigarettes, the cadence of her words and the sweet tone of her voice.
I realize that it's probably the drugs making everything so different, but it doesn't matter. Nothing does.
"You still with me?"
"For now," I tell her.
"And what about later?"
"Later's later. So tell me the story."
"And that's it. They eventually built the main road, and if you believe local legend, it's mostly because people couldn't use this road at night."
"Because of the ghost?" I ask.
"Because of the ghost. And because of the effect this place had on people after that." She takes a drag of her cigarette, and I see that she's looking at me, her eyebrows raised in a question.
"What?" I ask her.
"Why are you looking at me like that?"
"I wasn't looking at you like anything. Just smoking my cigarette."
"Whatever. I'm done playing games."
"That why you're punching your ticket?"
I stare out over the valley of darkness, and consider lying. Ask her what she's talking about so that I can tell her she's crazy. But what for? Like I told her—I'm tired of playing games.
"How can you do it?"
"Just…give up. I mean, one thing about life is that you never know what's gonna happen next. How can just say to hell with all that?"
"Payoff doesn't seem worth it anymore. Maybe something great will happen, but probably it won't. Either way, I don't really care anymore."
She stands in silence for several moments, and the only sound is the slight crackling of her burning cigarette. She takes a deep drag and expels angrily. "You're what, twenty-two?"
"And you're already calling it quits?"
"Doesn't that strike you as kind of a pussy thing to do?"
"It doesn't matter to me. Maybe it's pussy, maybe it's genius. The point is, it doesn't matter. Nothing matters anymore, Kira. That's why I'm doing it."
"You have no idea what kind of adventures wait around the next corner."
"I don't care about them, either."
"I could stop you."
"No. You couldn't. You could keep me from doing it tonight, maybe. Probably not, but maybe. And that would just be putting off the inevitable. We all die. Shouldn't we get to do it on our own terms?"
"Is that more important to you? Are you that petulant that you have to control when you die?"
"That's all it is, Joel. Throwing a fit. Taking your ball and going home. Screaming that you aren't playing anymore. ‘Mine, mine,' like you're a two-year old with a toy."
"Maybe. Or maybe it's a calculated decision, worked out with intelligence."
"It isn't. Maybe you think that right now, but you're wrong."
"Like I said: I don't care."
She sighs. "Well, shit." She drops her cigarette to the ground and stares down at it for a few seconds. Then she stomps it out. "Okay, then, I'm not gonna try to talk you out of it. What say we break out the whiskey, have a couple of shots, and then do this thing?"
I stare at her. It's almost like she's glowing, and a part of my brain screams that this is her, the girl from the story. Mary. A ghost, come back to haunt the roadway, to cause people to jump.
"Except my name isn't Mary," She says. "And you were planning on killing yourself long before you ever found this place."
Did she just read my mind, or was I thinking out loud? "Who are you?" I ask her.
"Like you said: It doesn't matter."
I can't argue with her there. "Whiskey," I say.
"Whiskey," She says back. "You gonna be able to make it back?"
"Hope so—I've got things to do."
It's weird, being so casual about my suicide. So open about it. All my talk about how I don't care about anything, I do feel like a loser, a little bit. Like a coward. And as much shit as Kira has talked, she makes a good point about quitting before the adventure unfolds.
I fumble with the door handle some, and wonder how long I've got before the pills lay me out. Two or three shots, that's what she said, so if I can hold out that long, I'm golden. Maybe another ten minutes? Still, though, I already wasted quite a while listening to her ghost story—how much? Ten minutes? Twenty?
I suddenly wonder if she did it on purpose, if she's trying to save me. Trying to wait me out, wait until I pass out, wait until I pass out and then take me back into town. But she said she doesn't care, and I don't know why she would.
"How's it goin' down there, sport?"
"Not well," I tell her, and my voice is blurred and slurry. It feels fuzzy. Like.
"Help with what?"
I manage to pull open the door, knocking it against my elbow with a loud thunk. I don't feel it at all. I grab the bottle of whiskey and stagger back up to her, every third or fourth step going a little wild, making me lurch one way or the other.
"You know, I'm going to kill myself. You might not want to be here for that."
"Why not?" She lights two cigarettes, hands me one, and takes the bottle.
"Well, for one thing, it might traumatize you."
"I've seen people die before."
"None." She takes a drink of the whiskey, cringes, and then blows out a hard breath through pursed lips. "It's been a while. Did you have any other reasons I should go?"
"Who have you seen die?"
"Not your business." She hands the bottle to me.
"Ah." I take a drink without thinking much about it, and it tastes awful. I look around until I find the bottle of water on the ground and then take a couple swigs. I hand her the whiskey with a grimace.
"Was that your only objection to my being here? You didn't want to traumatize me?"
"Oh. No. Also, what if they think you murdered me?"
She laughs and takes a deep swig of the whiskey. "Joel, you've gulped enough prescription dope to kill a herd of goats. You've got your razor blades, you've been drinking beer, and you're about to knock back a bottle of Kentucky bourbon. And you left a note. So I don't think they're going to bust their balls trying to find your murderer, you know what I'm saying?"
"I told you about the note?"
"You're starting to freak me out."
"Don't be freaked out, Joel. I mean, yeah, it's a little weird, but what did you expect, you know?"
"Who are you? Kira, who the fuck are you?" Something has settled down in the back of my mind. Some stupid idea that's probably due more to the ingestion of handfuls of pills and cans of beer than to actual thought.
"You know who I am. You want another drink of this?" She offers the bottle, but I'm already backing away, moving towards my car. Not sure what I plan to do once I get there, not like I can drive like this. Maybe, though. Maybe I can do something. Maybe I can, I don't know, drive to the highway and flag down someone. Something.
She shrugs and takes another drink. I don't know what I'm expecting, but it isn't what she does next: she turns away from me and leans on the bridge railing. She balances the bottle on the aged wood and lights another cigarette.
I bump into something and realize it's the hood of my car. My keys. Did I leave them on the bridge? Is that why she isn't chasing me?
"I don't have to chase you, Joel. That's what you don't get—just another sign that you had no idea what you were getting into. I don't have to chase you because you can't get away."
"You gonna throw me off the bridge?"
"I don't have to kill you—you killed yourself. Your body doesn't quite know it yet, but that drink of whiskey you had, that was the final straw. Here in about a minute, your heart's going to realize that it really doesn't feel like pumping anymore. And that'll be that. Mission accomplished."
I don't know what to say. I don't know what I was expecting, but it sure as hell wasn't this. Wait…hell?
"Where…where do I go from here?"
She chuckles a soft chuckle, and it's a sound sad, a lonely sound. "Not my part of the job, sport. I'm just the usher."
"No black cloak?"
"Nah. Makes my boobs look small."
I laugh, and it startles me a bit. I've been coming out here for a while now, and although I don't generally make noise, I know how it sounds when I do. And I know that my laugh didn't echo through the valley nearly as much as it should have.
"Seriously, if you want one more drink of this, you better hurry up—I don't know what comes next, but I'm guessing it might be a while before you're again able to sample Kentucky's finest."
I nod and make my way back up to the bridge. I realize that I'm not staggering any more. The vile taste that has been in my mouth since the pills kicked in, it's gone. And that thing, that thing that has kept me going for the past two years, that weird little spark that kept telling me things might change, it's gone, too.
"That would be hope, big guy," Kira says, handing me a cigarette. She lights it for me and it tastes delicious. I can taste the tobacco, the soil in which it was grown, the rain with which it was watered. I can taste the sun that sustained it and dried it after it had been cut. I can feel the world.
"That would be shut down—your body tries to gather all the information it can. Not everyone's lucky enough to get that. You want a drink?"
I nod, take the bottle from her. I can feel the balance of the microscopic air bubbles in the glass. I drink the whiskey, and for a split second, I can taste the oak barrel in which it was stored, but then there I can taste nothing.
That's it, then.
Can I finish this cigarette?
Thank you. For…for waiting with me.
"It's what I do."
How? How do you do it?
Finish your cigarette, sport. We have miles to go before morning.
Posted under Short Stories on 3/11/10