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2nd place - The Bridge 

by Joel M. Fulton





"I don't like it here, Daddy, " Megan said.


I look over at her for the hundredth time today, sitting on a large piece of concrete - probably fallen from the bridge above us - kicking at a beer bottle.


Her brown hair and big round eyes always remind me of her mother. The way her hands absentmindedly finger her thick braids like Carrie always did.


From up on the bridge, a car horn splits the air and startles me out of my gaze.


Megan kicks the bottle viciously and sends it spinning down the hillside towards the river


I'm sorry, sweetheart, it won't be much longer.


Megan just pouts in response.


A cough erupts deep within me, tearing at the lining of my lungs and throat on its way out.


Suddenly it's damn cold and I shiver involuntarily.


I just have to figure out how to do it - that's all.


"But not much longer, right Daddy? "


Not much longer, sweetheart.


I stir the coals with the end of a stick and leave it in the fire.





"Daddy, she scares me. "


I look in the direction she's pointing. A woman in a dirty overcoat lay snuggling a black plastic bag full of newspapers. She'd said her name was Darla.


Honey, I...


"She scares me, daddy, I don't like her. "


The sleeping woman stirs drunkenly. "Eh, whazzat? "


"Nothin', just the fire. Go back to sleep. "


"I don't like her daddy, " Megan persists.


But, honey, she's shared her spot with us.


I poke the coals for a while then look up into Megan's eyes.


Okay, sweetheart. Okay.


I pick up the stick and look at its glowing red tip. I set the stick back down and walk over towards Megan. She stands and moves to the side so I can pick up the concrete chunk she'd been sitting on. I walk quietly over to the sleeping form and look down at her for a moment.


Raising the block high, I bring it down hard on her head. There is a soft crunching sound as it slams through her head and thuds to the ground.





I walk back to the fire, pick up the stick again and blow on it gently. It grows hot and bright and I light half a Pall Mall on it.


I'm tired, now, so I lay my head back on my coat and look up at the stars.


I remember those stars. Big Dipper. North Star. Orion's Belt? Is that it?


"I think so, show me again, will you, daddy? "


My lungs spasm again and the coughing shakes me upright. My chest finally settles and I lean back against my coat again and look at the stars.


They bring back memories that dance just out of reach of my thoughts, tempting me, inviting me to play - to step away from all this for a moment.





Finally, I close my eyes and dance with them.





------------------------------------





"Daddy, spin me more, spin me more. "


I grab Megan under her arms and lift her high above my head. She wrinkles her nose at me and grins.


I grin back so hard my cheeks hurt.


"Are you ready? " I ask.


"No, daddy, no, " but she laughs and shrieks when she says it.


Up into the air I throw her up and she floats there, at the apex, suspended for a moment, just out of my reach.


A moment of panic - I can't reach her - then she descends, her hair whipping madly and her dress fluttering around her like a parachute.


"Do it again, do it again. "


"Sweetheart, I need to work, go help your Mom with the garden now, will you? "


"You gonna write more now? "


"Yeah, sweetie, I'm gonna write for a bit. "


"Will you tell me the story about the Bill-goat Gruff and the wicked troll, please dad? "


"Just as soon as I'm done with this, okay? Now go and help with the garden, dear. I love you. "


"I love you, daddy. "


She stands up on her tiptoes, holds on to my hands, and kisses my cheek.





------------------------------------





I sit up abruptly, her kiss still on my cheek. I wipe at the dampness, wiping across my cheek and mouth. I pull my hand away and look at it in the firelight.


You don't have to look, do you? You know that it's blood again.


Shut up.


"Daddy, are you okay? "


Yeah, I'm alright. Another cough body-punches me.


Lessee, Billy Goat's Gruff and the wicked troll - say, didn't that wicked ole troll live under a bridge?


Shut up.


"You know, sometimes I have nightmare's, too, daddy. Want me to snuggle with you? "


Don't worry, dear, my nightmare's almost over.


I search my pockets, then Darla's, finally finding the bottle of Mad Dog. I suck down as much of it as I can - This'll shut you up.


It never has before.


"He's right, you know, daddy. Nothing we do seems to shut him up. "


Megan, I know what we have to do - it's just gonna take time, that's all.


"But, daddy, I can't wait anymore. How much more time is it gonna be? "


Damn it, already. I get to my feet as steadily as I can and head up the embankment towards the street.





------------------------------------





I'd loved writing. I felt in control when I wrote - my characters, my script, and my endings. The characters had to check with me when they wanted to do something different or new. In control - It's nice being in control.


I hadn't made it through college - I'd tried a little, but the professors were arrogant and the material was useless. Three semesters was all I could handle. Well, two semesters and three weeks.


I'd met Carrie in college - she finished college. Fat lot of good it did her. She graduated at the end of my second semester, we moved in together right after that. She got a job as a receptionist - four years of college and she ended up typing letters and answering phones.


With that boldly illustrated lesson, it didn't take long for me to drop out. After all, I told myself, you don't need college to become a writer.


Turns out you didn't need college to tend bar, either. While we waited for my big break, I tended bar from six at night to two-thirty in the morning and wrote from noon to five. I cranked out a short story every week and deluged magazines and collection publishers with my work.


Carrie hadn't been on the job three months before she discovered that "we " were pregnant. Seven months later, Megan was born.


Yeah, it was early. We were young and broke but we were happy - weird, I know - but somehow we knew there was nowhere to go but up.


By the time Megan was born I had submitted two novels for publication. Carrie thought they were both really good.


We were cautiously excited and immediately made plans for our new car, house, beach condo, and trip to Europe.





------------------------------------





I reach the top of the embankment and look out over Monroe Street. It was quiet - a single sanding truck cruised across the bridge.


I look up at the stars again. My nose is cold and my beard feels crisp.


"Do you think it'll snow tonight? "


I don't know, sweetie, I hope not. I hate it when it snows.


You used to love the snow.


Shut up.


I grasp Megan's cold hand and we turn in front of the library and walk towards the South Hill. I pick up my pace as though to leave my wicked counselors behind.


We walk up Monroe and then across First. When the cops roll by I sit down on the sidewalk or look around like I've lost my way.


They'd think it suspicious if I walked purposefully. After all, my kind doesn't have a purpose.


"But we're different, aren't we, daddy? We do have a purpose, huh? "


I tighten my grip on her little hand, turn my collar up, and continue our march.





------------------------------------





It was a Thursday when my second novel had been accepted - enough money in the advance to quit my job bartending.


The advance had come with a 'but' - they wanted the ending rewritten. They wanted something happier - something more (and I can't believe they said this) "Middle America ".


We'd talked it out that night in quiet whispers - Megan asleep on the mattress on the floor next to our bed. Carrie telling me that she'd back me up if I wanted to push them to accept it as is - artistic integrity and all that.


"What if they say, no? " I whispered back.


"Then we find another publisher, sweetheart. "


She melted my heart. For five years we'd fought for this - this was our ticket up and out. And, here she was willing to let it go if I thought it was important.


That decided it for me.


I called back the publisher and told them I'd rewrite it.


I told Carrie the news that afternoon - that she'd decided it for me; if she was willing to let it all go for me, then I would be willing to let it all go for her.


She smiled then - I think she understood. I loved her for that.





------------------------------------





Up ahead the street rises up the hill and disappears under the squat haunches of the hospital.


Megan stops suddenly and I turn to look at her.


"It was right here, daddy. It happened right here. "


I sit down and cry.


Megan stands beside me and pats my shoulder gently.





------------------------------------





The girls had gone shopping at the mall. Only 21 more shopping days until Christmas...


I'd stayed home to finish the rewrite.


Carrie and Megan had never even made it to the mall.


Someone in a truck - "big ole' SUV " the cop said, shaking his head like he couldn't believe the damage - came screaming down the hill by Sacred Heart and went through the driver's side of our Ford Festiva.


I told the cop that it just wasn't possible - It just couldn't be them. Was it a silver Festiva? A nod. A tall redhead with a black ski jacket? Eyes downcast, another nod.


My eyes began to fill up with tears - this was all wrong, I gulped some air for strength and braced myself against the door frame, "but there wasn't a little girl in the car, was there. There wasn't a little girl... Megan wasn't in that car... cause that wasn't my car, it's just not them. "


The officer just kept nodding his head like Dorothy clicking her damn ruby heels wishing she were home.


Tears fell down and my vision shimmered from side to side. I gripped the wood so hard I felt like I was about to tear the doorframe out of the house.


"Who did it? " I demanded.


"They're still investigating it, sir. "





------------------------------------





Megan and I climb the hill under Sacred Heart and walk into the parking garage.


We sit down near the concrete wall surrounding the first level.


"Don't be scared, daddy. "


I'm not scared honey, I'm shivering because it's cold out.


We sing songs while we wait.


The wheels on the bus go 'round and 'round...





------------------------------------





I followed the cop out the front door towards his car.


"You gonna lock that, man? " he asked.


"The hell for? " I muttered looking helplessly at the keys in my hands.


We walked to his car and there was an awkward moment as he scooted the assorted papers, a metal clipboard, and other cop paraphernalia off the front seat and made room for me.


We rode downtown, the cop taking a circuitous route to avoid driving past the accident site. We crossed the Monroe Street Bridge and parked. I followed him through some cold metal doors that whished open when we approached, then down a long sterile hallway. Two more metal doors and I'm presented with a long black plastic bag on a metal cart.


I didn't want them to unzip it. I knew what was supposed to happen - I'd seen it on TV, after all - they'd unzip the bag, I'd recoil in horror, maybe sob once so they could look at each other with that knowing sympathetic cop look. I'd nod my head tearfully and be led back to an office where I'd be given bad coffee, then a quick ride home before the commercial break.


But, I didn't want them to unzip it. I could see her form through the bag. The skin on my face prickled, remembering her lips brushing mine in a good-bye kiss not three hours before.


The cop that brought me nodded to the guy in the lab coat and he reached forward and began to unzip the bag.


"No. " I said.


They looked at each other quizzically.


"No. " I repeated, and then reached into my pocket for my wallet.


"Here, this is her. You do it, I can't. " I handed them a wallet-sized Christmas picture - we'd just picked them up last week.


The cop reached for the picture, took it, and read the cheerful, "Merry Christmas " embossed in gold across the bottom of the picture.


His eyes met mine then looked away.


I turned and went through the two sets of doors and down the sterile hallway as quickly as I could.


Once outside, the tears left steaming tracks down my cheeks.





------------------------------------





Shoes clatter across the parking garage floor.


I stop singing, and put my finger to my lips and motion Megan to be quiet.


The shoes move across the floor and then stop.


I rise up quietly and peer across the cars towards the shoes' direction.


A tall man in a sport jacket holds a briefcase under his arm as he punches the code numbers into the panel under the door handle of his Lexus. The headlights flicker and he opens the door and throws his briefcase onto the passenger seat.


Moments later, the car roars to life and backs out of its parking slot. The tires squeal as he races around the corner towards the exit, lights sweeping across the parking garage wall.


I duck before the lights reach us.


Then he was gone; the exhaust billowing behind him like a locomotive moving backwards.





------------------------------------





I guess I must've walked home. It's a good thing I hadn't locked the door, somewhere on the way I'd lost my house keys.


I went inside leaving the door open behind me. It struck me that this was a good thing and I went around the house opening every door and window.


From downstairs, the furnace chugged to life and the house rattled as the heater blew warm air against the cold that had invaded its space.


I went into the kitchen and found our bottle of whiskey. It had been a gift from this year's Christmas party - they'd bought a case of cheap whiskey and given it as gifts to everyone in her office.


I found a glass and poured myself a shot. I took a sip and immediately tried to cough out the overwhelming vapors. I looked at my glass again - I'd poured way too much.


As I drank more, I found I coughed it out less. After a while, the burning stripe of liquor became a warm comforting feeling. A ways beyond that and I couldn't even feel its warmth.


Sometime over the next three days I finished that bottle and managed to finish the remainder of our tequila, gin, and the tiny bit of rum we had left. I spent those three days in a cycle; drinking so that I could cry, crying myself to sleep, then waking up needing to drink again.


The question "Why? " seemed irrelevant. The situation was - why didn't matter. I missed them and my only care was how long it would be before I would be with them again.





Sometime after the alcohol ran out, I found myself sitting on the couch staring at the open door, watching snow blow into drifts in the hall. Watching the snow, it occurred to me that I'd like a cigarette.


I piled my manuscripts; the short stories I'd submitted, the novel I'd sold and the one I hadn't, on the living room floor.


I stumbled out to the shed and dug through our summer gear and found the square box of lighter fluid. I went in the house and emptied it on my papers.


I looked at it for a moment. It didn't seem enough.


I went upstairs and dug through Carrie's things, finding three bottles of non-aerosol hairspray in the goofy plastic bottles with Marilyn Monroe's figure. I unscrewed the tops and poured them on the couch and chair in the living room.


What else?


I had some fuel left in the Coleman lantern - it went onto the curtains. The five-gallon emergency gas canister - well, I wouldn't be needing it for the car, now would I? It was mostly full and went a long way toward completely covering the rest of the living room's carpet.


I looked around the living room at my handiwork and noticed the wet areas receding. Places I'd soaked were dry again.


It was evaporating! I had to hurry.


I ran to the kitchen, careening wildly towards the wall as I rounded the corner. I shoved the stove away from the wall, grabbed the butcher knife from the block on the counter, and hacked at the gas lines until they split. Gas rushed out in a hiss, and then grew quiet.


Finally, I went back into the living room to have that cigarette.





------------------------------------





We walk back down the hill together quietly, the thin layer of snow crunching under my feet.


Are you sure that's him?


"Of course I'm sure, daddy. Don't be scared. "


I'm not scared - I already told you that. It's just cold out.


Cars rush by us slapping cold air across my face. I flap my arms to warm up and look at Megan.


She just never got cold, I guess.





------------------------------------





I remember lighting the cigarette and getting one good drag off of it.


Suddenly, it was bright - bright and warm. Then Megan came and took my hand.


"Daddy, come this way, " she said.


I followed her outside. As we went down the stairs to the yard there was a huge whooshing sound behind us and something hit me in the back and knocked me off the stairs and facedown into the snow in the yard.


I laid there, in the snow, forever.


I was happy to see Megan again.





------------------------------------





For the next three nights Megan and I watch the tall man get into his car and drive out of the parking garage.


We sing more songs to keep warm.


This old man, he played three, he played knick-knack on my knee...





------------------------------------





I woke up in the hospital - still facedown.


It had taken the fire department eight hours to put out the fire. When the fire was out, they started sifting through the ash and embers looking for bodies. Someone tripped over me on the way back to the fire truck. They said I was lucky to be alive - I'd lain there for hours in the snow with burns all over my back, and had broken several ribs.


I was glad Megan was still there. We talked when the nurses and doctors left us alone. She told me she knew who had done the 'big crash to me and mommy'. She told me she'd been scared, but only for a little bit.


"There was a big crashing sound but then it was quiet. Kinda hurt for a minute then was just warm. "


I was quiet for a minute, then asked, "Where's mommy at now? "


"She's waiting, daddy. She's waiting for you and me. "


"I'd really like to see her again. I miss her, just a teensy bit more than I missed you. "


"She wanted me to tell you that as soon as we're done with our chore she'll come and get us. "


"Our chore? "


Then she told me what our chore was.





------------------------------------





"Daddy, do you know how to do this? "


No, sweetheart, but I'm going to do my best.


Another cough pounded my chest. I'd just eaten at the Charity House and the first breath of cold, sucking wind spun down my chest with a vicious intent.


I double over as the coughing continues to pummel me. Blood runs out my nose and mouth and I spit to try and clear my mouth so that I can breathe.


Finally the temperature inside my lungs and outside equalizes. I wipe my mouth and nose on my sleeve and hide the blood from Megan.


Come on, honey. It's time.





------------------------------------





I got dressed in the middle of the night and we snuck out of the hospital. As we walked, Megan told me about mommy and where we would all be staying together. She also told me about the man in the big truck.


We spent that night under the bridge with Darla.





------------------------------------





Dr. Jerry Wonder had accepted an offer to move to Spokane from California - with the cost of living difference it amounted to a three hundred percent raise. His recent book had been published to wide acclaim - he even heard rumors it would be required reading at his alma mater.


His first day on the job coincided with the annual Christmas bash. With a head full of himself he'd headed downstairs to the party.


It had started at lunch - they'd paid the staff through the end of their shift, closed the office, and started the party. By the time his wife got there at two, he'd had several quick drinks under his belt and was deeply involved in a cat and mouse game of flirt-with-the-surgical-tech.


His wife had taken one look and left in a huff.





Expecting a cold reception at home, Dr. Wonder picked up his party pace, determined to have a good time while he could get it.


His flirting went well - with a name like 'Wonder' you almost didn't need a pick up line - which was good, because he didn't have any. Finally, the surgical tech gave up her phone number with a promise of more, later.


By the time he'd piled in his Suburban it was seven o'clock and the windows were frozen over and he was well lubricated.


He'd fired up the truck and turned on the defroster. He rubbed his hands and cursed. Frosted windows were one thing that would take some getting used to. He cranked up the radio while he waited and thought of the surgical tech from the party - Sheryl? Sheri?


Before long a dinner plate sized spot had thawed on his windshield.


Good enough, he told himself. He backed out of the parking spot and slammed the rear bumper against a concrete pillar.


He wondered for a minute if he'd damaged his bumper seriously. Then he thought with a giggle that he'd better hurry home because he was far too driving to be drunk.


He inched through the garage, reached the gate and had some difficulty getting the reader to read his key card. Finally he was through and out into the road.


He turned left down the hill and saw through his thawed porthole the sign that would lead him to the freeway home.





He didn't see the stop sign just outside his narrow range of view.





Accelerating up the road, the Chevy fishtailed slightly, and then righted itself. As Dr. Wonder roared towards his on-ramp, he barely noticed a flash of silver to his right as he blasted through the intersection.


Somewhere outside the truck there was a sudden crunch of steel and his steering wheel leapt forward punching him in the chest. His head knocked against the glass.


The radio's volume jumped and Dean Martin began singing, "...he's gonna find out who's naught and nice... " at an ear splitting volume.





He'd bumbled out of the truck then and staggered up the hill to his office. He made it to his bathroom and threw up in the toilet. His head hurt, he was dizzy, and his chest hurt when he breathed.


He figured he'd broken a rib or two on the steering wheel.





Dr. Jerry Wonder then got himself as composed as he had been for his first medical school interview, picked up the phone and called a taxi to take him home.





The next morning, the police arrived at his house to inquire about his Suburban; had he been driving it last night? When did he last see it? Did anyone else have the keys?


Dr. Wonder asked the officers in, offered them some coffee and let them know that he had, indeed, driven the truck to work yesterday, but that he had had too much to drink and ended up taking a cab home.


He dug in the kitchen trash and, with little effort, was able to produce the receipt from last night's ride.


They let him know that it appeared as though the truck had been stolen and involved in an accident and would he please remain available if further questions arose.





Dr. Wonder would be forced to take the Lexus next week - the cops would keep the truck in forensics for another month, then the insurance company would have a turn.





It all seems like a bad dream, he told himself.





------------------------------------





"How do you know this stuff, daddy? You're so smart! "


Remember my book, sweetheart? The one about the car thieves? All these cars have a master code that lets the mechanic in.


I opened the door, flipped the passenger seat forward and threw my piece of the bridge in ahead of us. I closed the door behind us, put the passenger seat back into position and sat low on the floor.


Before long it was cold and we sang to keep warm.





------------------------------------





Dr. Wonder stepped out of the elevator and walked briskly across the parking garage toward his car. He'd taken six codeine tabs since lunch and his chest still ached. He might have to get it x-rayed and that would take some planning.


He reached his car, keyed in the code and opened the door, flinging his briefcase across to the passenger seat.


He sat down, keyed the ignition and sat back to relieve the pain in his chest.


There was movement behind him, and before he could turn to look, he felt a sudden crushing pain in the back of his head. He tried to reach towards his head but his hands wouldn't obey. He felt warmth spreading down his shirt collar, felt dizzy, and then began spiraling towards blackness.


For some reason, in that last moment, he was sure he heard a little girl's voice singing.


I'm goin' on a lion hunt. I'm not afraid...

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