I didn't know how I had gotten to this spot. My feet carried me out of my apartment, out onto the street and through the city until I reached the old cantilever bridge. I could never remember the name of the murky-watered river that ran beneath it. I never had a reason to; I referenced other, more glamorous waterways in my online writings.
No one noticed me, but I wasn't surprised. I'd always been invisible. Why should the moment I decide to end it all be any different?
It was cold out, colder than I'd thought it would be. I wasn't dressed appropriately for the weather. My jeans and the Backstreet Boys t-shirt I'd ordered from the official website did little to shield me from the steady rain. I didn’t care. Soon enough I would be even wetter.
I stood on the edge and looked down into the blackness. I had never been able to swim. When I was four the orphanage took us in groups to the community pool. I wore a new yellow bathing suit that had little red strawberries that I loved. We got to the actual pool and I'd thought nothing of jumping into the deep end. I had gone straight to the bottom. I could still remember the burn of chlorinated water in my eyes and the sickening taste of it on my tongue. The searing pain when I inhaled out of instinct and the blackness that threatened to envelop me were vague memories now. The lifeguard on duty came to my rescue.
I was never included in future trips to the pool.
Passing headlights cast an eerie glow on my surroundings and I froze. Again I was not seen and again I was relieved.
I was hesitating and I hated myself for being such a pussy. I found it hugely ironic that I had no trouble slicing my wrists, no problems whatsoever swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills and no qualms about denying my body nutrition but was actually thinking twice about jumping off a bridge.
Quick. Easy. There would probably be pain when I hit the water and when I started to sink I would probably slam against rocks or whatever lurked beneath the surface, but I doubted I would be aware.
I already felt dead, even if my body seemed to think differently.
I heard an approaching car and my fingers curled around the rusty metal support I stood next to. My body tensed and my sneakers slipped a bit on the ledge but I didn't fall. Headlights swept past and I looked once again to the blackness below.
* * *
"Why are we being re-routed through Bumfuck, Egypt again?"
Nick Carter, one of my best friends, was annoying when things didn't go as plan. He always tried to give off the vibe that he didn't care, that he went with the flow, but he could be as anal about schedules as Howie.
I looked up from my laptop and saw him standing at the front of the bus. A high-bouncing ball was cupped in his palm and he tossed it so it bounced down to the door leading to the bedroom. I winced at the loud smack it made against the wood and prayed the noise wouldn't wake Baylee and Leighanne. Then I remembered they weren't with me, which was how Nick had ended up on my bus.
"Nick, seriously…" I groaned and shook my head as the rolled back towards him. "They're doing construction on the interstate and one of the bridges is out. It's either do the detour or sit idle half the night."
Nick grabbed the ball and leaned to look out the window. "They've detoured us into the middle of nowhere."
The man didn't comprehend that the entire country wasn't a sprawling metropolis like LA or New York. Spoiled by the big cities, he expected a Starbucks on every corner and a sushi bar within walking distance. And though he claimed a great love of the ocean, it was only when he was on a fully stocked yacht. I, on the other hand, loved the open areas that spread between tour stops. I loved when we would stop at a rest area or truck stop and I could actually see stars in the sky.
I'll always be a country boy at heart.
"Oh man." Nick sighed as though he had just learned the government was going to outlaw video games.
"What now?" I asked, squinting at the screen of my laptop. Maybe AJ was right. Maybe I did need reading glasses.
"We're stopped." The ball flew down the length of the bus again, this time ricocheting wildly among the bunks as he turned to talk to the driver.
I listened half-heartedly. I had downloaded at least three hundred emails and my goal was to plow through them on the way to the next city. I was already regretting that decision. I had no idea what kooky company had gotten hold of my email address, but every other message I opened suggested I try a no-fail hair regrowth formula or some new male enhancement drug.
"Dude, can't you just barrel around them?" Nick was asking when I looked up again.
It was then that I saw the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. My heart sped up a little as it always did when an ambulance, fire truck or police car passed me on the highway and I abandoned my email to get a better look. There was little chance I knew anyone involved but I had always been fascinated by traffic accidents. Not the gruesomeness or the possibility of death, but more the amazing stories of lives spared. Hearing of a small child that walked away from an overturned vehicle or a mother of three who survived several days in a ravine after running off the road were proof of God's grace to me and no matter how busy I was when I was on the road I always sent up a prayer when I saw evidence of a wreck.
"What's up, Tony?" I asked as I reached the front of the bus. Our driver was already unbuckled and had his phone up to his ear. I waited, my eyes on the scene ahead. One lane was blocked off and I saw an ambulance. But what confused me was the fact that the paramedics were just standing around, either waiting for work or waiting for… I closed my eyes and sent up another prayer. When I opened my eyes again I saw some policemen clustered in front of a cruiser.
"Whoa, must be a major wreck," Nick breathed. Hunched over to see out the windshield, he was staring at the emergency vehicles with a touch of awe. "I don't see any totaled cars, though. Maybe they drove off the bridge?"
Just the thought of careening over the side of a bridge sent my pulse racing with fear. After all, I was the man who had to have at least eight beers in my system before braving a roller coaster. I glanced out the side window and saw the emergency lights reflected on the black surface of the water.
"Looks like we'll be here for a while," Tony said as he pushed his phone into a cup holder. Nick and I both turned to look at him in confusion and he gestured to the scene before us. "Paul had his scanner on and heard about a jumper on the bridge. Wish he'd called me, I could have turned a few miles back. Road's too narrow now."
"Great," Nick groaned. His awe of the situation was quickly being replaced by grouchiness. "Lauren's waiting for me at the hotel."
"She'll understand," I attempted to soothe. I didn't know why he was so irritated. He'd just seen Lauren two days before. I, on the other hand, had been without my family for the entire tour. Leighanne had promised to fly out with Baylee but there was always one more Wylee bag to finish or one more chapter to finish in Baylee's workbook.
I followed Nick back to the living area of the bus as Tony got back on his phone, no doubt to complain to the other drivers that no one had let him know. I felt a little guilty, because we were the last bus in the line. We would have been dozens of miles ahead if I hadn't gotten waylaid by a few fans at a truck stop shortly after we left the venue. Nick had stayed on the bus and I'd run inside to stock up on a few snacks. If I'd stayed on the bus we probably would've been able to avoid this.
But my mind didn't stay on my guilt for long. Instead it tumbled over to the person on the bridge about to jump.
I had, thank God, never been so low that I'd considered ending my life, but I'd seen AJ spiral down to almost that point many times over the years. At the height of his drug abuse I had watched him go to the roof of each hotel we'd stayed at, and more than once I'd followed him. He had to have known I was there, watching, but he never let on. He would simply stand at the edge, looking down. More than once his body would tense up as though about to jump, but each time he would finally sigh after several minutes and turn to face life again. I'd met many people during my lifetime that had confessed being at that lowest of lows when they felt they would rather be dead than try to live another day. I couldn't imagine how it must feel and each time I heard such a story I always prayed I never would.
"What are you doing?"
Nick's question jolted me from my thoughts and I looked down to see my hand on the latch of the door. "I'm just stepping out for some fresh air." It was a lie and we both knew it, but it was all I could come up with.
"You'll drown. It's raining cats and dogs out there." Nick scratched his chest and burped. "Better take an umbrella…ella…ella…"
I rolled my eyes and grabbed the jacket from the couch. It wasn't mine but I pulled it on anyway, pulling the hood up over my head. "Be back in a minute," I called over my shoulder before stepping outside.
Not only was it raining cats and dogs, it was freezing. As I blinked in the near-darkness I saw the rain was freezing on the small strip of grass that ran along the edge of the road. I tentatively slid my sneaker over the pavement and breathed a sigh of relief. Hands jammed in the pockets of the jacket, I once again looked towards the bridge. It was a relatively small bridge; I could see the lights of a town on the other side. A billboard on the opposite bank recommended a lawyer for personal injury and not far beyond that the Golden Arches glowed. My gaze swept the bridge. I was diverted by the sound of an approaching car and when I turned I saw it doing a U-turn to avoid the wait. Attention back on the bridge, I saw the sweep of headlights illuminate the rusty iron supports and that was when I saw her.
She was standing on the outside of the bridge between two angled supports, head ducked and I knew she was staring into the water. Not far behind her I saw a policeman in a bright yellow raincoat. When I squinted I could see he was talking but she didn't seem to be listening to him. If anything, she curled away from him with each word. My heart leapt to my throat.
* * *
I was floating in a rowboat on a lazy summer afternoon. The sun was warm and my hand hung over one edge, enjoying the cool of the water. I could taste watermelon on my lips and I could smell freshly-cut grass.
If this was Eternity, it was already a million times better than life.
"Ma'am, can you hear me?"
I was dreaming. My overactive imagination had taken hold once more and the clipped voice of the officer behind me brought me back to reality. I hadn't seen his face but from the sound of his voice he was almost on the other side of the bridge. Was he afraid that I would drag him with me when I jumped?
I didn't know why I was taking so long. I was sure they'd all be happy when I went down and they could go on about their business. There were probably a thousand places they would rather be. But for some reason I kept hesitating. I forced the officer's voice out of my mind and once more looked down.
"That's going to be a long fall."
I was surprised at the new voice and slowly looked up. About to look back and see who was talking, my breath caught when I saw a man standing on the small ledge about ten feet away from me. His hands were gripping the truss next to him. Shocked that someone had actually dared to get close, I could only stare.
"Can you swim?" he asked.
There was something about his voice… I felt I should have known him. But I knew nobody. I had long ago lost contact with the kids from the orphanage and he wasn't the clerk from the corner store where I did all my shopping. I shook my head.
"Why do you want to die?"
Hot tears suddenly spilled from my eyes. No one had ever asked me that before. Even the trained psychiatrists and counselors had never asked. They had all wanted to ask about my feelings; they never cared why I felt that way. "I… I just…" My voice was croaky and trembling. I gulped and realized just how cold it was, standing on a bridge in the middle of winter with no coat. "No one cares about me," I finally managed. "No one would miss me."
"You don't even know me." The statement reinforced my decision and I looked back at the water.
"Does anybody really know anyone? You're a human being. I don't have to know you to miss you if you die."
If I died. Not when. If. "You don't understand."
"No, I don’t. Hopefully I never will."
I hoped he never would, too. Just as each day when I woke up I hoped I wouldn't feel this way. "It's just better if I go," I whispered.
"Alright," he said after a few minutes. "But I'm going with you."
I looked at him again. He pushed back the hood and I realized why I should know him.
Of all the people in the world, Brian Littrell was the one trying to talk me out of jumping.