The Forever Bridge
By T. Greenwood
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP. Copyright © 2015 T. Greenwood
All rights reserved.
Here is the night the world changes, your world changes. The night when certainties are shattered, and you are left with shards of your old truth, hunched over and picking up the broken pieces, wondering that they ever made anything whole. And the pieces are sharp, and the pieces will hurt you again and again and again.
Here is a bridge. Here is a river. Here is rain and a family and a car: a brown sedan that has seen better days. The leather seats that were a luxury to the original owner are now cracked, tears duct-taped and cold. It is late autumn in Vermont. It is too dark to see this, but you know that the corridor of trees that make a tunnel as you travel down the bumpy dirt road have turned from green to blazing crimson and yellow. That this is the beautiful burst of flames that occurs before everything dies.
Here, inside the car, the mother, Sylvie, does her lipstick in the greasy mirror in the passenger-side visor. Here is the father, Robert, fiddling with the dial on the radio, attempting to get the game to come in and stay in. The first Celtics game of the season is on and Boston is down by seven against the Cavs after the first quarter. Here are two kids in the backseat. Ruby is nine and Jess is seven. They both have thick mops of brown hair. They both have a pair of startlingly green eyes. They are beautiful children. This is what Sylvie thinks. Robert is more concerned with the boy's ability to throw balls, with their heights, which he records on the Sheetrock in the unfinished room he is building for Ruby now that she is getting older. They can't afford the addition, but he also knows that part of his job is to not ask questions. It is to build this room and not complain. His job is to mark the kids' heights on the wall, to worry about the strength of the boy's arm. Let their mother be the one to worry about puberty and privacy. Let him just be the father.
He is preoccupied tonight as he is most nights. When the rain comes, he thinks not about the bald tires, about the bad brakes, but about something his brother said to him while they were snaking a backed-up toilet earlier in the day. You're your own worst enemy, Bunk said as the electric snake rattled and whirred. What the hell's that supposed to mean? he'd asked. Nothing. Sorry I said anything. Looks like we got it. Robert's whole chest was hot with shame and rage, but he just said, Got what? Paper towels, Bunk said. Goddamn people and their goddamn paper towels. It's like putting cement in the pipes.
He still feels the anger in his shoulders. He rolls his neck to try to loosen them up.
Sylvie is thinking about the parent-teacher conference they are going to. She knows what to expect for Ruby. She is her brilliant shining star. (This girl, here in the backseat, so absorbed in her book she has forgotten where she is. Who she is even.) She is gifted, the teacher will say: a word which conjures up holidays. Makes Sylvie imagine pretty wrapped packages. Ruby is special, the teacher in her sensible shoes and cardigan sweater will say with a nod. And this will make Sylvie blush with pride. And then feel terrible, because Ruby is not her only child. Because Jess, the little one, is sweet and gentle, but he struggles, and it seems there is little she can do to help him. She has watched him cry in frustration over the words on the page, the numbers, the problems. She tells herself that all that matters is that he is good and kind. Still, it breaks her heart a little, the way the whole world seems, already, to be disappointed in him. She tilts the mirror to look at him, this sweet boy, face pressed to the glass, looking at the rain that is starting to come down now in patterned sheets. He is mesmerized by the world. Captivated. It is enough for him, she has to remind herself, and there is something so good about that.
Sharp, sharp slivers.
What if you were simply able to rearrange them, to build something from these remains, reassemble the broken pieces into something new? Something stronger? Something both similar to what was and yet entirely different? What if you were able to make something indestructible? Something permanent?
But here is the new truth: the pieces are chipped and broken, some of them lost. A shattered glass on a tile floor. Some of them working their way already under your skin. Shards that will burrow there, that sometimes will not bother you at all, but other times will make you wince with recollection. With the undeniable and unbearable pain of it all.
Here: the look on Sylvie's face when she turns to ask if she looks okay. And none of them know whom she is asking, whose opinion matters the most. She is asking each of them and all of them. Because they are not only father, son, daughter, they are a family, and so they nod a collective nod of approval. They all love her more than she can know.
Here: Robert's sigh when he resigns himself to nothing but static on the radio and clicks it off, filling the car with a peaceful silence.
Here: Ruby lost inside her book and Jess, hot cheek pressed to the glass, the rain making patterns on the window, and he watches, transfixed.
Here: the bridge, the covered bridge you've traveled a million times. The one on which you have closed your eyes and held your breath as you crossed over, the superstitions of childhood as powerful as God.
Here is the moment before it slips and shatters. Here is the river. Here is the bridge.
In the morning Sylvie is startled awake, as she is always startled awake. But usually it is the banging clanging of her own brain, the electric shock of her own fear, that acts as an alarm. It takes her several moments of heart-banging, neck-sweating delirium to realize that the sound she hears is not coming from her own imagination but rather from outside her window.
She is afraid to move. Afraid to breathe even. And so she holds her breath, worried that her own inhalations and exhalations will confuse her ears. Her head aches from the effort of separating the sounds she knows (birdsong, the wind, the river) from this new and unfamiliar one. It is like separating two intertwined necklaces from each other; she knows there are two distinct silver strands, but the chains are tangled together.
She thinks of the grocery boy, but it's only Sunday; he won't be here until tomorrow. Once, on a Sunday a long time ago, a pair of women in ill-fitting dresses (girls really, with glasses and heavy shoes, clutching their Watchtowers) arrived and stood on her screened porch for nearly ten minutes. She watched them through the cracked vinyl shade in the living room. They giggled and whispered and knocked again and again, until finally they shrugged and left.
But this voice is low. A man's. Slowly, she rises out of bed, noting the stitch in her side. It's a new pain on her list of pains, and it is sharp. She clutches at her rib cage as if she can quell the cramp by containing it, and she stands. Her robe is waiting for her on the hook at the back of the door, and she slips into it as she slips into it every morning, grateful for both its comfort and familiarity. It is like the Superman cape Jess used to wear when he was three, a talisman.
She shuffles across the worn floorboards to the living room, to the window, which, if it were not battened down, would look out over the front yard. She recalls walking through the unfinished house, the timber skeleton, with Robert and Bunk more than ten years ago. The smell of sawdust was thick, as Robert pointed out the views they would have from all these unfinished windows, promising her rooms filled with light. They'd bought this land enticed by the expansive front yard and, behind the house, the river and woods. She didn't know, when she stood there nodding and smiling, that the view wouldn't matter one day. That all that lovely green, those deep verdant woods, would instead become the stuff of nightmares. That most days she would leave the blackout shades closed, curtains on a stage of an old life drawn shut. Show over.
She carefully tugs at the bottom of the roller shade, feels its weight and magnetic resistance. It is fragile. She worries the whole thing might just crumble in her hands if she's not careful, that it will expose her. She gently pulls, just until it begins to show a will of its own, as though it wants to rise up and let in the light. Finally, she is able to reveal just an inch or two of the outside world, of that view that once was enough to make her think she could live here. That they could make a home.
She sits down in the straight-backed chair by the window, the place where she usually sits to put on her socks and shoes, and she peers through that sliver. The morning glories she planted so many years ago have been left to proliferate, covering the whole front of the house and filling this window. She spies through the violet flowers, squinting as though this effort will make the thick leaves and indigo blossoms transparent. She needs to lift the shade higher in order to see. Her fingers tremble as she allows it to release just a couple inches more. Finally, there is a gap in the foliage that is strangling her house, and she looks through the peephole it makes.
Through the vines, she sees someone walking up the overgrown front walkway. He's got a phone, but he is talking at it, not into it; there's no cell reception out here. "Goddamnit," he mutters, looking at the useless phone, and then shoves it in his pocket. In the driveway, she can see the white van, and suddenly she is overcome by a flush of hot relief. Bunk. It's just Bunk, her brother-in-law. But why on earth is he coming to the house? Usually he drives by to check on her once a week, but he never comes in: never even comes up the drive. But now here he is, in his filthy work coveralls, walking toward her house. He's got a cigarette in the corner of his mouth which he finishes, crushes under his boot, and then picks up and deposits in one of his shirt pockets. He looks up, as ifjust remembering where he is.
By the time he makes his way up the steps and opens the screen door to the porch, her entire body is trembling again. She feels like she might faint, the edges of her vision vignetting like an old photograph. His knock feels like fists against her chest.
She considers ignoring him, just as she ignored the Jehovah's Witnesses, the lost tourists, the salesmen and the Girl Scouts. But he knows she's inside. And if she doesn't answer, he will worry. She tries not to think of the bad news he could be delivering, of all of the terrible things he could tell her, of all the possible futures that she might be forced to face by simply answering the door. She is paralyzed, every muscle in her body momentarily atrophied.
It's only Bunk, she tells herself. It's okay, as she beckons every bit of courage she has, mustering the will from some primitive place, and makes her way to the kitchen where she unlocks the door.
Bunk stands on the porch, and she knows he is trying not to look around at the mess. The inside of the house is immaculate, but she has given up on anything beyond the front door. She knows he is silently assessing the disaster, and so she beckons him in.
"Morning, Syl," he says, stepping into the dim kitchen.
She nods and motions for him to sit at the table.
"You got any coffee going yet?" he asks, and she shakes her head.
"Is something ..." she begins, and is startled by the crackling sound of her own voice. When was the last time she spoke? "Did something happen?"
"No," he says, shaking his head. Smiling. Bunk's easy smile has always calmed her. Her body remembers this, and she sighs, her fear dissipating.
"You sure?" she manages. "Ruby?"
"Everything's good. Ruby's doing great."
Still, she is trembling as she goes to the counter to make a pot of coffee. She runs the cold water into the carafe and pours it into the machine. Her hands recollect this ritual. Coffee, filter, mugs. It steadies her.
"And Robert?" she asks. She can't look at him when she asks this, and so she simply watches the coffee drip into the pot. But she can feel his eyes on her back, and she knows he is reading the pain of Robert's name in the defeated curve of her spine, regret revealed in her slumped shoulders.
"He misses you," Bunk says, and she feels her throat close.
She turns to him, realizing, after it's too late, that her face is wide open, her hope exposed like an open wound.
"We all miss you," Bunk says, looking down at his hands. He's said too much.
As the coffee brews, she sits across from Bunk at the table. The stitch in her side persists, and she winces slightly as she sits.
"Listen, Syl," Bunk says. "I am actually here about Ruby. Rob and I were hoping she might be able to come stay with you for a week or so. Just still school starts up again."
She is confused. Ruby hasn't stayed with her for months. The last time had been a disaster. The last time, Ruby had to call 911. The memory of it is excruciating, embarrassing.
"I know you're still having a rough time," Bunk says, his eyes filled with concern. "But she's eleven now. Spends most of her time with her nose in a book or out riding her bike. She's an easy kid, Syl, mature. And she misses you too."
"Why now?" she asks in that strange, rusty voice.
Bunk smiles again. She notices that his teeth are worse than the last time they spoke. That whatever issue he's had with that canine tooth has gotten bad. She wishes he had the money to see a dentist. That he could take care of it.
"It's Larry," he says.
Larry is his and Robert's little brother. He lives on some tiny island off the coast of North Carolina. The last time she saw him, that anyone saw him, was at Jess's funeral almost two years ago.
"He's in a bad way," he says. "Which I'm sure ain't no surprise."
And Sylvie recalls Larry's glassy stare and trembling hands at the funeral. And she'd known it wasn't grief, wasn't sorrow that made him that pale and thin, that had turned him into a shadow of himself.
"It's kind of funny actually," Bunk continues. "We been talking about getting down there. Try to get him some help. 'Course the issue's been money. Ain't it always? But then Rob goes and wins five hundred dollars in one of those scratch-off lottery things. Up at Hudson's? So we thought, maybe it's a sign."
None of this makes any sense to her. For one thing, Robert hasn't won a thing in his life. He used to joke about his bad luck, back when misfortune meant silly things like locking himself out of the car or losing his house key in the snow. Before bad luck meant accident, meant disaster.
"Ruby can't come with us, for obvious reasons. We asked Gloria already, but she's got her hands full next week. And Rob and I both think it would be good for her to stay here with you. Good for both of you."
She is shaking her head, despite herself.
Bunk reaches across the table for her hand. His knuckles are big, knobby things. His nails bitten to the quick. "Please, Syl. It's just a week. It'll be fine. She needs her mother. You know that, right?"
She nods, despite the fact that she knows that she is exactly what an eleven-year-old girl does not need.
Everyone thinks it began that night at the river. That the paralysis was instantaneous instead of a slow crippling that actually began years and years before. It's easier to explain this way, to blame the accident; this is something even the most callous people can understand. Believing that her life is what it is now, that she is who she is now, as a direct result of what happened to Jess elicits pity rather than disgust: sympathetic bemusement rather than horror. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Forever Bridge by T. Greenwood. Copyright © 2015 T. Greenwood. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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