Originally posted 2015-10-02 12:01:09.
I gazed down at the icy water as it broke around the pylon rooting the bridge to the river. I leaned over the side and wondered what it would feel like if I let go. Would my bones break on the rocks? Or would I die from becoming frozen in the water?
“Don’t do that,” a voice echoed behind me, as if someone were standing within an arm’s reach of my back. The surprise brought me back from the edge. “I’ve seen that look before. So please, don’t do it.”
“What?” I whirled around. The woman who materialized before me shoved her hands into pockets of a light hoodie. She looked familiar, somehow. “Do I know you?”
“Kari Lovell,” I replied. “What were you saying?”
“Don’t answer the call of the water.”
“I…” I didn’t really know what to say. I had never considered myself suicidal- not really. But things as they were, there was nothing for me but a moldy apartment and I was set to lose that too. I had spent the past few weeks in a numb haze. Death wouldn’t be much different, I supposed. Rachel just stared at me with bright, wise eyes. “Was I that obvious?” I finally mumbled.
“I walk this bridge all the time, drawn to it really. I’ve seen souls like yours. What happened?” Her smile invited me to speak, her hands drew from her pockets as she came beside me, looking out across the dark water to the lights gleaming beyond. But I couldn’t tell her, not a complete stranger.
“What’s it to you?”
“This bridge has driven many souls to the river.”
“You lose someone?” I asked.
“My husband and son. They were hurt too bad in an accident. When I woke up, they were still asleep… and then they stopped. ”
“I’m sorry. It must have been hard to carry on.” What was I supposed to do with that? I moved a few steps away from her. She noticed, but didn’t move.
“I’m here, aren’t I? And so are you. Keep it that way.” Her smile glowed in the moonlight. “What do you do?”
“Art, I guess. Although I haven’t touched a brush in months.”
“Does it give you joy?” she asked. I didn’t answer. “It was nice to meet you, Kari.” She gave a knowing smile and stalked away down the bridge. I wondered how a woman like that could smile. I couldn’t imagine her pain, but she knew nothing of mine.
When I got home, I scrounged around for my brushes and paint. My sorrow took flight on the canvas.
“Hi! What’cha drawing?” Rachel smiled at me, sunlight gleaming off of her pale skin as she plopped down on the sidewalk.
“Skyline,” I answered.
“What’s keeping you here?” She asked. It was the same question everytime. I had yet to tell her anything. Like usual, she sat for a few moments in silence before giving off a contented sigh. “You’re a good artist.”
“Yeah, convince the rest of the world.”
“Only you can do that,” she smiled. “Good Luck!”
She touched my shoulder before moving on.
I got a call from one of my old professors. There was a new gallery opening up soon that was looking for local urban artists. The interview suit cost too much and maxed out my last credit card, but it was worth it. I got a spot in their display! I almost called my parents until I remembered that they no longer cared.
“So that’s good, right?” Rachel asked after I showed her the flyer for the art show as we hung out on the bridge. I wasn’t the feature, but any outlet was good publicity. I may even be able to sell a few pieces to keep my hole in the wall another month.
“It’s the best!” The numbness of the past few months melted for a moment and I felt happy. I hadn’t felt this way forever. Not since I became a starving artist living off of Ramen. My parents had cut funding months ago and then my boyfriend left me for Heroine. I had yet to tell Rachel. “It’s your fault.”
She started. “What do you mean?”
“If it weren’t for you, I’d be dead in the river.” Silence grew between us. The kind of silence that is full of unspoken thoughts. “I would love for you to come.”
“I…” her voice died off. “I can’t. I don’t think you’ll see me again.”
“Why not?” I asked.
Rachel shrugged. “Just a feeling. I really enjoyed our time together. I’m glad you’re happier now.”
“Then…” I watched bittersweet emotions reflect in her dulled eyes. “Will you let me draw you?”
“Sure I guess. What should I do?”
“Stand by the railing and look out. Your expression is beautiful. Hold it.”
I drew her. The contours of her face, her long brown hair and light blue eyes, always wearing the same hoodie. I sketched her on my pad, capturing all the details I could, the ones that mattered. The curl of her lips, the light in her hair, eyes full of regrets and hope. She was beautiful. An irrational urge to wrap her tight in my arms overcame me, but then her smile returned as I put down my pencil
“Can I see?
“It’s just a draft. But I will take it home and paint it.”
“What’s it called?”
“The Troll Under the Bridge?” I suggested.
“Is that all I am to you?” She teased.
“Much better. I’m going to miss you, Kari.”
“Good-bye.” I let her get four paces from me. “Wait!”
The girl stopped and turned around.
“I never told you what brought me here.”
“It’s ok, all that matters is that you’re free.”
Painting Rachel equated to a week of coffee and red bull. She wouldn’t let me sleep until she was perfect.
“The Muse” was the crown jewel in the gallery. Authentic to the Urban Experience while demonstrating artistic mastery. One reviewer had commented. I haunted the gallery from opening to closing. One by one, my paintings sold- but “The Muse” stayed. She captivated her audience, but no one wanted to take her home.
“Excuse me, but Elsie told me you’re the artist?” a woman in her fifties approached me. “I was wondering if you’d be willing to talk about ‘The Muse’.”
“Sure,” I smiled, maybe this one would buy her.
“I saw that it was painted a few months ago and wanted to know who the subject was.”
“A friend of mine, Rachel Crouse.”
“You knew Rachel?” the woman asked, her eyes lighting up.
“I’m her sister! I didn’t realize anyone else communicated with her after the accident.”
“Did something happen to her?” I thought back to our last meeting. A pang of anxiety flashed through me.
“You mean you didn’t know? After she was blamed for the death of her family, she went crazy. She had no peace, swarmed by the ghosts of the dead. I guess that’s why she joined them.”
“Joined them? What do you mean?”
“She jumped over the Fifth Street Bridge… oh my God I’m so sorry, I thought you would have known. It happened so long ago…”
My heart raced. Rachel killed herself! I didn’t even know- I wasn’t there. I hadn’t been the bridge much since the gallery opened. What if she needed me like I needed her? Only then did her sister’s comment fully register. “When?” I asked.
“It must have been ten years ago by now,” the woman’s eyes looked sad. “But you captured her so beautifully. Thank-You.”
I hoped my surprise didn’t show on my face. When I met Rachel, she was so full of life and brought me out of despair. I didn’t believe that she was dead.
It was true. I found Rachel’s obituary online along with her picture with a familiar bittersweet smile across her face. Ten years, just as her sister said.
I went back to the bridge on the anniversary of the worst night of my life. Although I had not seen Rachel all year, I had a feeling that I was meant to come. She would be there just like she was last year. Only this time, I knew she was dead. The world shined bright orange and the water swirled flames in the sunset.
I saw a man, gazing into the lights dancing below, deep in conversation. I watched as his muscles tensed, relaxed, and finally he stepped back, sitting on the sidewalk. He looked up as if waving good bye and buried his head into his knees.
“Hi, umm, are you ok?” I asked, crouching down beside him.
“Was there someone else with you?” I asked.
“Yeah.” He looked at me, his eyes locked with mine. He was suffering.
“I think I knew her. Her name was Rachel, right?”
“That’s… yes. How do you know her?”
“Just an old friend. Hey, if you see her again, could you tell her: Kari says ‘thanks’?”
“Sure… wait… Kari,” he scrutinized me closely, “as in Kari Lovell?”
Since the Art Museum took “The Muse” for a local artist display, I had become somewhat of a celebrity. My name started being plastered around the city and I was working on a mural near the bridge, my clothes were currently splattered with paint. “Yep, you got me!”
“I saw your art in the gallery.” I felt a breeze go past as light returned to the man’s eyes. He looked up at me in admiration, starstruck.
“It’s really not that big of a deal,” I ran my hands through my hair, embarrassed and cold. “You want to get some coffee?”
It was his turn to be embarrassed. “I’d love to, but I’m kinda in a tight spot.”
I recognized his shame. “Not a problem, it’s my treat!”
He smiled at me as I offered my hand to pull him to his feet.
We hung “The Muse” in the foyer of John’s Family Restaurant- he had run it into the ground which drove him to the bridge. We worked to revive it and the first month he drew in a profit, he asked for my hand in marriage.
I didn’t have the heart to explain why we couldn’t invite Rachel to the wedding.