Stay with Me

natchez-trace-parkway-bridge
The phone rang at 9:30pm.

Kelly uncapped her pen, flipped to a new page in her binder, and thumbed her headset.

“Hello.”

Nothing on the line but silence. Normal. A lot of people who called weren’t ready to talk. The fact that their fingers had dialed a strange number set off some kind of mental denial. Like they wanted to take it back, to hang up.

“I’m here. You can talk to me.”

Now she could make out something—heavy, labored breathing.

“Can you talk?”

The breathing hitched.

“It’s okay. Take your time.”

When the voice came, it sounded soft and garbled in her headset, like the throat and jaw muscles were trying to figure out how to coordinate.

“ . . . didn’t think . . . was going to make this call.”

“Why not?” She jotted down male, and waited a beat. When the voice didn’t respond, she tried again, “Why didn’t you think you would call?”

“I wanted to be alone.”

“Are you alone right now?”

No response.

“Can you tell me your name?”

“Paul,” he whispered.

“It’s nice to meet you, Paul. Is it okay if I keep talking with you?”

He mumbled something.

“Paul, did you take any drugs?”

His breathing evened out like a person drifting off to sleep.

“Paul, are you still with me? Can you say something?”

“No drugs.” It sounded like nuhdrukz.

She scribbled no drugs. “No drugs? Good! Good. What else can you tell me? Can you tell me what you’re doing?”

“Stars . . . so clear tonight.” His voice strengthened then dropped back to a mumble.

“You’re outside, Paul? Can you tell me where?”

“So clear . . .”

“Paul, where are you?”

His breathing juddered. He coughed. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“Have you . . . have you ever lost someone close to you.”

She thought she had never heard such sadness and loneliness in a human voice. She rubbed her eyes. “No, Paul, I haven’t. No one close. I guess I’ve been pretty lucky.”

She heard a small sob—a sucking, wet sound.

“ . . . lost my wife and baby girl. Some kid was texting. Didn’t even touch the brakes . . .”

Another horrible sob.

“I just wanted to kiss them goodbye . . . but I didn’t even get to do that . . . I think I’ve been waiting to die ever since.”

Kelly’s pen hovered over her pad, shaking.

She cleared her throat. “Paul . . . I can’t even imagine. I’m so sorry.” She sucked a breath, exhaled, told herself to focus. Find another track. “Do you have other family around?”

“Huh?” He sounded disoriented.

“Do you have family you’re close to?”

She could hear his slow breathing, the work it took for him to get the words out.

“ . . . only child . . . parents gone . . .”

Her pen scratched across the page. “When was that, Paul?”

Strained breathing in her ear.

“Paul, are you still there?”

“Mmm-hmm . . .”

“Are you falling asleep?”

“ . . . tired . . .”

“Paul, why are you tired? Are you sure you didn’t take anything?”

“ . . . so big . . .”

“What’s so big? Where are you?”

“ . . . Natchez . . . bridge.”

Icy fingers squeezed into her stomach. She knew the bridge—a picturesque tourist destination with a soaring double-arch spanning the 145′ drop to the ravine below. She swiveled to her computer, pounding the keys, firing off the message to the local police department.

“You’re at the bridge, Paul?”

“Mmm . . .”

“Paul, stay with me, okay? Stay on the phone with me.”

“Tell me a story . . . any story . . . doesn’t matter.”

She fumbled through a story from elementary—a school play; things went wrong; general mayhem ensued. Every few sentences she took a beat listening for the slow breathing, for anything. She could hear him—a monotonous undertone accompanying her.

“What’s your name?” he whispered.

That’s when she heard it. Sirens. Somewhere far away but coming through her headset.

Hurry up!

“Paul . . .”

And then his voice, clear, low. “You have a kind voice . . . wish I could’ve . . . had the chance to meet you.”

“My name’s Kelly, Paul! It’s Kelly, okay? You know me now. You know my name. And we can still meet.”

The sirens were close now.

“We can still meet, Paul, okay? Just don’t jump. Promise me you won’t jump!”

His breathing trailed away to nothingness. The sirens still howled in the distance, bleating and echoing in her headset but somehow getting no closer.

Hurry the hell up!! Why aren’t you there yet?!

“ . . . blue . . .”

“Blue what, Paul? What’s blue?”

A whimper. The sound of a small animal lying broken in the dirt.

“Paul, don’t do it! Please!” She slammed her fists on her desk helplessly again and again.

“Don’t do it!”

The messenger alert on her computer chirped.

“RESPONDING UNITS ARE REPORTING NO ONE ON THE BRIDGE. PLEASE CONFIRM LOCATION.”

“ . . . did . . . good job . . . Kelly . . .”

“REPEAT. NO ONE ON BRIDGE.”

And then she heard him—his voice far away, a whisper echoing in and out of the sirens, a voice so tired, so infinitely tired, finally succumbing to sleep.

“I already jumped.”

***

*Author’s note: When I was at the Natchez Trace Parkway bridge several weeks ago, I noticed a sign with the words “There is hope” and the number for a helpline. That–along with the short film “The Phone Call”–heavily influenced this story.

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The Postcard – a short story

tunnel

Eighteen inches of reinforced concrete. Capable of reducing a vehicle to a crumpled shell; human inhabitants obliterated, sternums fractured, massive blunt-force head trauma, catastrophic internal hemorrhaging.

We crested the hill, drifting across the lanes on the final curve to catch another touch of speed. Carter negotiated the turn then allowed the car to straddle the center line. A quarter mile ahead the bridge squatted. Two narrow lanes burrowed under the railroad tracks. Two lanes split by a barrier wall—eighteen inches of reinforced concrete.

“Call it,” Carter said.

I sat.

Those eighteen inches raced towards us.

I sat.

Carter stared through the windshield. The two gaping holes in the hill stared back.

I sat.

Carter’s fingers tightened on the wheel. I was cutting it close. I knew it. But that feeling of being in control—knowing when I’d make the call while he sat waiting, waiting, insides screaming at me to call it before we—

“Left.”

The car jerked in his hands and leapt to zero in on the left side of the tunnel. I could almost hear the concrete’s disappointed sigh as it buzzed by, flirting with the passenger side mirror before the tunnel coughed us back out into the night.

He let loose a low whistle. “Geez. Waited long enough, didn’tcha?”

“That’s gotta be a new record.” It was closer than I’d planned, I was surprised he’d actually held out for the call.

“If we’re gonna break that then you’re driving and I’m calling next time.”

Suicide Bridge. It was a morbid yet fitting nickname. Sometimes when I’d be driving that road alone late at night, I’d find myself drifting into center almost out of habit, waiting for Carter’s voice to call the lane decision, knowing he wasn’t there, knowing I had to make the call, had to make it before leaning into those eighteen inches, embracing oblivion. There was a reason I didn’t drive that stretch of road for a long time. Sometimes the temptation started sounding a little too logical . . .

***

The glasses clink as he sets them on the battered end table. The bourbon splashes, rye harmony on crystal.

“Cheers, bro.” He nudges a glass my way, and I raise it to meet his. The years have been good to Carter. The cancer has not.

“Cheers.”

We sit on the front porch. The summer night settles around us. The squeak of his rocking chair marks a quiet tempo against the echoing calls of the tree frogs down the hill below us. I nurse my drink, the heat radiating up my chest to meet the warm buzz on my tongue. The blanket of night settles deeper, a comforter tenderly tucked in by a mother humming lullabies of long-forgotten dreams.

“Thanks for bringing the card.”

I tip my glass, “Glad to.”

He stares out into the night and I wait. He refills his glass, sips, coughs. It’s a tearing sound I’ll remember as long as I live, rusty razor blades shaking in rotten burlap.

“Doctor said I’ve got six weeks. Ten tops.”

I reach for the bottle, absorbing this. “Last time we talked you said twelve months.”

“I know. Damn cancer got all motivated I guess.” He tries to laugh. I wish he wouldn’t.

“And that’s why you wanted me to come.”

“Yeah.”

“So there’s really nothing more they can do—“

He shakes his head. “I told them they can go stick some other poor fool, but I’m done. They got all uppity, but I walked myself right out of there and told ’em ‘no deal.’ They send somebody around every other day to check in on me. It’s better this way.”

I don’t argue. There’s nothing to argue about. We’ve always been straight with each other, and if there’s nothing for it, then that’s how it is, no charades, just the plain ol’ truth, slam bam thank you ma’am.

“How bad is it?”

He looks at me and part of my soul crawls away into a corner and dies. If you could open me up and look inside, you’d find the corners of my heart littered with little bits of dead soul; it’s part of what makes growing old so hard. But this is the biggest piece yet. I don’t think there’s much left now.

It’s late when I leave. Orion is slipping into the horizon, the tree frogs all long since gone to sleep, the only sound the quiet hum of the wind walking in the willows along the creek.

I hug Carter, “I’ll see ya.”

“Yep, I’ll see ya.”

We both know it’s a lie.

***

The dial tone broke the silence.

“Hello? This is Brian Shaw. I need to report an OD.”

“ — “

“Yes, that’s correct. You have the address?”

“ — “

“I’d guess last night. He’s in his chair, looks like he’s sleeping.”

“ — “

“No. The pill bottle is right beside him.”

“ — “

“A note? Well, he’s holding a postcard but there’s nothing written on it.”

“ — “

“Yeah, I’m sure. It’s just a blank postcard with a bridge on it.”

-ijs

*Author’s note: the point of this story is neither to argue for nor against the decision of suicide, but rather to process why someone might make such a decision in the final stages of their life. This article hit me hard while I was in the process of writing.