Linda had gotten into the habit of stopping by the bridge after work, never 100 percent sure if today would be the day. The sun had set, and she stuck her bare hands in her pockets to warm them. She leaned over and looked down at the water. At night, it looked dark and fathomless. She felt like she could disappear into it, become one with the water, and leave everything behind.
Headlights silhouetted her as she gripped the handrail. She wondered what people thought she was doing there, standing and looking down. Part of her wanted someone to notice her, to stop and ask. But she knew she would have been mortified if that happened.
When the tip of her nose was numb and her lungs ached from the cold air, she moved on. She watched the sidewalk as she walked, stepping over cracks. She didn’t believe in taking chances.
A bell rang as she pushed her way into the convenience store, and the warm air hit her like a blanket. She unwrapped her scarf and unbuttoned her jacket. The owner looked up and smiled at her. “Hello,” he said.
She waved and smiled. “Hi, Mr. Kim.” She walked up and down the aisles, looking for something she might eat. She picked up bags of chips, read ingredients on cans of soup. She wondered what Mr. Kim thought of her, if he thought it was strange that she spent so much time in his store every night. He wouldn’t say anything though; he was too polite.
The bell rang, and someone else came into the store. Linda craned her neck to see the other shopper. It was a teenager wearing a dirty hoodie, pulled up to shade his or her face. A hoodie wasn’t enough protection in this weather, so the kid probably lived close by.
Linda continued browsing and, after a while, picked out a bottle of soda and a bag of pretzels. Mr. Kim rang her up but seemed distracted. Usually, he made small talk, showed her pictures of his grandchildren or told her funny stories about customers. Today, he was silent, peering over her shoulder and barely looking at her. It made her sick to her stomach. She looked forward to the conversation all day.
Mr. Kim gave her the total and she handed him cash, but he dropped the money and hurried around the counter. “Hey you, I saw that!”
Linda turned to see the teenager running for the door, but Mr. Kim intercepted the kid. He was a small man, but wiry. He grabbed the kid’s arm and didn’t let go. “I saw you put that in your pocket. You want to pay, or should I call the cops?”
The kid tried to break free of Mr. Kim’s grip, but couldn’t. “Let me go!” the kid said. It sounded like a boy’s voice. “Leave me alone. I didn’t do nothing.”
“You didn’t? Then what’s this?” Mr. Kim reached into the front pouch of the kid’s hoodie and pulled out a box of granola bars and a pint of chocolate milk.
“It’s … I was going to pay for it. I just … forgot my wallet.”
“Cops then,” Mr. Kim said. “You don’t steal from me.”
“I’ll pay,” Linda blurted out.
They both looked at her, their faces mirroring the same shock she felt. “Here, ring it up and I’ll pay for it.” She fumbled another $20 out of her purse and showed Mr. Kim, as if he wouldn’t believe her.
“You don’t have to pay. Damn kids think they can steal. Not from me,” Mr. Kim said, scowling.
“It’s okay, really.” Linda realized why she’d offered to pay. The teenager was stealing food, and she wondered what his story was.
Mr. Kim narrowed his eyes at Linda, and then relented. “Fine. You pay.” He still held the items, and he released the teen.
Linda thought the kid would bolt then. His body stiffened as if he were thinking about it, but he relaxed. Stuffing his hands into his jeans, he sauntered over to her. Not looking her in the eye, he said, “Thanks.”
Mr. Kim bagged the items and handed them to the teen. “Don’t come back, okay? Miss Linda is a nice lady.”
The teen glanced up at her then. Just a flash of brown eyes.
Linda said, “Hey, what’s your …” but before she could finish the sentence and ask the boy his name, he was gone.
Mr. Kim handed her back her change. “Damn street kids come in and think they can take what they want. They’d rob me blind if I didn’t watch them every second. I’m just trying to make a living.”
“Street kids?” she asked. “What’s that mean?”
He shrugged. “They live on the street. Homeless.”
Linda couldn’t stop thinking about the boy. She went on the internet and looked up information on homeless teens. It shocked her to learn that kids actually did live on the street. In many cases, they’d run away from abusive homes and were afraid of the systems that could help them.
Linda was so involved in her research that when the phone rang, she didn’t check the caller ID before answering. She realized her mistake a split second too late. “Hi, Mom.”
“Hey, honey. How are you today? How was work?”
They made small talk for a few minutes, and Linda braced herself for the real conversation. She didn’t have to wait long. “I get tired of being the only one at work who does anything. Lizzie takes breaks every five minutes to go smoke, and she acts like no one knows. And the bitch twins spend the whole time gossiping. No one listens to me, even though I’ve been there the longest …”
They were the same complaints as usual. Linda tried to click quietly, surfing the internet and listening just enough to make it sound like she was paying attention. But she wasn’t quiet enough.
“What are you doing? Are you online?” her mother asked, then, before Linda could answer, hurried on. “Are you doing that online dating thing? I read it was dangerous. In my day, we met people at church, or through friends.”
Linda wasn’t sure what question to answer first, so she just avoided the ones she didn’t want to answer. “I’m not online. I just needed to click something really quick. You have my undivided attention. You were saying something about what Brenda said?”
But her mother was onto her favorite topic and wouldn’t be distracted. “You’re not getting any younger. It’s time to settle down. I was hoping you’d have kids while I could still enjoy them. Why aren’t you dating?”
It was a sticky subject. Linda could either admit that she’d been on a few dates that didn’t go well, leading her mother to advice and dieting tips. Or say she wasn’t dating and hear a lecture on how she’d wind up bitter and alone.
When she finally got off the phone, her mind drifted back to earlier that day. Though sometimes she hated her mom, part of the reason she never took that step off the bridge was that there’d be no one to take care of her mother.
It made her wonder about the boy. Where was his mother?
The next day, Linda detoured by the bridge and looked down at the water. But the water didn’t call to her that day, so she moved on to the store.
Mr. Kim was behind the counter, as always. She only spent a few moments browsing, and then just grabbed a cup of instant oatmeal for dinner.
As Mr. Kim rang her up, she stared at his gnarled hands, not wanting to look him in the eye. She tried to sound casual as she asked, “That boy who was in here last night … do you know him?”
“Yeah. He’s a thief.”
“No. I mean, his name. Or where he lives.”
Mr. Kim gave an irritable shrug and shoved her bag toward her. “On the street. He’s a street kid. He comes in here and steals. But not anymore. If he comes again, I’ll call the cops. I mean it!”
“Okay,” she said, backing out of the store. When she left, instead of going straight home, she walked for a while, paying attention to kids. There were a few homeless adults, and Linda gave them each a dollar. But no kids. She wondered where they slept and how many of them there were.
It was a few weeks later when she finally saw him again. It was still cold, but at least the weather hinted at spring. He looked like he was scoping out a street cart vendor, seeing if he could snatch a hot dog.
Linda came up behind him and said, “Can I buy you dinner?”
He jumped and took two steps away, then turned toward her. His hood was up, and she couldn’t see much of his face, but streetlights reflected in his eyes enough to show he was glaring at her.
Linda motioned toward the hot dog cart. “You hungry?” she asked. “I can buy you one. Or two. Whatever you’re hungry for.”
Linda could tell he wasn’t sure if he wanted to run away or not. Finally, his muscles relaxed a little, and he said, “Why?”
“Just … because. You’re hungry.”
“What do you want?” he asked.
He laughed, a sharp bark of sound that wasn’t amused. “Everybody wants something. I’m not going to do anything for it.”
Linda had no idea what he meant. “I don’t want anything. Just to buy you dinner.”
He shrugged. He didn’t approach the vendor, so Linda finally moved in front of the cart and ordered three hot dogs. She wasn’t really hungry, but having a hot dog in her hand would give her an excuse to stand with him.
She held two hot dogs out toward him, offering the food. He didn’t react at first, but then slowly put his hands out. His hands darted out and snatched the hot dogs from her as if he thought it was a trick, that she’d pull away at the last minute.
She expected him to bolt. But he didn’t. He stood there and wolfed down the food. His hood fell back and exposed his face.
He was younger than she’d thought. A teen, but barely. He didn’t seem to notice her watching him, and Linda tried not to stare. When he was done with his two hot dogs, she handed him the third one.
He didn’t pause this time, but grabbed it from her. Barely chewing, he finished the hot dog, then wiped his sleeve across his mouth and looked at her.
His eyes were angry and too old. After a moment, he shoved his hands into his pockets and stood awkwardly. “Thanks,” he said begrudgingly.
“What’s your name?” she asked, her voice soft, hoping she wouldn’t scare him.
He rocked back and forth on his feet, and she looked down at his shoes. They seemed too small for him, and his left big toe poked through a hole in the upper. Linda made herself look back at his face.
“What’s it to you?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Nothing. I just wanted to know.” He seemed to be waiting for her to say something else, but she didn’t know what else to say. So she waited, hoping that he wouldn’t run.
His jaw tensed, and he held her gaze for an uncomfortably long time. “Raymond,” he said. Then he pulled up his hood and ran.
Linda wanted to help the boy. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, wasn’t sure what she could do. But a month passed, and then two. Though she’d traded her bridge habit for walking around, looking for Raymond, she didn’t find him.
She told her mother about Raymond, and shouldn’t have been surprised when her mom said, “What’s a meal going to do for him?” Then her mother had gone into a crazy phase, and her phone calls came daily. Linda seldom answered them. She didn’t want to listen to the messages, but she couldn’t help herself. What if there was something important?
There never was.
“Linda, it’s your mom again. Remember that time I fell, and you couldn’t come?” Linda had called an ambulance, and then driven straight to the hospital from work. The problem was it had been snowing, and it had taken her over hour to get there. “I was laying in bed today, crying because I’m always alone like that. I can’t stop thinking about how when I needed you, you weren’t there for me.”
“Linda, it’s your mom again. I know you’re ignoring me. If I took all my meds, I’d die, and you’d never even know it. The neighbors would find me when I started to smell. You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Then you wouldn’t need to feel guilty about me anymore.” And so on.
Even though she knew it was her mother’s mental illness talking, that she didn’t really mean what she said, it still made Linda’s chest ache. She wouldn’t find Raymond again, couldn’t do anything about him. She couldn’t even help herself. Linda started spending more time on the bridge again, looking down at the river.
If she jumped, her mother might realize how awful she’d treated her and regret it.
If she jumped, her mother might be consumed with guilt, and finally follow through with overdosing on her medication.
If she jumped, she might finally get some peace.
If she jumped, she might go to hell. Even though she didn’t believe in hell. Probably.
She didn’t jump.
When summertime came, her mother’s crazy phase was over. Linda had started dating Greg, a guy she met online, and things were going well. They were at his apartment, and she’d made him dinner. “I was thinking about taking my mom out for her birthday next week,” she said.
“Do I finally get to meet her?” Greg asked.
Linda’s heart leaped. “If you want to, yeah. I mean you don’t have to. But …” She made herself stop babbling.
“Of course I want to meet her,” Greg said.
She smiled. When she called her mom that night, her mom could barely contain her excitement. It had been a long time since Linda introduced her mom to one of her boyfriends.
The night of the birthday came, and they had all made arrangements to meet at Fast Eddie’s, her mom’s favorite restaurant.
Greg was never late, but when 15 minutes passed, Linda texted him. At a half hour, she called him. At 45 minutes, Linda and her mom ordered dinner. Linda didn’t taste a bite of her dinner. Greg didn’t show up by the end of dinner, and she didn’t hear from him.
“I’ve heard that these men who meet you online aren’t reliable,” her mom said. She probably meant to be helpful, but it made Linda feel like throwing up every bite she’d managed to choke down. Her mom continued. “It sounds like he’s ghosting you. I read about that, where the boy doesn’t break up with you. He just stops answering your calls.”
“He’s not breaking up with me,” Linda snapped. “Something probably came up. He’ll text me later.” Please let him text me later.
By the time they finished dinner, Linda was exhausted. She wanted to go home and drink a bottle or two of wine, then sleep for a week. Instead of heading home, she headed for the bridge.
It was a quiet evening. She was alone, no headlights spotlighting her. She could be the last person alive. If she were the last person alive, she could just step over the railing, sink into the black water, and it wouldn’t matter.
Despair tried to suck her under, as her bleak, loveless life stretched before her. Her mom going through periods of time where she hated Linda. Dating, finding someone who seemed good, until he realized he didn’t want her. Eventually, even her mother would die, and then she’d be alone. Maybe she’d catch herself complaining to strangers who nodded politely and wished for the crazy lady to stop talking.
She couldn’t stand the idea of the well-meaning phone calls that would inevitably follow, her mother checking on her every day to see if Greg had called. They’d almost be worse than the crazy, mean messages.
Linda stepped up on the railing, to see what it was like. She’d never done that before. She unclasped her hands and leaned forward, thighs pressed against the top bar.
All she’d have to do was climb over. Lean forward. Gravity would take care of the rest. It would be like falling off a bike. Easier.
She heard the voice, but didn’t connect it to herself at first.
It broke through her daze, and she stepped down, embarrassed to be caught at … whatever it was she was doing. She turned toward the voice.
It was Raymond, hurrying toward her. He was taller, and wasn’t wearing his hoodie, but she recognized him.
He stopped a few feet in front of her, not as tense as normal, but still ready to run. He seemed to be waiting for her to speak, but she didn’t know what to say. Was she supposed to pretend she hadn’t climbed up on the railing? Was she supposed to ask him how he was doing? She didn’t know the rules.
When she couldn’t stand the silence another second, she asked, “Have you been eating?”
Do you go to school? Where are your parents? Can I help you? She wanted to ask him a million questions, but they’d only make him run away. But he’d found her, and she wasn’t ready to be alone. It was like all the blood rushing back into a sleeping limb; painful, but proof of life.
“Do you want to get something to eat?” she asked. “There’s a diner around the corner.”
He eyed her suspiciously, and then jerked his head in a nod.
Raymond fell in step beside her as they walked to the diner. He could have a meal tonight, and Linda would stick around, one more day.