Crossing the Span
David lurched awake to find icy tendrils groping his legs.
Water crept in through the closed doors of his sedan and the eerie sensation pulled his mind from a fog. Time moved slowly for the young man as he gained his bearings and the moment of solace allowed him space to appreciate the beauty of the river water at night before his thoughts came into focus and panic pushed away all but his baser instincts for survival.
His hand crept to the center console for his cell phone, only to find it soaked through to the circuits. Not the first casualty of the seasonably cold water, either, he’d bet. David’s rapid heartbeat reverberated in his ears as the weight of the engine pulled the front end of his sedan down further into the depths. As the water left any pretense of cordiality behind and began to maraud around him, he reached for the door handle and found it stuck.
I can get through that, David thought, sizing up the window. Pulling his knees up to the wheel in an awkward motion, he propped his feet on the seat and thanked his mother for his skinny ass as he pushed himself into the frigid liquid.
David strained and arched his back as he contorted through the window to freedom. The water beneath should have been black as the night outside of a well-lit window, but instead, the horrors normally hidden by the veiled depths were illuminated by headlights. Scores of cars were in the water. The whole damned section of bridge he’d been on, every soul that had been around him, was sinking to the riverbed.
His young legs managed to kick him free of the car, but he had already been pulled down to a depth of thirty feet or more. Pressure compressed his inner ears to an ache as he swam toward the kind light of a waxing moon.
A dark outline nearby in the abyss stole David’s attention. It was a hatchback. It was the hatchback. A memory returned to David. A cigarette jettisoned from ahead and erupted into an elegant ballet of carcinogens, jarring him from a daze. Light beaconed off from a reflective green sign reading Bridge 1 Mile.
Excitable waving coming from the backseat of a baby-blue hatchback caught David’s eye, and he waved back to the reward of a mischievous grin reserved for young boys lost in adventure, however small.
Some time passed as he sat in queue, and David was happy to see the crossover was again beside him. The boy had black hair contrasted by spectral ivory skin. As he flared his nose, his top lip curled to transform him into a little glowing goblin. David flipped his eyelids back and touched his tongue to the tip of his nose in reply.
Slides of memories turned to times when he’d enjoyed playing with little cousins at the smattering of gatherings his family had had over the years. He’d take the role of some load-bearing beast as various tikes took turns using his lumbar as a trampoline. His love, Rose, would watch on with her wry smile, and his mother would tell him to stay young forever. He wished he could. He was thinking all of this, lost in a cloud of pleasant memory, when the bridge let out its first groan.
Conscious thought played no role in acting to save the kid. The boy might not be alive, but David was destined to try. He swam to the right of where his car had been swallowed by the inky depths and reached the hatchback, trying the door closest to the unconscious boy. Luck had flashed its brilliance once already in allowing David to free himself, but it was absent here. The door was jammed.
Time was not on David’s side. Even for a guy who had never smoked and ran as often as he could, he still needed air. His view of the boy was blocked by the hatchback as the car sank deeper. The hatch! David swam to the rear door, pulled on the handle, and the door yawned open. A push helped it along, and he squeezed his torso inside. The boy’s arms floated above his head in an unnerving imitation of an unstrung puppet.
David wrapped his arms under the boy’s and used his knees for leverage as he pulled the kid in close. He felt some resistance, then a sudden lurch, and they were free from the tether.
He was thankful to see the escape hadn’t caused them to sink much further, and he used the roof to propel himself and his precious cargo to the surface.
His fevered lungs ached, but he resisted the urge to empty spent oxygen in anticipation of fresh air. Eyes pressed tightly together, he pulled the kid close to his chest to reduce drag and kicked. Lights danced against the backs of his eyelids, beckoning him to explore their nature. They were bright, yet soft. Unlike anything he had ever seen before. He thought he knew their purpose as they attempted to steal him away to a place where lungs didn’t burn. Where the horrors of being crushed by crags of metal weren’t a factor. Where little boys weren’t separated from their families by cruel twists of fate.
David looked at the lights as though with wide-open eyes. He bore them no ill will, these jesters ushering him to the unconscious void, but he made his intentions known to them somehow.
I’m not ready.
The surface of the river fragmented into shards of moonlight, and David inhaled a lungful of air rivaling the first he’d taken entering this world. The wind stung as his chest billowed the sputtering flame within him.
He leaned back to pull the kid atop his own chest after the primal urge to fill his cells with oxygen had ceased and began to administer CPR, by pulling in and up on the small diaphragm. Kind of like a modified Heimlich, he thought. Fingers danced about and explored for a moment as he adjusted his grip on the boy and hoisted him until his arms were around the small ribcage. He was gentle at first, careful to avoid causing more harm than preventing, but David had no luck. The piston motion was awkward, and David felt how absurd his actions were with no leverage; he began to compress the small ribs to the breaking point.
The boy gasped as his head listed forward and to the side allowing him to expel river water. David wished he could aid him, but keeping them afloat was all he could manage. The boy’s raspy breaths pervaded the evening as the sounds of chaos at the bridge slowly ceased.
Two hundred feet above the murky surface of the Hudson River, an ethereal presence stirred. Asmodeus flexed against the cool night atop his perch on the bridge’s cantilever. Beside him, little Nirah slithered between steel columns. The serpent stared unblinking at the witless victims who moved below as Asmodeus thought over his clear directive. The boy must die. Though, the act of focusing on one soul lacked something he craved.
“You will draw eyes by extinguishing so many,” Nirah said.
“I hadn’t considered that you might deliver an opinion.” Ruinous eyes drifted to the serpent. “Do you have any more insights?” Asmodeus asked.
Nirah moved away and said, “I fear the focus of light will fall upon us.”
“Your fears are those of a bottom dweller. They tether you to the menial, little worm, and there at the bottom you will stay,” Asmodeus said. He removed his hand from the column to reveal a clawed impression. “I won’t let fear cast me down beside you.”
Nirah stared at his cohort and said nothing. Glass eyes at one with the night lent no notion of the small demon’s thoughts, though Asmodeus knew he would balk to their mother. A forked tongue flicked to the passing seconds, and Asmodeus looked toward the ordeal he’d set in motion. In truth, he wished to expand the devastation preordained by the Jacob’s Ladder of circumstances leading to this night. Misery, pain, sorrow-all were sweet nectar to be savored by the centuries-old entity.
“You’re sure the boy is among them?” Nirah asked.
The presence of the boy felt close. A newly familiar sensation he had felt few and far between over his long existence had ground its way through Asmodeus’s bravado as the boy approached. He had abhorred vulnerability since the days of Solomon, yet as of late, he and Lilith had chosen to dwell where this feeling was ever present. She had told him it radiated from the presence of a variable in the world which must not persist. This boy, one who reeked of divinity and filthy fire bearing the weight of ideals and edicts.
“He is there,” Asmodeus said.
The people below had grasped something was amiss shortly before the center span fell from the bridge. The taste of their fear was sour, not yet ripe, so unlike lambs catching the scent of a wolf, they looked incredulous of the danger before them. Humankind, made soft and supple by their lack of perception. I will make them know fear tonight, Asmodeus thought. Excitement surged within the warden of lust before becoming tempered by a sudden assault on his senses.
Nirah reacted first by throwing his small wings out to catch the night air and fled without uttering a word. Asmodeus kept his eyes on the horizon. Something was racing toward the span. Something too fast to be ignored. Something burning bright and hot.
The internal switch from predator to prey flipped, and he followed Nirah toward the succor of the forests, glancing longingly behind him as he went before being swallowed by the opaque night. The sound of Nirah being torn apart soon pierced the calm, but it too was consumed by the notes of boundless sorrow broadcast by the victims on the Hudson.
The current carried David and the boy downriver from the bridge. He saw emergency lights where the toll booths were situated on the east side of the span and wondered how long he and the boy had been in the water. Five minutes? Thirty?
“What’s your name?” David asked.
“Timmy,” the boy said, “but I like Tim too.”
David noted the quick response which was a good sign.
Tim was looking to the bridge. “It looks like Christmas lights.”
David said, “Oh yeah? Now that you mention it, it does.” He spoke in measured doses, struggling with their weight.
“They look far. We’ve gone away so far,” said Tim, his voice becoming smaller and more distant with each utterance.
David tugged Tim in closer. “Don’t worry, they’re not too far away to find us. We just have to make it to shore.” David wished he was as sure as he tried to sound.
“My mom and dad—” Tim said.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t have time to get you all. I didn’t see your parents. They may have made it out of the car.” David was never a good liar and Timmy demonstrated his opinion of David’s feigned optimism with an elongated silence.
David’s legs fought the water, and they drifted on down the river amidst glints of refracted light.
“Are we going to die?” Tim asked.
“Well,” David said, “I think it’d be a pretty cruel joke to have us get this far and then not make it. Plus, I don’t think I want to die just yet. I haven’t even eaten dinner.”
Tim stifled a small laugh. “What’s your name?”
“David,” he said, “Nice to meet you.” He reached down to feel at the leg that had to be broken. “Does that hurt?” David asked.
“Just feels numb, but if I try to bend it, something doesn’t work right,” Tim said. “It’s like up is down and left is right. Hard to explain.”
David worried over the leg, but he worried more about the boy’s shivering and speech. Tim had begun to slur. “Hey, what’s your favorite subject in school?” he asked. If I can keep this kid speaking, I can keep him awake.
“I don’t really like school. I like reading though.”
“Oh yeah? Me too. What do you read?” David asked.
“I like The Boxcar Children, but my favorite book is Where the Red Fern Grows,” Tim said.
David smiled. “I like that one too. My girlfriend really loves it even though she cries every time she reads it. She named her hamsters after Old Dan and Little Ann when she was a kid.”
“The dogs are the best part, because they love the boy and want to stay together forever,” Tim said. “I always thought it would be nice to have a friend stay forever.” Tim heaved a sigh. “My parents won’t let me get a dog.”
David thought he could use a forever friend or two to help him out right about now. Numb to the bones, his legs labored beneath jeans of lead. He looked over his shoulder; the shore seemed miles away.
“Are we getting closer?” Tim asked.
“Almost there. You hang on, okay? We’ll be wrapped in warm blankets and sipping cocoa in a few minutes,” he said, rubbing the side of Tim’s head.
“You have to leave me. You won’t make it,” Tim said.
David gave him a little squeeze. “You think I’d risk drowning to get you, and then just leave you here afterward? That’s not a great return on investment, kiddo.”
The pauses between words and phrases grew loud with silence. Tim was right. If a boat didn’t come upon them soon, they’d be found somewhere down by Rye in the morning. He could have made it alone, sure, but David knew himself. Abandoning the kid would have cleaved from him a portion of his humanity his subconscious refused to lose. He might have survived this ordeal, but he wouldn’t be able to live another day as the person he was before.
“You seem pretty interested in those stars, Tim. Do you know a lot about them?” David asked.
“I like how pretty they are up there,” he said. “They always seem brighter when the leaves are changing color.”
David risked lifting his arm to point at the sky. “You see the one that looks like a warped Q-tip? That’s Aquarius.” He outlined the stars with his finger as best he could for the kid.
“I like it. It’s big,” Tim said. His teeth chattered. “I see some more near it too. Are they constellations?” The word sounded more like “consolations.”
“There are some more near it, sure,” David said. “There’s Cetus there, and Pisces, and that one is Eridanus.”
“I wish I knew their names,” Tim whispered. His thin voice was stolen by the cold night air. “How do you know so much about them?”
“My mom is a pretty big enthusiast. She used to take out a blanket and we’d lay in the yard together. She’d point them out to me while we were looking for shooting stars,” David said. “Eridanus is a river. So it’s like we’re looking up at a river while we are floating in one.”
The thinness of his own voice escaped his notice. They watched the stars as they drifted, bodies intertwined but fates diverging. The stars stood vigil from above as David eventually stopped kicking. Time moved forward, and the winks of light, many older than the earth itself, blurred and scattered.