“I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.”
Aiden and Lucy stayed at my apartment until five, then a hired driver took them home. I was sad to see them go. My apartment was most lonely right after they left, when everything was clean and put together. When I sat in the silence for too long, I would start hearing beckoning voices. I left around seven right as the whispers invaded my mind.
The western end of the city was surprisingly quiet at night. The traffic was scant, and, since it was mostly apartments and little houses, there wasn’t much activity. Moisture saturated the air and pierced my thin clothing. I had only grabbed a thin sweater before going out.
I shoved my cold hands into my pockets and took slow, deep gulps of the clean evening air, following the streetlights along the dark sidewalk. City center’s massive skyscrapers loomed ahead of me.
I walked at night often, watching people, running from the demons. Sometimes I looked for Courtney in old drug dealers’ buildings or gang-hangouts. Other times, I was distracted by more spontaneous activities. I liked to think that I was some sort of...protector wandering the streets. I often broke up fights, and I even ran off several muggers once.
Ever since I died, things felt different. There was a disconnect in my head where familiarity should have been. The world was a blur of meaningless stimuli – lights, sounds, shapes. I felt as if I could see through everything, pierce the facade of the people surrounding me and scan their motivations. I saw the demons chained behind their eyes, gnawing through their sanity.
And yet, despite this understanding...I couldn’t connect with people in the same way.
I’d tried to explain my condition in many different ways. Every explanation seemed as confusing and illogical as the last. When you were dead, you were supposed to move on. As I realized that I might never understand what was happening, I began to wonder if I could die again. I might have started experimenting if I hadn’t finally come up with a satisfactory answer. I was here because I still had a task to perform. A purpose. There were people that needed saving – Courtney was the first. I had to find her and protect her. After that...well, I figured I would be able to escape.
In the two years after my death, I always wondered if my murderers would come back. My parents told me that Courtney’s captors held her for ransom. After the attack, I did my best to describe them to the police, but I did my own research after that, trying to hunt them down. I never encountered them again, but I did notice strange, isolated incidents over the years. Odd phone calls where someone hung up the moment I picked up. People following me or members of the family. A few threatening notes.
The closer I came to city center, the more traffic I encountered. I couldn’t imagine where so many people were going in such a hurry after dark, but it wasn’t any of my business. Up ahead, I could see the regal, lit-up bridge spanning the dark river. The river cut through the activity, dividing city center from the west side. Traffic across the bridge was always congested, and I already heard the impatient honking. Wearing a faint smile, I crossed the road and began to walk along the bridge. Beneath me, the water was soft and lapping, a sluggish form in the night.
I could imagine Courtney walking beside me, her ginger hair swinging in the breeze, her eyes searching the blank sky for stars. I wanted to reach out and grasp her warm fingers, but she was nothing but an ephemeral mist.
Courtney, my beautiful star. I still see your light.
Sighing, I watched the traffic as I meandered along the sidewalk. There were four lanes on the bridge, but the sidewalks were rather narrow.
I glanced ahead and frowned. Several yards in front of me, a man sat on the railing, staring down at the dark water. His clothing looked worn, hanging from his tall, hunched frame. His knuckles were turning white as they gripped the steel railing. He had straw-colored hair that was cropped short with a cowlick in the front. As I approached, I saw the lines of anxiety and desperation in his face, eyes looking like those of a doll.
It was sad to see people like this. People who thought death was an escape. I had to chuckle under my breath. Death certainly hadn’t been an escape for me. It was even more of a prison than my privileged little life had been.
And one glance at him told me that this man didn’t want to die. If he did, he wouldn’t have gone into public to do it.
I couldn’t stand the thought of someone hurting, even from a psychological pain. Maybe that’s why I was never able to walk past this sort of thing. Without any sort of plan in mind, I climbed over the rail and sat next to him, taking a gulp of the clear, pleasant air. The man jumped, his scared, animal eyes fastening on me. I looked over at him with a smile. The man seemed familiar to me, but I wasn’t sure why.
I turned and looked out over the water. “Nice night, huh?” I said.
He stared at me for several seconds, looking torn between running away and tackling me, then replied, “Uh...yeah...yeah, nice night...”
“Not a very good fall though.” I braced my feet against the bottom rail and held onto the top, leaning forward so there was nothing between me and the dark water, flirting with the death I knew so well. She was an old friend. “Long way down.” I looked over my shoulder.
If it was possible, he looked more tense than before.
I laughed, swinging around to face him and the bridge. “If you wanted to be left alone, you should have been a little less obvious.”
Color entered his cheeks, and he demanded, “Who are you?”
“I’m a visitor,” I said with a dramatic flourish, “from another world.”
“Like hell you are.”
“I thought this was what you wanted. To come out here and have some revelation that would keep you from going through with it.” I forced a sad smile. “Isn’t that what they all want? Someone to talk them into living a little longer?”
He looked at me like a third arm was growing out of my head. Then a look of suspicion spread across his face. “Did someone send you to find me? Who are you?”
I shook my head. “No, no one sent me. My name’s Jack.” I let go of the rail with one hand and extended it to the anxious man. He stared at my hand a long moment before giving it a tentative shake. “What’s your name?”
His eyes narrowed, and he didn’t reply.
I climbed back over the rail and stood on the sidewalk, looking down at the water before glancing over at him. He didn’t meet my gaze, eyes wandering, hands squirming together. He had the look of a whipped dog that was afraid of getting hit again. And for all his hostility, something in me knew he was glad for my presence. If he didn’t want me here, he would have sent me away.
“Death isn’t any better,” I said after a long moment of silence. “It really isn’t.”
He looked at me warily and let out a humorless laugh. Sweat glistened on the back of his neck in the light of the streetlamps. Again, his familiarity struck me. I frowned, trying to connect his face with a memory, but I had enough trouble with that sort of thing as it was.
Suspicion lined his face, and he snapped, “Why are you here?”
I shrugged. I hadn’t the faintest idea what to do or say in this situation. I wished that Aiden was here. Between the two of us, maybe we could find something to say. Alone, I felt terribly inept.
“Is it because you like to watch?” The man’s brow drew into a deep furrow. “Revenge, is that it? You’re a sick freak.”
It felt as if I’d taken a punch to the stomach. Freak. The word soaked into my mind and pierced a hole in my chest. Was that really why I was here? Was this a sick obsession I’d created in my psyche? A love affair with death?
I met his furious gaze in confusion. “Revenge? What are you talking about?”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about.” He started to turn on the rail, as if to get back onto the sidewalk. “Well fine, have your laugh, you little bastard. You’re entitled to it. But you’d better be gone by the time I get over there or I’ll...” Just before he could swing his leg over, one foot slipped, and he dropped toward the water, letting out a horrified cry. His arms straightened with an abrupt snap and a groan as he clutched the rail.
I lunged forward, my hands tangling in the sleeves of his jacket. An eerie calm settled over me. The man’s hands reddened as he clutched the rail for dear life, his legs hanging in thin air. His face was contorted, eyes staring toward me unseeingly. Hanging over the rail from the waist up, I locked one hand around his arm and the other in the back of his jacket, hauling on him with all my might. Between my tugging and his frantic scrabbling, he came flying over the rail. His momentum – or rather, the disgruntled shove he gave me – sent me stumbling across the narrow sidewalk.
I tried to catch myself but tripped over the curb. Sudden, impossible impact grazed my hip and threw me against the concrete. Pain stung my hands. A car had clipped me on the way by. The sound of traffic battered my ears as a primal sense of panic filled my body. I looked up in time to see dual headlights rushing toward me. Deafened by honking and the screeching of tires, I lunged back toward the sidewalk, my face contorted. “Shit! Shit!”
Sudden agony shot up my right leg, paralyzing me from the waist down. I screamed, squeezing my eyes shut, as a wave of fiery heat attacked my body. Blood boiled in my ears, shutting out the surrounding commotion.
Strong hands grabbed me under the arms and wrenched me onto the sidewalk. I fell to my side, immobilized, desperately trying not to cry as my broken leg smacked the concrete. A shadow fell over me, and I looked up at the pale-faced man through tear-filled eyes. His face was twisted in rage, and I think he was shouting, but I couldn’t make out the words past the ringing in my ears.
I started to laugh. I was amused at myself for being so afraid. What did I have to be afraid of? Dying?
A look of shock and disgust spread across expression.
As the clouds in my vision began to dissipate, I saw several cars stopping, including the one that hit me. This just made me laugh harder as hysteria took over. I was the idiot that fell into traffic, and these people acted like it was their fault.
I looked down at my leg in an attempt to measure the extent of the damage. The wheel hit me below the knee, but it made me nauseous to see it bent in such a strange position. I leaned my head against the pavement, shivering, and waited.
The man was still looking at me like he wanted to rip my head off, but after a few minutes he wrapped me in his jacket and waited with me until the ambulance arrived.