My teeth chatter as I lean my forearms against the concrete guardrail of the bridge. The icy December wind slices through my clothes like a knife. The numbness encasing me has nothing to do with the single digit wind chill; it’s from trying to breathe around the lead weight in my chest. Trying to keep myself breathing has me exhausted. And I’m so tired of fighting against this weight. Of fighting to exist. I’m done fighting. Maybe this is cowardly, but I never claimed to be brave anyway.
I stare down at the black wind-whipped waves of the Wabash River as I try to work up the courage to climb over the rail and into the depths. To put myself out of my misery. Some distant part of me wants to stay. To put up a stronger fight. The other part of me is beyond done and exhausted. I could end everything right now. The pain, the shame, the soul-crushing numbness, all of it. All I have to do is climb on the rail and shove off. Easy.
Except…maybe it’s not. Maybe I’m wrong.
Being torn between life and death does nothing to help the ache in my chest.
If I thought I had a chance, staying would be a no-brainer. But the odds have never been in my favor. Why should that change now?
“Hey. You okay?” a gravelly male voice calls behind me, startling me. I’ve been so lost in my own head I didn’t hear the footsteps. He sounds like he’s on the opposite side of the bridge, though with the wind it’s hard to tell.
“Why does it matter?” I scrub a hand across my face. I don’t want some stranger knowing I’ve been crying.
“Because it’s freezing out here and people don’t usually stand on the bridge when it’s snowing. I don’t think.”
The sound of his voice getting closer makes me stiffen. I don’t know this guy. He could be a serial killer. Or a mugger.
“Y’want the truth? I have no heat. I’m barely making enough money to keep the lights and water turned on. My floor tries to eat my ankles. The roof is falling through. The walls are fuzzy. And I can’t afford to move. I can’t get on anywhere outside of the doggy daycare where I work. And I haven’t had anything to eat for three days. So, I’m a little depressed.” I don’t turn to look at him. Who he is and what he looks like doesn’t matter.
“You’re gonna freeze to death.”
“Yeah, so? Nobody cares.”
“I care. I’ve got an extra bedroom. Heat. And food. I don’t usually try to bring strangers home.”
“Lemme guess. Y’want me to sleep with you in return. Fine. Whatever.”
“No. I, uh, I spent fourteen years being trafficked. My name’s Ransom, by the way.”
“Jake. I’m an idiot.”
“No. Let’s go, huh? Get warm.”
Agreeing reluctantly, I turn around. He’s cute. Short, soft-looking curly black hair. Jade green eyes. Olive skin. Lips that look perfect for kissing. We’re about the same height, around six-foot. He’s dressed in all black, making him hard to see in the dark. A silver necklace glints in the streetlights from it’s place around his neck. It looks like there’s a Star of David on it.
“Why’re you wearing black after dark? Do you want someone to run over you?” I ask.
“Black shows off my skin less.”
“Where do you live at anyway?”
“Out past Good Sam’s. Past the graveyard.”
“Ah. So, um, why’d you think I wanted sex out of this?”
“If you do, it’s fine.”
“I don’t. I don’t like hookups. You are kinda cute, but, no.”
“That’s the only way people have offered to help. I can’t afford to help much on rent, so sex is what they expect. It’s why I still live where I do.” I follow him down Second Street, leaving the river and bridge behind. My legs have gone numb from cold.
“They want you to whore yourself out to them. That’s disturbing. I hate people.” He leads me down Main Street. He walks faster than I do, which is easier with his long legs.
“I’m desperate enough now to do it. Which is sad.”
“Does your family know you’re living like this?”
“No. I, um, I’ve been alone for a while. There was a car wreck. I was seventeen. I was home with the flu. My dad fell asleep driving and hit a semi head-on. We think. They died at the scene.”
“I’m sorry.” He keeps going, leading me past what used to be a movie theater before it became a church, which then became a laser tag place, which is now a pizza sports bar.
“Yeah. So, I didn’t have a choice but to try to stay alive. I didn’t have anyone who could take me in and too much pride to ask.” I sigh with relief when he finally stops at some single-story apartments. They’re nice. Much nicer than the house I’m renting.
“Turned into a Jake-sicle yet?” His teeth gleam white in the dark as he grins at me. He takes me to the end apartment on the left.
“Almost.” I’d almost forgotten what having heat felt like.
He has a nice apartment. The living room is brightly lit by a plain floor lamp. There’s no fuzzy mold on the beige walls. The honey laminate floor isn’t trying to eat my feet. It’s honestly pretty plain. It doesn’t leave me any clues as to who he is, outside of the GED framed on the wall.
“I’m proud of that bad boy,” he explains, smiling sheepishly.
“Nothin’ wrong with that. Um, thank you for doing this. I owe you.” I take my battered tennis shoes off and put them with his Converse by the door.
“No, you don’t. I ate at work, but I can fix you something to eat.”
“Is it okay if I cook? No offense. I just—You’ve already been so nice to me.”
“Go ahead. None taken, Jake.” He’s still smiling as he leads me into the small kitchen.
“Where do you work?”
“Daily Grind. It’s a coffee shop by the university. I’m a barista.”
“D’you like it? D’you have any ramen noodles?” I like ramen. It’s cheap, for one thing. I guess it shows how poor I am when I can’t even afford ramen noodles.
“Usually. The pay isn’t bad. Some of the people suck. Mostly, I have trouble with the customers. I have social anxiety, so dealing with customers is kinda a nightmare. I end up thinking they’re judging me, even when they’re not. I can get them out for you.” He opens one of the upper cabinets and pulls out several packets of noodles. “Have as many as you want.”
“Thank you. D’you have any cheese? So, why do you think they’re judging you? I mean, you don’t smell and you seem really nice.”
“Yeah. Because I feel like by the time I’ve said ‘Hello’ they’ve already stereotyped me and written me off. Or they can see my crap childhood written all over me.” He sets a two-pound bag of shredded cheddar cheese on the counter for me.
“Which is worse?”
“The stereotyping. I’ve had people think they were going to get HIV from touching their cup of coffee after I handed it to them. Or that the reason I drive a beat-up Blazer is because I’m too cheap to buy a better car. The last one came from a coworker. And, if they know about my past, they think I’m easy.” He toys with the edge of his sweatshirt sleeve.
“I’m sorry.” I dump two packets of noodles and water in a bowl and put it in the microwave.
“Yeah, me too.”
“I barely graduated, but even I know HIV isn’t transmitted like that. Why do they think you’re easy? I mean, you don’t seem like the kind of guy who sleeps with anyone and everyone.” I glance at him shyly before turning my attention back to the microwave. The kitchen smells like noodles now.
“I spent fourteen years being sold to other men. And getting the crap knocked out of me if I didn’t make them happy enough or my ‘owner’ was having a bad day.” Shoving his hands into his pockets, he stares uncomfortably at the floor.
“That’s horrible.” I burn my hands on the bowl because I’m too hungry and impatient to wait for it to cool.
“That’s why I didn’t want you repaying me with sex. It felt too similar to what I went through. I should be making sure you’re okay, not giving you my life story.”
“I’ll be fine.” I add a handful of cheese to my drained noodles. I don’t want to find out if Ransom is as good at reading people as I suspect.
“I don’t mind listening. I thought you were planning on jumping.”
“I was thinking about it.” I toy absently with my fork, dragging it around in the cheesy mess.
“I kinda wanna be sure you’re gonna be alive in the morning.”
“It’s not like anyone’s gonna miss me. I don’t have anyone to miss me. That sounded a lot less depressing in my head.”
“I haven’t had a reason to stay for a while. And it just built up enough tonight that I almost did something about it. Except I’m too much of a coward.” I feel myself starting to break apart again and I hate it more than I’ve ever hated anything. Not only am I coward, I’m a weak coward.
“You’re not a coward. You chose not to. That’s brave. You chose to let me try saving you.”
“And maybe I’m not worth saving.”
“But maybe you are. I didn’t think I was.”
I smile hesitantly when Ransom lies down next to me on my borrowed bed. I don’t remember the last time I laid somewhere so comfortable.
I asked him to stay with me. I did this. If he wants anything, I have to give it. I owe him, I remind myself.
“You okay?” he asks quietly in the dark.
“Not really.” I’m still freezing. And my depression is still a physical ache in my chest.
“What would help?”
“Are you okay doing this? I don’t wanna screw you up. I’m already screwed up. And broken. And you’ve been super nice about all this.”
“I’m a little on edge, but you’re not doing anything to make me think you’ll attack me. Jake, has something happened?” The concern in his low voice surprises me. I’m not someone people worry about.
“Yeah. Um, my parents weren’t good people. They didn’t want me. Or love me.”
“They abused you?”
“Neglect. I don’t remember the last time someone hugged me. Or cared if I ate. I used to take myself to the doctor because they couldn’t be bothered. Who cared if I had bronchitis and was coughing so badly I threw up or peed my pants?”
“I can hug you if you want. I won’t do anything. I promise.”
“You’re very touchy-feely, aren’t you?”
“Not really. Just wanna help.”
“They made it pretty clear I was in the way. D-does your family know what happened? Or were they ones who did that?”
“No, they don’t know. Haven’t tried to contact them. I was kidnapped.”
“You don’t have a boyfriend who’s gonna get mad about this, do you?”
“No boyfriend. No friends with benefits either. Is this messing with you?”
“A little.” I shift uncomfortably on the soft futon.
“I can move.”
“No. You’re warm.” I flinch at the unexpected rumble of his laughter. “I feel like I’m such a waste of space.”
“You’re not. I promise.”
He stays up all night with me. He doesn’t act mad or anything about it which surprises me. He seems happy to see I’m still alive when the sun comes up.
“So, I should probably go home,” I mumble. Back to my fuzzy walls.
“Actually, I’ve been thinking about getting a roommate. Sounds like you need a better place to stay.”
“I can’t afford it. I mean, I can clean and cook.”
“That would work. If you want to.”
“I want out of that house. The landlord won’t fix it. He keeps raising my rent, so I’ll probably be on the street if I don’t do this. I can’t afford to get it fixed. Not that he’d approve it if I could.”
“I’ll help you pack if you want. You don’t need to be on the streets.”
“As a heart attack. I have work, but I can help you after I get done. You’re welcome to hang out there.”
“Nah, that’s okay. Um, I don’t really feel like getting out of bed.”
“Alright. You got a phone? I’ll give you my number and you can text me if you want.”
He doesn’t seem happy about leaving me alone, which is surprising. A lot about him surprises me, though.