Cliff DeBainer stood atop the city’s infamous suicide bridge.
The Seattle Space Needle protruded into the horizon, slicing the orange hue of the Pacific northwest sky.
Wedged between a narrow walking channel and the speeding traffic, nobody noticed the ragged shadow. Cars passed. The bridge rumbled and vibrated. Moving headlights illuminated his dirty brown overcoat, every few seconds, washing him in light and then casting him back into darkness.
Only a short metal fence separated him from the fifty-foot drop. Cliff tugged at the metal to estimate the strength needed to hoist himself over the wall onto the narrow beam along the edge of the structure.
He peered into the abyss below the platform. A car honked and startled him, causing his heart to race. He could feel his pulse surge in his chest, stressing the veins in his neck and ears.
He wondered how fifty years led to this final moment. But, to his surprise, rather than reflecting on his childhood or his years as a married father and business executive, he could only recall faded images of the past twelve lonely years on the streets.
He tried to picture Rindy as an eighteen-year-old woman. She probably drove a car by now. Maybe she graduated high school or attended college. He recalled her short, brown hair and her bright green eyes, her little round cheeks and the freckles across her nose. As much as he tried to imagine her grown and developed, he could only construct her tiny six-year-old face and waifish physique, another reminder of his failure as a father and as a man.
The words of the old woman from the train echoed in his mind.
“It’s the lowest scum of the earth,” she said. “A man who leaves his kid.”
He tried to remove the image of her ashen, wrinkled face. But, her yellow jagged teeth and bulbous nose dominated his mind. He focused his thoughts on his precious Rindy. But he could only picture the decrepit hag from the train, with dimpled skin, struggling to wheeze bits of air in and out of her lungs.
Cliff tested his strength against the metal bars. With a tug, he lifted his first leg over the fence and rested it precariously on the narrow ledge separating him from the deathly drop. As he slung his second leg over the railing, his overcoat tore against a decorative twist of metal. For a moment, he lay stuck with his feet against the ledge and his gut arched over the top of the short metal restraining gate. But with a yank that almost threw his center of gravity over the edge, he freed himself, leaving a swatch of the tattered overcoat behind as his only legacy to the world.
Another car honked at him. Slowing, with the window open, a gangly teenager leaned out shouting; “Do it dude.” From inside the car, a chorus of youths chanted; “Jump. Jump. Jump.”
The voices faded as the car sped away with the stream of traffic.
Cliff stood with his back to the cars and trucks. They passed in slow motion. The sounds of their engines diminished as if turning down the volume on a radio.
Cliff inhaled the cool, fresh air from the channel below. He tucked his long, wavy hair into his large bucket hat and glanced into the darkness. Below his feet, as the rain descended into the unseen body of water below, Cliff could see only blackness.
He tried to conjure the image of his daughter once more. But the picture of the hag from the train appeared instead. He flinched at her droopy sweater that barely covered her saggy, cavernous cleavage, the rolls of stomach fat that cascaded into her lap and her most distinctive feature; the two stubs that extended from the bench where anyone else would have legs.
“Nobody wants to hear your sob story about a lost daughter,” she said to him. “Go find a different train to work. This one’s mine.”
Cliff reached into his pocket and pulled out three crumpled dollars; the ones he pulled from her hat and waved in her face before exiting the train and laughing at her. As the train pulled out, he recalled watching her struggle to turn and look out the window at him. He could still see the top of her white curly hair disappear into the depths of the tunnel.
The bills felt damp in his hand, heavier than three pieces of paper should be. He crumbled them into a ball and tossed them over the edge, watching them flitter like birds in the wind.
His heart raced. His hands clutched the side of the bridge. His feet pulsed.
He reached into the deep inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out an ornate gold watch. It made a barely discernible ticking sound as the second hand notched its way around the circular face. He turned it over and looked at the engraved message.
“Happy 10th Anniversary – Cliff & Nancy”.
He considered tossing it into the wind like the three-dollar bills, but instead slid it back into the deep side pocket of his overcoat.
From his pants pocket, he pulled out a crinkled photo of Rindy. Her big eyes peered through his soul. He kissed the picture, closed his fist around it and stuck it back into the pocket of his jeans.
He didn’t notice the jam of traffic or the figure that slowly approached from behind.
“Hey there, bud,” he said, in a slow soothing voice, rain bouncing off his camouflaged jacket, dampening the graying hair that fell across his forehead. “What’s going on tonight?”
Cliff looked over his shoulder and ignored the figure, who stood in the breakdown lane as the traffic rushed by him.
“My name’s Kipp Collina,” he said. “I live in the neighborhood just across from the on-ramp. I run a group called the Guardians of the Aurora. We watch the bridge and assist people who need our help. I haven’t seen you here before.”
“I walked here from Westlake,” Cliff said. “Everyone knows this bridge is the best one to jump from.”
“That’s why we come out here at night,” Kipp continued. “Why don’t you climb back over the gate and we’ll have a conversation. Just you and me.”
“Go away,” Cliff snarled. “I came here to jump. I was just thinking before I went.”
“It’s good to think about it,” Kipp took a step forward. “Maybe, before you do anything you can’t undo, we could think about it together.”
“I’m done thinking now,” Cliff called back over his shoulder. “All I think about is the damn woman from the train.”
“Why don’t you tell me about her?” Kipp said, glancing nervously at the passing cars.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Cliff snapped, loosening his grip. “I killed her and now she’s dead.”
Kipp took another step forward. His voice tightened. His radio squawked. Two other voices mentioned something about other “Aurora Guardians” on their way.
“Why don’t you tell me what happened on the train,” Kipp said, maintaining his even voice. “Who’s this woman?”
“The one with no legs,” Cliff said, peering into the blackness below his feet. “I stole her money. Then I felt bad, so I went back this morning. But she wasn’t there anymore.”
Cliff could feel Kipp encroach on him.
“I couldn’t find her anywhere,” he continued. “So, I asked the maintenance worker in the tunnel and he said she died overnight, right there on the train. She just fell over and croaked.”
“Doesn’t sound like you’re to blame,” Kipp said, with his hands extended like a big bat in a camouflage rain poncho.
“Don’t get any closer,” Cliff said, as sweat dripped from the bucket hat that hid his long hair.
“Everyone’s got something to live for,” Kipp pleaded. “Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself; where you’re from.”
Cliff ignored his Samaritan. He tried one more time to focus on the little girl he abandoned. But he could only picture the disabled woman on the train, lying face down on the seat with her eyes closed, her leg stubs sticking out from her ruffled skirt and her wrinkled skin pressed against the colorful plastic seat.
He heard the muffled sound of Kipp’s voice as if coming from a great distance. He closed his eyes. His heart stopped. His pulse froze. And with a flex of his forearm and twitch of his stomach, he let go of the railing and leaned away from the Seattle Aurora Bridge.
Kipp lunged as Cliff’s center of gravity extended beyond his balance.
Free from the rail of the bridge and just beyond his guardian’s reach, Cliff felt the weightless freedom of the invisible force of gravity as he hurtled down toward the unknown blackness beneath him.