by Christopher Kokoski
Under a black night that seemed to fold in on itself in a myriad of ways like a Japanese origami work of art, Jonathan Skye watched the old man shuffle up to the very edge of the bridge.
Although shrouded in shadow, the paper-thin quality of the darkness allowed Jonathan to recognize subtle clues that the old man was no less sightseeing across the sprawling Indiana park than a would-be bank robber was considering his options for opening a new checking account. Stooped shoulders, lowered head, deadpan gait. The slow and reluctant march of a man on the way to his own execution.
Jonathan frowned, unconsciously gripping his daughter’s small hand tighter. His gut prickled with an anxiety his mind had not yet fully comprehended.
“Ow, Daddy, that hurts.”
He released his daughter’s hand, for a moment back on the sidewalk flanking the park. “Sorry, Lil.”
Lil was short for Lilly, his five-year old daughter, one of the few redeeming products of his life. No matter what happened, he would eternally be thankful for her.
“I think you broke my hand.”
“Hands don’t break that easy, Lil.”
She rubbed her offended digits, brow furrowed in serious concern. “It feels broken.”
“It just hurts. Daddy squeezed too hard. It’ll feel better soon.”
Lips pursed as if not yet fully convinced of the condition of her limp and wilted palm, she asked, “What’s that man doing?”
He looked back at the figure perched atop the bridge. Good question. From this perspective, the stone structure curved into a frown, not the glum expression of the dissatisfied, but the sneering scowl of a madman.
On the highest point of the bridge, the bedraggled stranger pressed his body against the stone railing as if to peer over the edge.
As the man tilted himself farther over the railing, Jonathan found himself dragging his daughter along the twisty trail into the park. Something felt imminent in his movements, his actions significant in a way that he couldn’t quite explain. Troubled halos of cold air plumed from his mouth with each exhalation.
Halfway to the bridge, he abandoned the path and cut across the lawn. There were no sounds tonight, traffic sparse and distant. The park was empty.
“Daddy, slow down. You’re going too fast.”
With a strength born of adrenaline, he swung his daughter off the ground and into his arms without heeding her advice to decrease his speed. As if her extra weight were dry timber added to a bonfire, a fresh burst of vapor chugged from his mouth.
Reaching the foot of the bridge, Jonathan labored with his daughter in tow to the top of the edifice. He stopped ten feet away from the old man, lungs burning. The old man now leaned so far over the side of the railing only the toes of his shoeless feet touched the ground.
Closer now, the man’s features became more decipherable. He wore a ragged overcoat, torn and dirty from years of hard use and harder living. Even from a distance he had appeared old, but at this close proximity he looked as ancient as the stones upon which his torso balanced.
“Don’t jump,” Jonathan said, not sure what to say but wanting to say something.
Now that he stood near the man, the sensation that his actions were significant intensified. He felt certain that something deeper than a bum committing suicide was happening here, something more profound.
The vagrant turned his head toward Jonathan and his daughter, his eyes pallid and chalky. He blinked, and somewhere on the other side of the world, a shelf of ice ruptured into a frozen sea.
Thinking his words were having the desired effect, Jonathan repeated them: “Don’t jump.”
“Please,” the old man croaked. “Let me be.” He sniffled and a thousand trees died in a faraway jungle. Animals witnessing this sudden and inexplicable death of nature panicked and scurried into hiding.
I hope you enjoyed the excerpt. There are 2 1/2 more pages in the finished story which may or may not be part of a special project I’m putting together over the next few months.