Keys

She stood in the shadow of a pylon, trembling with something more than cold. A vagrant moonbeam turned her breath into a silver halo. I didn’t want to frighten her, so I cleared my throat. She turned, her eyes wide.

“Sorry,” I said. “You wouldn’t have a light?”

She stared, then shook her head. “I’m sorry. I don’t smoke.” She made a noise somewhere between a sob and a laugh. “I never tried it. Cancer, you know?”

I held up my hands. “It’s all right. I don’t smoke either. I wanted an excuse to talk.

She wrapped her arms around herself. “I don’t want to talk. I’m okay. Leave me alone.”

“No, you’re not,” I said, taking off my coat and holding it out. “You’ve been here at least half an hour. Probably closer to an hour, since you got off work at midnight.”

That earned me a startled look. “Have you been following me?”

I pointed at her. “Your hair is wet, but the rain stopped half an hour ago. And your clothing: you’re not out on the town in that get-up. You’re a waitress. Probably from Luciano’s, up the road. That place closes by midnight on Sundays. Now: are you going to take the coat, or just stand there and freeze?”

She looked at the coat. Her jaw hardened. “I’m not cold,” she said. “Just leave me alone, okay?”

“One thing, then,” I said. “Just one. If I get it right, you take the coat. If I’m wrong, I walk away. Deal?”

The wind came up off the bay, and a shudder grabbed her. She rubbed her bare arms, and glanced at my coat again.

“It’s an Armani,” I said. “My wife gave it to me. Mostly it’s way too warm, but nights like this it’s just right.”

“One thing,” she said, still looking at my coat. “What one thing? I’m not agreeing until I know.”

“I can tell you why you came here,” I said. “How’s that?”

Her lip curled. “Big challenge,” she said. “Girl alone on a high bridge at one in the morning. Duh. If that’s the best you’ve got, just keep on walking. This is none of your business.”

I shook my head. “No, I meant that if I can guess why you decided to do this, you take the coat.”

Her hands flexed rhythmically, opening and closing like pale night-flowers. “All right,” she said. “That would be something.”

“Okay,” I said. “Boyfriend is too broad. That would be cheating. So here’s my guess: fiance. Anniversary. And he called it off. By phone.”

She blinked. Her mascara had run, giving her raccoon eyes. Finally, she reached across and put her hand on my coat. I unfolded it, and slung it over her shoulders.

“So,” she said. “You’re psychic. Or you’re Sherlock Holmes. Which is it?”

“I used to be a cop,” I admitted. I pointed to the concrete parapet. A jewel glinted in the moonlight. “You had that ring in your hand for ages. You held it out over the water once, but then you put it back in your pocket. When you put it down there… that’s when I thought we should chat.”

She sniffed, went to rub the sleeve of my coat across her face, then stopped. “Go ahead,” I said. “Or there’s a handkerchief in the breast pocket. I haven’t used it.”

“Thank you,” she whispered. Fumbling in the oversized sleeves, she blew her nose wetly. “All right. I understand about the fiance. But the rest?”

“The package sticking out of your handbag is wrapped in paper that says Happy Anniversary. He wouldn’t have sent you a present, so it’s something you picked up for him before work. Only while you were at work, you found out it was all over. So — a phone call.” I turned up my hands, and smiled. “Like I said. I was a cop.”

The girl frowned. “What if maybe someone had told me he was cheating?”

“Could have happened,” I acknowledged. “But then you’d be angry. You’d go see him, find out the truth . Instead you’re standing on a bridge, still carrying the anniversary gift you picked out for him. What is it, by the way?”

“A silk tie,” she said, lifting her chin defiantly. “A Sulka. He graduated last week. He’s going to be a doctor. He needs to look good.”

“Nice,” I said. “Must have been hard on waitress-money.”

“Luciano pays okay,” she said. “He gives me extra shifts when I ask.”

“The food’s good there too,” I said. “Does he still do that zabaglione, right at the table?”

She nodded, and pulled the coat tighter. The wind picked up a little, and without thinking, I wrapped my arms around my chest.

“You’re getting cold,” she said. “Look — the coat isn’t going to do me any good, really. Why don’t you just…Her voice trailed off, and she looked down.

“Why don’t I just take my coat and go, so you can get on with it?” I finished for her. “Because we’re talking now, aren’t we?”

She didn’t say anything.

“All right,” I said. “One more thing. Just one. I get it right, and we talk for a while. If I’m wrong, I take the coat and go.

Still she didn’t move. The wind whistled, and the bridge-wires hummed. In the distance, a train hooted, sad and low.

“Keys,” I said. “You’re still carrying your keys.”

That got her attention. “What’s that got to do with anything? They’re in my bag. Of course I have them.” There was an angry edge to her voice, like I’d betrayed her somehow.

“You don’t get it,” I said. “One of the reasons I stopped being a copper: the suicides. I hated those. Coming in, finding the body. It hurts you. I know too much about suicide.” I turned away from those raccoon eyes, and looked out over the dark, heaving waters of the bay. “There’s two kinds of suicide,” I said. “The ones who really mean it, and the ones that succeed by accident. The third kind – the ones that think about it, play with it, maybe take a few pills or drag a razor across a wrist and phone a friend – they don’t count. It’s only suicide if it kills you, right?”

She laughed, then. Just a half-hearted giggle, but it was more than the joke deserved. It made me feel a little warmer. “I’ve got a friend like that,” she said. “It gets dull after the first couple of three a.m. phone calls.”

“Everybody’s got a friend like that,” I said. “And you’re right. But the ones that really do it… It was the accidental successes that I hated most. Like the kid who jumped on the train tracks last month. You read about that? What the paper didn’t say: the kid was trying to climb back up on the platform there, at the last moment. Changed his mind. Except, you know. Trains don’t stop very quickly.”

“Do you get — did you get many like that?” Her voice was soft. I had to listen to pick it out above the wind and the distant waves.

“More than you’d think. Thing is, you can usually pick the accidentals from the ones that really mean it.”

“How?

“Preparation,” I said. “There was this guy.” I turned to her again, and leaned back with my elbows on the parapet. “You mind if I tell you? It’s ugly, but it will help you understand.”

She nodded.

“This guy,” I went on. “He had psychiatric problems. A file thicker than my head. Must have been a dozen attempts, mostly with pills. But when he finally decided to do it? It was on. He made a big argument with his sister. Then he packed up all his clothes and his gear, like he was going away. Shut down his accounts, paid his bills, told her he was leaving. He stole two full packets of valium from her bathroom. Then he drove his car off into a country road, under the trees where it wouldn’t be found easily. He ran a hose from the exhaust through the window. Sat there in the car, breathed deep, washed down those two packs of valium with a litre and a half of vodka. They didn’t find him for five days.”

“Wow,” she said. “That’s…. intense.”

“He made his mind up,” I said. “He was ready to go. It’s sad, but the ones like him never hurt so much as the others, you know? At least you always knew they really meant to do it. And you,” I said, nodding at her. “With your handbag. And your keys, like you’re planning to drive home afterwards. You left a car at work, didn’t you? You weren’t going to walk home dressed like that.”

She blinked, and then she smiled. It was a pale little thing, but I liked the look of that smile.

“You’re… what?” I asked. “Twenty? Maybe twenty-two?”

“Twenty-one next month,” she said. Her face crumpled. “We were going to set the wedding date at my party. Son of a bitch!” She brought out my handkerchief again, and dabbed at her face. “Oh, God. I must look like shit.”

“It’ll pass,” I said. “Twenty-one. You’ve got a lot ahead of you, girl. Maybe you’ll let me give you a bit of advice? Even if I sound like a cliche sitcom dad.”

She laughed. “Can I ignore it like a cliche sitcom teenage daughter?”

“Deal,” I agreed. “Okay. Listen. Twenty-one is too young to give up over a guy who’s too gutless to break it with you face to face. He’s not worth all this.”

Her bottom lip quivered, but she lifted her head. “I know that,” she said. Her voice broke. “I know that. I was just…”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“Oh, shit,” she breathed. “I’m so late. My flatmate – she must be freaking out.”

“That’s all right,” I said. “She’lll get over it. Look, my car is in the lot at the end of the bridge. It’s not locked. Why don’t you get out of this chill?”

“Thanks,” she said automatically, then paused. “What are you going to do?”

“What I came here to do, you know?” I gestured at my zipper, and turned towards the edge of the bridge.

“Oh.” She wrinkled her nose. “Men!”

I picked up the ring. “What about this?”

“Throw it in,” she snarled, and pushed her wet hair back from her face. “Can you believe he asked me to return it?”

I nodded. “Tell you what. I’lll toss it over and see if I can hit it on the way down.”

She laughed again, a bright and charming sound, and turned away.

She’d be all right. It wouldn’t be an easy road, but she was young.

I let her get out of sight before I unfolded the note from the hospital again. Even in the moonlight, it was easy to read. And damning.

Tertiary stage. Metastatic.

I’d seen enough of that when my wife died.

I climbed the parapet, balancing on the handrail. The ring made a silvery sound as I spun it off my thumb into the darkness, glittering all the way down to the waters far below.

I wondered how long it would take her to notice the keys in the ignition of the car.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________

I wrote this for a lit comp which turned out not to exist any more. But the magazine behind the lit comp liked it and claimed it. They never did tell me if/when it saw publication, though. Lit mags are… problematic folks to work with, I’ve found. The genre people tend to be a lot more approachable and communicative. Of course, that could just be me…

It was written about ten, maybe twelve years after The Fading Memory Of Music. I find the stylistic similarities interesting. I’ve written many things in between these two works. It came as a mild surprise to discover myself almost doubling back…

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4 comments

  1. I liked the story, but I was expecting a twist the whole way through involving a snake and I got to the end feeling confused.

    I then went back to the start and realised I had misread pylon for python subconsciously.

    I am going to take this as an extreme example of why no two people read the same story.

    and not that I read funny.

    1. Python. Heeeheeheeheeheeheeheeheeee….

      And of course, when he gestured at his zipper you expected the trouser snake?

  2. Stop reading my mind Magician.

  3. […] and the more disparate those reactions, the better. If you want an example from me, dash back to Keys, from a week or two ago. Read it? Good. I’ll go […]

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