John, an American Christian on a work assignment in the UK, just wants to photograph England’s oldest wooden truss bridge on his day off work. But then a man steps into the shot…and up onto the railing. What choice does he have but to try to talk the man down?
As he tries to save this stranger’s life, a few things become clear: both Englishman and American have some preconceived notions about the other that they need to get past; John will have to come to terms with his own faith in the face of a man who’s lost his; and gravity isn’t the only force at work on the bridge that day.
The beeping alarm roused John Palmer from his medicated sleep. He rolled over and swiped his phone with a groan. Through the sheer curtain of his rented walk-up flat, the sky was dark.
“Perfect,” he whispered, voice still hoarse. After a silent countdown, John rocked up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. His toes touched the laminate and curled, the chilly flooring waking him as he scrubbed his face with both hands. He needed to shave.
Another groan pushed through his lips when he shoved up from the mattress. Mrs. Pottifer promised to have the heat fixed no later than the previous day. The fourth morning of an icy apartment made John grateful that his meds allowed a deep slumber through the night, even if his back ached by morning. Maybe he’d add in a couple of ibuprofen with his daily vitamins.
In the bathroom, John checked his upside-down boots on the electric dryer he’d had sent to him from the States. At least his feet would be dry for the long walk to the bridge. Electric toothbrush vibrating in his mouth, he drew back the curtain. A sliver of color snaked across the dark horizon. There were about fifteen minutes to finish up and get on the road to catch the bridge at the ideal lighting.
His foreman at the tunnel project had mentioned the timber trussed bridge the week before, when they toured two nearby highway crossings. John pulled up the note on his phone to look over the directions again. There was no way he was going to miss capturing one of the oldest remaining British wooden bridges before he went back to California after this project wrapped in a few weeks.
After dressing and shoving a granola bar into his camera bag, John heard his cell phone ring from the nightstand. It vibrated across the glass top. Both features were turned on so that he didn’t miss a call from home.
John grabbed the phone and stared. The cracked screen displayed his wife’s photo from last year’s Christmas party. He plopped onto the mattress watching her picture as it buzzed in his hands. Two cleansing breaths later, he swiped open her video chat.
Joy smiled into the camera. “Hi, sweetie. What’s up?” The speaker distorted her voice. No amount of covering the phone in rice could fix the damage of an English spring deluge. Or three.
He leaned closer, as if to smell the same perfume she’d always worn for twenty-six years. “What time is it there?” he asked. She hadn’t changed much—her blond hair still hung to her shoulders, and the cracks in the screen hid any of the lines she complained about.
“Ten at night.”
John glanced to the window. The horizon blossomed. “The sun is barely rising here.” He had to get a move on to catch the dawn rays.
Her eyebrows dipped together. “And you’re up already?”
“Yeah. I want to catch that first light.”
“Huh, that’s a surprise.” She turned her head sideways. Static squelched through the speaker and John nearly didn’t hear her next words. “Since when do you ever get out of bed this early for anything?”
He switched the call to audio and cradled the phone to his ear. “Joy? Honey? Can you hear me?”
“Hello? What’s going on?”
The new telephoto lens sat in its bag near the lamp. John removed it with care. “I’m rushing to catch that light.” It weighed less than he thought it would. But then again, who really looked at the weight when ordering online? “There’s this amazing old bridge nearby, but I have to hurry.” He placed it on the bedspread, turning it over to look at the features.
“You have to hurry?” She used that tone of voice when their daughter Jenny was leaving without eating breakfast. Or when he had to work out of town for a few weeks.
Dawn woke outside, spilling onto the hills. “Joy, you know I love that stuff.”
They’d met at an art exhibition in college. He’d shirked around the corners, trying not to bump into anyone he knew from the engineering department. She’d found him at a collection of black and white prints of brick buildings, near her own watercolor lilies.
“Yeah, I know you love that stuff.” The edge still hung on her tone, even through the static, all the way from the other side of the globe.
“It’s my only day off. Aren’t I entitled to a little bit of fun?” Between weather delays and the company being slapped with fines after an inspection, it most definitely had not been a good week at work.
Joy sighed into the phone. He’d heard that sigh so many times in the last few months. Resignation. Defeat. Acceptance.
“So, you’ve got your coat?”
John stood and rounded the bed, depositing the new lens into his black camera bag. “Of course, I have a jacket.”
“All right,” she said.
“This is England, for crying out loud.” He continued into the bathroom, his voice bouncing off of the tiny tiled walls.
She sighed again. The static rattled his eardrums. “I wish I was there.”
John reached down to pick up a tissue that had missed the trash can. “Yeah, I wish you were here, too.”
“I love you.”
He threw the tissue into the toilet and closed the lid.
“John? What? You won’t say that you love me, too?”
“No. Of course, I can say it.” He flushed the toilet on his way out of the bathroom. “I love you, too.” It was too fast, too clipped. And she knew it as well as he did.
“Are you there?” Joy sounded like she was speaking through a kazoo. “Don’t forget Jenny’s gonna call.”
Next to the bed, his Bible lay on a wooden tray that doubled as his dining table when he ate in. If he took time to read the devotion for the day, he’d miss the shots altogether. He grabbed the worn Bible tract that sat haphazardly on top of his Bible. John always kept it in his shirt pocket, just in case he needed to remind himself about forgiveness. He slid it into the pocket of his plaid flannel under his jacket. Layers were the key to staying warm and mostly dry. Maybe he’d have time to read it again after he took his shots of the bridge. He really needed to work on memorizing the verses inside the tract he’d picked up before his trip.
“What time will she call?”
Joy hummed, and it tickled John’s ear. “I don’t know. Maybe around one o’clock, when she gets back?”
“One a.m.!” John sat on the edge of the bed again. “What’s she doing until one a.m.?”
Joy scoffed. “It’s her birthday, John—” The phone slid from John’s ear to the floor and bounced on the carpet. He grabbed the phone and Joy was still talking. “She’s going out to a show and then going to a club—” Whatever she said after that was swallowed by static.
“Joy?” He moved to the end of the bed. Sometimes that helped with reception.
“Did you even remember Jenny’s birthday?”
John’s muscles went rigid. She just had to dredge it up. Again. “No, I’m a terrible father.” He distracted himself by grabbing something, anything from the camera bag. An extra useless strap. “Of course I remembered.” He shoved the strap into the other pocket of his flannel and stood.
“Just don’t let her down. You promised, okay?”
“Yes, I’m very aware that I forgot her birthday last year.” Cell service was spotty in that part of Montana, and it didn’t help that he’d been called to bail out two of his employees from jail. Add in the time it took to recover the truck from the towing company…and yeah, he forgot. “Thank you for always bringing that up.” John shrugged on his jacket. Same conversation, different day. At least the bridge wouldn’t rehash his mistake. As if he needed help with that every single time he saw Joy calling.
“You’re blowing it out of proportion, John. She was hurt. She waited for that call.”
John snorted in disbelief. “Forgive me for being so busy trying to be a godly provider.”
“Please don’t do this, John. I’m sorry I brought it up.” She sniffed into the phone.
Great, he’d made her cry. He closed his eyes, trying to focus. Could he ever get things right between them again?
“Joy,” he said tenderly. “Joy…Joy.”
“I just wish that you two would talk like you used to. Or go to the movies.” He wasn’t sure if she was crying or if it was static.
For years, every Friday or Saturday, they had a daddy-daughter date. Waffles at Kate’s Diner, then a movie. Sometimes she’d drag him to see the latest Star Wars movie six weeks in a row.
He squashed the phone to his ear. “I can’t help it. I tried.” It took Jenny days to return his apology text because she wouldn’t answer his calls. And when the Montana job ended, she always had something else to do rather than catch a movie. “She’s the one who wouldn’t talk to me after that.”
“It was just a phase.” Right. A phase that lasted for months and months. It was a wonder Jenny would call today at all.
“Yeah. I know she blames me for everything, and you just allow it,” he said. Joy would never stick up for him. It would mean that she’d have to tell Jenny—
“Did you tell her?” Joy’s distorted voice sounded even smaller, more hesitant.
He paced to the end of the bed, rubbing his forehead with his free hand. “I told you I would never tell her anything about that.” They’d sworn to secrecy, to keep Jenny in the dark. It was…less messy that way. “Look, I really have to go.” The sun peeked over the horizon now.
“All right,” Joy said. “Well…”
“Okay.” The line went dead. He held the phone out and glanced at the black screen. “Bye,” he said to the empty room.
Gathering the camera bags and tripod, John headed down the three flights of stairs. His rental was parked a block away, wedged between a delivery truck and another tiny car. John dropped his equipment into the passenger seat and started the engine. “Drive on the wrong side,” he whispered, maneuvering the two-door sedan to the roadway.
He glanced through the windshield as the trees blurred by and the sun rose higher. He still had sixteen minutes to go, according to the lady robot voice on his phone’s map. It wouldn’t be the light he’d wanted to capture, but it’d still be close enough to play with the aperture and depth of field. If there was a breeze, he could even get a few long exposures to catch the movement around the trestle.
The map directed John to a small dirt turnout, where a gate barred the way on a tumbled gravel road into the woods. “Okay,” he said, cutting the engine. “I’m up for a hike.”
Throwing a camera bag on each shoulder, John slipped his phone into his pocket before grabbing the tripod and locking the car. The tall grass and sparse trees soon blended into a carpet of ferns and mossy tree trunks. John sped his steps, trying to get to the bridge before his shots were blown by locals or tourists.
A random apple tree draped over the narrowing path. The bottom branches were stripped bare, probably by people on their way to the creek. But nestled behind a thick set of leaves, a red-tinged green apple weighed down its branch, just aching to be plucked. John obliged after a quick glance around to make sure no one would see. He polished it against his jacket. Launching into the crisp skin, he immediately spit the sour bite out, regretting his thievery, and tossed the apple into the tall ferns. Then he heard the creek far away.
The tree line broke, and John found himself on a typical English hillside, overlooking the dark timber trussed bridge. Tall grasses and ferns filled the field, the trail disappearing over the edge. John descended the hill, and the creek grew louder.
Large cobblestones and white birches lined the creek bed. Because the bridge sat in a valley, the brightest light hadn’t bathed the area. John hurried to set up the tripod. He still had time to catch the light he wanted.
After switching to his trusty wide-angle lens, John crouched to check the tripod’s height adjustment. An upward angle would work perfectly.
Rays of sunlight broke through the trees to the east, streaking across the bridge. John leaned into the viewfinder to line everything up, when from the corner of the frame, a man in a white suit walked into the shot.
John dropped his head and rubbed his forehead. When he looked back up, the man kept walking toward the center of the bridge. “Come on, buddy,” John whispered.
Since the intruder didn’t seem to be interested in leaving, John took the time to fasten his camera bag closed. He didn’t want his new lens to fall out and break.
The man finally stopped, dead center on the bridge. Of course. John bent forward as the guy did something with his shoes. Was he taking them off?
John grabbed his camera and zoomed in as much as the wide angle would go. His stomach dropped as the man in white climbed onto the railing and held onto the sides, pausing to look up into the sky.
He was going to jump.
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Chris stepped back and looked at the envelope propped on the spotless kitchen counter. Yes, that’d work. Chloe would see it when she came round. All the directions she would need. She would see it when she came by eventually. If nothing else, he’d taught her to be observant. All of those times they’d trudged through the park looking at flowers or identifying insects. She could spot a honeybee across the church yard.
And the envelope was blue—sky blue, her favorite color. Hopefully it’d help her when she read the note inside. Even just a little. She could forgive him.
With a quick nod to the envelope, Chris backtracked through the flat to his bedroom. The narrow bed took up most of the space. His pressed linen suit was laid across the bed, like he’d crawled out of the clothes and left them behind. Chris considered and reconsidered his shoes. Not that it mattered. The hands on his wristwatch tracked time exactly, and it was essential.
Through the thin walls, Chris heard the tune announcing the morning news on the Beeb. Probably more of the same rubbish, despair, recycled stories. The same reason he’d stopped watching it months before. Chris rolled his eyes as he pulled on his black shirt, then his trousers.
The trainers were a birthday gift from Chloe a few years back. “You should get out and walk more often,” read her card. Well, he would walk today, along the quiet bridge where he’d asked Carol to marry him.
Chris tugged on the first shoe with ease. The second one was a bit snug. When he yanked on the shoestrings, one side snapped.
“Great,” he muttered at the useless material. Glancing at his bedside clock, he kicked both shoes off and stuffed them under the bed.
In the wardrobe, his slip-ons were jammed into a corner. He hadn’t worn them in ages. The last time he saw his wife Carol, in fact. The soles were worn bare of tread and the white leather scuffed, but they would work. Chris slid them on, flexing his toes. Still fit after all this time.
He rang a taxi company, but no one picked up. Of course. Could anything actually go according to plan? With a huff, Chris yanked open his laptop and waited for it to load. And waited and waited because the thing was nearly ten years old and barely connected to the internet. After much searching, he found a local taxi company that didn’t require a smart phone. Those things confused him and needed updates. He booked a ride to the bridge and then the website required his credit card to prepay.
“Are you kidding me?” he ranted to the empty flat, stomping into the kitchen to retrieve his wallet.
When the transaction was paid for, Chris closed his internet and tried to turn off the laptop. It instructed him not to turn it off while updating. “What now?” He left the screen open and placed it near the pillow. Blasted thing.
Slipping into the jacket that matched the trousers, Chris double-checked the envelope and made sure the flat keys were hanging on their hook. He wouldn’t need them today. According to the time, the driver would only be a few minutes away, so Chris turned off the lights and grabbed the front door handle.
Chris pulled, twisted, leaned. He spat out words he’d never use in front of Carol or Chloe. He kicked the door. And it was the moment that he growled and turned the handle with all of his might, that it opened without any resistance.
“You stupid piece of wood!” he seethed, yanking it closed. He couldn’t care less if the lock worked.
Carol would have laughed at his temper tantrum.
She always seemed to have a knack at rounding out his bluntness. After all, she’d been the one to drag him to church for their second date. It changed his life. He hadn’t even known that he’d grabbed her hand during the sermon until after they were the only ones left in the pews.
“Are you all right?” she whispered, the stone walls snatching away any echoes.
“I don’t know.” Had the minister known about his home life? The way Chris gulped alcohol to dull the pain? Or the way he cringed when he saw other people’s joy? “I don’t rightly know.”
“Would you like to talk to the pastor?”
Chris swiveled his head to face Carol. “Who?”
She giggled. “The man who preached today.”
“No.” He definitely did not want to talk about the way the fellow seemed to peer into his soul. If they talked then he might not know how to steer the conversation. Chris stood. “Fancy some lunch?” He looked at their joined hands and squeezed. Better to fake that he knew what he was doing. Right. He tacked on a big smile.
It was mirrored when Carol rose from the wooden bench. “Would love some, but it’s Sunday and the shops are closed.” She brushed a stray hair from her cheek.
“I suppose we could pop across town to the new Chinese restaurant.”
“I’m fairly certain my father would not allow me to ‘pop across town’ with an airman he hasn’t met yet.”
“Point taken.” They meandered toward the church door, fingers intertwined. “I didn’t plan this out very well, did I?” Chris reached up with his free hand and scratched his fresh haircut.
“That really takes the biscuit.” Carol moved alongside him. “I pegged you for a man who plotted it all out.”
Outside of the church, Chris ducked past the pastor who was talking to another couple. He nearly pulled Carol down in his hurry to avoid the man. And his sermon. And the way it stuck to his brain like old porridge. Finding joy when everything seems wrong.
He straightened his tie and slowed his steps to match her shorter strides. He drew in a deep breath to ask her out to dinner next Saturday when she spoke.
“Dad and I are supposed to have supper later—shepherd’s pie. I can fix you up a plate and you can meet my father.” Her eyes dropped. His gaze followed and stayed on the cracked pavement.
Chris sniffed now and moved his slip-on to cover the cracked concrete at the flat’s stoop. Carol. Love of his life. She left him, and nothing he said or promised stopped her. Not even the church that took up so many years of their lives helped him in the end.
The taxi pulled up to the curb. The driver rolled down the window, the interior light shining off his bearded face. “Chris?”
“Yup.” He pulled on the car door handle, and it was locked. Figured. He tried a second time and it still held fast. “The doors?” he said, incessantly tugging on the handle like a child.
“Sorry about that.” The locks popped up, and Chris slid onto the cracked vinyl back seat.
“Good day for a walk in the countryside.” The young man adjusted his mirror and checked over his shoulder before merging into the sparse traffic before sunrise on a Saturday. “Have you been before?”
Chris turned toward the window. He didn’t need chit chat. The sliver of dawn through the dark clouds and blurred buildings matched his mood. The driver caught on and turned up the radio a tad. Some old jazz station. Reminded him of Carol’s dad and the music he kept on while he washed the dishes by hand every night. Right up until the day his heart stopped.
Seemed like everything was determined to throw Carol back into his thoughts. The universe wanted to crush Chris under its heel. Again.
The city thinned out as the car tires hummed along the new tarmac. Construction on the new bridge slowed them, but only for ten or so minutes. The driver stayed silent. That suited Chris just fine.
The car pulled into the gravel turnout and parked at the beginning of the trail to the bridge. Since Chris had prepaid the driver, he exited the car without a word. “Thank you—” he heard as he slammed the car door closed. In the burgeoning dawn, Chris could barely make out the path to the bridge. But he knew the way.
The “No Trespassing” sign had fallen over a decade before and lay in the tall grass. His slip-ons weren’t ideal, and Chris could feel every rock underfoot. Once he reached the trees, he stopped for breath. The smell of moss and the damp ground under the ferns weighed each lungful of air. He should have used the trainers and walked more often. But Chloe wouldn’t care now. She hadn’t spoken to him in weeks. No, months. According to her, his only child and the light of his world, everything wrong in her life was because of him.
Chris pushed on after that thought, turning their arguments over in his mind. The last time he’d reached out to her, Chloe had quelled all hope. “Never call me again.”
It wasn’t until a low-hanging apple thudded into his forehead that he stopped thinking about Chloe. “Ouch,” he said, rubbing the sore spot and swatting at the fruit. It was too early in the season for it to be ripe. But overhead, he could faintly smell the ripe apples. Of course he could. It was the only smell in the world that reminded him of his wife.
Those years in the Royal Air Force before meeting Carol, Chris breathed and slept precision. From the tucked bed corners to the uniform inspections, there was something comforting, even now, about having a routine.
She blew into his life like an apple-perfumed tornado, reckless of schedules and ironed clothes. As much as he tried to ignore her across the lawn at a backyard party at another airman’s home, along with her tittering laugh that seemed to start up as soon as it ended, Chris ended up catching her glance more than a handful of times. When Carol marched up to him, eyes locked like a homing beacon, Chris steeled himself.
“I’m Carol Graham,” she said, thrusting her hand out.
She smelled like an entire flower shop. Her dark eyes were nearly black under sassy brown bobbed hair. And her smile lifted his own mood.
“Chris Arnold.” He was surprised that she shook his hand firmly. Most girls were limp-handed and clammy.
“I haven’t seen you at any of James’s picnics before. First time?”
Naturally, Chris looked around for James or any of the guys from the base. Women were not his forte. The all-boys boarding school had hammered out any social elegance other than polite answers.
Chris went with his gut. “Yes, madam.”
Carol snorted before her laughter climbed again. “Let me guess. Boarding school. Holidays at the school. Straight to the RAF.” Her pink polished nails tapped her bicep when she crossed her arms.
He cleared his throat. “Yes…exactly.” Clasping his hands behind his back was an easy way to keep from fidgeting.
His father was a busy barrister. Mother relentlessly made it clear that she had not chosen to have a child. It was his father’s choice, and she’d given up a year of her life in the fashion industry to accommodate him. Summers home were for working and staying out of the way.
“You need some fun.” Carol latched onto Chris’s hand and dragged him toward the dance area. By some miracle, James found the pair, and Chris didn’t have to admit that he didn’t know how to dance.
A nearby bird launched into song, pulling Chris from the long-ago party where he met his wife and best friend. His feet plodded along the memorized path. He never tempered her laughter but helped her learn scheduling. In turn, she gave him a reason to find joy and perhaps the best gift of all—their daughter Chloe. But no matter how Carol tried to swerve Chris from his accuracy in most areas, he remained dedicated to the lifelong art of thoroughness.
And so, it was with that planned out meticulousness that Chris climbed the path to the bridge. He slipped off his shoes and lined them up at the edge of the bridge, toes pointed out over the stream bed. Unfastening his watch, he noted the time, before laying it into the right shoe. Fishing into the inner pocket of his jacket, Chris grabbed the folded note for the authorities and placed it into the opposite shoe. He shrugged off the jacket. A sigh escaped through his lips. Chris cleared his throat and pushed on, folding his jacket into particular corners before depositing it to cover the slip-ons. Neat and tidy.
Across the small hill, above the stream bed. Chris heard something tromping through the field. Possibly a deer. He shook away the thought. The rough wooden braces of the bridge fit perfectly into each hand. Chris grunted as he placed his left foot up and then hauled his body up onto the railing.
The sunrise was light enough to show the rocks in the stream far below. Water gurgled between the cobblestones on the edges, and it was certainly deeper in the middle. This would be the easiest way, he reasoned with himself, swaying back and forth from one foot to the other to test his balance. Without Carol and Chloe, there was no purpose in the universe.
He glanced up to the clouds.
The universe would be fine without him.
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