“The Lepers in Your Head” / Chapter Eleven: The Bridge

This is the conclusion of a novella I’ve written. It will be published here one chapter at a time, roughly twice a week. Trigger warning: this story is very dark, and may be triggering for those with suicidal ideation. It’s also not the kind of thing you’d expect your pastor to write. So, fair warning.

I kept on running, down sidewalks and streets. I didn’t pay any attention to traffic. If anyone hollered or at honked at me as I ran, I didn’t notice. I was listening for something else, for someone else. I hadn’t been alone on any part of this journey. There was always the Dead Voice, or whoever he was. Or the graveyard witch, or the crazy basketballer, or someone. Someone to tell me why I was wrong. Someone to tell me that this was all ill-advised. I needed someone to explain it now, someone to tell me why I was still here. But nobody came.

I said, “Are you there?” The words came out staccato, between fast and shallow breaths. But nobody answered. I was alone. Alone in Scarlet in 1996. Alone when I should have been dead. Alone when all I wanted was to be dead.

I kept running. Everything around me became a blur of light and shadow, ghosts and echoes.

I kept running, until a hand stopped me cold. “Stop,” said a commanding voice from the hand, which was pressing on my chest, absorbing my inertia. “Sheesh, will you just stop?” said the same voice. My vision returned to normal, as the world seemed to snap in place around me. “There you are,” the voice said. The voice wasn’t coming from the hand after all, but both hand and voice belonged to a young woman, about the same age as the young version of myself I’d just killed. She was tall, and I could tell she was strong. The brown of her hair, the green of her eyes, the copper of her skin, the fuchsia of her sweatshirt, all of her colors seemed somehow more vivid than any others I’d seen all day. Maybe ever.

I tried to catch my breath after my terrified sprint. I looked around, and saw tall pillars with street lamps on them. A car drove past. I was on a bridge. Everything seemed so dim, so muddy, out of focus. I reached up to my face – my glasses were still there. I looked back at the woman. She was staring at me with an impatient look on her face. Her face, which was crystal clear, fully in focus, devoid of the muddiness.

“Sorry,” I said. “I…umm…who are you?”

“My name’s Alia. Why were you running so fast? You almost broke the sound barrier.”

“I’m trying to get away – trying to get away from…”

She looked around. “Yeah, the Twelfth Street Bridge is a place lots of people come to try to get away.” She walked a few steps to the edge, and looked over. We were hundreds of feet up. “Hmm,” she continued, “wonder why you didn’t just come here in the first place, instead of all that nonsense at the tree in Cisco Park.”

“Oh,” I said. “Finally.”

She turned back to me, and said, “Finally what?”

“Never mind. If you know so much about me, then why am I alive?”

Her eyebrow went up, and a smile emerged from her face. “Ah. That. Well, you’re discovering something really fascinating about time.” She was waving her fingers gently and deliberately. It was hypnotic, as though her fingers were the only three-dimensional object in a muddy two-d landscape.

I turned away from her hand, and looked into her mesmerizing eyes. “Which is?”

“Well, you’ve succeeded in changing your own past. You and I now live in a world where you died at age twenty-four.”

I nodded. “I know that. I was there. But I’m forty-nine, so how am I still here?”

“Well, it takes time for the world to catch up. But it will, don’t worry.”

“It takes time? What does that mean?”

“Well, you see how things look now, right?” She motioned around herself. “Here, look down there, onto Roosevelt Drive. Watch that car.”

I looked down, far below the bridge. Under a street light, I could see a red car driving, leaving a streak of red behind it like a paintbrush running out of paint. The streak faded after a few seconds.

“That’s time correcting around us,” Alia said.

“Why do you say ‘us’? Who are you?”

She shook her head. “You don’t really care about that. Ask me what you really want to know.”

I looked down. “How long? How long until it catches up to me?”

She tilted her head to the side. “Like I said…it takes time.”

I said, “Right, but how long? Are we talking hours or days or what?”

She said, “You said you’re forty-nine, right? You’re from twenty-five years in the future. Then it will take twenty-five years. Then you’ll fade away.”

I put both my hands on my head. “Twenty-five years? I have to live until I’m seventy-four, and then finally I can be set free from this? No. No. No no no. I did not do this so that I could walk the earth for another two and a half decades.” I walked away from Alia, and sat down on the edge of the bridge. I could see the creek beneath me, as well as two roads that passed under here. This bridge sure was high – no wonder it had such a suicide reputation. And back here in 1996, there was no life-saving fencing on the edge to prevent jumping.

When I hatched this whole plan, I thought I could avoid the act of suicide. I thought killing my past would prevent the need to kill my present. I thought it was just part of the deal – I was trying to kill both past and present with one stone. I didn’t want to live here anymore, not in 1996, not in 2021, not in this body, not on this planet. I didn’t want to exist anymore. I looked down, onto Roosevelt Drive, and Canal Street, and the dark water of the creek. Alia was right – why didn’t I just come here in the first place back in – well, back now? All I needed was to climb over a guardrail, and I could roll right off into muddy oblivion.

“Before you jump –” a voice startled me. I shuddered, and then turned. It was Alia. “Sorry about that. Before you jump, I want you to understand the opportunity you have here. You are now out of sync with the rest of the world. Just as the world looks muddy and out of focus to you, you look the same to everyone else. Difference is, they just won’t notice you. Their eyes will just glide past you because they can’t fully process what they’re seeing.”

“So I’m a ghost?” I said.

“Just so. Makes sense when you think about it, doesn’t it? And being a ghost has certain advantages. Someone with loose ethics might think of any number of exploitations. However, someone with a guilty conscience might find ways to change the world for the better. Twenty-five years of invisible Good Samaritan.”

She paused, to see my reaction. I said nothing. “Just a thought,” she said, and turned away.

I watched her walk along the bridge, still fascinated by how vivid she looked against the rest of the fading world. “Alia!” I called out. She turned back. “Are you a ghost like me?”

She smiled and shouted, “Mind your own problems.” And she walked away, off the bridge.

I turned back to the edge, and looked down. Maybe I could live another few years. No relationships – no responsibilities – just the chance to wander around and atone. To do small good deeds without getting caught in the messiness that friendship with me always leads to. Maybe I could do some good to offset all the bad I did in the past – including a lot of the bad that now I didn’t do, as the world heals around my young death. I could walk across the state, across the country. I could be like a guardian angel, just walk around until I saw somebody that needed a hand, and give it to them without them even really knowing. I’d never hurt anybody, just offer help. I wondered if I still needed to eat, or sleep. I figured I’d find that out soon enough. I could sleep in a hotel lobby, maybe. People wouldn’t quite see me, but they’d avoid that particular couch. Maybe for food I could hang out in buffet restaurants, and swipe stuff they’re about to throw away. I wasn’t sure how any of this worked, but I had time. I could explore and learn.

This might just work. I felt hopeful. Hope was a strange feeling. And hey, I could always come back here if it didn’t work. I could take this one day at a time. I stood up. I was ready to live. I was actually ready to live. I stretched, feeling a new strength and energy, ready for a new chapter, a new life. Hell, maybe I could come back here, right to this bridge, in twenty-five years when I’m about to fade away. Might be a good place to end it.

I turned around, ready to face my first day as a “ghost.” I shouted in shock, as I saw an old man standing right in front of me, staring at me. “Wait,” I said, as I realized that behind the lines on his face and the white hair, it was me. An older me. In full, vivid color. I started to walk toward him.

“No,” he said. “Just stay there. I’m so glad to see you again today. I want you to know that you’re absolutely right. It worked. I have spent the last twenty-five years helping people, and it’s felt great.”

“Really? I’m so glad to hear that.”

“Yes,” he said. “I’ve helped keep people safe. I’ve stopped crimes from happening. I’ve even played matchmaker a little bit. I have truly atoned for everything I ever did.”

I said to him, “I can’t wait to get started. But I’m sorry that it’s coming to an end for you.” I hesitated – something was wrong here. “Hold on,” I said. “Why are you back here in 1996? How did you get back here? And why?”

“Yeah, that’s the thing,” he said. “I want another twenty-five years.” Before I could react, he gave me a sharp and surprisingly strong shove. I stepped back, but lost my balance. The back of my knees hit the guardrail, and my feet shot off of the ground. I felt my body turning over in the air as I fell off the bridge toward the ground, the fuzzy, out-of-focus, muddy ground. Turns out out-of-focus ground can break your neck too.

I lay on my back on the ground, and time dilated for me. The three seconds I had left before oblivion took me forever stretched out before me.

With three seconds to go, I noticed that the old man, the seventy-four year old me above me on the bridge, stood on the edge of the bridge, and jumped.

With two second to go, I realized that he’d lied. He hated life just as much as I. He must have wanted to undo the last twenty-five years too. I guess I never get it right.

With one second to go, I thought about what a banner day this is: November 3, 1996. The day I died three times.

The last thing I heard was a body hitting the ground near me. Then everything went black – forever.

The end.

(c) 2021 Michael J. Scholtes

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