Ellen kissed her husband on the cheek. “Bye, Mark. See you later.”
“Have fun at your bridge club.” He didn’t look up from his football game on the TV, didn’t hear her sigh as she walked away from him.
A black-framed picture of a small blond boy hung by the back door. On her way out, she kissed the tips of her fingers and pressed them against the photo. It had been a year and a half since four-year old Daniel had died.
She turned the radio up loud after she started the engine. She needed that wall of noise to distract her from her own thoughts. It was still a few hours from twilight and the heat from the relentless sun shimmered on the pavement in black pools that disappeared as she moved closer to them. A lot like Mark, since The Party.
Three cars were already parked on the packed-down dirt near the bridge abutment. Kane was at the bridge railing, securing the rigging. Alma and Rodrigo sat on the hood of their car, talking aimlessly with Herky and Chuck. None of them, this new circle of friends, knew about The Party last spring. Ellen liked it that way. She didn’t have to be pricked by the guilt in their eyes when they talked to her. Guilt because her other friends, her old friends, had all been lounging in the pool, chatting away about guacamole sauce and vacations and nothing. Not one of them noticed the little boy slip under the water. It was her fault. She was his mother. She should have been watching. She told herself that she didn’t blame her friends, didn’t hate them. But if that was true, why did she avoid them now? Elyse called her at least once a week, but Ellen always let the calls go to voice mail, never returning them.
Ellen parked her beige family sedan next to Kane’s flashy red convertible. She had met him six months ago, at this same bridge. It was coming up on the one year anniversary of Daniel’s funeral. She had been standing on the pedestrian path, staring at the thrashing water, thinking of jumping.
“I’m gonna jump,” he had said, appearing out of thin air behind her.
“I said I’m gonna to jump. Wanna have a go?” He had an accent that she thought might have been Australian. Even after six months, she hadn’t bothered asking.
Ellen had stared at him blankly. He smiled at her and fastened a thick rubber cord around one of the bridge supports. He put on fingerless gloves and slipped into a harness. Kane had slopped a quick kiss on her mouth before he hurled himself off the bridge. The dark cord snaked out behind him, whipping through the chilly January air. He bounced up and down a few times before he dangled at the end of the cord like a black and red spider, just above the water.
Then he started to climb back up the cord. It stretched and quivered as he inch-wormed his way back to the bridge. Grunting and sweating, he heaved himself over the railing. Ellen glimpsed the outlines of hard muscles as his flannel shirt stuck to the sweat on his back and sides.
“Ready for a go?” he’d asked, as if he were asking her to dance.
Ellen shrugged. “I’m no good at climbing rope.”
“S’all right. I’ll haul you up. I usually just drop into the water, but I don’t have my wetsuit today.”
“Yeah, okay. Why not?” It might be a good preview for plunging off the bridge with no cord attached.
“I’m Kane, by the way,” he had told her.
“I’m…El-Elyse.” She had given him a friend’s name. The friend who threw The Party.
Ellen hadn’t been to this bridge since the time she met Kane. She remembered that very first jump. She’d stood on the lip of the bridge, toes curling inside her shoes. Adrenalin had made her innards squirm and her hands tremble. Kane had said something to her, but she didn’t listen. She pulled in a deep breath of snow-fresh air and spread her arms. Closing her eyes, she let herself fall.
Her stomach lurched up into her throat. Rushing air pressed hard against her diaphragm and she couldn’t breathe. Her eyelids snapped open and she saw the frothing river rushing toward her. The rocks got bigger. She clenched her eyelids together, certain she would slam into the dark water. A tug at her waist pulled her back up for a few seconds, then she fell again. After a few bounces, she hung above the water. Even in the cold, she could smell the pungent mud on the river bank and the water and the stones. Her heart had throbbed against her ribs and her skin tingled.
Now, the only time she could feel anything was when she was hurtling toward the earth. That’s why she had joined the Bridge Club, why she was here now.
Ellen sat in her car, putting on lip balm and watching Kane. He was just finishing up. His bare back was to her, fresh sweat glistening on ripped muscles. He was easy to look at, easy to sleep with. She hadn’t intended to. He tried hard to please her, but she was beyond his reach. Sometimes, she let him believe that she wasn’t. She had gotten good at faking almost everything in the past eighteen months.
She opened the car door. The sticky smell of too much honeysuckle drifted up from the river bank, where a large vine of it had overpowered a rusty barbed wire fence. Shaking her head, Ellen locked her purse in the trunk and went to meet the rest of the Bridge Club. They met every Wednesday evening at 6:00 to bungee jump off of one of the many local bridges. Her husband thought she was playing cards. If the weather was bad, she usually went to Kane’s apartment.
“Hey, Elyse!” Alma called to her.
That name again. The once-upon-a-time-friend from a different life. “Hey. What’s Kane got for us tonight?” Ellen asked.
“Like you don’t know.”
Their affair was not exactly a secret. Ellen didn’t care what the others thought, not as long as she got to jump. They didn’t know anything about her. If they didn’t like her, screw ‘em.
“Got a new rig,” Kane said, coming down from the bridge. He tickled Ellen’s back. “Ankle harness.”
“Are you thinking head dips?” Herky asked.
“Seems too rocky here. Maybe Tanner Road Bridge would be better for that,” Rodrigo said, putting his arm around Alma.
“Nah,” Kane said. “Not going more’n a few inches in. Water’s maybe ten foot deep just under the bridge.”
“I’ll do it,” Ellen said. She didn’t care about their bickering. She just wanted to fly.
She followed Kane to the top of the bridge. He wrapped a towel around each of her calves, then strapped on the ankle harness. He told her things about jumping in an ankle harness, but she didn’t pay attention this time, either. A chilly puff of air tugged at her clothes and sent a shiver up her spine. It was just wrong in the summer heat. She was sure she heard a sound, the voice of a faraway child, carried on the breeze. “Mom! Mommy.”
She was finally starting to lose it. No one else seemed to hear it, so she pretended it was nothing. Even so, it flapped like a tattered grey moth inside her mind.
Kane helped Ellen to the edge of the bridge. She was desperate to go, to get that sound out of her head. As soon as she was clipped in, she dove, feet pushing hard off the concrete. The swirling water seemed to make a pattern. As she got closer, she could see a figure. Closer still, she could see Daniel. He was under the water, reaching both arms up to her. “I’m coming, baby!” she shouted, knowing it wasn’t, it couldn’t be him. Even so, she stretched out her arms to scoop him up out of the water, the way she should have done before.
She didn’t feel the rigging give way as her weight hit the end of the cord. She didn’t feel her neck break or her spine shatter as she hit the rocks. All she could feel was her little boy, back in her arms.
“I love you, Mommy,” he told her.
“I love you, too, baby.”
“It’s time to go.”
“Yes.” She didn’t even glance over her shoulder as Daniel led her into the blinding white light.
Ellen kissed her husband on the cheek. “Bye, Mark. See you later.”