Hope Bridge

By Craig Adkins

Second Place, Fiction

 

The long unattended ash fell from the cigarette onto the olive green sleeve of the lone man’s field jacket.  Paul brushed off the errant residue and took a long, final drag before flipping the butt down into the dark churning waters below. He inhaled deeply, taking in dank night air. The temperature had already dropped twenty degrees and a light mist was beginning to swirl off the river.  There would be a fog tomorrow.  Paul remembered coming out here, to county line bridge, in the glory days of his youth. He and his friends would always party here after football games or park with their girlfriends in hopes of scaring them into a little affection with ghost stories about the spooky old bridge. Some of the best times of his life were spent right here on this very bridge. And now, tonight, this is where he would end it all.

          Paul opened the faded sea bag at his feet and retrieved a twenty-foot length of rope that he had purchased at his uncle’s hardware store in Ottawa that morning. He thought about how much he was letting his family and friends down by taking the easy way out. He paused for a moment allowing the coarse rope to drop to his side. Time and time again, he had proved to be nothing but an embarrassment to them all. This seemed like the best solution for everyone involved. Paul began to tie a shank knot to the rusted iron railing of the old suspension bridge. He sat on the edge contemplating how his life had gone so wrong. He had reached the pinnacle of success in all of his endeavors only to have the carpet yanked out from under him at every single turn. He coiled the loose end of the rope into a tight hangman’s noose as he began to recall the bitter details of the train wreck that was his life.

          He had entered the military right out of high school. But he wasn’t just any old pogue; he was part of the warrior elite, a United States Marine. Paul was Semper Fi- do or die all the way. He excelled in all areas and was always promoted ahead of his peers. When something needed to be done, and needed to be done right, they called on Sgt. Paul Tucker to get it done. He was a born leader who had the respect of subordinates, peers and superiors all.  However, somewhere along the line, he got sick. He began to have problems coping with the stress of military life and after seeing a Navy doctor for less than fifteen minutes he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, an illness he’d never even heard of before. Regardless, he was quickly mustered out of his beloved Corps in less than two months with nothing more to show for his five years of loyal service to country than a ninety-day supply of lithium. No ceremonies, no good-bye parties, no coffee mugs, not even a handshake, just a bottle of little pink pills and a plane ticket home.

          Paul produced the VA prescription bottle from his jacket pocket and examined it. It was a full thirty-day script, but, he hadn’t taken the stuff in at least six weeks. He hated those little pink pills. He poured them into his hand and sprinkled them over the railing and watched them flutter down into the pitch-blackness below. A chill ran over him as he listened to the night noises surrounding him. It was getting colder.

          Paul returned home from the service determined to make a difference with his life.   He accepted the fact that while he could no longer serve his country, he could still serve his fellow man. He was accepted into the prestigious physical therapy program at Rosenbein University. He financed his education with his G.I. Bill, and the qualities that served him so well in the military prepared him very well for his academic pursuits. Paul made the Dean’s List every semester and graduated Magna Cum Laude. His knowledge of therapeutic procedure was second to none as he constantly hit the books and honed his clinical skills. His professors recognized his abilities and named him the honor graduate of his class. His future certainly looked bright indeed.

          Paul’s shoulders slumped forward as he pulled the hipflask out of his breast pocket. He unscrewed the top and took a long draught from the stainless steel vessel. The whiskey took the breath from him at first as it burned its way down his throat. He hadn’t had a drink in nearly three years but he didn’t see how it could possibly hurt anything now.

          Paul soon found out the practice in the real world is much different than study within the halls of academia. Although Paul loved the therapy profession, he grew to despise the health care business.  It didn’t matter how successful his treatments were or how well his patients recovered.  All that mattered was making as much money as possible in the process, and, at times, Paul was pressured into doing some highly unethical things to generate revenue. The bottom line was the bottom line and that made Paul sick. It wasn’t the reason he got into the medical field and the emotional stress from the job caused his bipolar disorder to exacerbate and he began to have severe mood swings. On three separate occasions over the course of two years, while working for three different rehab companies, Paul needed to go on emergency leave to be treated for depression. When cleared to return to work after the first episode, his boss asked Paul to meet with him at a local Burger King. He abruptly fired Paul and quickly left, leaving him confused and ashamed. The last two times that he went to the hospital for depression Paul went ahead and resigned his positions rather than face that kind of humiliation again.  The final disaster struck when, in a fit of manic rage, Paul pinned his boss against the wall and threatened to break his neck over a dispute regarding the company’s questionable billing practices. Paul was very lucky in the fact that no charges were filed, but needless to say, he was immediately escorted from the building by armed security and unemployed yet again.

          In two years of practice he had been through four jobs, all of which ended badly secondary to mental illness, and given the latest episode, no one in the rehab business would ever hire him again. Even those traveling agencies with desperate clients in Timbuktu who were willing to pay top dollar for any warm body with a license wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole. Paul was ruined.

          And so it comes down to this. Paul couldn’t see any reason to delay this thing any longer. He climbed onto the rail and looked up at the full moon and stars in the sky above him, searching for some appropriate last words before he took the plunge into oblivion.

          “Why, young Paul Tucker, what you doing with that ‘ol rope ‘round your neck?” boomed a voice that startled Paul so roughly that he lost his balance and fell backwards onto the bridge.

          Paul quickly got to his feet and spotted the dark figure of a man in a wide brimmed hat at the end of the bridge.

          “Who’s there?” yelled Paul infuriated by the fact that he couldn’t even kill himself properly without suffering some indignity.  

          “Why, you and I are old friends,” bellowed the figure with a chuckle, “Heck, I helped you out with the ladies more times than you can shake a stick at. Son, we used to party together for cryin’ out loud!”

          “Well, buddy, I still don’t know who you are.” shouted a vexed and befuddled Paul, “But you can probably guess what I’m trying to do here, so why don’t you just leave because you won’t talk me out of it!”

          “Well, we just can’t have that now,” replied the figure as it closed on Paul with a most unnatural speed.

          Paul froze, unable to move or speak, with the thing’s gaunt, pale face and piercing red eyes inches from his own.

          “You see, Master Tucker,” the figure flatly stated in a cold, grating tone, “there’s only room for one on this bridge, and that’s me.”

          The figure then thrust his icy fingers into Paul’s chest where they quickly grasped his beating heart. Paul felt the cold, crushing pain in his chest as his heart began to tighten. Unable to scream, he could only look the figure in the eyes.

          The figure smiled.

          “Besides,” it hissed coyly as it learned forward to Paul’s quivering ear, “do you really want to spend from now until the end of days being summoned forth every time some stupid kid hits his horn and yells ‘Cry Baby Paul’ three times?”

          All went black.

          Allen County Sheriff Deputies found Paul on the bridge the following morning and he was rushed to St. Agnes Medical Center where he was treated for hypothermia and a mild heart attack.  As soon as he was stable enough, Paul was transferred to a psychiatric unit where he spent the next month getting the help he so desperately needed. 

          It was a long road to recovery for Paul, but after a year the PT faculty at Rosenbein University was able to pull some strings and get him a part-time instructor position at the nearby Allen County Community College in their physical therapist assistant program. He also returned to Rosenbein part-time to study English in hopes of being a writer.

          As the years passed things really turned around for Paul. He now has a loving wife and three beautiful daughters. He went on to earn his Doctorate and from there received full tenure at Rosenbein University. He has also published several works. Paul still has to closely manage his illness and does have the occasional flare ups. However, with the great support system that he now has, things never get too far out of hand.

          Paul never told anyone about the figure on the bridge that night, not even his wife. Through the years he has often wondered about the true nature of the thing that had, for lack of a better word, saved him that night.

          Was it an hallucination brought on by his acute mental state?

Was it a sadistic guardian angel sent to scare him straight?

Or was it an angry earthbound spirit who simply didn’t wish to share its eternity with another?

Paul wasn’t sure that he really wanted to know…