This short story was first published a few days ago on the 12shortstories website. Below is its second incarnation, with amendments. Thanks to my fellow writers at the NSW Writers Centre for their constructive feedback, which helped breathed more life into my story. The prompt given for the story was the bridge, the word count 1200 words.
Connor stands in the shade under the bridge contemplating his next move. It’s Sunday morning and eerily quiet, too early for the cyclists and joggers. He fingers the rocks that he’d put in his dad Stu’s coat pockets. It’s the only thing that step-mum Coral allowed him to keep after the accident, when Stu didn’t come home. He feels plastic waste bags in the pockets too, left over from walking Rosie on this same stretch of reserve by the river. It was their father and son time, when they talked about everything.
A lump forms in his throat as he thinks of Stu leaving for work, just over two weeks ago now. A day just like any other, Rosie the blue cattle dog following after him, jumping up into the truck’s cabin like she had so many times before.
I should have told him not to take her to work, when she was still recovering from the operation for her bad tooth. It’s all my fault that she died with him.
His thoughts go to the phone call at school the day of the accident. And a woman standing at the classroom door wearing a sorry look. He had never seen her before.
Principal wants to see you.
He remembers feeling shame as the eyes of the entire classroom followed him, navigating his way from the back row of desks by the window; his favourite spot, where he could look out at the sky. Then walking behind the stranger, up the corridor, the smell of floor polish in his nostrils, a smell he hadn’t noticed until then. And her not talking, her skirt making a swishing sound as she padded quickly in front of him.
His finger now finds a sharp edge on a rock in his pocket. His hands are clammy. Says to himself: are they heavy enough? Will they do the job? What if someone finds me and I’m not dead yet? When they notice I’m missing will they dredge me up out of the river like a car or a shopping trolley?
He shifts position, sits on his haunches and looks out at the water’s rippling surface, shivering now in the cool autumn morning.
A Sulphur Crested Tern wings down gently on the grass near him. He is obscured by shadow, it lands in the sun, oblivious to his presence. Another one arrives, as graceful and silent as a butterfly, then another. Soon he counts 12 of them. Suddenly, as if on cue, they all look his way.
He catches his breath, is filled with unexpected joy by this visitation, a feeling he hasn’t experienced for a while. And doesn’t move until his legs are screaming; doesn’t want to break the spell. Then he loses his balance and the birds shift slightly, still looking at him in earnest. It is so quiet he can hear himself breathing.
A big clumsy looking dog bounds along and the birds take off in unison. Connor emerges into the sunlight to get warm, sits on the grass and straightens out his legs. The dog ambles straight up to him, tail wagging, enormous tongue panting, pushing him over sideways.
Next thing, Connor is on the ground, the dog licking his face. He tries to push it off, laughing now. The dog sniffs the coat all over, Connor thinking Maybe he can still smell traces of Rosie on it?
A sweet voice pipes:
Samson, come here! Oh my goodness, I hope he’s not frightening you. He’s a bit too friendly!
He looks up from the ground, still wrestling with the dog, shields his eyes to get a better view of where the voice is coming from.
It is a young woman, about his age. She has long wavy red hair, which looks golden where the sunlight catches it. She is beautiful. An apparition.
He rubs his eyes.
Samson is now back on his lead; she helps Connor to his feet.
Are you ok? Both standing opposite each other now, she starts wiping the wet grass from his father’s coat.
He gets a good look at her, guesses at her age – 15, like him – drinks in her perfect limbs, her Wonder Woman T-shirt, the smudge of make-up round her eyes, the full lips.
Embarrassment now starts to overwhelm him – at the rocks in his pockets, the oversized coat. It’s a dreadful brown colour – not one he would choose. But he doesn’t have a coat, and never needed one with deep pockets until today.
My name’s Annabel. Samson is a bit big for me to handle on my own sometimes. I’m on my way to the kiosk near the playground to get a coffee. Let me buy you one as an apology for his misbehaviour. Unless you are in the middle of something.
She slowly looks him up and down. Her blue eyes are soft, gentle. Connor notices that she is slightly cross-eyed.
He pauses, smoothes out his hair that is sticking out at the back from when he woke up, feels a slight panic as he remembers he didn’t clean his teeth this morning. The thought of coffee reminds him of Stu brewing up a thermos to take with him to work. Connor had tried it once, but didn’t really like the bitter taste.
Ok, that would be nice.
He takes off the coat, throws it over his shoulder. A rock falls onto the ground. He kicks it out of the way.
Rock collector are you?
No, I mean, yes. Uh, sometimes.
It’s ok, I’ll stop asking questions. My brother is always telling me I’m too nosey. Says it might piss people off.
Another rock falls out. Annabel laughs, but it is not a mocking laugh. It is full of warmth.
Still facing each other near the riverbank, Connor says can you wait here a minute? I just need to do something.
I guess that’s up to Samson! He’s a bit tired now, from chasing birds and people, which was getting a tad embarrassing. He’s so inquisitive! I’ll meet you at the kiosk. Need to find him some water.
He wants to tell her how much he misses walking Rosie, how he too used to get embarrassed when she started sniffing other dogs’ behinds, or the crotches of strangers, but he couldn’t. Not yet.
He fights off a sudden confused impulse to hold her, to cry for his dad, for his dog, for the injustice of it, for his loneliness.
Connor walks down to the water’s edge. He extracts each remaining rock from the coat pockets. One by one, he tosses them as far as he can, imagining they will reach the opposite bank of the river.
Now that he is alone again a sudden exhaustion seeps in. He sits on the ground and shuts his eyes, the sun on his face. His hands touch the fresh grass, he feels the earth warming beneath him, warming his heart, his blood; takes a few deep breaths.