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A Solstice Story

It is the longest night of the year, the snow already six inches deep, and Frank stares down at the black water rushing under the Seventh Street Bridge. Just one step and it will all be over. To fight off the wind, he pulls his hat lower on his head and rearranges his scarf, and laughs a little at the gesture. A bit of gallows humor. Once he hits the water, he’ll never be warm again.


No one is out tonight, and he hasn’t seen a car pass by in nearly an hour. Most people stay snug in their houses, counting the days down to Christmas. He thought he would be one of those folks, but that was before Delia left.


“I’m sorry, Frank, but I don’t love you anymore,” she said, bags and boxes stacked up neatly at the door as he walked in after work. Had that only been a week ago? He still carries the engagement ring in his pants pocket. He should leave it on the ledge for someone to find. Maybe they could use it.


“What do you mean?” he’d asked. It was as if she had been speaking some other language, something he could translate but still turned out to be gibberish. “I thought we were happy?”


“Oh Frank. I’m sure you were happy. But I need more.”


“I can change,” he said, his desperation palpable, twisting around his body like a python. How could this be happening?


Delia smiled her Mona-Lisa smile at him, but her eyes were hard. “I can’t.”


And with that she started bringing her things down to her car. Frank had thought about offering to help her, but he was too busy trying not to cry.


Frank breathes in the cold air, burning his lungs. Just a little longer, he thinks, staring up at the sky. Just a little more time to screw up his courage. The snow falls softly, and if he weren’t in such a state, he’d almost appreciate it.


A slow car with its blinkers on and windshield wipers moving furiously pulls over. So deep in thought is Frank he almost fails to notice the car’s approach. A slight woman dressed head to foot in faux fur steps out of the car, walks to where he’s situated, and climbs up on the beam next to him. She looks young—young and pretty, with short blond hair poking out of her cap.


“Hey!” he yells, “what are you doing? Get down from there!”


She assesses him a moment, with eyes somewhere between blue and gray, but ignores his order.


He wants to tug on her coat to drag her down but he’s afraid to startle her. “Seriously, get down. It’s not safe.”


“I know what I’m doing, Mister. Same as you.”


Why does she have to pick tonight? Why right next to him? There’s a whole quarter mile of bridge she could choose from. He thinks about moving several guardrails down and leaving her to it. But he can’t live with himself if he does nothing—not that it would be long he’d have to live. Just because he’s lost all hope for himself doesn’t mean he can’t help a fellow soul.


Why are you planning on jumping?” he asks. He tries to sound sympathetic, but it comes across as too abrupt. Almost rude.


“What’s it to you?” she asks, squinting her eyes as much as a reaction from the cold as consideration of his question.


“Just making conversation.”


She laughs, a brittle sound like the wind. “Short version? Not to be overly-dramatic, but I don’t have anything to live for. I fucked up for the last time and my family can’t forgive me.”


He tenses as she lifts one foot up, her red pump dangling.


“Wait.”


She looks at him and sets down her foot.


“How did you fuck up?”


“That’s a bit personal, don’t you think?”


Does he really want to know what she did? Or is he just stalling for her sake? For both of their sakes?


“The secret will die with me. But tell me or don’t, it’s up to you.”


“What’s your name?” she asks.


“Frank Delbo. Yours?”


“Charlotte Greer.” She sits down on the ledge, so she can talk without yelling over the wind. Her coat brushes snow into the river below. Frank finds himself holding his breath a second, watching the snow disappear.


“I got loaded, after a year of being clean from rehab, and said some really awful things to my Dad. It was the last straw. He told me he was cutting me out of his life and I could figure out some other way to pay for college because he was done.”


“My girlfriend left me,” Frank offers in return, feeling like in comparison, it’s not nearly as good a reason to jump as Charlotte’s. He thinks a few moments before adding, “But it’s more than that. I’ve been sad for a year, ever since my Mom died.”


Charlotte reaches her gloved hand out to Frank. “That’s tough. I lost my Mom to cancer about five years ago. It’s just my Dad and brothers now. Well. It was, until they kicked me out. Damn it’s cold out here. How long you been on the bridge?”


Frank glances at his watch. “Almost two hours.”


“I have a thermos of coffee in my car, if you want some.” He nods. Charlotte swings her legs around and gets down completely and wanders over to her car. After a minute she returns with a big green thermos and unscrews the cap.


He takes a sip, and the liquid burns almost as much as the wind does. He takes another, and passes the thermos to Charlotte. She slugs back some coffee then climbs back up on the railing, setting the coffee beside her.


“I was going to get married.” Frank pulls out the ring from his pocket and shows it to her. The small diamond glints under the bridge lights, sending out rainbows on the snow. She takes the ring from him and smiles, tries it on her ring finger. It’s a little loose, and she hands it back to Frank. He sets it back in its box and shoves it in his pants.


“She didn’t want to?”


“I was going to ask her at dinner last Friday—it was my birthday. But she was already packed to go.”


She shakes her head. “That’s rough, Frank.”


“Yeah, well. We all have it rough.”


That pronouncement silences both of them, though they continue to pass the coffee between them. A little part of Frank’s face thaws, if not his whole heart. He glances over at Charlotte, wondering how her Dad would feel if she jumps. Will police even find her? The Shinnafa River is treacherous enough to make short work of a human body, especially in this weather.


Will they find Frank’s body, while they’re at it? Not that he has family to worry if he goes missing. All he’d had was Delia.


Charlotte drains the last of the coffee. “Let’s sit in my car and warm up.”


The Camry had seen better days, but once Charlotte cranks up the heat, Frank thinks it the nicest car he’s ever sat in. He looks at her closely, notices the tremble in her lips from the cold, her ruddy cheeks. She looks right back at him, tilting her head.


“You have kind eyes, Frank. She didn’t deserve you.”


He smiles ruefully. “Thanks. But she was right to leave. I probably wasn’t the right man for her.” The more he thinks about it, the truer it feels. He should have gone into grief counseling after his mother passed. Delia wanted him to. Delia wanted a lot of things. He should have tried harder to make her happy. He should have, he should have, he should have. The thing about regret is there’s no end in sight.


You just stew in it till your bones are boiled dry. Frank knew that better than anyone.


“I know I just met you, but you seem like pretty good company to me.”


He laughs, half-heartedly. “I guess on my last night, I can afford to be good company.”


She leans forward in the driver’s seat, then flicks on the seat warmers. “I forgot to turn them on.” Frank feels warmth invade his legs and sighs.


“You’re good company too,” he adds. “Why’d you get loaded?”


“Why does a drunk get drunk? It’s a disease.”


“But after a year of sobriety?” When she doesn’t answer, Frank thinks he might have gone too far.


“Never mind, you don’t have to tell me.”


“My Dad and I have never seen eye-to-eye about my future. He wants me to go to law school and join his firm like my brothers. I want to get a Masters in the bassoon.”


He laughs but then sees she’s serious. “What’s your undergraduate in?”


“I’ll graduate in Spring with a double major in English and Music Education. But my heart is the bassoon.


When I told him I was only applying to music schools he hit the roof. And one thing led to the next and pretty soon I was slugging back a bottle of vodka, and that’s when the fit hit the shan, as they say. This was two days ago, by the way.”


“I’m sorry.”


“Don’t be. I went to two meetings today. Working on one day sober.”


He wants to congratulate her on her one day of sobriety. Is that something you do for alcoholics? He wonders again why she wants to jump now, especially if she’s working the program. Especially since she seems so…normal. Not like him. Every breath he takes is like stab in the side.


As if reading his mind, she answers. “They won’t find any alcohol in my blood. So my Dad can’t blame my drinking when he finds my poor crushed body wash up on the shore. He can only blame himself.”


“What if you told him you’re sorry?”


“Addicts say they’re sorry all the time. No one believes them.”


“Are you sorry?” he presses.


“Sure I am, but Dad won’t care.”


“I’d care, if I were your Dad.” Frank suddenly feels tired. And old. Though not old enough to be her father.


Charlotte pats his knee, half condescending, half comforting. “If you were my Dad, maybe I wouldn’t be so fucked up.”


Maybe, he thinks. Changing the subject, he says. “I’m warm enough. Guess I better get out on the ledge this time.” He opens the car door and steps out. The snow must be another two inches deep at this point. His foot sinks into the powder and he curses.


“I’ll join you.” She jumps out, her long coat barely clearing the top of the snow drifts.


They ease out onto the guardrail, and he offers her his arm to brace her as she sits, though he’d rather she just get back in her car. She shrugs him off and leans on the edge.


“I think the temperature has dropped another 10 degrees.” Frank calculated the water temperature in his head. Cold enough. They’d freeze pretty soon after they jumped.


“It’s really nasty out tonight,” she agreed. “Hey, do you feel like getting waffles? I’m hungry all of the sudden. May as well jump on a full stomach as an empty one.”


Frank wants no more delays, but as he looks at Charlotte and sees how young she is, he remembers he didn’t want her to jump in the first place.


“Yeah,” he says. “Waffles would be good.


BIO

JC Reilly has work published or forthcoming from a number of journals, including Peregrine, Isotrope, Louisiana Literature, and Rougarou, and she serves as the Managing Editor of Atlanta Review. When she's not writing, she crochets, plays tennis, or practices her Italian.

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