Bridges by Leigh Harlen

Trigger Warning: Suicide

I climbed into bed and set my book on the nightstand.

Julie pulled me against her and kissed me. “I know you don’t always like to talk, but if you want to, I’m here.”

“Thanks,” I said.

Julie waited a moment while I stared ahead. I wanted to talk, to tell her everything that had happened, but where the hell to start?

“I don’t believe in ghosts,” I said, breaking the silence.

Julie’s eyes widened, but she didn’t say anything, just waited for me to continue.

“I just – that’s important. I don’t believe in ghosts.”

“It never occurred to me that you did. Did something happen? I mean, something else?”

I would never get the story out if I saw disbelief, or worse, pity, on her face. So I continued to stare straight ahead while I talked.

As the bus carried me closer to the place that I couldn’t stop thinking of as ‘home,’ I started to recognise familiar sights and the absence of expected ones. The library where I used to spend hours after school was exactly as I remembered right down to the cracked stairs and single pane foggy windows. On the other hand, the fast food joint where I used to skip class, smoke pot, and eat burgers had become a hot yoga studio. It was a little like coming into your house after a long day and finding out that someone had broken in swapped out all of your furniture.

The bus shuddered to a stop and I followed the three remaining passengers out into the silent bus station. None of them looked any happier to be here than I felt. I wondered if they were arriving home or just visiting like me.

I tossed my duffel bag over my shoulder and walked outside. The air was so cold that the little bit of snot in my nose turned to ice. I searched the parking lot until I saw my mother waving at me through her steamed up car window.

Being careful to avoid brushing against her salt coated door, I climbed inside. She wrapped one warm arm around my shoulder and pulled me in for a hug, the armrest between us blessedly limiting the contact. Her hair was not the long chestnut braid down her back that I remembered, it was now steel grey and brutally short. I remembered sitting in a salon chair, begging to have my hair cut almost exactly like that. “Only old ladies get to have short hair, pretty young girls like you wear it long,” she said when I started to cry.

I couldn’t bring myself to really hug her back so I gave her an awkward pat on the back. “I’m really sorry about Dad.”

“Me too, honey. It’s so good to see you, though. Let’s not let it go so long between visits ever again,” she said, her mouth pressed into my shoulder muffling her words. The contact brought with it a rush of memories and feelings. I pulled away.

“Is Sarah coming too?”

She pulled out of the parking lot. “Your sister will be at the funeral, but she has her own family to take care of in the meantime.”

I wanted to point out that I had a family, too. A wife whom I had left at home because we couldn’t afford two bus tickets as well as the motel we’d need to pay for if she’d come. But no matter how many times we had that argument, nothing ever changed. So I kept my mouth shut.

The street I grew up on looked exactly the same, but as though someone had put a muted filter over it. There were no happy, shouting voices, no kids sledding on the hill, no lopsided snowmen, and no screams punctuated by the thud of snowballs hitting fluffy parkas. Even the houses were washed out and dingy.

But the doorway might as well have been a magic portal back into my childhood. Every detail was what I remembered right down to my unsmiling class portrait and the picture of Sarah wearing her prom queen tiara. It even smelled the same, like the vinegar my mom cleaned with the garlic she loved to cook with.

“Your room is all made up,” she said.

I was surprised, I had expected to be sleeping in Sarah’s old room. Last I’d heard my old room was being turned into a home gym. “Thanks. I know it’s really late for you, do you want to go to bed?”

Her smile was tired and sad. “You get some sleep, you’ve had a long trip.”

“Mom-“

“Yes?”

I wanted to offer some kind of comfort, but I was too exhausted, too sad to think of anything that didn’t sound like I’d ripped it off the kind of trite, bullshit greeting card my coworkers would probably be passing around the office for me tomorrow morning. I wished Julie were with me, she always knew what to say and how to say it.

“Goodnight,” I said.

“See you in the morning.”

I opened the door and dropped my bag on my toe. It hurt, but I was too surprised to pay it much mind.

My room wasn’t more or less what I remembered, it was exactly my room the day I’d moved out. My old books were lined up on the shelves, ordered by subject and alphabetised the way I liked with new books stacked on top, an admission that I owned more than I could keep sorted on the shelves. On top of my dressers were piles of letters and brochures from the universities I’d researched and applied to.

Sarah had been wrong about our parents’ plans for my old room, there was no way my room had been touched after I left. Not even my mom at her most obsessive could have reconstructed it right down to the dusty, half burnt candle on the window sill. I flopped down on the bed without bothering to get undressed and closed my eyes.

Footsteps woke me from a dream in which I was still riding the bus while a parade of people from my childhood, or rather fuzzy pasted together amalgamations of people from my childhood, took turns driving and screaming accusations at me. I rubbed my eyes and went to the door and listened. I knew it had to be my mother, there was no one else here, but the steps were too heavy. It sounded familiar, the heavy work boots that had clomped down the hall and out of the house every morning before I was even considering getting out of bed for school. I took a deep breath, told myself that I was being ridiculous, and opened the door.

It was dark, but I saw a tall, bent, flannel clad back. I stopped breathing.

“Dad?” I said, but I was so stunned that all I could manage was a hoarse whisper. I followed him. He didn’t hurry, but I lost sight of him when he turned the corner into the dining room.

I ran to catch up and slid on the cold tile. My mom looked up at me, her eyes wide and startled. My dad’s blue flannel hung down almost to her knees and the sleeves were rolled up to keep them from hanging past her hands. She placed a silver framed picture of him on a makeshift cardboard shelf she had set up on the edge of the fireplace. I’d never seen the picture before, he looked happy, truly happy in a way I’d never seen. The stoop in his shoulders hadn’t set in and he was smiling, with no hint of the forced tension that always lurked at the corners of his lips.

“You’re up early. For you,” she said.

“I thought-” I couldn’t tell her that I thought I saw him. It was just her wearing his shirt and my grief stricken imagination. “I heard someone moving around, but it must have been you. Did you just wake up?”

The answer was obvious, it had taken her more than the last thirty seconds to build what I could only describe as a shrine. There were fifteen photographs of my dad in a variety of mismatched frames. Many of the pictures didn’t even fit the frames they were in and hung out over the edges. There was a fishing trophy, chipped and coated in dust and a bent and torn copy of some obscure literary magazine where he’d had a story published fifteen years ago. He had been so excited when he got the acceptance that he picked me up early from school and took me out for doughnuts so that he could tell me. I’d been proud of him. We’d been able to relate to each other in those days.

She nodded and returned to arranging the pictures and artefacts. I wasn’t sure what to say. I hoped that whatever she was doing was helping her grieve and went to take a shower.

When I returned to the living room, I started noticing all the little reminders that my dad should be here. They were so familiar that I hadn’t even noticed them when I came in last night. His jacket hung over the back of the dining room chair closest to the door, his reddish brown leather loafers and dusty work boots lined up neatly by the door, and his truck keys on the counter. For a moment I swore I could hear him in the next room, turning pages in one of his books. Our one point of common ground, no matter how distant we’d become, the cold silences that fell between us, or the brutal, degrading outbursts that had ripped to shreds a relationship I once thought was unbreakable. We could always talk about what book we were reading, a thin, shaking bridge that let us still see each other across that chasm of hurt, anger, and misunderstanding.

My mom left her shrine and moved to the kitchen. I watched her mincing garlic, she had traded the flannel for my dad’s tan, threadbare, terry cloth robe. He’d been a tall, stocky man so it hung almost to the floor and slid off her narrow shoulders. The sleeves kept getting in the way of her knife and were caked with bits of mashed vegetable. She looked so pathetic and ridiculous that I had an urge to hug her, to say something that would make this better. But I didn’t know how to talk to her. She and I had never really had a bridge. And God help me, I had no idea how to build one at this point.

“Do you need any help?”

“No thank you, honey.”

I sat down at the kitchen table. We didn’t talk, I listened to the snick of her always sharpened knife as it cut through a zucchini. “Mom, I don’t know if you’ve thought about it, and this may be too early to even ask, but do you know what you want to do with dad’s stuff? I’d like to help you if I can, but I only have the week before I have to be back at work.”

She set her knife down. “What do you mean?”

“Are there things you want to box up and store? Things you want to donate?”

“Why would I get rid of your dad’s things?”

“I just thought… well, it might be hard looking at his stuff all the time.”

She stared out the window for what seemed like a long time. She shook her head as if to shake off whatever feelings had gripped her and tossed her chopped vegetables into a sizzling pan. “I’ve looked at his things every day for the last thirty-five years. Why would it be hard now?”

I couldn’t say, “Because he’s dead,” so I let us lapse back into silence. This was not the woman I knew, the woman I’d been expecting while I counted the dread filled hours on the bus. I had been prepared for panic, crying, fighting. I had expected to let her cling to my arm while she wept, to listen while she demanded to know what she was going to do without him, to bite my lip and count backwards from one-hundred while she shouted recriminations at me. I didn’t know what to do with reserved silence and denial. What was going to happen when she accepted that he was really dead?

She took a jar of tomato sauce out of the cupboard.

“What are you making?”

“Lasagna. I hope you’re hungry.”

I wasn’t. And I didn’t ask why she was making lasagna for breakfast. Dad had loved it so as weird as it seemed, it made sense.

Her cooking was as bad as I remembered. Which was strange because she loved to cook. She watched videos, took classes, and purchased all the trendiest cook books. Her chopping, mincing, and dicing skills were so smooth and fast that they made me dizzy. But her passion and technical skills didn’t save the finished project. Water pooled around the overcooked, bland lump of lasagna on my plate. I tossed some salt and a handful of shredded mozzarella on top and shoved it into my mouth as fast as I could.

She clicked her tongue at me. “I work hard to make good, healthy food and you go and ruin it with all that unnecessary sodium and cheese. Just like your father.”

We both glanced at the empty chair where he should be sitting. I looked away and cleared my throat and tried to say something to distract from the moment, but I couldn’t think of a damn thing.

As soon as we’d both finished our silent eating, I rinsed off our plates and put them in the dishwasher.

“Thanks, sweetie,” she said, “I’m going to go to bed, it’s been a long day. Sleep well.”

“Mom, it’s only eleven. Are you okay?” I finally asked that dreaded, inane question.

“I’m fine, sweetheart.” The robe had dropped down her shoulders and was hanging around her elbows, she pulled it back up and disappeared into her bedroom.

When I felt certain that she wasn’t coming back out right away, I tried calling my sister, but she didn’t answer. I couldn’t imagine what she was doing right now. Why she hadn’t called, what could possibly be so important that she wasn’t here the day after our father died.

I returned to the eerie time warp that was my childhood bedroom. It had only been a day, but it felt like it had been weeks ago that my phone startled me awake at three in the morning.

I picked up my clanging, glowing phone and saw “Mom” on the screen. She had a tendency to ignore our time difference, but it was early even for her.

“Lindsay, it’s your mom,” she said.

“What is it?” In my mind I knew it was probably important, an emergency, but my sleep fogged brain was too annoyed about being woken up to be nice.

“It’s your dad.”

I sat up. “Is he okay?”

“I’m sorry, honey, he passed away.” Her voice was so calm and even that I didn’t believe her.

“Dad’s dead?” Julie shifted and slid across the bed to be close to me.

“There was an accident, can you come home?”

“I’ll be there as soon as I can.” I put the phone down on the nightstand, too stunned to know what to feel.

Julie wrapped her arms around me and stroked my back. “What happened?”

Her warmth and comfort brought out the tears that were hiding behind my numb shock and I blinked them away. I didn’t have time for crying right now. “I don’t know. My dad is dead. I need to pack, can you find me a bus ticket?”

“Are you okay?”

Though I was too shocked to know what I felt, I said, “Yes.”

“Do you want me to come?”

“Yes. But-“

“Babe, screw your mom. If you want me to come, I will. We’ll deal with whatever she has to say.”

“Thank you. I love you for saying that. But I think this will be easier on me if I don’t have to deal with anymore drama than necessary,” I said.

She chewed her lip the way she did when she really wanted to argue with me but was trying not to. “Okay. But you’ll call me at least once a day, more if you need it, right? If I can’t be there, I want to know that you’re okay.”

I kissed her. “I will.”

I could see the questions and the sadness in her face. I knew she wanted to tell me to talk to her, to tell her what I was thinking, feeling. But she didn’t push me.

While her fingers clicked on her laptop, hunting for a bus ticket, I dug through my closet trying to find something to wear to the funeral. It was all I could think of. What the fuck was I going to wear? What was appropriate for the funeral of a man you hadn’t had a real conversation with in seven years? A suit and tie would just cause a scene. I could already hear my mother screaming that I was making this funeral about myself, that I didn’t care how she felt or what my father would say. Everything else felt wrong, too casual or too bright. I had a mound of clothes piled on the bed, my half of our closet empty except for swinging hangers.

Julie put her hand on my arm, “Take a breath. There isn’t a wrong choice. Wear what will make you feel the most comfortable.”

She was right. I took a step back and looked at the stack of clothes. I would wear a suit to anyone else’s funeral. I picked up my black suit but left the tie behind. A kind of compromise between being who I actually was and who I was supposed to be.

Figuring out what to wear to the funeral was the only thought I’d put in to packing. That left me stuck with no laptop and nothing to read. Nothing to distract me from my thoughts.

After I called Julie like I promised, I browsed my old bookshelves and smiled a little. My shelves were filled with Dostoevsky, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. The embodiment of an unimaginative high school literature class reading list. I’d felt so smart and sophisticated reading nothing but the so-called classics.

I found a collection of poetry that sounded more conducive to the overactive and distracted state my brain was in right now. I curled up under the over-starched sheets and opened it up, I didn’t remember ever reading it, so I was surprised to see that the pages were dog-eared and worn. When I came to a poem by Emily Dickinson, I recognised my dad’s scrunched, precise handwriting in the margins. He’d highlighted the title, “I Measure Every Grief I Meet.”

At the bottom of the poem he’d scribbled, “Lovely.” And it was. When I was young, we’d read together, both of us buried in our own stories and thoughts, but we’d come up for air to share lines that really affected us. He had underlined and highlighted sections of the poem. I whispered the words aloud to my empty room. I expected to hear the half grunt, half sigh he always made when I read something he really enjoyed.

I wondered who or what he had been thinking about when he underlined those passages and if he’d underlined them instead of reading them to me. It felt like I’d found one last bridge between us, one final sharing of the thing that made us something other than strangers. I let the book rest on my chest while I cried. Real, consuming, sobbing. Not the restrained tears I’d shed in Julie’s arms, not the fleeting, traitorous drops that had escaped on the bus whenever I let myself dwell too much on what had happened. For an ecstatic moment I was not so much a person as a choking, sobbing, salt and snot covered misery.

As quickly as that spell of grief came, it passed and I was left with a throbbing headache and feeling as though I’d been hollowed out. I curled up and brought my knees to my chest. I left the book on the bed next to me, resting my hand on its cover.

And then, there he was, standing at the foot of my bed. His mouth opened and he mouthed words, but no sound came out. Instead huge, fluffy snowflakes puffed into the air and melted on my face. He shook his head and turned his face away.

“Wait,” I said. I became aware of the pillow rubbing against my cheek and that my closed eyes were crusty with dried tears. I tried to hold onto the threads of my dream, to pull myself back inside. No matter how unsettling it was, it was better than a reality where he was dead. But the world pulled me back and I lost my hold on those ephemeral strands.

When I opened my eyes he was still there. Standing at the foot my bed, half hidden by shadows. He shrunk before my eyes and his face morphed into something alien. I couldn’t move or shout, but my brain was screaming, shrieking, so loudly that it overwhelmed and shut down everything else, every other impulse cowed and silenced by fear.

A car drove by, lighting up my bedroom with its glaring headlights and illuminating my mother’s blank eyes. My dad’s flannel hung down to her bare knees and his heavy work boots dwarfed her feet like mud caked clown shoes.

“Jesus Christ, Mom. What are you doing?”

She tilted her head to the side. I couldn’t read her expression, the dim light from the street lamp outside did nothing but cast black shadows over her face.

“Mom?”

“I wish you and I could be the way we were. Do you remember how we used to read together?” It was her voice, but the cadence, the elongated and flattened vowels didn’t belong to her.

“What are you doing? Why are you doing this?”

“I really miss that.”

“Please stop this.”

“Do you still read? Did you ever read something really lovely and think about calling to read it to me? Because I did.”

Hearing that accent, the one he never lost no matter how many years it had been since he lived in Chicago, the way his voice would trail off and growl a little at the end of his sentences on those rare occasions when he let me see that he was feeling something deeply, it was too much. I jumped up and grabbed her by the shoulders. “Just fucking stop.”

Her eyes focused on my face and she smiled as if nothing had happened. “I wanted to come and say goodnight.” Her voice was her own again.

Julie didn’t question me when I told her the story, not even when I told her that the next day, a police officer called to tell us that they’d found my father’s body near the cabin where he liked to go ice fishing. Much like the officer, I talked in awkward circles around the word “suicide,” but Julie heard it as surely as I had.

My mother never brought up what happened. When I asked her how she knew dad was dead, she just acted confused, as if my very presence in her house wasn’t proof that she had called me.  I didn’t push. I went the funeral and hugged my sister and let her believe it was just chance that I was already in town.

If Julie thought less of me for that, she didn’t let on. I don’t think I ever loved her than I did in that moment for just believing me without judgment but I wasn’t sure how to tell her that. So instead, I pulled the book of poetry I’d found in my old room from my suitcase.

“My dad underlined things in here. Would it be okay if I read some to you?”

“I’d like that.” She smiled and moved closer to me on the bed.

I opened the book and started reading, building a new bridge between us, and I hoped, rebuilding an old one.


Leigh Harlen is a speculative fiction writer whose work often has a dark bent and focuses on creating complex queer and female characters. Their work has been published or is forthcoming in Aurealis, Expanded Horizons, Literary Hatchet, as well as in multiple anthologies. They live in Seattle with their partner and an adopted family of rats and rabbits. When not writing, they can typically be found petting strangers’ dogs and enthusing about how awesome bats are. Follow them on Twitter @leighharlen for updates on future publications and bat pictures. 

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