HE WORLD HAS BEEN BLIGHTED. The feel of ruin and desolation culminate in February, the shortest month of the year; the month that never seems to end. Everything is smeared with an ashy gray filth – the cars, the streets, even the sand encrusted snow – all defiled by an unnatural salt that has never known the ocean. Cold seeps through the skin like a disease, numbing the tissue first and then eating away at the bones like caustic acid. The chill keeps going deeper and deeper, into the heart of the marrow so that even the very fires of Hell could not thaw one out. Perhaps it is Hell that has brought Alice to this bridge overlooking the Connecticut River.
She stands on the rusted green rail, slick with condensation – it’s one of those misty mornings when the snow ponders the virtues of melting. The flaking paint irritates the bottom of Alice’s bare feet, so she shifts position and begins to spread her arms as though she is hung on some kind of intangible cross, but slips and bangs her head instead. Bright crimson rivulets ooze down her right cheek. What a mess. Alice falls into the river, but not before crashing through a thin sheet of ice on her way. She feels prickly pain for a few seconds and then the real agony takes a momentary stab, right into the center of her heart. The frantic hammering of her heartbeat stops, the rush of water in her ears is gone, and all sound comes to an end. The blood from her wounds no longer flows; the river takes it away and keeps it secret. The morning is silent again, as though she were never there. By the time her slender corpse is found a quarter mile down stream, she is the perfect shade of white, like a December drift at high noon, simply blinding. Alice goes through these motions every year; it has become something more than an annual compulsion.
Perhaps it is Hell that has brought Alice to this bridge overlooking the Connecticut River.
“Why February?” A short, balding octogenarian asks one day. He is her answer to George Bailey’s Clarence – except he’s about five years too late.
“Excuse me?” Alice asks in reply just as she’s attempting to hoist herself back up onto the rail.
“If you are going to kill yourself by jumping off a bridge, why do it in the middle of winter, for heaven’s sake? Why not in the balmy days of August, the weather would be much more pleasant, wouldn’t it? Ideal for a cool dip…”
Alice stops for a second, her cherry pink toes fall back down to the soggy cement. “Yes, I remember August. Very pleasant. Very green. But it didn’t have the sort of dramatic effect I was looking for. You know… symbolism.” She turns back toward the rail and lifts one foot, this time it catches on her flimsy cotton night gown and she nearly falls over. The old man catches her by one pointy elbow.
It’s beginning to drizzle and the elderly gent looks up to the heavy steel sky. His eyebrows are two huge white caterpillars butting heads above his shiny black eyes. He sighs as he straightens out her night dress.
“Did you get what you wanted out of the experience?”
This is quite a new consideration for Alice. She stops what she is doing and turns to the old man.
“Besides dying of course,” he clarifies, “the effect, the symbolism… did you end up getting it right?”
Absently touching her temple, Alice frowns, “I don’t know.”
The old man taps his finger tips to his chin. “Well, let’s see… what did you hope to gain from jumping off a bridge in the middle of February into an icy, yet watery, grave?”
“I suppose I wanted everyone to know how much I ached. But that’s too simple an answer isn’t it? Do you know that I’ve almost forgotten why?!” Alice dismisses the rail completely and sits herself down onto the curb. The elderly man pulls at the knees of his trousers before joining her.
“I ached for things I could no longer have. And the things I wanted… well, those dreams dried up so fast that I didn’t have time to make up any new ones. All those sunny August days, those weren’t really meant for me, were they?” She looks to her companion for an answer, resting her chin on the palm of her hand while her lank, tawny hair falls over her eyes, but the only answer the man gives is a shrug.
“I wanted the water to carry all that pain away, I could imagine it lifting up over my head and floating away with the current, leaving me clean. The cold was an exclamation point. It marked the apex of my despair.” Her hands flew up and her head fell back in perfect exaggeration. Her companion listened patiently with a thoughtful, compassionate sort of smile that may have only existed by some play of light. Alice took his silence as a cue to continue.