Category C: Second Place (2020) Monash Short Story Writing Competition
Author: Nikki Bielinski
Title: The bridge
I sit, scrunched up like a ball at my desk, a torn photo in my hands. I’ve ripped it into three pieces. Nadine, Jimmy and me. Nadine and I are wearing jeans and have the same shoulder length hair. She’s smiling. I’m not. She’s looking at Jimmy. I shuffle the pieces, put myself in the middle. Nadine’s now looking my way.
I don’t want her looking at me. I turn her upside down. Rip her feet off, put the torn pieces of Jimmy and me on top of her. Put Jimmy’s face next to mine, as though we’re kissing. The pictures are skewed. It won’t work. I crumple the pieces of Nadine, and chuck them in the bin, where yesterday’s Big Mac leftovers are slowly mouldering.
Jimmy used to laugh and call Nadine and me - ‘wannabe twins, joined at the hip’. But it was him I wanted to be close to. It was horrible when I discovered Nadine and Jimmy were seeing each other. That hurt.
Last week I saw Nadine snogging Peter McGarrigle behind the science block at college.
She saw that I saw.
Later she said, ‘Skye, I know you’d never tell Jimmy. You wouldn’t want to hurt your best friend, would you?’
I looked at her familiar dark eyes and slinky black hair. ‘Who’s supposed to be my best friend; you or Jimmy?’ I asked.
A tiny frown creased her perfect brow. ‘Careful, you wouldn’t want to lose your only friends.’ She squeezed my arm. Hard.
But I’m not afraid of her.
I’m afraid of myself.
I remember when Jimmy said, ‘Life’s all about choices.’
Like choosing subjects at college, in sports, even what colour I should paint my bedroom. Choosing boyfriends. Choosing girlfriends.
After he’d said that, he’d winked at me and flicked back his long fringe.
We walked down the crazy, crowded corridor at college, our hands nearly touching. Jimmy said, ‘Skye Penny, you make me whole.’
I tugged his backpack off his shoulder. ‘Ha. That’s because you’re a penny short of a dollar.’
He grinned and hoisted on his backpack. ‘Our kids would be gorgeous.’
That made me smile. ‘Let’s do it.’
I put my mouth near his ear. He smelt of chocolate. ‘Go out,’ I whispered. ‘Be lovers.’
He breathed in sharply. ‘Lovers break up.’
He ducked his head, his long fringe hiding his eyes. ‘Can’t risk it. You’re my bestie. Stepping out of the friendship zone is stepping into danger. I need you there, always.’
I could barely breathe as we did our pinky squeeze and went to separate classes - him to physics, me to chemistry.
I chewed my thumbnail and tried to figure things out. Jimmy’s family was more complicated than mine. His mum drank to be happy, but still felt sad. She drank to be sociable, but hated people. She drank to calm down, but then smacked Jimmy around the face.
His long fringe hid more bruises than make-up could.
Then he fell in love - or whatever it was - with Nadine.
I was nineteen when he jumped off the bridge.
I’m still nineteen. He’s not. He’s not anything anymore. Just some surreal dead number in the ether.
The police found him at the bend in the river, where the current slows. He’d got snagged on a fallen tree.
I was hiding in the boulders, high above the police tape, watching them search. I knew who it was straight away when they dragged him out. Long, wet hair covered his face.
Nadine was at the movies with Peter McGarrigle.
When the three of us were all ‘friends’, we’d go down to the bridge over the slow-flowing river. Jimmy and I would calculate the rate of moving water. We were typical maths heads doing atypical complex calculations - with Poohsticks.
Nadine took photos. Mostly selfies with her cute little dog.
‘I’m not at risk.’ I said to the Police. ‘I never knew him, not really.’
They knew I was lying, but what were they going to say?
Nadine had stared at me in shock, her mascara smudged. Who was she really crying for, Jimmy or herself? Strings of hair hung either side of her face. No selfies now, hey, Nadine?
Jimmy showed her. He punished her the worst way possible. But I guess he actually punished himself for what she’d done. He was the last to know she was two-timing him.
I was his bestie, and I didn’t tell him.
Why didn’t I tell him?
It’s really messed up.
I’d known Jimmy since we were ten years old. Long before either of us met Nadine. She started half-way through a semester. He thought we should be nice to her, even if she was aloof.
He’d spun around in his All Stars and said - ‘You don’t know what someone’s been through in life unless you’ve walked in their shoes.’
She had the cutest, black terrier called Queenie. I love dogs, but mum’s allergic so we can’t have one.
Jimmy, me and Nadine started hanging out in the park. The three of us and Queenie running around on the grass. There’s always a reason to smile when you’ve got a dog.
I found comfort in Queenie. She’s different to the big Alsatians I like, but it made me happy to see her enthusiasm for life.
I’d throw sticks and chase Queenie around the park like a kid, while Jimmy and Nadine drank beer and chatted like adults. Cheerful Queenie was a welcome distraction at the time - I had a lot on my mind.
I never thought Nadine was using me and my love of cute Queenie to get close to Jimmy.
But that’s exactly what she did.
I guess I was the familiar one for Jimmy. We’d always done our homework together, helped his mum with the shopping and watched DVDs on rainy Sunday afternoons. I was the one who kept his secrets zip-locked shut in my brain.
I thought it would always be that way.
The first time Jimmy, me and Nadine went to the movies, she had on lots of make-up and clothes with labels. Then she started dressing more like me, in jeans and a jumper. She even bought All Star shoes, like Jimmy and me.
Nadine and I looked alike, I suppose that helped Jimmy feel comfortable and familiar with her. Wasn’t I enough? I’ll never know. It was as though he had a new me, but without the barbed wire fence of some stupid friendship zone.
He’d talked about jumping off the bridge before - when his dad left, and things got real bad with his mum’s drinking. Jimmy and I made a pact.
If he went, I went.
I thought making a pact would stop him, see?
But it didn’t.
It’s horrible here, without him.
Here I am, on the bridge at 6 a.m. with his memorial flowers strewn across the pavement. Birds singing.
A slight breeze.
Red dawn. Red sky in the morning, shepherds’ warning. My mum told me the morning I was born, the sky had been blood red. So, she called me ‘Skye’ and dressed me in red. I prefer black.
I grip Jimmy’s last letter. There are scribblings of maths calculations on the back. How fast can Poohsticks race? It’s because of the other side of the letter that I’m here today, though.
I grip the railing. The metal’s icy cold and a bit above my waist-height. I could easily swing my legs over.
Don’t do what I’m going to do, he wrote.
Maybe I should listen.
I step back, into the bunches of flowers and notes on the pavement. My heartbeat pounds in my head.
Choose happiness, he wrote.
But I want to know what he felt before he did it. I have to walk in his shoes, so I can walk away. I look down at his All Stars on my feet. They’re big and ungainly.
I scrunch his letter in my hand, grip the railing and swing my legs over. I sit on the edge of reason. My legs dangle above the rushing water.
Soft rays of sunshine slide over the ridge. The storm’s over, but I shiver like it’s about to begin.
Before Nadine turned up in our lives, Jimmy and I broke the friendship zone. It was about four months ago. That one afternoon freaked him out. He didn’t want to talk to me after that and kept away until I promised ‘we’d just be friends’.
But we’d been there once. I clung to the thread that we might go there again. It was a fragile thread, but I couldn’t pull it tight and I couldn’t let go.
The next week, we met Nadine.
One Friday afternoon, they weren’t in the class we did together. They didn’t answer my texts. Something chewed away at me. I left class early and scouted around.
I wish I hadn’t. I saw them leaving one of the private study rooms, Nadine tucking her shirt into her skirt. It was like a knife stabbed my belly. They didn’t see me. I ran to the toilets and threw up.
I pretended everything was normal. I had to. It was the only way I could cope. I couldn’t lose Jimmy.
But he knew that I knew. ‘I really love Nadine. Don’t get jealous, you’re still my best friend.’
I gripped my pen and it snapped. ‘Is that meant to make me feel better?’
He flicked back his long fringe, looked at me with his dark eyes. ‘Things are hard enough. Don’t you be difficult.’
Passive aggressive. My mum gets like that, she even says the same thing. They say the best way to deal with passive aggressive people is to keep away from them.
For the next few weeks I did just that. I had an urge to paint my bedroom. I scraped back window frames, took down all my Taylor Swift posters, cleaned blue tack off the walls and roller painted them grey. Dark grey.
Mum stood in my doorway. ‘I’m not impressed.’
‘You don’t have to be.’ I kept painting.
She eventually sighed and went away.
I climb up and squat on the cold metal railing. The wind is cold against my face.
We broke the friendship zone only once.
But that was all it took. While I was painting my bedroom and trying not to throw up the contents of my stomach because of pregnancy hormones, Jimmy and Nadine were ‘busy’.
I couldn’t tell him. I guess I still hoped he’d choose me over Nadine. Not because I was pregnant, but because he loved me.
The wind gusts. I shiver.
Who’ll believe me it’s Jimmy’s baby? Can I have his baby knowing he didn’t love me as much as that two-timer Nadine who pushed him over the edge of his depression?
The wind blows my hair into my mouth. I spit it out.
My head snaps around. It’s Nadine. Her eyes are red and puffy. She’s carrying a bunch of flowers and walking her dog. ‘What are you doing?’
My throat’s dry. ‘I want to feel how it was for Jimmy.’
Nadine steps closer and slips on the wet pavement. She regains her balance and points at my feet. ‘Are you wearing Jimmy’s All Stars?’
I stiffen. That’s what she notices? I glance away from her to the surging water below. Dizzy. I look back at my fist, holding Jimmy’s crumpled letter.
She drops the flowers, the dog’s lead - and reaches for me.
I twist away. ‘I’m not jumping.’
An early morning bus speeds past, its backdraft gusts brutally. Jimmy’s letter flutters from my hands.
I stretch for it. I want his last words. My best friend. The only one who really understood. Everything.
I grab at the letter. It’s just out of reach. I see the ink curls of writing twist in the air. My foot slips.
Nadine screams. Her dog barks.
The water rushes towards me.