|This Week’s Theme: Start your entry with a fire.|
Reminder: Over the weekend you can participate in judging the Write Stuff photo writing contest. My entry is posted here.
As Daniel fished his chemistry text from his backpack, he glanced out his bedroom window at the night and was astonished to see an orangish glow dodging about under the bridge. Shadows writhed along the half-frozen river and clambered up the rocks of the embankment. Phantoms made from firelight waved at him, beckoned him to come out and play.
He closed his eyes and counted to ten. Walter was dead. That was not Walter's fire under the bridge.
When Daniel opened his eyes again, he dropped the book with a solid thud. Someone was down there, with a fire, in Walter's spot. That wasn't right. Daniel hustled through the door, snatching his black hoodie off the floor as he went. Down the stairs three at a time, his sneakers squeaking on the hardwood steps. Mom wasn't home yet, probably wouldn't be home for an hour or two, some work meeting keeping her late again.
The front door resisted and squeaked as he yanked it open and felt the rush of winter flow over him and up the arms of his sweatshirt. Mom would yell at him to wear his parka, or his boots at least. But it wasn't far, and he didn't plan on being out long. And someone's fire was warming Walter's little home under the bridge.
He trudged out into the night, up the street and around the corner. Just past the Falks' house, at the fire hydrant, he turned from the sidewalk onto Walter's path. A thin, wobbly track in the frozen grass between the Falks' place and the Delanos', some sort of sewer or power company easement that wound through the rocks down to the river's edge. Scattered seeds of moonlight fell through pine branches above, and his breath made pale patches in the darkness before him.
The snow along the path was old, and its crust crunched under his steps. The temperature had dropped fast after the sun went down, faster than he'd expected, an already he began shivering.
He couldn't see the bridge from the path because of the bend in the river and the steep bank. His house was up there somewhere behind the fences, and he gave one glance up at yellow windows before turning onto the groomed path that followed the river. During the day, this path would be thick with joggers and dogs, even in this frigid weather. In all his evenings with Walter under the bridge, he'd never seen anyone walking this late.
It would be in sight... now. As Daniel came around the big rock that pushed the river left and then let it flow right again, he stopped. The span of the footbridge arced over the water, a slim and graceful gray line against the black trees across the river. It flowed like a dark rainbow into the riverbank, blending as if it had grown right from the dirt. Walter's path staggered down this side, around the buttress and disappearing beneath the bridge into the darkness.
Where there should have been an orange glow was blackness. Where he should have heard crackling and popping of dried sticks and shards of wooden crates and palettes, he heard only the whispered hiss of the water passing by. Where he should have welcomed the warm odor of a campfire, he smelled only the pines and the river mud and the cold.
Daniel found himself running the last twenty yards, dodging down under the bridge to Walter's home. It was black, blacker than the cloudless sky, there under the bridge. He knew the place by feel, by memory, but he could see nothing. He knew that a few feet to his right was where Walter lay as he passed away, alone in the cold of a November night, passed out even before the last of the vodka was gone. He knew the fire would be a little farther in, where the bridge could collect and hold on to the heat. He knew how the light would dance in the beams and cables above, how it could mesmerize and fill the silence on those nights Walter had faded beyond speech.
Daniel shivered hard under his sweatshirt and hugged his hands under his armpits. He turned and started back up the path, wondering how it was possible to walk away from that place without the sound of Walter's hard snoring behind him.
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