Those We See at the Twilight Bridge
by Wendy Nikel
Edited by Danny Lore
Copyedited by Chelle Parker
878 words — Reading time: around 4 minutes
The old man wheezes. Amid the beeping of machinery, I stand over his hospital bed, waiting for him to open his eyes.
“Helen?” he mutters, perplexed, when he sees me.
I am not Helen, but I smile and take his hand. “Dance with me, Richard, one last time?”
He protests. His legs are atrophied, weakened from disuse; how’s he supposed to lindy-hop like this? Oh, Helen, don’t you miss the old days?
But I take his hands and help him up. Most of him, anyway. The weakest parts — muscle, bone, sinew, skin, all those dusty old organs — gently slough off, and the parts I’m left with are light and airy, freed from all that decay. He twirls me, and I laugh, and he tells me how he’s missed me — missed Helen, whom he sees in my face.
She’s waiting for him. I know because I remember her well. I remember them all. The day I came to her, she saw in me her Grandpa, and she danced like a small child, her tiny feet resting on my loafer-clad toes.
Now I spin with Richard. The hospital disappears, and all that’s left is the bridge.
He looks around, as they all do, to the fog-faded world behind us, all its color and noises and warmth washed out. It’s all so unimportant now — all that’s left behind. The bridge we stand upon is made of harsh, cruel stone and passes over a chasm too deep to measure, but beyond this in-between place, the real Helen waits.
Richard sees me now for who I am but doesn’t wait for me to explain how I’d altered his perception. He doesn’t need me to ask him if he’s ready. He’s across the bridge with a cry of joy, and my job, for the moment, is done.
Time passes here in flutters and bursts. Other dancers come and go, guiding their charges onward.
A scream cuts through the dreamy twilight.
I close my eyes. No, not again.
This isn’t a whispery death rattle, summoning me to my solemn duty. This is a cry for help. They don’t want the sort of help I can offer, but if I’m hearing it, I know I’m the only one who’ll answer. This, too, is part of my duty, as much as it breaks my heart.
I find them in an alley filled with broken glass and ragged sobs. As he leers over her, she cries out again.
I slip between them and, leaving her broken body behind, gather up the rest of her in my arms, firmly tugging her free. She curls up, shrinking herself down smaller and smaller, and I know who she sees in my face.
“Shh, shh, shh,” I say, rocking her back and forth. “Don’t cry, Susan. Mama’s got you.”
I hum her a lullaby and twirl her around, and when the alley fades and the bridge appears, she’s calm and strong and whole again, standing with my arms still wrapped around her.
She starts across the bridge, toward her mother’s waiting arms, but then she does something no one’s done before. She stops halfway. She turns around. She looks me in the eye, her expression clear and resolute. “You’ll see that he pays for what he did?”
“That’s not my job.”
“Maybe it should be.”
I think about her words long after she’s gone. It’s never been my place to decide who crosses over or when. My job is to give comfort, not vengeance. But as time trickles past, I find myself returning to him again and again. In other alleys. In other cities. And one by one, I pry them from his arms, hold them close, and whisper as we dance. Maria. Ginny. Bess. Raven.
And slowly, I form a plan.
The face I greet him with has no name; he prefers the idea of a woman to any actual, living being.
I let him charm me. Let him woo me. Let him buy me a drink and walk me home.
But when the time comes and we’re standing in another alley and his mask of chivalry drops, I let my own face transform as well. I am Susan. I am Maria. I am Ginny. Bess. Raven. I am all at once, and the fear of it freezes him, forces him backward against the alley wall and against the parapet of that twilight bridge with the chasm leering up from below. The world we’d left behind — the one he’d thought he’d gotten all figured out — was nothing but a haze in the distance. And at the other side of the bridge, they wait for him, shoulder to shoulder, blocking his path.
I reach out my arms, but I cannot dance with him yet. It’s not his time, and I have rules I must follow. But I can give him this glimpse and let him taste the fear, knowing that when I come again, that day will bring them comfort and peace, not him.
Just before I leave him whimpering in the alley, I show him my true face — the one no living being sees — so that from there on out, whenever he looks upon any woman, it’s instead my face — the face of Vengeance — he’ll see.