Exchange Rate: 5-Jeff

Exchange Rate: 1-Jeff
Exchange Rate: 2-Allyson
Exchange Rate: 3-Jeff
Exchange Rate: 4-Allyson
Exchange Rate: 5-Jeff

5 – Jeff

Jefferson Charles was scared out of his mind. The strange girl clung precariously to the pole with nothing below her feet except an endless black void. The wind howled through the canyon in bursts that lasted up to a minute before dying back to a dead calm. He watched with dread fascination as it made Allyson’s jacket and pants ripple and flare when it blasted past her. He tried to block out the image in his mind of the wind ripping her from the pole and into the abyss.

“All right, well… I guess you have things to do, so I’ll leave you to them,” he called down and turned to walk away.

Jeff had no idea why he had just said that. He chalked it up to cracking under pressure enough to maybe try the same kind of reverse psychology that barely worked anymore on his daughter. And she was only nine and had, as far as he could judge, just about a perfect life so far.

“WAIT!” Allyson screamed as he was about to take a step toward his car. “My hair…” she said as he peered back over the guardrail at her. “I did it because I thought it looked cool.”

As Jeff talked, sometimes yelled down to where she clung to the bridge, he felt strange inside. The words he said seemed to form little pictures in his head as he spoke them. He’d never been in a situation this serious before. The fear in him over the fact that she could, probably would be swept out into the darkness by the wind was only slightly more terrifying than the fear that she would let go because of whatever nonsense spewed from his mouth. It felt like someone else was controlling him, as if he were a stage puppet.

Yet, as he formed images in his mind and vocalized them into understandable concepts, it seemed to draw Allyson closer to him. Not on a physical level. She was too far down for him to try to do a quick snag of her arm. But on a psychic level?

Jeff had always scoffed at the crap that passed for reality television these days. Ghosts, ESP, aliens, and overly tan Guidos from New Jersey, or worse, beauty pageants for six year old girls. He’d been interested in the ghost and ESP ones for a couple of weeks, but they always turned out to be bullshit. It was nothing but idiots running through old houses trying to scare each other with shaky video cameras, or some narrator with a deep voice describing a psychic bond between two or more human beings that somehow saved them from a major disaster.

It wasn’t that he could read Allyson’s mind. It was more like he could sense her sadness, her pain, as if it were his own. He felt the sadness and the pain being slowly drawn out as he talked to her. The more the little pictures in his head somehow made their way into words, the closer he could feel her need to let go lessen.

“Listen, I’m getting tired of having to shout down to you, or talk really loud because of the wind,” he called down to her.

He thought he had been able to talk her into climbing back up onto the solid side of the bridge. When she screamed up to him to tell her which questions he was going to ask her at The Rest, he felt failure. The connection seemed to slip, and the little pictures no longer formed in his head. He tried to explain that he was just interested in people, strangers. The words weren’t coming out right.

When she asked him again why he gave a damn, his mind drew a blank. He couldn’t think of a reason why he would give a damn enough to try to talk a stranger out of bailing from life via the East Bridge. That he couldn’t think of a good reason, combined with frustration that whatever had made him feel like a mouth-puppet seemed to have gone on vacation, made him angry. His anger exploded from within and rained down on her.

“I care because I’m a human fucking being, that’s why!” he raged.

He let his heart dictate the words to this girl on the edge of life. Jeff had never been much of an emotional sharer, but there was something about Allyson that broke down all of his barriers. Maybe it’s because she’s a stranger, he thought as he laid it all out for her. He instinctively knew that if he didn’t draw from the deepest part of himself, the part that he gave to no one, not even his wife or daughter, that essential piece of Jefferson Taylor Charles that was for Jefferson Taylor Charles only, this teenage wreck with nothing to live for would see the same selfishness in him that she saw in everyone else. Even the man who stopped to try and talk her out of killing herself didn’t care enough to give her the one thing she needed.

Jeff leaned over the guardrail and stretched his hand out. He could reach far enough to grab one of her hands, but he let his hover a few inches away. Allyson had to make the choice herself. She had to reach for him. He wasn’t sure how he could know such a thing to be true. He was just sure that it was true.

The words poured out of him, a pitcher of life-giving water, into Allyson, a wilted, dying flower. As he told her of falling in love, of one day a life growing inside her, he could feel the bond between them again. It was taut, thin, and delicate enough to break at any moment. He willed her to reach for his hand.

He watched in slow motion as her face broke from pain into the sudden desire to live at the same time her left hand detached from the pole to reach up for his. Just as he was about to grab her wrist, red and blue lights, along with a single blast of a police siren, made both of them flinch. Her eyes grew wide when her foot slipped and she began to fall backward. Jeff watched in horror as her other hand came off the pole. He leaned forward as far as he could without going over himself and locked her wrist in a vice grip.

They both hung there for a frozen moment in time. Jeff sensed, through their strange psychic link that had amplified greatly once they’d made physical contact, that Allyson felt stupid, foolish, and too late to do anything but plunge to the rocks below. The deep sadness and regret that flooded through her wrist into his arm almost made him give up, give in to not just letting her fall, but joining her at the bottom himself. Jeff’s temporary thought of suicide instantly disappeared when he felt his weight shift slightly to the wrong side of the guardrail. A surge of adrenaline coursed through him and he wrenched both of them up with every last ounce of strength in his back. His momentum was enough that his hips fell below the guardrail until his knees landed painfully on the sidewalk. He quickly wrapped his free arm around the guardrail to anchor himself. He lifted the girl until she could grab the guardrail with her free hand and climb to safety.

“What the hell is going on here?” a deputy asked, walking toward the two laughing, crying humans hugging each other as if they were long-lost relatives.

Jeff held Allyson tight to his chest. There had been a moment that seemed to stretch out forever where he watched himself and Allyson tumble into the blackness. He still couldn’t believe he’d caught her.

“I wasn’t scared at all,” she said as she pulled back enough to look up to his face. “I knew you were going to catch me.”

“Jesus Christ,” Jeff swore at her. “Jesus Christ, you scared the ever-loving shit out of me.”

“I knew you wouldn’t let me fall,” she said, pressing her face into his chest again. He leaned his head down and kissed her on the forehead, incredibly glad that she was standing here with him. Dropping her at the end would have destroyed him much more than if she had just let go on her own.

The bond that he felt between them snapped. Jeff wasn’t sure if it was ever real, or just his mind doing weird things to him in a crisis situation. When Allyson’s head jerked and she looked up at him, he decided maybe it had been real and she had felt it too. He started to ask her about it, but the cop interrupted him.

“I said what the hell is going on here?” he demanded, one hand shining the big cop flashlight in their eyes, the other resting on the butt of his service automatic. His eyes shifted between Jeff and Allyson, not sure what to make of the trails of tears on their cheeks contrasting with the smiles plastered on their faces.

“He just saved my life,” Allyson blurted out.

“What?” Jeff and the deputy asked at the same time.

She freed herself from the hug she had been sharing with Jeff.

“He caught me right as I slipped. If he hadn’t reached out and grabbed me…”

The deputy’s flashlight moved from her face to Jeff’s. “Is this true?”

“Yes,” was all Jeff said. He was suddenly nervous and embarrassed.

The deputy leaned his face over to talk into the radio clipped to his shoulder. Jeff was sure he heard ambulance in there somewhere.

“Are you both okay?” the deputy asked after receiving a reply from dispatch.

Jeff looked down at the name tag under the officer’s badge. BENGOCHEA. His knees buckled and he almost fell to the concrete. Allyson caught him, but he was too heavy for her. Officer Bengochea stepped toward them and hooked his hand under Jeff’s armpit, propping him up.

“Let’s go sit down, buddy,” Bengochea directed him. “You too, miss.”

Jeff collapsed into the front seat of the police cruiser. Five minutes later, an ambulance rolled up behind the cruiser, with another sheriff’s deputy arriving soon after. The second deputy got out and stood in the middle of the bridge, ready to direct traffic should any civilian vehicles come along. Within another five minutes, a State Police cruiser and another deputy had arrived.

Bengochea took a statement from Jeff about what had happened. Jeff noticed the deputy kept looking at him strangely, then at Allyson, who was giving a statement to the State Police trooper. She stared at Jeff the whole time she talked to the trooper. All Jeff Charles wanted to do was go home, though he thought maybe his legs were too rubbery to drive safely.

A cry of surprise from Allyson made him look over at her again. He watched in disbelief as the trooper handcuffed her and led her to the ambulance. He tried to get out of Bengochea’s cruiser, but the deputy’s hand in his chest stopped him, pushing him back into the front seat.

“What the fuck?” Jeff asked, about to launch himself up again.

“Mr. Charles, surely as a lawyer you know what happens when someone tries to commit suicide, don’t you?” Bengochea asked.

“Hell if I know. I do wills and estates, not criminal or family law,” he answered, watching Allyson talk to an EMT before being led to the trooper’s void-black cruiser and into the back seat. “Where is he taking her?”

“She’ll be transported to Snake River Psychiatric Care Center,” the deputy replied. “She’ll have to stay for seventy-two hours. It’s mandatory for any suicide attempt. She did just try to toss herself off the bridge, didn’t she?”

“Yeah. I guess I just… I don’t know. I guess that’s the best thing for her. She’s a messed up kid. I just hope it doesn’t make her want to do it again. Some of those psyche wards are madhouses.”

Bengochea looked at Jeff for a moment to see if he was trying to be funny. Jeff stared at the girl in the back seat of the ISP cruiser. Her eyes never left his face.

Exchange Rate: 6-Jeff

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