It was as he was slumped over the steering wheel that Frederick scratched at his collarbone for the hundredth time that day. The gift he was wearing was too appropriately from his mother; it looked nice on the outside, but only he knew just how prickly it was. He’d pull it off once he was home. He’d also ask his wife for her special warm apple cider, his favourite after a long day. The day’s burden hadn’t really been the conference; it was this drive to, and now from, the building at the other end of the city. It was another busy hour and he was stuck, yet again, in a slug of traffic.
He was stuck, also, in his petty grumpiness. He’d started to forget, even, that he’d known much greyer days in his life. If anything, this particular Tuesday had only been off-white; that was what was showing in the clouds, in the way that the sky seemed to be covered in craft paste. The city was dim, but there had been no rain. Compressed in his small Peugot, however, Frederick had sweat forming in his underarms.
He cursed when the Volkswagen ahead stopped, blocking the street like a kidney stone. He braked and hit the horn. Others did the same, and the sounds of displeasure built up like pus. The guilty driver popped his head into the street and started to yell. Frederick didn’t realize, at first, that the man wasn’t yelling at him, nor at the other drivers. He’d turned his head to the left, to the park facing north.
Following the look, Frederick noticed clumps of people forming on the pale lawn. They were all also staring north, towards the cliff that overlooked the water. Frederick had to concentrate to see past them, to see into the horizon, where the sky was finally ripping open. And then he saw the man that was climbing over the fence. In that moment, his heart sunk to the brake pedal; all that he saw was himself.
He’d climbed over a fence of his own, once, back in Copenhagen. On that awful spring night, almost two decades prior, he’d dangled a foot and his life off of the edge of the Hjernekam bridge. Thanks to the interference of another, though, he’d failed to jump, and that had been the last major failure of his life. Pulling his heart all the way back up, he parked his car amongst the traffic. He told himself that he should be brave, or it would be this man who’d be sinking.
When he stepped out out onto the sidewalk, his skin was shocked by the cool breeze. The air was also haunted by cigarette smoke and smelled more like death than any other part of the city. It was worse as Frederick entered the park and jogged on the stone path.
“I’ve got it,” he yelled, as he approached he cliff, “Someone call the police. I’ll keep him at bay.”
The crowd obeyed, remaining stagnant. It wasn’t surprising. People feared death just enough to worry for the approacher, but often too much to ever approach it, themselves.
Frederick wiped sweat from his cheeks as he reached the fence. The rabid waves from below the cliff blasted him with colder air, and it felt good on his enflamed face. He leaned over the flat black metal and looked over the man on the other side. Though they were close, now, the stranger did not acknowledge Frederick. He stared only forward, his arms clutching at the fence behind him. He looked to be his twenties, with pale, flushed skin, and a raging head of auburn hair.
“Son?” Frederick tried. “What’s your name?”
The stranger took some time to gather his tears.
“Ansel,” he muttered. Frederick felt a ring of hope.
“Hello, Ansel. I’m Fred.” Frederick ran his hands across the cold fence. “I’m going to be very simple about this,” he said. “I don’t want to ask why you’re here, because, clearly, it’s an upsetting matter. I want to tell you why I’m here, too.”
Ansel shied his head around towards Frederick. His pale blue eyes limped all over his face, as if to judge him. They finally fell into his eyes.
“I can’t not think about it,” he then said.
“That my life is nothing,” he said. His face was drooping like a sack of blood. “My soul is too tired, now. It just wants to sleep.”
Ansel’s words frightened Frederick, weighed on his own confidence, but he couldn’t show it.
“The soul doesn’t get tired,” he argued.
“What?” muttered the boy.
“There’s no such thing as a tired soul. Or an unhappy one,” Frederick said. His hands shook as he thought back to his time in the facility, to the things that he’d been told.
“I don’t understand,” Ansel said.
“Souls are made of pure, vibrating joy,” he continued. “It’s our souls that make us want to live in the world.” His hands shook more violently, but he told himself that it was just that vibrating power of which he spoke.
“The mind is what gets sick,” he said. “Sick minds cover our souls with dust and dirt. But that can all be swept away. It just takes some work.”
Ansel did not respond. He turned back away, stared down at the water. Frederick’s throat turned to sand. He probably wouldn’t have believed the words, either, at his deadliest point. These were only words. They were promises from a stranger. He needed stronger proof of his personal wisdom, of his solidarity with this suffering child.
He took a moment. Then, he clasped the top of the fence with both of his hands. He placed a foot on the rung at the bottom, lifted himself upwards. His arms shook under the weight of was he was about to do. His heart was heaving. He raised one stiff leg over the top of the fence, then the other, and it felt like a plummet as he lowered himself onto the other side. With sweaty hands, he clutched the cold posts now behind him. Pieces of his insides ricocheted all over his body. The edge was so close, the water so far down.
Still, the salty taste of the air was already overwhelming. And the glassy blue waves below were curving and sinking, violently, like they were trying to grab at him. Watching them gave Frederick a crashing chill. A seagull as white as the sky passed over the water, and as it was only as it started to cry that he remembered what he was doing.
“Now, the reason that I’m here,” he coughed. His head felt sticky with mud. He turned over to Ansel, who wouldn’t be able to ignore him anymore. But his heart clenched again in fear as they made eye contact; the boy’s sunken, watery eyes looked too much like the water below. “I was in this position before,” Frederick managed. “At about your age, too.”
“You’re lying,” Ansel grumbled.
Frederick shook his head. “I was ready to give up, because I thought that I had nothing left,” he said. “And, to be honest, it was true.”
“But it made me realize that I had nothing to lose, if I took another chance,” Frederick continued, feeling sticky in his stomach, now, and in his legs. “I agreed to take just one more. It was at my disposal. And now, I have a good job. I have a wonderful wife, and two boys. So, this,” he said, and he nodded his head towards the water, “it doesn’t even tempt me anymore.”
Ansel blinked slowly at Frederick, and then he turned his gaze back over the fence. Was he thinking of climbing back? Frederick looked too for a moment, and then a few, over at the pale park. A new crop of people had cultivated on the grass, remaining still and staring with large, scarecrow eyes. Frederick felt Ansel’s grip tighten on the fence.
“Listen to me,” he insisted.
“You’re telling the truth?” Ansel muttered. His voice was strained, but that was good. It meant that something in him was fighting.
“Of course,” said Frederick.
The screeching of sirens approached, then, from the distance. Ansel’s eyebrows dipped, then curved up a little as he stared at Frederick.
“What are their names?” he asked.
Frederick understood, and he smiled more vigorously. He had the boy. He’d reel him back to land, soon, like a fish on a hook.
It was only a moment later that he felt that a hook had entered his own brain and lobotomised him.
Ansel watched Frederick with lively eyes, awaiting his answer. Frederick, for some reason, waited with him. He felt paralyzed, almost--though internally he was spastic, grabbing at the air for words that seemed to have evaporated. He became only concerned for himself, in the moment. Any man would know the name of his wife, of course. Of his children. And he’d remember their faces.
As he heaved in the increasingly salty air, he told himself himself that everything would return to him, in just a few moments. Unfortunately, the moments continued to jump away. Soon, he wasn’t sure if he’d ever had children, or even a wife. He supposed that he didn’t. He’d been mistaken…
“Oh my god,” Ansel’s voice shook Frederick out of his mind--or lack thereof. The boy’s face had been re-ignited with dread. His eyes flatlined. “You are lying,” he said.
“Wait,” Frederick struggled. He felt dizzy and thought he might collapse.
Ansel’s face screwed downwards, and he made the ugliest whimper that Frederick had ever heard. Such a sound could only signify death.
“Oh, god,” Ansel repeated.
He jumped only a moment later.