Vigil

by Stacy Wennstrom
Before the woman jumped from the overpass, landing on the far left lane of I-84, facedown and spread eagle, Mark was considering the possibility of turning the car around and returning to Pittsburgh, blinding snowstorm and all.  He didn’t want to meet Meg’s family in Connecticut, he didn’t even want to spend Christmas Eve with his own family in Indiana, he just wanted to be in his loft apartment, drinking beer and watching It’s a Wonderful Life.

As he changed the CD from U2 to Snow Patrol, Mark tried to forget the queasy feeling deep in his gut.  He loved Meg, he really did, but there was just something about meeting the family.  About meeting the dad.  At the age of twenty-seven, Mark had met a lot of girlfriends’ parents, and it just never got easier.  

Girlfriend’s dad says, “Pass the peas.”

Girlfriend’s dad means, “I know you’ve seen my daughter naked, and I hope you choke on your food.”

Girlfriend’s dad says, “So Mark, I hear you work in pharmaceutical sales.  How did you get into that field?”

Girlfriend’s dad means, “So if I were to track you down with my shotgun on a random Tuesday afternoon, where might I find you?”

Last night at the bar, he’d tried to explain this to his friends, Jon and Erik.  He’d had a couple pints of Guinness, and his friends were already discussing who would drive Mark’s drunk ass home.

“Actually, you’re just crazy.  Meg is twenty-six.  I’m pretty sure her father will know you weren’t the one responsible for stealing her virginity,” Jon said.

Mark peered into his empty glass. “I’m not crazy.  Your girlfriends’ dads haven’t given you the evil eye?”

“Well, fathers are protective,” Erik said, “but I wouldn’t say the average dad is a homicidal maniac.”

“And guess what Daddy does for a living?”  Mark located their waitress and tried to flag her over.  “He’s a doctor.  Family practice.  When he hears I peddle antidepressants for Pfizer, he won’t want to hear anything else.”

“It could be worse,” Erik told him.  “You could be a lawyer.”

Now that it was a day later and he was sober, Mark knew he had likely been a little crazy, but now that he was in Connecticut, he wanted to be elsewhere.  An hour ago, he’d spotted a sign saying that he was 43 miles from Hartford, and he’d headed to the nearest McDonalds for refuge.  After drinking two cups of coffee and eating fries he didn’t even want, he was back on the road.  Snow swirled against his windshield, toying with his vision.  

He could drive into the night, take a tour of New England, find small towns aglow with Christmas lights, and listen to radio stations playing Bing Crosby.  He could tell Meg he’d ended up in a motel due to the storm.  She had driven to Hartford three days ago; she wouldn’t know any better.  He was already late, and the Jennings family was probably well into their holiday tradition of playing Trivial Pursuit by the fire.

It was then that something dark and heavy dropped into his lane, many yards ahead, like a pterodactyl making an emergency landing.  He jerked the steering wheel to the right, his heartbeat and his Toyota both out of control.  He swerved across two lanes and went off the road.  As it was extremely late on Christmas Eve, not many cars were on the road.  He only hit a snowbank, but he could hear a honking and swerving vehicle somewhere behind him.  

Firmly lodged in the snow, Mark turned on the emergency lights and got out of his car.  The swerving vehicle passed him, its driver seemingly unaware that anything had dropped from the sky.  He stood a moment, scanning the scene for approaching cars or a dark shape on the road.  With heavy feet and stomach, he backtracked several yards to find what he’d nearly hit.  

The lights were flashing behind him, the snow was swirling, a dozen gossamer drapes, and through the twists of snow, he could see a body.  Small.  Likely a woman.

“Oh, God.”  He looked up to see the overpass she’d jumped from.

He waited until a car drove past in the right hand lane, likely unaware there even was a body in far left lane, before he crossed the highway.  She had dark curls and was petite.  Probably around Meg’s height of 5’2.  Blood was everywhere.  

He whispered to her that everything would be all right, that help would be there soon.  He didn’t know why; he felt certain she was dead.  He knew he had to move her before anything else.  She was still in a highway lane, and even with the lack of traffic, it was possible that someone might run over her before he could even take her pulse.  He picked her up gently as he could.  If she survived the fall, she would have numerous broken bones.  

She was light, scarcely more than a hundred pounds, and Mark felt as though he were moving a child.  He tried not to look at the blood on the ice and in her dark curls.  He placed her body on the snow.  He kept her on her stomach, as he was afraid of doing more damage to her broken body if he turned her over, but he carefully moved her head to one side.  He removed his right glove and pushed one of her gloves down a bit so he could feel for a pulse.  Nothing.

“It’s all right.  I’m calling for help.”

He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and called for help as snow dusted the woman’s body.  He explained a woman had jumped from an overpass.  “We’re on eastbound 84, probably 30 miles west of Hartford.  Come quickly.  I don’t know what to do.”

After hanging up, he knelt on the side of the highway, a couple feet away from her.  He wondered what was wrong with the woman, and he wondered what was wrong with him.  All around the country, people were gathering by lit trees and by fireplaces, happy just to be with their families.  Why were the two of them drawn to the dark and the lonely?

“Merry Christmas.  We make quite a pair, don’t we, Chloe?”  

He wasn’t sure where the name came from, but all of a sudden, she was Chloe to him.  He wondered who she was, and where she was supposed to be tonight, if anywhere.  He thought she might be a graduate student.  Twenty-four years old.  She had a small apartment and a gray cat.  She had a fiancé, but he didn’t deserve her.  Her parents were religious though she wasn’t, and her dad was very strict when she was growing up.

He didn’t know what demons led her here that night, it seemed disrespectful even to guess, but he felt strangely honored to be the one who stood alongside her body, like the bodyguard of a princess, as she moved on to the other side.  He couldn’t help but think this a strangely peaceful death scene.  There were no cars on their side of the highway, snowflakes formed a soft quilt around the woman, and there was a curious hush.

He stayed there a moment in a respectful silence, but then it occurred to him just how late he was, and he decided to call Meg.  He walked away from the woman so as not to disrupt her resting spot with his earthly business.  The conversation was strange, like a buzzing in his ear.  He knew the words to say, but they seemed separate from him.  Meg also felt separate from him.  It was as if Chloe was the only real thing, and his life was something made up.

“Sorry, accident on the highway . .  . no, I’m fine .  . . there’s a body on the road . . . no, I didn’t hit her.  She fell . . . From an overpass.   She jumped . . .We’re waiting for the ambulance right now. . . Oh, I meant the girl and I, but I suppose she isn’t waiting, is she?  .  . . Yes, I’m sure.   There’s no pulse .  .  . I’m okay.  I’ll be on the road again once the appropriate people get here .  .  .I love you, too.”

He returned to his vigil, his silent night.  A car drove up, pulled over.  Two middle aged men bundled against the elements, got out of the car.

“She jumped.”  Mark pointed to the overpass.  

He knew he should be grateful for the company, but instead he resented that their presence made it necessary for him to reduce the events of the night to words, to label this sad girl as another suicide statistic, and distance himself from it all.  It demoted him from guard to witness.

“Do you have a cell phone?” one of the men asked.

“Yes, the police and ambulance are on their way.”

They waited, cold, silent, and still.  Three living men, one body of a woman.  Finally a police car arrived.  Mark told his story to the police officer, and then began to tell it again when the ambulance arrived.  

He wanted to stay with Chloe, to shoo the paramedics away as if they were a flock of troublesome birds, and preserve her peace. It felt wrong to turn her over to strangers, but eventually, he could no longer invent reasons to watch over her.  As there wasn’t anything wrong with his car, which the two men helped him push out of the snow, he drove to Hartford.

At first, his mind was with Chloe and the mystery of her despair, but as he neared Hartford, he found himself missing Meg.  He wanted to sit next to her by the fireplace and enjoy how warm and alive she was.  He would hold her and tell her of what he had seen tonight –darkness and light, angels and demons- and she would understand.

When he arrived at the colonial home Meg had grown up in, Meg came flying out of the house, coatless and shoeless in spite of the cold and the snow.  She threw her entire body weight against him.  She was crying.

“It’s all right.  I’m all right,” he murmured into her dark hair.  “It was just a crazy night.  It was like the Smush Capades, Suicide on Ice.”

He didn’t know why he was joking about it.  There had been nothing funny about Chloe’s body, still over the asphalt.

“Oh, don’t,” she moaned, tearful.

It was inside that he learned of the call that they’d received.  That Meg’s sister Elizabeth, shy and melancholy Elizabeth, had abandoned her car and jumped from an overpass, landing on 1-84.  Mark thought of angels, awhirl in the wind, tumbling to earth like snowflakes.  He wanted to pull Meg towards him, but didn’t; he was no longer allowed.
Stacy Wennstrom is a senior editor at Halfway Down the Stairs. For staff biographies, click here.

© 2009, Stacy Wennstrom