Fiction by Filip Deptula
“I wanna die a happy death.”
Those were the last words.
A big toe poked out of torn sneakers overlaying the concrete. Abyss lied below. No moon: stars masked by lights and clouds. The river transcended beyond invisible into darkness. There streamed emptiness. Certain fate. Seeing it didn’t mean conceiving. Traffic would overpower the splash, would distract the potential witnesses. There weren’t any, though. There’d be no one other than themselves who’d know why, how. A friend there might never have been. An acquaintance still to be determined, that would never arrive. It probably wouldn’t have made a difference. One thing was certain. There was little hesitation. Nothing was rushed or forced. The calm determination of breaking routine defined the incident. There was nothing special to that night just another evening in the long history of unpredictability. Bleakness’s association with eternal darkness was a subjective consequence after a lifetime of difficulty. They wouldn’t have wanted it to end any other way. At least there’s comfort in that.
People will think them crazy, or ill. Perhaps that was true – both simultaneously. The way they fell, the peaceful, graceful moments, the reassured tenor of their final sentence, those didn’t have the appearance of the deranged, unfit. Those didn’t sound like the actions of mental crisis (a lifetime’s result). Lack of nuance categorized them as depressed, but even then they died happy, healthy, honest. They took their own life. They considered it to be their time. It was their choice. That was all.
The constitution of a person is as complicated an undertaking as explaining as to why that person exists. Through existence one gains purpose. Lack of existence terminates purpose, even though the purpose of existence is fraught with nothingness, which is ultimately achieved in death. As the waters of the river continued to flow below the bridge where they met their demise so too did their thoughts: a constant stream of worries, disappointments, aspirations of betterment, excuses for the current predicaments, destitutions, the next meal, the one after that, the need for warmth, the desire for something beyond death and the realization that possibly this was it; this was all they had, this was the pinnacle and now, with something to be proud of, they had the choice that the few envy and the many comprehend daily. In the dark it was difficult to conceive anything beyond the twinkling lights of the City – their reflection off the glass and metal and water, illuminating the night and the dim silhouettes and the thinning treeline and the brick and wood and pavement. Cloudless sky invisible behind the streetlights, artificially starless from the overhead orange glow that shined down on their existence, burning with halo-glow – the same orange that shined in their eyes as they contemplated their newfound joy; they were the same eyes that reflected the City lights where, in the periphery, they found their home under the treeline tucked between the buildings that were once their source of sustenance, survival. The lights succumbing to darkness exuberated them. It brought nostalgia.
Once, they’d nearly left the City. Never were they able to shake off the yoke that was placed upon them, never able to leave the neighborhood where they were born, educated (or whatever the brief excuse of young imprisonment that they were required to fulfill behind a plastic desk when they met and cohabitated with the people distinguished to be in the same American caste) temporarily in the schools still walking distance from his later, outdoor homes, never ventured too far save for the few youthful coddiwomples where they learned of the smaller, stouter buildings, the fresher air, the different ways one can speak the same language. Life never seemed to change much even if it changed around them. When habits finally got the best of her, they were only child yet were already old enough to know that their home wasn’t a place one should reside but a place of survival nonetheless. Physical surroundings changed with the bodily. Change necessitated awareness. They had become different after learning of the cleaner homes and the fresher air and bigger trees. They had changed when they were trapped in that home with the others; when they were let go and fell in with those who knew how to take advantage of desperation. Struggle continued. The same difficulties of finding food recommenced, finding enough to drink, and finding a place to keep away from not only the wind and heavy rain and winter winds and snow and sleet and hail and cold as fleeting as attempting always was and will be, but mostly finding a place where they wouldn’t be recognized, found, disturbed, where one wouldn’t be evicted from their outdoor, crude homestead.
Then drink became an option. Under their illicit circumstances, no one questioned when they further committed petty crimes – one of the few benefits of what society expected of someone who’s existence is illegal – volleying contempt back at society. They were able to purchase shelter behind a shadow of imbibed comfort (side effects included the usual canopy of contentment and myriad of mistakes). Months and years and decades and physical age transformed but mental age struggled to keep up with its environment. They tasted. They smelled. They felt things few will ever experience, language too simple to describe with words that only fell from their lips occasionally and smashed onto the ground like the heavy rain and sleet and snow and hail they tried to shield themselves from (raison d'etre), and people all hustled away from them as one evacuates and/or shelters during impending storms.
And there was always the bridge. Always there was the way to get to the otherside. The unfamiliar, the part they’d dared not cross out of the comfort of what they knew, away from their nucleus, where they could not prepare for or had have no control or consistency – whatever consistency there was to a life marginalized (until that moment). There were the seasons, but they sensed that even those something off, something altered, with how the snow that’d fallen and helped pack around their shelter so the heat wouldn’t escape wasn’t falling as much anymore, and the sun did more harm than good most days now. There was the traffic, ever increasing; the people provided occasional pittance in their corner; the sign old and worn yet still legible enough to help snag a cigarette, other’s leftovers, pocket change. Those were the dwindling, halcyon days. And there was the not so lucky. That was becoming more frequent. The buildings grew around them. Some torn down to be replaced by megaliths. Dozens of trees that formed their forest diminished to a single dozen, eventually transforming into a thin, low hedgerow than under the sprawling canopy when they first moved in. Days grew shorter concurrently with perception of time, with growing age and endless repetition. And all this time right next to the bridge. And her voice still present. The road may have been repaved, reinforced (fumes caused a lightheadedness and dissociation never since achieved). The long-dead voice ever-present – that crack still hurt – that association still felt in the loneliness and paranoia deep within. The river shrank and rose, wailed and quieted, ebbed and flowed, and one dry year nearly stagnated and was reborn the following. Traffic mimicked. There was always her voice breaking over the rocks, over the concrete, cracking over the cement of surpassed memory. The bridge where they’d do the last action that ensured their happiness.
Sometimes she did, too, made them happy. She’d had to have. There was still fondness in her memory even if there were no fond memories. Besides, there were very few memories to draw from, very little that wasn’t suppressed into the unexplored dark corners of the disheveled mind. There had to have been compassion; there had to have been a natural desire to make life better, to make it endurable, for though they couldn’t identify when they witnessed the embellished childhood moments, they could understand that simplicity often brought ease and ease allowed time to zoom past; there had to have been the drive for betterment as she interrupted traffic, sign-in-hand, and them learning the best ways to get wanted attention, the most effective phrases, the correct responses when they received the smallest of gratitude. A good day included food, water, maybe a smoke. There had to have been those moments when she was explaining their predestined place in society, what would become their profession. Though this refuge continued to shrink underneath the thinning canopy and growing buildings, their environment continuously closing in around them, closing in and suffocating the vestiges of shelter and agency and purpose. Intrinsically, they knew that would be where they would meet the moment of happiness as that kid sped away, the sunset reflecting blindingly off his windshield, this corner was never associated with her. There were no memories of her after they resettled here. She showed him there’s survival in many places, even inside the buildings where she sold her trades, even in the places where she showed them how to grow defensive, inward, taught them the rules they were forced to live by, the different set of laws that they had to abide from those who drove passed, intentionally ignoring them. The others abided by separate standards. The others set the rules for them. The others only permitted things that were pleasant and comfortable and easy. The rest was for them. She showed them many things: horrifying, terrific things (most likely some good, too). She, that person they knew all their life until they couldn’t know her anymore – that person who ended up doing that unnatural act as they witnessed her do with others so many times because of a lack of a different place to go, sometimes hearing, sometimes seeing, but always cognizant of the action since childhood, exposing them to adulthood, showed them how to block those thoughts afterwards, those thoughts, pains, memories.
When it was too difficult to quell those thoughts, she would return to him. What would she think? What would she say? Questions that helped pass time, almost delaying them into rescinding their final decision. There was never a clear answer to why, nor could there be. There was the response when people reacted to their existence, that it was unfortunate, but it was just the way it was. And there was the similar response when they concluded that it was time, but their reaction, the hyperalertness and clarity, the calm spontaneity. These were inconceivable (felt so special). Once their heartrate simmered and pupils contracted and the branches of the thinning canopy and the traffic returned to normal, that’s when they realized that THEY did it. THEY helped that kid. Shortly after, that was when they heard the river crashing over the rocks below, and the bridge came into focus.
The idea was planted early, storing itself deep inside of them and slowly growing, growing with a force that would expose itself in the ugliest of thoughts. Internal expansion paralleled duration. Suppression became more difficult. The outbursts were few at first, but as they intensified so did the self-harm – fists smashed against thighs (bruising), palms smacked head (stars blinding the streetlights), grunts and screams almost exposing their superficial privacy (voicelessness). These events enraptured, perpetuated the stupor, left them in hazy shock. And when it was time to finally act, it wouldn’t be out of the self-immolation that spread like a malignant tumor, but because of jubilee and achievement.
She was doing that disgraceful act when they’d enough. They ran away, literally ran, and found refuge elsewhere, under a bush near where they could scavenge for food from a dumpster. That’s where he was spotted and taken away. They went to a home – that was the word used – where they grew a tolerance to pain, grew to be more inward, reticent, grew to expect it as inevitable, and shortly after released because (they were told) they were too old to stay any longer, even though they never knew their age, nor was even asked but assigned, never celebrated a birthday. The gifts to be received from her were the same they’d try to receive every day, and most days were a partial success. Lost again, they became no one (none). Paperwork ceased its recognition, validation. There were times where they hazily wished for someone whom to share their thoughts, someone who would break the loneliness, but the times they approached the others that were purportedly kin the others took advantage of their mansuetude. Others, too, hungered, needed escape, needed release. There was a point when they found a group that tolerated them. They stuck around. Until the same shame, the same violence, the dangers that one in their position is daily threaten, the same confusion they felt because of her happened again, and they had nothing that of themselves but the shell that carried organs and flesh and unwanted hunger and that growing malignance that would drag them around in a fugue state for days caused by the shock of how everyone around them had always caused them harm, always delivered pain, always threatened to make their situation worse and further exacerbated the horrid thoughts that disabled them from what is considered normal functioning. They left. Taking nothing but what they were wearing and wearing the same heavy clothes no matter the season – the ragged cloaks hiding the shell they were burdened with. When those times of wishing to speak to someone reemerged, those times came as portents of humiliation. They tried to wander, to discover a wanderlust that could provide purpose as it has provided purpose to so many youths, but they were bogged down in the City, afraid of what might be elsewhere, a creature of comfort like the person they saved, and they stuck with what they knew. They found the shelter she built from an old tent was still there. The specific corner was still foul and pungent. But she wasn’t there. The remnants remained (memories). The footprints still visible (struggles). There was comfort in that.
To someone who had to learn not necessarily to hate but to join in belittling apprehension of other humans, they felt unity rarely experienced to the marginalized. They had lived as though they had sworn fealty to the type of people they had just saved, both conditioned to repel from the others yet permanently in need of them as if they were in a symbiotic relationship – them needing the gifts (she first called them that) to make it day-by-day – the others exercising the vice of superiority. They were expected to sacrifice the slightest of comforts for the prosperity of the other. For their born status and the land and places they dwelled could be and probably was owned by the boy’s family or a family of the same likeness.
After everything cleared, after what they determined was the appropriate amount of time to process and feel joy and guilt for the unfamiliar beneficial, this pride for doing subjective good, and they had walked across the street and down the short distance to where the accident occurred, the ramifications that couldn’t be cleaned. Dark red blotches browned with age. Broken glass smattered the sidewalk. The walk was effortless, blissful, shedding the burdensome shell and felt light and naked and carefree of their perpetual exposure. Events replayed in their head incongruously such as recent trauma does when recollecting, processing, reconnecting. They were unseen (typical). If there were any, the drivers-by would have had to strain to see the figure on the sidewalk, and even if they did what was one more destitute but something disagreeable to ignore? Not ignorant of how necks stiffened, how gaits changed, hardened, expanded; heads pivoted away or didn’t move at all, pointing straight at the ground or ahead. They weren’t anything to look at, so no one did. Not that they minded it as looking at the others was a necessary obeisance to get their attention. They’d rather be ignored, left alone to their placidity with the occasional outbursts (torment). If only they could survive off self-determination. The pride they were feeling as they walked past the spot they dragged the kid out of the car, helped get him away enough so the fire couldn’t engulf him, kept them too preoccupied to register the proximity of the locations of the crash and the final thing they’d do (trickling of City lights exposing the contours of the darkness flowing below).
A grumbling stomach accompanied them as they looked down contemplating the events. The chronology fell into place. The last thing they ate, that boy gave them. The wrapper was cold when they received it – the same temperature as the late autumn air. But they weren’t the type to be picky about an opportunity when presented with one even if they couldn’t be the type to be picky, and opportunities presented themselves differently daily. They had to consume what was given to them, what they earned by asking strangers who didn’t have the good fortune to zoom by, or what they found in the tumult of regime. Sometimes it was small, something to barely sustain between the near starvation periods and hunger pains. Sometimes they’d be provided for by one playing the good Samaritan, and each calorie ingested was another achievement in vainglorious self-righteousness; in goodness accumulated through that satiate starving sensibilities; in attempting to heal the damage of a societal ailment by treating the symptoms. There were the occasional intoxicants, which left them yearning, and swallowed in the same impetus as other necessities. Their mental state never reacted to alteration positively. But a gift was a gift, and a warm chest and head and hands and feet were better than the absence of warmth (summer nights are also subject to loneliness). And in this place below the diminishing shelter caused by expanding sprawl, loneliness was far from an abstract, existential problem. It was something they felt innately. The infrequent gifts that prevent unwanted hunger, and the noise that blocked unwanted thought. The location was isolated enough where unwanted attention couldn’t bother them while being close enough that they could wake up and begin a day of imploration. For all they knew, this boy may have driven by the intersection a dozen times a week, hundreds, or thousands of times in their lives, and just this one time had he stop and hand him the wrapper containing the already bitten, cold junk food. They accepted it, tried to hide the disappointment at the bite marks, and nodded in meek appreciation. Mastication was slow. As their wont throughout a life was extending each meal to trick themselves, they had even more to eat than previously thought, breaking the habit of hunger with each dry, cold, content gulp. With each swallow the premonition of distrust and distaste for the people surrounding them, the people who continued to choose to ignore them, waned and transformed into digestible futility. With every bite they felt the tepidness of the taco hit and expand in their stomach, and the expressionless face twitched with overwhelming relief that comes from enduring agony. They barely tasted. They consumed.
They heard the crash after the first bites. Tires screeched, but that wasn’t out of the ordinary – a contribution of traffic’s white noise. The smell of exhaust and rubber burning, too, was not unfamiliar. But the smashing of glass and plastic and metal and rubber and persons – that was foreign. After all the years at this little enclave near the busy intersection they’d never had to hear more than the gentle impacts of fender benders. This was far more severe. Red and white flooded dark asphalt. Dark sky (black canvass) eradicated by break and headlights. Horns blared. Then, they ceased. The movement of City life halted, introduced the admission of catastrophe. Hissing arose from the silence. Next, yelling. More out of morbid curiosity of witnessing something they had not seen; they wrapped the remainder of dinner and placed it one of his deep pockets before navigating through idling vehicles. The wreck wasn’t visible until already on the bridge. That’s when the car was recognizable, even in its newly totaled state. Gas fumes increased each step closer. Sirens hadn’t begun yet. The other seated in the undamaged car closest to the wreck shouted to get out of the way. The body sat limp in the front seat. The boy barely identifiable as though movement defined life, and now there was no movement, not even breath. He was worse than ignored. He was nonexistent – a casualty of statistics and poor decisions.
Mesmerization overtook their agency and guided them, compelled them, then, to open the door, to carry the limpness onto the pavement away from the crash site, and compulsion made them look back into the car and take the half empty glass bottle miraculously unscathed surrounded by the destruction it assisted and place it in it in the deep pocket. They moved quickly, fluidly as the sirens arrived and grew vociferously. The yelling ceased as it turned to balking disbelief. The smell of gas intoxicated the scene to a malevolent breaking point. They thought clearer than ever, clearer than before they could remember, before she and the others befuddled their mind with the darkness and before her memory could shine light back into the grey haze she assisted in forming. They knew they couldn’t stick around longer. Those sirens never boded well, for once they got too close there was no escaping, that they’d be implicated into heroism, that the world, or at least those others who paid attention to the likes of them near the small corner by the leafless woods and swelling urbanness would learn of them and take heed of their presence; he’d no longer be ignored, no longer a shadow that must be kept in this society as a necessity as a sacrifice to extravagance – the people like this victim-and-perpetrator’s family who never admitted to culpability – the consequences of their existence. The damage the boy caused didn’t register to them, only that the boy needed help, and they acted because he was generous enough to give something that would cause them less strife. The other drivers watched as this strange figure walked to the edge of the bridge who reached into their pocket and dropped whatever was inside into the river, and then turned around, took off the jacket, and placed it on the unmoving body. No other got out of a car to stop this stranger before they disappeared, not knowing that their refugee was within eyesight. They disappeared, too focused on seeing what was right before one’s eyes without processing and reacting to it. They knew that they couldn’t be seen anymore unless they wanted to and watched as blue lights accompanied the red and white and heard the sirens get louder and louder until finally, the sirens, too, were silenced by explosion and flame. They transformed back into shadow. The sun set behind a black cloud rising from the bridge.
And as that shadow became lost in the darkening night, so did they, too, get lost in their reverie, shivering not only from the cold wind coming from the river, but also with delight, near glee, of being able to have saved someone from a horrible fate. They accomplished something that left an indelible mark on someone; something that will last in the imagination of those who witness that dark figure dragging that drunk kid out of the wreckage he created. No one knew of them, could identify them, could resolve their perceived enigma of the stranger who appeared right before a horrific end, before even the paramedics or fire department or authorities could respond to the nearly lethal collision. They knew that they did something good – something lasting – and that the cold that penetrated their shabby clothes didn’t bother them was all the evidence they needed to confirm that they experienced joy. Darkness progressed. Commotion came and went. The flow of the night trickled to its usual late-night emptiness, and, to them, the image of the breath escaping from the boy’s lips once more before leaving the crash site. Perhaps they would not have had the wherewithal to leave if he hadn’t seen it. Steam and life emanating from lips allayed them. Purpose rested on their shoulders like a regal cloak.
Until that joyous feeling, that wonderful sensation of belonging, began to wane as all grand emotions eventually do, and incipient, insidious fear of having lost something so meaningful, powerful and the guilt of having felt so good crept into their psyche. The stomach grumbling returned. And they found themselves on the bridge, toes overhanging. It was a quick decision. They needed little self-convincing, and once that was acted upon, once it popped into their head, it would be easily fulfilled.
Before doing it, they thought how easily it had come to them. The walk was brisk. The wind pushed them closer every step, past the broken glass and plastic, speeding them along as if it wanted to assist. They spared themselves of glancing at the spot that they knew so well and would ultimately give so much. Whenever and wherever they washed up, it’d be far away from the bridge. They were already nameless, meaningless (again). They wouldn’t be missed, and even their memory would be muddled and forgotten.
There it was: the precipice; and the descent into eternal bliss – the good descending and ending against cold water turning over and over and over onto itself with cyclical endlessness until, either out of frustration or loss of purpose, it succumbs to evaporation, to expiration. It wasn’t so much a jump as another step. It didn’t feel quite like they expected. There was no flailing, just the sound of wind whipping through their ears as though they were pulling the world towards them and not the other way around. And it wasn’t the effortless splash. Pain was expected. So was breathlessness. The thud wasn’t.
Fil Deptula was born to Polish immigrants and grew up in the foothills of New Jersey. As the son of a journalist and librarian, literature has always been a massive influence in his life. Some of his works can be found in “So Little Time,” a collection of poems about climate change, as well as “Onion River Review” and the “Best Emerging Poets” series. Fil attended Saint Michael’s College where he studied economics and writing. Currently, he lives in Winooski, Vermont.
Published 20th June, 2023.