15 Years Previous
She stood on the edge of the old bridge and stared down at the deep ravine below. One second. That’s all it would take, and this nightmare of a life she’d been living would be over.
She wondered what came next. Once she fell, would it be painful? Or would everything just go black? Would she even know she’d died? Would all of those life after death stories she’d heard be true? Would she see her beloved grandmother or the fish she’d had in elementary school? But her biggest question was whether she’d find peace wherever she was going.
Jill Russell wasn’t a dummy. She knew what her preacher had said about suicide on Sunday mornings when he’d warned that those who took their own lives would end up in hell for all eternity, but was that really true?
Her fifteen year old mind couldn’t comprehend a God that wouldn’t understand how miserable her current existence was. And no matter how much she’d prayed in recent months, things were going from bad to worse.
Her new step father was a horrible man, intent on making her feel so small and ugly and stupid. Her mother ignored her most of the time now, opting instead to focus her attentions on the new baby she’d made with that monster she called a husband. And while she loved her baby sister, she knew she’d never measure up again.
And then there was the constant bullying. The kids at her new school, the third one in as many years, pick on her relentlessly about things she couldn’t control. Her second hand clothes. Her “spooky” eyes. The smattering of freckles on her nose.
No one wanted her. No one loved her. And therefore, life was pointless. It’d be better for everyone if she’d just take that one step over the edge…
“Hey!” she heard a male voice say from the other end of the rickety old bridge. She could barely see him because of the bright sun. Maybe she’d already jumped and he was her spirit guide? Otherwise, why would anyone else be so far out in the woods?
She had been forced to come camping with her family even though her mother knew she hated being outdoors. With fair skin and red tinged hair, the sun wasn’t her friend.
“I said hey! Can you hear me?” the guy said as he walked closer. She got scared for a split second, but then realized if he was an axe murderer, she could just jump because either way she ended up in the same place.
“What?” she finally said, irritated that this guy was interrupting her dramatic plan to end her suffering. Who was he to force her to have a conversation anyway?
“What are you doing up here?” He was carefully looking down at the wooden slats as he walked. The bridge was in horrible shape and obviously not used anymore. It didn’t even seem to be attached to a road. It was just randomly out in the woods, a literal road going nowhere.
“What business is it of yours?” she asked, stepping back a bit. As he got closer, she realized he had to be close to her age.
The guy stopped and looked at her as if he was slowly taking in the whole scene and realizing what was actually going on. She felt almost naked in front of him as he eyed her up and down.
“Were you about to jump?”
She pursed her lips. “Maybe.”
“Are you crazy?”
She laughed. “Well, I would assume so since throwing myself off this crappy bridge seems like the best idea I’ve had in awhile.”
“And you are?”
“None of your business.” She sighed and sat down cross legged a few feet from the edge. This guy was really getting on her nerves.
“Oh, come on. It’s not like I’m going to look you up and stalk you or something.” He sat down beside her with a couple of feet between them.
He wasn’t a bad looking guy, as far as teenage boys went. He had thick, medium brown hair that fell almost to his shoulders and a little stubble starting to form on his upper lip.
“Fine. My name is Jill.”
“So, what’s up, Jill?” he said, leaning back on his arms like they were just having a normal conversation.
“Look, if you’re trying to stop me from jumping, it’s not going to work. If I want to jump, I’ll just jump. And if you try to stop me, I’ll take you with me.”
He chuckled. “Listen, my life sucks too, but I don’t want to jump because I have tickets to a baseball game in a few weeks. So, if you wanna jump, go right ahead. Nobody here’s going to stop you.”
Jill was shocked. What kind of guy tells a girl to jump if she wants? What the heck? She was a stranger to him, but still, where was the human decency?
“Wow, you’re quite a nice guy,” she said, irritated.
“You tell a girl to jump if she wants?”
“Well, if I asked you not to jump, would it matter?”
She turned and stared straight out into the massive forest. “No.”
“So why should I bother?”
She twisted her head back toward him. “Because it’s the kind thing to do. You know, help someone.”
“Do you need help, Jill?” he asked softly.
Her eyes threatened to well up with tears, but she refused to give this guy the satisfaction.
“So what’s so bad in your life that you’re willing to end it all anyway?”
“None of your business.”
He chuckled. “Come on. I’m curious.”
“What, are you writing a book or something? Just leave me alone.”
She could hear thunder starting to rumble in the distance. It was becoming more and more overcast. Maybe this guy would scurry off to his campsite once the rain started, and she could just get this over with.
“Nah, I’m not much of a writer. Failed English last year.”
“My Mom would kill me if I failed a class,” she said. Her Mom. Talking about her made her heart ache. Why didn’t her own mother love her anymore?
“Yeah? Well, that must mean she cares, right?”
“Only because she doesn’t want to pay for college one day. She says I have to get scholarships, or I won’t be going to college.”
“Are you planning to go to college?”
“I was thinking about it… Wait! Stop trying to trip me up, Jesse.” She crossed her arms and turned back toward the ravine below.
“Hmmm…. Seems to me that a girl thinking of jumping off a bridge may not be so sure if she’s also thinking about college.”
She sighed and laid back against the warm wooden slats, her legs now dangling precariously over the edge.
“What do you think happens when you die?” she asked. Jesse laid back beside her, both of them staring up at the gray sky.
“I don’t know. I think there’s a heaven, I guess.”
“I hope so,” she said softly.
He paused for a few moments. “I think life is a series of tests.”
“Tests?” she asked, turning her head toward him. He actually looked kind of cute laying down.
“Yeah. Like we’re in some kind of video game, ya know? Obstacles… like maybe fireballs and dynamite… keep getting thrown our way. And we like dodge and weave and roll, trying to avoid them. Sometimes, we get hit. Sometimes, we don’t. But each one teaches us how to get stronger and faster, right? So then when we’re like old and gray, we sort of graduate… up to heaven.”
Jill giggled. “That’s quite a theory you’ve come up with.”
“Well, I figure it’s better than the theory that life just sucks and won’t ever get better, right?”
She turned back and stared at the sky. “Maybe it doesn’t ever get better, Jesse.”
“I once knew this kid in school whose mom and step dad both died within three months of each other. He ended up in foster care. Went to six different houses, some of them really bad. One of the dads beat him pretty good.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because that boy kept trying, Jill. He didn’t give up, even when he came to school with a black eye sometimes.”
“What happened to him?”
Jesse smiled. “He’s laying right here beside you.”
She sat up slowly and turned to face him. “They beat you up?” Jesse sat up too.
He smiled slightly. “Yeah.”
Instinctively, she reached out and touched his face. “Here?”
“Among other places.”
Her hand lingered on his cheek for a moment until he reached up and held it in his. “It’s never bad enough to give up the one life you have, Jill. Never.”
“Maybe you’re just stronger than I am.”
Jesse smiled again. “I doubt that. You seem pretty tough.”
She sighed. “I don’t know how to live like this.”
“It’s tough, I get it. But you’re what, fifteen?”
“Not much longer, and you can be on your own. Spend time planning for your future, Jill. Nobody can take your dreams from you.”
Just then, droplets of rain started to fall, first lightly but then harder and harder.
“Oh crap!” Jill said, giggling as they both stood up. Jesse took hold of her arm, pulling her away from the edge. To be honest, she felt relieved to be away from the view of the abyss below.
Laughing, they ran to an overhang at the edge of the bridge and huddled together.
“Guess I should’ve checked the weather!” Jesse yelled over the loud downpour.
“Guess I should’ve planned my death better,” she said back with a laugh. His eyes went serious.
“Please tell me you won’t do this, Jill.” He put his hands on her arms and stared into her eyes. “Wow.”
“I didn’t realize the color of your eyes.”
“Yeah, they’re awful. This weird blue color. They call me spooky at school.”
He stared at her for an uncomfortably long moment. “No, they’re beautiful. Don’t listen to bullies because they lie. They’re jealous.”
She smiled. “You’re just being nice.”
“No. I’m not even that nice. Trust me. I’m being honest.”
Jill couldn’t help but smile. “Thanks.”
“I need to go, but I’m not leaving here until you leave too.”
“How do you know I won’t come back here?” she asked.
“Because you’re going to promise me that you won’t.”
“And why would I do that?” she asked, crossing her arms.
“Because of this,” he said softly before pressing his lips to hers. It was only a brief moment in time, but to Jill it felt like her whole world flipped upside down in that moment. She’d never been kissed before, and if kissing was like this with everyone, she didn’t understand why people weren’t kissing like this all day every day.
When he pulled back, he smiled down at her.
“Why did you do that?” she asked.
“To give you something to live for. Maybe one day we’ll meet again,” he said, taking her hand and leading her off the bridge, the rain pelting them the whole way. When they got to the other side, they stood there looking at each other for a moment. “Promise me.”
“I promise,” she said softly. And with that, Jesse kissed her cheek and ran off into the woods, like a figment of her imagination.
* * *
Patrick stood in his office overlooking Atlanta and let out the sharp breath he’d been holding.
“Look, Don, I’m not budging even a millimeter on this. Either you guys sign the papers today, or we’re walking. I’ve got opportunities all over this state, so replacing this deal could literally be done over lunch. You got me?”
As he listened, he ran his fingers through his hair, a sure sign that he needed to pop another blood pressure pill. Stress was not his friend, even at just thirty years old. His doctor was worried every time he had a check up.
“Have the papers in my email in thirty minutes. Otherwise, we’re done.” He pressed end on his cell phone and flung it behind him onto the desk.
Sometimes, being the boss sucked. But he was more than the boss. He was the owner, and that often sucked even more.
Being the only billionaire he knew meant he was at the very top of the food chain, so to speak, so getting any real advice from a mentor was out of the question. In reality, Patrick had never thought he’d become an actual billionaire. He hadn’t even tried to become one. He had just wanted to be successful. To never hurt for money. To be comfortable. And he was. Financially, at least.
He tried not to think about the fact that he hadn’t been in a stable relationship in three years. Or the fact that his family consisted of him and him alone. Or the concerns his doctor had about his current health.
“You’ve got to relax,” the doc would say every time he came in for a visit. Usually he was there for a migraine or neck pain, always the result of the major stress he was under. And truthfully, he’d always assumed rich people didn’t have these problems. Maybe he’d thought that the super wealthy didn’t get headaches, but that was far from the truth. While he no longer worried about his bills, he sure as heck had problems just like anyone else.
His meteoric rise in the real estate business had far exceeded what anyone thought he could do, including him. But when he’d helped to invent some new commercial real estate software and the coordinating app to go with it, his bank account had fattened up faster than he could’ve imagined. He’d never seen so many zeroes in his life.
Now, as the owner of a massive real estate company, Patrick was under more stress than ever. And this current week was the busiest he’d had in awhile.
“Excuse me, sir?” The newest intern was standing in his doorway, a file folder clutched tight against her chest. She looked terrified.
“Mr. James asked me to bring this to you. It’s the file on the mountain property,” she said, her voice shaky. Sometimes he wondered why the local college sent these types of people to work at his company. She looked scared of her own shadow.
“Okay,” he said, walking toward her. “And you are?”
She giggled. “Oh, sorry. I’m Amy. I just started this morning.”
“Right,” he said, not making eye contact. “Good luck.”
He turned back toward his desk. She lingered there for a moment before walking back down the hall. He hated not to be friendly, but he just didn’t have time. Making friends, or even acquaintances, that didn’t lead to more income was pointless.
As he sat back down at his desk and opened the file, he steeled himself for yet another deal that he’d probably pass on. The banks often sent him potential deals, usually companies that were about to go under, and he could swallow them up before the bank ever had to lose a penny.
But the mountains? No thanks. He hadn’t been up that way in years. He wasn’t exactly a mountain man. He preferred city properties. Skyscrapers. Big industrial parks. He’d spent plenty of time in those blue tinged mountains as a kid, and he didn’t plan to ever go back there.
As he opened the folder and started looking at the paperwork inside, Patrick was struck. He knew this property. He knew it very well.
Surprisingly, his hands started to shake a bit as he looked at the photos. This was a place he’d let go of in his mind a long time ago. Things had happened there. Some good, some bad. His stomach churned as he thought about it. What were the odds this file would land on his desk?
After popping an antacid, his third one of the morning, he picked up his cell and dialed the number for his contact at the bank.
“Jim? Yeah, this is Patrick. Listen, I really can’t go to this mountain property, man… Why? Well, I’m more of a city guy… I know, I know. It would be perfect for the conference center project… Okay, you’re right. This deal is too good to pass up. I’ll head up there this weekend. Thanks.”
Patrick ended the call and stared down at the pile of pictures on his desk. Never in a million years had he expected to go back there. At least this time, the two people he never wanted to see again wouldn’t be there. Just the memories. The good ones and the bad ones.