They sat on the bank of a dark gray river. The water lapped at the dirty grass that lined the edge of the banks, threatening to drown the vegetation all together in the disgusting sludge. A dank fog rose up from the river, blotting out the bright lights on the other side and giving the entire scene a ghostly appearance.
It wasn’t a nice effect. Anyone who happened to look down towards the river from the noisy road would probably wonder what the hell those four teens were doing. Some might decide that the youths were involved in some sort of illicit activity. But, truth be told, most would not care. Because that was the type of place this was. People rarely cared about others.
Which is why the small group of four was so unusual. Four people not only having a conversation but meeting again and again to talk with each other? Perhaps they actually cared about each other – or pretended to do so.
“What do you think it’s like?” one of the girls said suddenly. She was not remarkable in any way. The gray light bleached away all color from her face and made her hair an ugly mass of shadows. But something in her voice carried a hint of it which would have attracted the undivided attention of anyone else on their side of the river.
“What are you talking about H?” asked the other girl. This one didn’t have that hint of something in her voice. It was harsh, almost cruel. But H didn’t seem to mind.
“Across the river,” replied H. She strained her eyes, trying to see more than just dim lights.
“Warm,” answered one of the boys instantly. There was a note in his voice that seemed to signify a shiver, as if he were cold and always cold.
“Warm?” the second girl pulled a face that the others could barely see in the dim light. “Do you even remember what warm is, B?”
“Don’t you?” B asked her.
The second girl’s gaze darkened and she didn’t reply.
“It’s like…” B searched for the words. “It’s like every muscle in your body relaxes, and you stop fighting yourself. And you don’t need to think about being cold because you aren’t…”
“I think you made it up,” said the second girl harshly. “I don’t think it’s possible.”
B’s face fell and H frowned at her. “You don’t need to be mean, C.”
“I’m not being mean,” C insisted. “I’m being realistic.”
Finally, the fourth youth spoke. He’d been seemingly ignoring the conversation, taking long drags on a rolled up tube that could be a cigarette, could be a joint. But he suddenly spoke up, and said in a halting voice, “Can we…can we even be realistic…here?”
“I think we can,” said H softly. “I think we’re still real.”
“I thought we were beyond real,” said B seriously. “Aren’t we…? Didn’t we…? In a hospital or from a gun or…”
“And it doesn’t matter anyway,” C snapped. She was getting annoyed with them. This talk made her heart pound uncomfortably. “What’s the point of talking about what is real or not real? Or even about the other side of the river? We’re stuck here.”
“What about the Bridge?” asked H suddenly.
“The Bridge?” C actually laughed. “Don’t be stupid, H. People like us don’t get over the Bridge.”
The Bridge gleamed tantalizingly just down the river. It was the only thing that was clear through the gloom of the day – or was it night? It was this Bridge that gave the youths enough light to see as they sat on the edge of the river. Sometimes, people could see others crossing the Bridge, where they disappeared into the mist forever.
“How would you know?” asked H.
“Don’t be stupid,” C repeated. “Everyone just knows.”
“But why?” H insisted.
“Cut it out, H,” C complained. “What are you going to do? Try to cross the Bridge?”
H hesitated, her eyes on the dim lights across the water.
“You would?” C’s eyes got wide. “H! No one ever comes back! What if it’s even worse there than it is here?”
“It can’t be worse than here,” H replied stubbornly. “I want to see color again! I want to feel warm!”
“Color? Warmth?” C shook her head. “Those are things we made up back when we were there. They don’t exist. At least we know what to expect here. We have no idea what lies on the other side of the Bridge.
H suddenly stood. Her mind was made up. Maybe it had always been made up.
“I’m going to try,” she said fiercely. “Who’s coming with me?”
C shook her head and looked back at the river. “You’re a fool.”
H looked at B. B rubbed his arms miserably, looking at the grey water and said, “I don’t know, H…what if C’s right? What if it’s colder there?” And he didn’t stand.
But the fourth boy stood, flicking the almost finished roll into the river. “I’ll go,” he said. “May…maybe you’re…I’ll try.”
H nodded at him and set off towards the Bridge, following the bank of the river. Soon B and C were far behind them.
“Why are you coming, T?” H suddenly asked.
T shrugged and mumbled something. H paused and leaned closer. T cleared his throat and tried again, “Because…because I remember light…real light.”
Soon, they were below the Bridge. It was then that they realized their mistake. By following the bank, they were now below the Bridge. Facing a long and slippery slope to the entrance of the Bridge. But H was determined, she rolled up her sleeves and began to climb – pulling on weeds and grasping at roots to pull herself up. T followed much more slowly. Several times, one or the other slid. Once, H mis-stepped and slid into T. They froze, both trembling, until she got back her breath and kept climbing. A while later, T almost fell all the way down the bank when a tree root gave way. But H stopped and waited for him.
Finally, they pulled themselves up onto the road. For several minutes, they lay on the ground – too exhausted to stand. But something made H look up, her eyes growing wide. Across the bridge, faint but unmistakable, she could hear music. For the first time in who knew how long, she could hear notes and instruments and singing. T heard her gasp in wonder and raised his head; he didn’t hear anything, but he could see light. Real, soft, warm and yellow light at the end of the Bridge.
Together, the two youths stood and stepped cautiously onto the Bridge.
No one stopped them.
They began to walk, going faster and faster as the music grew louder and the light grew brighter so that neither could mistake the vision of the other.
The Bridge seemed to get longer and shorter at the same time. Even more than when they had been climbing the riverbank, time seemed to bend and morph.
Suddenly, they stepped through the last vestiges of the mist and burst into a light so dazzling that both youths were forced to close their eyes. Warm air filled them with every breath, washing away the pain of the journey.
“Welcome home,” said a soft voice that sounded like bells and a laughing stream and like music all at once. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Hope and Tobias opened their eyes to a world full of color.
Isabella Martinez is a Junior studying Biomedical Engineering.