Water Under the Bridge by Kirstin Ethridge
The boy liked the way his stuffed manatee felt beneath his fingers. Its softness made sense. The repetitious motion of stroking its fur slowed his mind to an acceptable speed. He couldn’t control all of his motions. The manatee anchored him.
Sometimes, his mother tried to feed him broccoli, and when acid bubbled into his mouth and he shoved her, she took away his manatee. Or the flickering kitchen light made his mind cotton. Or the refrigerator’s screeches and clucks popped in his ears. His parents told him to use his words when he groaned. They soothed, they screamed, they begged. He scratched his nails along his burning stomach. He banged his throbbing head against his father’s legs. He stimmed, though maybe no one taught him the word. They might have thought he was unteachable.
He was six years old, non-verbal. His mother threw him off a bridge.
The woman called 911 after she flung her child off the bridge.
“State your emergency,” the dispatcher said.
“I killed my son,” she said. “I dropped him off the bridge.”
There was a moment of silence, a moment when the dispatcher forgot their training. Their tongue went numb, their face slack. They hauled in a breath and said, “What’s your location?” Just another day at work.
They went home and bounced their baby, pressing their finger against her hot gums. Or they woke up their fourteen-year-old for school; while he crunched on granola, they held him until he said, “Can I sleep at Trevor’s tonight? Stop hugging me.” Or they called their daughter in Salt Lake City, and when she answered, they said, “Just talk.”
The news stations replayed the 911 recording. The dispatcher unplugged their television. They regretted it later when their cable box scrambled, but in the moment, they felt as if they would never escape the sound of their own voice, unable to stop the boy’s fall.
Don’t judge, other mothers commenting on the news articles said. But a crime had been committed: a judge was appointed. She was 68, ready for a going-away party featuring a cake with black icing. During her first trial, a defendant brought a shank to court, hidden in his sock. Halfway through his trial, he vaulted over the desk, pinned the court reporter, and held the shank to her jugular. The prosecutor and defense attorney both lunged after him, but the judge got there first. She broke three of her own fingers punching the defendant. The court reporter crumpled to her knees, crying, neck clean. The judge sentenced the defendant to life in prison.
Fifteen years of self-defense lessons later, with the defendant out on parole, the judge learned that the mother from the bridge was the next case in her docket. She sat in her office until the janitor rapped on her door: “Can’t sleep here, Your Honor.”
The night was a mix of black clouds and orange light pollution when the judge stepped out of the courts building, keys held snugly between her clenched knuckles. As soon as she locked herself inside her car, she called her husband.
“How is he?” she asked.
“Oh, you know,” her husband said. A screech echoed in the background. “He’s got his television, he’s pretty happy.”
“Yes.” She laughed. “Tell him I’m on my way home.”
“Donny!” Her husband’s voice was loud but gentle. “Your mom’s on her way home.”
A yelp came through the line. The judge hoped it was a happy yelp. So much with Donny was guessing. He’d been born before the big boom in therapy. Now that he was almost forty, his parents thought they’d better leave him as he was. They were used to his pacing. They knew to turn on the Weather Channel at 5:07 so he wouldn’t miss the Local on the 8s. They knew the sound of his yips and groans. After nearly forty years, the judge and her husband thought they were good at guessing his meaning. She was afraid that if he went to therapy, if he learned to speak, he would tell them how much they’d gotten wrong.
The judge listened to Donny’s squeals. She listened to her husband’s rasping breaths. She listened to the whoop of a car alarm a few blocks away. “I’m supposed to judge the—the case with the bridge. I have to recuse myself, sua sponte.”
“Why?” her husband asked. She thought about the deep lines that formed on his forehead when he frowned and how those furrows made his eyebrows stick straight up.
The judge curled her fingers around the steering wheel. She said, “Conflict of interest.”
A woman upstate killed herself, leaving a nonverbal daughter alone in the bathtub with her body until the child’s father came home hours later. Some people on the internet said the woman who killed her son should do the same. At least her son wouldn’t have to witness it. To which others replied: She weighed her son’s life and found it lacking. Isn’t that a mercy killing? Under the bridge, the water started to freeze.
The boy sat on the bridge’s railing and saw the water filled with red, green, purple, yellow leaves. Raindrops hit him sharply.
He slapped his hands against his legs. He couldn’t control his motions, not without the manatee his mother made him leave in the car. His mother put her pinching fingers under his armpits. He shrieked. His back scraped against the rough concrete railing as she lifted his flailing form. And then his back hit the air and—
His mind processed nothing. He saw nothing. It happened in an instant.
His mind processed everything: the coldness of the rain, the bright sting of the wind, the whorls in the clouds, the way his throat burned when he screamed—
—he felt the water, or he didn’t. His back snapped, or he drowned.
Kirstin Ethridge recently graduated from the University of Evansville with a BFA in Creative Writing. They live in Indiana with their wife and too many half-finished notebooks.
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