The Bridge

This story appeared in Thema Magazine - Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer 2009

One thing about sitting in a cell at the Intake and Diagnostics Center for nearly three months. I was thoroughly detoxed. Cold turkey. From everything.

Funny. Now that the physical cravings were gone, what I missed most were the smokes. Plain old cigarettes.

I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, imagining I could smell tobacco smoke. A mix of scents reached me: disinfectant, unwashed bodies, oil, diesel exhaust. No tobacco.

Other inmates bragged that everything anybody could want was smuggled into Diagnostics. Alcohol, cigarettes, cell phones, heroin. Even easier out in the state prisons, which is where we were all headed right now. Just had to know the right people and how to go about getting stuff.

I didn't know anybody. No idea how to go about getting anything.

I was torturing myself. Unless I could figure out who the right people are, it's gonna be a long time before I had a cigarette again.

Whenever I closed my eyes, I could hear the sentencing judge's voice reverberating in my head. "Life. Suspended to 35 years." Replayed every night when I tried to fall asleep. Every time I tried to make sense of my life, tried to turn them away from the slamming doors and arguing gang members and bored guards that now made up my world. Over and over I heard it. I didn't know how to stop the judge's voice; I worried that I was going crazy.

I opened my eyes and shifted in the seat. My seatmate glared at me. "I'm tryin' to sleep," he snarled. "Quit moving."

He had a point. Eleven o'clock at night. Row after row of prisoners chained in twos loaded on a bus with grates over the windows, two unarmed guards up front beyond a locked gate, and an escort car with armed guards following. It was a modified school bus; every bump in the road sent shudders through the entire vehicle. We were in for a long night; the trip from the Diagnostics to the medium security prison where I had been assigned would take at least five hours.

I started to shift again, then stopped myself. No way could I move without disturbing my seatmate. My right wrist was cuffed to his right wrist, the chain looped through a hasp welded to the back of the seat in front of us. My left ankle was shackled to his right one. I didn't know this guy, but he looked like an old head, like he'd been around some, and I was new to this. Not a good idea to make him mad. He probably had buddies all over the prison.

My right arm crossed in front of me, hung from the chain at my wrist. My shoulder ached. I twisted my neck uncomfortably and tried to look out the window, but aside from the passing cars and an occasional light to the side of the road, I could see nothing. Probably my last chance to see anything outside a prison wall for years. I felt panic rising in my throat. I stifled a scream that rose in my throat. I closed my eyes again. The judge's voice mocked me. "35 years."

Regain control. Concentrate on something. Anything.

The bridge. We were going to have to drive over the bridge. It was a long arch over the bay. Only reasonable way to get to the prison from Diagnostics. I hadn't been over the bridge in years, not since I was a boy, going with my family to spend summers at my grandparents' house on the shore. Erosion had taken the house years ago, but I tried to remember it how it looked. Small and weather-beaten. My brother and I slept on lumpy cots on the screened-in back porch.

We would crab and fish and swim for hours in the bay's murky water. Come home in the dusk to the faded paint and always the smell of low tide. Sand would crunch underfoot no matter how often my grandmother swept the wide plank floors.

I would get one last chance to see the bridge. I imagined myself sitting in the back seat of my father's old car, half asleep under a warm blanket, my brother beside me, watching the bridge lights as the car clacked over the expansion joints.

I didn't want to miss seeing the bridge.

I shivered in my prison issue coat. Denim with a thin flannel lining. I wished the orange jump suit had a lining, too. The bus lumbered on.

My seatmate stirred. I froze. Had I woken him again? He sat up straight. The inside of the bus was so dark I could hardly make out the lopsided outline of his head.

He jerked his right hand toward his chest, pulling my arm up against the back of the seat in front of us. He leaned toward me. He hadn't showered in a while. I could feel his breath on my face. He hadn't brushed his teeth in a while, either.

"Listen," he hissed at me. "I'm only gonna tell you this once. If you say anything, or do anything, I'm gonna kill you. Got it?"

I nodded. He couldn't see that. "Got it?" he hissed again. His saliva sprayed on my face.


Would he really kill me? He might. Beyond shouting at us to knock it off, the guards wouldn't intervene. They might detour the bus to a state police barracks or someplace where they could get backup. But they weren't going to unlock the gate and come back to investigate what was going on. Security was high priority. Certainly higher than my safety.

Meanwhile I could be dead.

My seatmate was doing something to his right wrist with his left hand. I sat awkwardly, my hand jammed up against the seat in front.

Suddenly the chain went slack. My arm dropped a few inches and I almost fell forward. The cuff that had secured his wrist caught on the hasp, keeping me from slamming my face into the back of the seat in front.

He shoved me roughly back and bent to the leg irons. After a few minutes of him fooling with them, that chain also fell slack.

He had a handcuff key. Or he had picked the locks. We were no longer chained together.

I eased my left hand up to where my right was still entangled in the chain and the hasp. With a little maneuvering, I managed to work it loose. One cuff still firmly encircled my wrist. The other dangled loose at the end of the short chain. I pulled my arm into my lap and rubbed my shoulder.

His hand squeezed my upper arm. I would have finger-shaped bruises in the morning. "I don't care what you do," he hissed at me. "As long as you don't get in my way."


"Switch seats with me," he ordered.


"Switch seats with me." He punched my thigh. Another bruise.

"How?" I asked, looking around uneasily.

"Lift your sorry butt off the seat and I'll slide under you."

I got halfway to my feet, crouching behind the seat in front. He slid quickly toward the window. I dropped into his now empty aisle seat.

A soft glow appeared in his cupped hands. I stared at it. A cell phone! As I watched, he texted a quick message, snapped the phone shut, and returned it to his pocket.

"Switch back," he ordered.

We repeated the process.

"Look," he said in that threatening whisper. "Don't you be getting in my way. The bus is going to hit something soon. Hard. My people are going to pry the back door open. I'm leaving. You can go if you want. Only wait till I'm clear. Go wherever you want. Don't try to follow me."

Numbly, I nodded. He probably couldn't see that.

In the darkness, I could feel him taking off his prison coat. The institution name stenciled across the back was said to be a target for the guards to aim at if they had to shoot. The guards in the escort car would be coming out shooting. We didn't have much chance of making away from the bus alive.

But it was the only chance I was likely to get for the next 35 years.

I struggled out of my coat, too. I wasn't cold any more. I was covered with sweat.

I could see the approach lights to the bridge. I felt my seatmate tense. The bus nosed up the entry ramp and lurched as the tires hit the first expansion joint.

A shouted curse came from the front of the bus, beyond the locked gate. The bus swerved violently, its side scraping along the barrier that separated the travel lanes from thin air. Part of the bridge structure caught on the side of the bus and ripped it open inches from where I sat.

The bus slammed into something and came to a trembling halt. The rear skewed to the side, swinging over the damaged railing. We dangled momentarily over nothing but open water.

We were falling.

The bus tilted as it fell. It splashed into the water on its side. The side away from me. Amid screams and chaos, I scrambled out the hole and kicked away from the sinking bus.

The water was achingly cold. Not the warm friendly water I remembered as a boy. I swam for shore. The current carried me downstream.

When it had crashed, the bus had just begun its ascent on the bridge span. Not that far from shore. I swam frantically, gasping for air and willing my numb limbs to move.

Low waves slammed me into a smooth solid wall. It rose higher than I could reach. And it moved. I tried to cling onto something but found nothing to grab. The water clawed at me, trying to pull me back into the current and then bashing me against the wall again.

I inched along, bracing myself on the slippery surface and pushing against the water, toward what I hoped was the shore. The smooth wall swung slightly and gave way to rough piling.

A dock. I clung to the piling, trying to get my bearings and my breath. I realized that the solid wall was the hull of a good sized yacht. I was only a few feet from a ladder that led from water up to a dock. I had trouble making my legs move. My feet were still clad in the now waterlogged prison issue boots. They weighed a ton. Shivering uncontrollably, I forced them onto the rungs of the ladder. My hands couldn't feel the splintery wood, but I willed them to cling to the ladder. I climbed to the top.

Standing on the dock, my guts going numb from the cold, I looked around. Up on the shore stood a huge house, dark except for security lights ringing the grounds. The yacht itself and the dock were dark.

It was quite a yacht. I saw no gangplank, but with every low wave it snugged gently up against old tire bumpers lashed to the side of the dock. When it came close, I reached over and grabbed onto a deck railing.

My cold legs obeyed me only clumsily when I tried to jump aboard. The loose end of the leg shackles slammed into my knee. I crashed down on the deck and lay there for a few minutes, trying to breathe.

Too cold. Too tired. Maybe I should just lie here and take a little nap. Then my mind might be clear enough for me to figure out what to do next.

Not a good idea. I made myself get up and stumble into the cabin. Steep steps led down.

Maybe someone had left clothes - dry clothes - aboard.

I was in luck. I found jeans that almost fit, underwear, a heavy woolen sweater. Gratefully, I pulled off my wet things and put on the dry clothes. I even found warm socks and a pair of loafers that were only a little too big. A hooded windbreaker hung behind a door. I put that on too.

That annoying handcuff still hung from my wrist. I yanked on it, but the cold metal firmly encircled my wrist. I tucked the other cuff and the chain into the sweater sleeve. The leg shackles were more of a problem; they dragged and I tripped over them as I tried to move. I found a necktie in a drawer and used it to tie the empty cuff to my leg just above the knee. Not comfortable, but it would have to do.

The temptation to stay on board the yacht was strong. To see if there was any food, maybe booze, snuggle into that inviting bunk and get some sleep. But better to move away from the area as fast as I could.

I piled my prison issue clothes together, tying a bundle with the legs and sleeves of the jumpsuit. I started back up, looking around before I emerged on the deck. I saw no one.

I clambered onto the dock. The wind still bit, but nothing like before. I went to the downstream edge and started to drop the bundle, then paused. If it washed ashore tied up like that, it might raise questions. I untied it and tossed individual items into the water: boots, jumpsuit, socks, underwear.

I crept off the dock. Hugging the dark edge of the water, I made my way back toward the bridge. I wasn't sure where I should go, but I had to get off private land where I would be taken for a trespasser at best, a burglar at worst. Any contact with the police would send me right back to prison. I needed a public road.

The current had carried me around a bend and surprisingly far downstream. I trudged along, the slightly too big loafer threatening to slip off at every step. As I came into sight of the bridge, the whole night was lit up with the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles and their powerful spotlights. All traffic was stopped several hundred yards down the road.

I needed to avoid the police. Or anyone in authority.

Partway back in the line of stopped traffic the lights of a semi cab streamed into the darkness through its open door. The driver leaned against a fender, smoking a cigarette, watching the delay that would probably cost him any profit for tonight's run. I went up to him.

"What's the hold up, man?" I asked.

The driver shrugged and tipped back his cowboy hat.

"Accident," he said. "Bus went off the bridge."

"A bus?" I said. "At this time of night?"

"Yeah. Hear it was a prison transport. Chuck full of inmates."

"They get anyone out?"

"Nah. They might get the driver, or some of the guards if they were thrown free. But they won't get the convicts. They'd all be chained to the seats."

"Really? Can't they get the bus up?"

"Doubt it," the driver said, taking a drag on his cigarette. "Current's strong; the tide's on the way out. It'll tumble the bus along the bottom there. Maybe break it up. They'll send scuba divers in. Eventually they'll pull something out. But it'll be too late to do any good for anybody on the bus."

We stood and watched the spotlights scan the water. Oil bubbled up, formed a slick, gleamed in the light, hurried downstream.

What was I going to do next? I had no idea.

"Poor bastards," the driver said, shaking his head. "Never had a chance."

"Yeah," I agreed. "Say, you got one of them smokes to spare?"