Head down in the whistling wind, she pedalled along the low causeway that connected a necklace of sub-tropical islands flung off the southern coast. The sun was just sliding up on the eastern side, its rays picking out the wading birds in the shallows. Doubled over, she didn’t hear the warning bell or see the flashing red lights until the road started to rise up in front of her. Shit. Drawbridge. Gonna be late.
As she slowed, another bicycle pulled up beside her. The bridge rose up to 90 degrees, blocking the view ahead, so she glanced over at the rider. His head glistened mahogany in the early sun, his long grey hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She was already ticking the boxes in her head: ragged cut-offs, disintegrating sandals, faded Hawaiian shirt flapping over countable ribs, bundles of possessions attached to each side of his bike, small sea-sprayed dog in the front basket. Homeless person, she thought, and looked away.
She couldn’t tell if he returned her gaze, but what would he see if he did? Fiftyish square-built woman, ropy muscles, trailing tattoos down her legs. Helmet covering short curly hair, never to be a flowing ponytail. And what wouldn’t he see? The endless struggle to control her movements, to control her fear, to watch for danger; anxiety flooding her body with every unexpected sound or turn of events. He wouldn’t be able to tell that this drawbridge delay was torture, and the presence of another person an almost unbearable threat.
She’d got the job looking after the tourist boats, turning up early every day (except today, dammit). It was perfect; no people to talk to, no one came near her once she had her job sheet for the day. As long as she painted, scraped and cleaned, she was safe and in control. She’d kept the appearance of a normal life, hiding the battles she’d fought since leaving the hospital.
‘Can’t see anything coming through’, he said. Hyper-alert, she jumped. Deep breath, fight the panic.
‘What do you mean?’
He jerked his head towards the bridge. ‘It’s been up awhile – can’t see anything big enough. What do they want to keep us here for?’
She saw he was breathing heavily, sweat starting to roll. The dog looked up into his face. Something was wrong. Her clammy hands slipped on the handlebars. I really do not need to get stuck next to a headcase, she thought. Now she was hemmed in, with a vertical road in front, cars behind, and the waters on either side below.
She looked down over the low side railings to the flat calm water, seeing the fishing boats and canoes crawling back and forth like kids’ toys. But in the distance: a large yacht, sail furled and thin mast scratching the belly of the sky.
She pointed. ‘That won’t get through.’ Her voice wobbled as she tried to fight the terror for both of them. ‘I guess they’re holding the bridge for her’.
He shook his head, and she could smell the fear. His or hers?
‘No way- they’ve got us here now. Gotta find another beach.’ He wheeled his bike so suddenly that he nearly lost the dog, leaving her trapped, alone, shaking. As he went, she caught a glimpse of the miniature plate on the back of his bike: a Purple Heart, and the motto ‘Combat Wounded’.
She opened her mouth to call out to him, she wasn’t sure what. ‘I’m sorry!’ or even: ‘I’m going with you!’. Too late now, he was gone, weaving between the stationary cars.
He almost made it to the end of the causeway where it joined the sand, then his bike glanced off the side of a massive Hummer. Man, bike and dog flew over the railings and onto the beach below. People, some with Smartphones at the ready, started to get out of the stopped cars. Oh no, you don’t, she thought. Her strong legs pedalled furiously, and she beat them to it. Flinging her bike down, she hurdled the railing and landed beside him. A surprisingly short jump onto a stinking pile of seaweed.
She rolled on top of him to block the view from above, then realised that there was a fair bit of noise and movement going on underneath her. She had instinctively wanted to protect the dead from prurient onlookers, but found she was holding down a struggling man and the growling dog in his arms. He didn’t have a chance; she outweighed him by about 20 pounds, so she eased back. ‘Winded’, he gasped, then curled over and vomited. The dog seemed to have decided that she wasn’t a threat; it stopped growling and turned to lick the man’s face.
Without raising his head, he extended a hand. ‘Dave’, he said. Hesitant at first, she eventually completed the handshake. ‘Sandy.’ He released her hand, and then pointed at the dog, which had begun an investigation of the seaweed twined in his hair. ‘Barney’. She nodded to acknowledge them both.
Dave slowly pulled himself up to a sitting position. He looked at her, then up at her sturdy bike, leaning where she had flung it against the railing. He gestured towards the pieces of his machine, spread around the sand. ‘Don’t suppose you’d give me a lift to the bike shop?’ He looked away. She was pretty sure he’d sensed her fear, her reluctance to make contact. His tone sounded resigned, expecting rejection. Barney, equally sensitive it seemed, folded his tail between his legs, and slunk behind Dave.
To her surprise, there was no hesitation this time. She and her bike were strong enough for all of them, so she helped him to his feet. Man, woman and dog headed back towards the railings. Unobserved now; the yacht had gone through, the bridge had gone down, and the audience had retreated.
As they made their way slowly across the sand, she bent and picked up the dog’s basket from where it had been hurled in flight. The basket was unexpectedly heavy. Puzzled, she looked down and saw the gun nestling in a side pocket. Her eyes closed, and she breathed a sigh of relief. Wherever they were headed, at least she knew she’d be safe.
About the author
Laura Gray has returned to writing after retirement. Her previous publications have been as Features Editor of her High School newspaper in the 1960s. She is greatly enjoying the challenge of fiction and poetry.