The day was cold and overcast, more
December than October, and the gravel path
leading away from the Blue Ridge Parkway was dotted with puddles. A steel footbridge edged a chasm more than sixty feet deep, and Sarah avoided looking down as she trudged across it to reach the granite outcrop that served as an observation platform. She was sorry she hadn’t brought her heavy coat; sorry she had even come with Carl on this drive to look at the autumn leaves. Far better to be back in Asheville, curled up on the couch, warm, where she could sip hot tea as she watched the leaves fall off the trees that edged her apartment building.
Carl was captivated by the view, but Sarah thought it looked exactly like the view from the eight stops they’d already made. Grey sky. Narrow valley. No houses, no roads, no sign of life below. Skeletons of dead fir trees serrated the adjacent ridges in mute testament to the effects of acid rain. The wind forced its way towards them in hard gusts, bending branches and picking up swirls of finely ground scree as it went.
There were at least two dozen people scattered around the viewing area, and Carl, never the sort to leave others in peace, had already struck up a conversation with a white-haired couple carrying matching walking sticks. A multi-generational tour group clustered to one side, its leader speaking in Chinese as he gestured towards landmarks below.
A blast of wind hit Sarah in the face, and something tiny and sharp lodged in her eye. She turned away from the others to focus on this newest source of aggravation. Her eye streamed tears. Her long hair whipped forward into her face, and she tried to capture the tangled strands and tuck them into the collar of her jacket, with little success.
“You OK?” Carl asked.
She waved him away, encouraging him back to the view. “Give me a minute; I’m fine.”
The last thing she wanted was Carl’s help. Not today. Not after watching him tap his fingers on the steering wheel through each endless curve of the Parkway. Not after his casual insistence that, yes, of course they had to get out at every single overlook. Carl was the sort who kept a first-aid kit and a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, who alphabetized the spices and hung tools on a labeled pegboard in the storage closet. In the two months since he’d moved in, the apartment had become bipolar – her stacks of comfortable clutter facing down a steadily encroaching neatness.
The prospect of yet another failed relationship hovered close, and Sarah wished she had the backbone to stake some small claim for herself.
Carl heeded her request and turned away. As Sarah straightened at last -- the bit of grit gone -- she was the only one with her back to the view, the only one who saw the small child, a girl with fine dark hair, step from the granite of the overlook onto the narrow metal bridge that led back towards the parking lot.
The girl paused and stared into the depths, and Sarah was glad the railing was there – a single horizontal bar welded to closely-spaced vertical supports. But in the next moment, the child leaned far over the abyss, her feet side-by-side on the very edge of the steel deck, her arms stretched behind her, grasping two thin uprights to keep herself balanced. She looked graceful, like a diver poised for a challenging leap, but as Sarah started towards her, wanting to pull her back, the girl swayed in the gusting wind. One hand lost its grip.
Sarah screamed. Or she thought she screamed – she was screaming in her head, that much she knew – and she leaped forward, her hands outstretched, as she saw the child’s body lurch even farther over open space, her feet – miniature red tennis shoes with bleached white laces– slipping off the edge, her body dropping, twisting, tethered by that single arm. The hand that clung to the bridge was tiny, fragile, its fingers barely long enough to curl around the metal upright.
It took Sarah two strides to cross the stone. The bridge shuddered as her knees slammed onto the deck, and she pitched forward, arm reaching, her hand at last closing around the bird-like bones of the girl’s wrist. Sarah held tight, fingers clenched, fingernails digging deep, every muscle focused on the task of not letting go.
She never knew whether the force of her lunge dislodged the child’s hold, or whether she caught the girl in the very instant her grip gave way, but regardless, the girl now hung loose over the chasm, dangling from Sarah’s hand, a dead weight far heavier than she looked. Sarah’s shoulder dragged forward through the railing, her arm stretching straight down with the girl suspended at the end of it, while the rest of her body, too broad to follow, pressed hard against the icy metal bars.
She heard cries. Feet pounded behind her. The girl looked up at her, silent, her eyes stretched wide in terror. Sarah felt her own arm tremble, and she wasn’t sure if it shook from the strain or if it was the girl’s fear passing through her, transmitted like an electric current from one body to the next.
“It’s OK,” Sarah said, hoping she was right. “I have you.”
The wind ripped her words away and tossed them up the valley, and she wasn’t sure the child would understand even if she heard. She felt bodies pressing close around her, heard shouts and commands in two languages, a chorus of indecipherable Chinese words sounding musical even though cried out with urgency. Sarah didn’t move – couldn’t move. She clung to the strength of her arm and fingers, clung to the thought that above all else, she could not let go.
Carl’s voice was in her ear now. “We’re going to pull you back. When we have you away from the edge, we’ll be able to reach down and grab her.”
Sarah nodded and felt strange hands on her shoulders, on her waist, felt them pull back on her jacket, on her belt, on the back pockets of her jeans. She watched her arm reappear on the near side of the railing, saw the girl’s wrist still firmly in her grasp. Carl and a man in a fuzzy brown sweater reached between the rails and grasped the child’s arm, four hands with a firm hold, and they hoisted her up to bring her back.
“Let go,” Carl cried. “Sarah, let go!”
It was hard. She forced herself to relax her hand, and she felt the emptiness against her palm as the men maneuvered the child over the top of the railing. Sarah got to her feet unsteadily, surprised that she felt so weak, countless hands reaching to help her up. She saw the girl lean away from the two men to drop safely into her mother’s arms, and the young Chinese woman crushed her daughter to her chest. The girl wrapped her arms around her mother’s neck, and Sarah saw a row of blood-tinged crescents on the child’s wrist. She looked down at her own hand and saw dark stains under each of her fingernails.
People crowded around her, touching her, talking, myriad voices overlapping. The mother pushed forward, her arms still locked around her child, speaking entire melodious paragraphs, her cheeks streaked with tears as she smiled and nodded her thanks. The girl peeked at Sarah for a moment, still silent. The white-haired man patted her on the shoulder. “Well done,” he said, over and over. “Well done.”
Carl extricated himself from his own crush of people and led Sarah to a nearby bench. Her legs trembled, and she sank gratefully onto the splintered green slats, Carl’s arm around her, pulling her close. He laced his fingers through hers.
“Are you all right?” he said after a moment.
She nodded, too choked to speak.
“You did it, Sarah. You saved her. If you hadn’t caught her, she’d be dead.”
Sarah nodded again, but it didn’t feel real.
The people who had been there when the child fell drifted back to their cars and tour vans. New tourists arrived, ones who knew nothing, and they glanced at Carl and Sarah indifferently as they passed to get a better view. The wind still came in gusts, but it didn’t feel so cold with Carl close beside her.
Minutes passed in silence. Finally, Sarah sat up and turned for a long look at Carl’s face. Brown eyes, a bit worried. Shaggy black hair. Permanent smile lines. She looked down at his hand, which still held hers. She could see the tendons outlined under his deeply-tanned skin, could feel the untapped strength in his grip.
She took a deep breath. “We need to re-arrange the spices. The way you have them now, I can’t reach the first half of the alphabet.”
Carl’s eyes widened. “Of course. Sorry. I didn’t realize.”
Sarah tightened her fingers on his, closed her eyes, and focused on the task of holding on.