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Turn A Corner, Lose A Life

K.S. O'Neill lives with his lovely wife, the writer Joy Kennedy-O'Neill, on the Texas coast, where he teaches math at a small college. He is delighted to be making his fifth appearance in Daily Science Fiction.

The first time it happened Josiah was eight. His mother asked him how he crossed the creek coming home; the 6th Street bridge or all the way down at Main?
"6th Street," he said. "Usually."
"I don't want you going down to Main, now."
"I don't."
"Well, then, what do you mean with that 'usually'?"
"Usually it's at 6th Street. But it moves. Once it was all the way down at 3rd."
They laughed at that for years, how the 6th Street Bridge would sometimes "move."
Only one day when he was in high school his mother was telling a new neighbor the story and at the end she said, "He did! Told me the 3rd Street Bridge moves around every few weeks!"
He got up from the sofa to take a walk. "How many times are you gonna tell that story, Mama? And it's the 6th Street Bridge."
"Now don't be funny with me, boy."
As he walked, he realized she was right.
He remembered Tommy Halgar climbing up on his bike to insert a "9," so the bridge's street sign said "69th Street." But he could see it from here; he'd walked right down to the corner of 2nd. There it was, the 3rd Street Bridge.
In college one night his roommate Charles said, Hey, my sister Darlene is coming, don't be an asshole. He wondered if she was pretty. And Dar, a year or two later, said, Hey, you should meet this girl in my physics class, Cheryl.
But Cheryl had introduced him to Charles. He could remember that, the cold day outside the dorm, shaking hands, nodding.
How could that be? One of them had to have come first, right?
He forgot it, again. Trick of memory, he'd invented it. Filled in a blank. Like that bridge story when he was a kid. Memory's funny like that.
When he turned thirty he went to visit Dar in Edmonton. She had tickets to see her beloved Eskimos play in the Grey Cup. Edmonton's kicker barely missed a final field goal, and a four-year dynasty was done. They went to a bar, then fell into bed together for the first time.
But a year later someone mentioned the game and he realized Edmonton had won. He could remember the loss, but that was wrong. They won. Cutler made the field goal with four seconds to go. They won the game.
He started to look for it, and maybe that made it worse. When he was thirty-three he turned a corner and realized he was miles from his uptown apartment. When he got home there was nothing there about Dar, no pictures, the box with her letters wasn't under the bed. They'd never married. They'd never had Jenna.
Of course not. Dar took a fellowship in England, they'd called the whole thing a mistake.
Then nothing, for years. He got tenure, published textbooks, bought a house. He settled in. It was going to be fine.
Until it was not fine. Coming out of his office late at night, he locked the door and turned to face two of the SSP, the Student Safety Patrol. Brown uniform shirts and swagger sticks and sneers.
"What are you doing here, kaffir?"
They liked that word better. More modern.
They stared him down as he left, and he wondered why he'd thought it was a good idea to be on a white campus this late. He had to be in early at the bookstore in the morning, anyway.
No. I'm a professor, he told himself as he walked away. I teach here.
No. I work in a bookstore. This is a white campus.
No. He stopped. I will not live here, not like this.
He needed a corner, a place where things changed. There. Around the corner, push.
What's around a corner? A new world.
He caught a cab; he'd promised to babysit Aaron so Jenna could have a night off.
Later he watched his grandson try to walk, take a few stumbling steps around the crib, then sit down. Aaron looked around like he was puzzled. He looked at the crib, then at Josiah, then back at the crib, shook his head like something was missing.
The hair stood up on Josiah's neck. He sat next to the baby, and picked him up and looked in his eyes.
"It's all right," he said. "I'll show you. You have to be careful. It's all right."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 14th, 2017

Author Comments

When I was about eight years old I was riding my bike home from school, when I took a wrong turn. I ended up in one tangle of suburban streets when I needed to be in the next tangle over. I knew there was a creek between the two, and I knew there was a footbridge over it I could take, but I didn't know where the bridge was, exactly. So I stopped and asked a man who was mowing his yard.

"Excuse me, where is the bridge across the creek?"

He looked at me and said, "Well, it depends."

As a reply to a straightforward question that still sort of mystifies me to this day. But my Twilight Zone-fueled eight-year-old self immediately had an image of a bridge that moved from place to place, sometimes here, sometimes there.

"OK," I said to him, without missing a beat. "Where is it usually?"

That interaction has been in my head for forty-five years. This story is the eventual result.

- K.S. O'Neill
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