Crossing that bridge sounded like a good idea yesterday. But yesterday the bridge was only a picture on a stupid post card. Today it was a thin strip of metal over the ragged jaws of a yawning canyon. To a boy of thirteen, it wasn't an adventure, it was a test of courage - and I had a feeling I was going to flunk.
I tried to look casual as I glanced up at Uncle Bob. "You reckon there's a bathroom around here some place?"
Uncle Bob wasn't buying my cool act. He stared down at me with those beady black eyes that could see clear through to my soul.
"You're not going chicken on me now, are you?"
"Naw," I answered. My voice screeched like chalk on a chalkboard, but I wasn't going to 'fess up to fear in front of Uncle Bob.
He gnawed on his mustache and studied my face. Maybe he figured my voice was doing its changing thing again. Maybe he knew my guts were twisting in knots at the thought of crossing that bridge. Finally he pointed his ring finger at a likely looking building.
"I think the restrooms are over there. I'll wait for you out here. Don't be long though."
Once I was in the building where I couldn't see that bridge, I felt better. I took care of my business first. I didn't want any embarrassing accidents on that bridge. Then I sauntered out of there like nothing was bothering me. I forced my face into an eager grin.
"Ok. Let's go see that canyon."
Uncle Bob looked relieved. I guess he was beginning to think I was some kind of wus. Uncle Bob wasn't afraid of anything. Last month he wanted me to go bungee jumping with him. I told him I had something a lot more fun lined up - getting my tonsils yanked out. Then he came up with this bridge thing. Couldn't he think of something exciting to do that kept us within twenty feet of the good old earth?
We started out for that bridge, and right away my heart started pounding. By the time we reached the steps to the bridge, I was wondering if my breakfast was going to make an unfriendly reappearance. I could already see more of the steep cliffs than I wanted to. Then my feet planted themselves on the sidewalk and I heard my own voice talking to Uncle Bob.
"No way. I ain't going out there on that ..."
"There's nothing to be afraid of." Uncle Bob was beginning to get impatient. He held out a hand.
"Come on. Take my hand and I'll walk with you."
I stared at his hand and for a minute I wasn't sure which was worse, everyone knowing I was afraid, or everyone hearing him offer to hold my hand. I jerked away from him.
"I ain't no baby. I don't need nobody to hold my hand." I glanced around to see if anyone had noticed, but the tourists were simply squeezing by us.
"Come on," Uncle Bob's voice held an edge to it. "We're in everyone's way."
I backed up and let the people pass. Uncle Bob glanced around and shook his head. Then he joined me on the sidewalk.
"I thought you wanted to come see this? I talked your parents into letting you go and I drove all the way up here. The least you can do is try." He pointed at a couple of women as they passed us. "There you go. They aren't afraid. Come on. You'll like it once you get out there."
I tried to make myself as little as possible. Everyone was passing me. None of them were afraid. What was the matter with me? Was I a wus?
Uncle Bob glanced at his watch and let out a heavy sigh. "Well, it's nearly lunch time. Why don't we go back to that little hot dog stand and get something to eat?"
I wasn't feeling much like eating right then. My stomach was tossing around, and it wasn't all on account of that bridge either. I hated for Uncle Bob to look at me like that.
"I'm not hungry," I mumbled, dropping to a bench. "You go on and eat. I'll wait for you here." I couldn't bring myself to cross that bridge, but for some reason I didn't want to walk away from it, either.
Uncle Bob eyed me suspiciously. He was probably wondering if I was going to faint or something. Finally he shrugged. "All right. But don't leave this area."
He strode off, shaking his head. He was ashamed of me. That was bad enough, but he'd sure never take me anywhere again.
I stared at the bridge. Why couldn't I cross the stupid thing? It wasn't like I thought I was going to fall off or anything like that. And why did it matter so much to Uncle Bob anyway? From the way he was acting, you'd think it was something really important - like school, or something. I had to go to school, but I didn't have to cross that stupid bridge.
Everybody must have decided to go to lunch at the same time, because there weren't many people around. They were probably all in line at that hot dog stand. Maybe that was what was taking Uncle Bob so long. There was nobody left but a young couple trying to coax their kid across that bridge. They'd got him to the middle and then he froze. He didn't look like he was more than seven years old, but he obviously had more guts than I did. At least he got to the middle. I felt sorry for him, because I knew how I'd be feeling if I was in his place. I’d probably be as embarrassed as he was scared. Yeah, he had guts, that boy. He didn't mind telling his parents he was scared - in a loud voice.
His parents were looking around with silly grins. I guess they were feeling about like Uncle Bob had - except this time there was only one chicken boy watching. I looked away.
After a little bit I heard that boy squalling, so I turned around to see what was going on. His parents had left him on the bridge and gone to the other side. There they stood, telling him not to be such a baby...to let go of the rail and walk to them.
But the boy wasn't listening to them. He was staring down into that canyon and hanging on to that rail so hard I could see his white knuckles from where I sat. I couldn't stand it any more. What that kid needed was someone who understood how he felt - someone like me.
I was so mad that I forgot I was scared...well, at least until I set foot on that bridge. Then I froze, staring down, down, down. A little train was crawling along tracks on the edge of the cliff, which then fell away to the river. My stomach was the only thing moving, and it was having a fit. I don't think my heart was beating at all for a few seconds and I know I wasn't breathing. Finally I had to gasp for air. I forced myself to stare at the bridge. Finally my head stopped spinning. That was it, then. Focus on the bridge - and that boy.
"Don't look down," I called to him.
He stopped crying and stared at me. I reckon that must be how a drowning victim looks when he sees a lifeguard. I couldn't let him down. I kept my eyes on the boy as I moved across the bridge - one step at a time. My knees were shaking so badly that I could hardly stand up and my face must have been as white as milk, but that boy didn't seem to notice.
"I'll go with you," I told him in a voice three octaves higher than normal. But he couldn't know that.
He stared up at me. His eyes were like huge marbles bulging out of his head. "I'm scared," he finally managed through lips that barely moved.
I nodded. "Me too. Let's get off this bridge."
I couldn't believe it. He actually followed me right across that bridge to his parents. I didn't stick around while they told him what a brave kid he was. I barely acknowledged their thanks before I started back. At that point I was wondering why I didn't lead that boy back the other way. Now he would have to cross the bridge again. And what was worse, so did I.
That's when I saw Uncle Bob on the other side. I don't know how long he'd been standing there, but I wanted him to see me cross that bridge. I started off across it, careful not to look over the edge. I kept my eyes on him until the canyon was behind me.
When I stopped in front of him, he was grinning. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"
I took the sandwich he offered and shook my head. Only nothing had changed. I was still afraid - and I didn't want any part of crossing that bridge again.
It felt good, though, knowing I'd done it in spite of my fear. It felt good just knowing I could, if I ever needed to. I reckon I could do just about anything if I set my mind to it. Only I felt kind of guilty having Uncle Bob watch me as if I'd done something really important. He didn't know I was still afraid, and I wasn't about to tell him.
"Next time we go some place," I said around a mouthful of sandwich, "let's just go fishing or something."
Uncle Bob just nodded, that twinkle still in his eyes. "You'll do," he said.
I wasn't sure what he meant, but I figured it was good. He seemed happy about something, anyway. Who knows what's going to make old people happy? I know it made me happy when he decided he'd rather do something else than cross that bridge, though.
This story can be purchased in the collection of short youth stories "YOUTH YARNS."