The stench of decaying carp wafted from the Rock River. Foot traffic scurried over the bridge. People went about their business as quickly as possible to escape the smell. Cars whizzed overhead, faster than they should. Loud music thumped through tightly closed windows, fading as the cars zoomed up to the stop light.
Jay used to be one of them. He worked the afternoon shift, first at one bar, then another, and then another, until word got around. Nobody wanted to hire someone who blacked out without even bothering to get drunk first, not when there were so many people looking for work. It didn’t take long after that. Jay lost his girlfriend. He pawned off his stuff to pay the bills. He lost his apartment when the stuff ran out.
Now he lived under the bridge with the other vagrants—that’s what the police called them. The City of Parks couldn’t quite admit homelessness existed, not here. Jay could deal with that. Homeless or vagrant, the difference didn’t much matter to him. But he wasn’t used to the smell. He’d lived with the seasonal smell of rotting carp for as long as he could remember. But the reek of the other people bothered him.
He cowered away from the other vagrants, pressing his backpack full of books and the last of his food hard against the concrete bridge. He wrapped himself up in a quilt, though it really wasn’t that cold. Holding the corner over his face gave him a chance to breathe. They all shied away from him and this corner under the bridge anyway.
One tried to warn him, to explain why, but Jay wasn’t ready to buy into their superstitions. He wasn’t really one of them. He couldn’t be. He’d had a job since he was twelve, first working for his grandfather, and then, when he was old enough, he worked whatever job he could find. He finally settled into bartending. He liked it—all the people, so much the same, but all so different. This couldn’t be happening. Not to him.
He shifted further away from the others. His shoe, the one with the crack in the bottom, slid into a puddle. He felt the cold water soak his sock before he could jerk back.
When he looked up, everything was different. The sky stormed darkly overhead. Lightning cracked through a tree in the distance. The cars sounded strange overhead, as if their engines were competing with the storm to see which could roar more loudly.
Jay blinked, rubbed his eyes. The other vagrants were gone. A gun—a long one—was pointed at his face. He couldn’t see much in the shadows, but the cop’s face looked wrong somehow: distorted, almost watery. Jay put his hands up, his fingers shaking.
“Identification,” the cop snapped, the voice garbled with static.
“Ah, yeah, sure, whatever you say,” Jay mumbled, lowering one hand to reach behind him and pull out his wallet. All he had left was his ID, no money, no credit cards, not even an ATM card.
Jay held it out to the cop, holding his wallet open so he could see Jay’s driver’s license.
“Don’t be smart,” the cop gurgled. “Show me your identification!” The shotgun jerked in the cop’s hands.
It was the hands that gave him away. Jay’d seen lots of hands: black hands, white hands, brown hands, old hands, young hands, hard-worked hands, manicured hands. None of them looked like that. Human hands couldn’t get that hard or that rough, no matter what nasty job the man did, certainly not as a cop.
Jay’s eyes focused hard on the cop’s face. It wasn’t distorted; it just wasn’t human.
“Look, I think there’s been a mistake,” he said, edging his foot closer to the puddle.
The shotgun fired, the sound large and fast under the bridge, but Jay’s toes hit the stagnant water and everything shifted. Vagrants looked at him with horrified eyes, cowering away from him, as he slammed back into his own sunshiny reality. Jay fell hard on the ground and scurried away from the puddle.
One of the vagrants grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him in with them. He was safe with them. He was one of them.
“There’s always something worse,” said the man with his hand on Jay’s shoulder. “There’s always something to be thankful for.”