Robin braced herself against the cold steel girder. Far below the bridge, hidden in darkness and swirling snow, the icy river rushed past with a roar, carrying a steady stream of refuse away from the city. Soon, she thought, I’ll be just another piece of trash carried out to sea. Gingerly, she stuck her foot out over the abyss.
“Hey! You there,” said a voice.
Robin didn’t bother turning to see the speaker. “Don’t try to stop me,” she said defiantly. “I’ve made up my mind.”
“Stop you? Nah. Just asking…can I have your coat?”
Robin pulled her foot back to the relative safety of the girder and craned her neck, trying to see through the flakes of snow cascading behind her. “Excuse me?”
“Your coat. You ain’t gonna need it. Gonna be a bitch to find you later.”
“Oh,” said Robin. “Is that all?”
The old woman hobbled in closer, into the feeble glow of the streetlamp. “Depends. Got money?”
“No money,” said Robin with a sigh. “No life. No hope.” Looking from her perch well above the old woman, she figured that there was no way the jacket she was wearing would ever fit. Even if the woman wasn’t already wearing at least three coats, none of them buttoned.
“Too bad,” said the woman. “Could use a nip. Night like tonight. So tell me, what’s his name?”
“Greg. I mean…wait a minute.”
The woman cackled, shaking her head from side to side. “Always the same. Some damn fool man.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Robin looked over the edge, peering into the roaring darkness below.
“Men ain’t worth shit.”
“Lady, I don’t know what you want from me, but—”
“Open your ears, girl. I want your coat.”
“Oh, all right,” said Robin. What did it matter? What did anything matter? As she turned to take off her coat, she let her hand fall away from the girder, and lost her footing. She screamed as she fell, eyes squeezed shut.
The impact was fast and hard, knocking the breath from her lungs. She never heard a splash, barely felt the cold, but a part of her smiled, realizing that she’d finally done something she’d set out to do. She opened her eyes, anticipating the long darkness of death.
The old woman looked down at her, shaking her head and making a clucking sound. “Not tonight, girlie. They don’t want you yet.”
Robin twisted her head and saw that she’d landed, not in the river, but in a crusty snowbank a few feet from the road. “Who the hell are you?” she gasped. “My guardian angel?”
The old woman laughed, a sound that went from cackle to coughing fit in a matter of seconds. “Angel?” she said when the coughing passed. “Me? Far, far from it, girlie. I ain’t no Clarice.”
“You know. That old movie. With Jimmy Swaggart. Where he’s jumping off the bridge.”
Robin shook her head. “Are you talking about ‘It’s a Wonderful Life?'”
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
“Jimmy Stewart, not Jimmy Swaggart. And the angel’s name was Clarence.”
“Whatever. I ain’t no angel, girlie.”
“My name’s Robin.”
A filthy hand, partially encased in a torn glove, appeared from somewhere in the depths of the multiple coats. Robin hesitated for a second before taking it and letting the old woman help her up.
“Call me Dora,” she said as Robin stood on trembling legs.
“Thank you, Dora.”
“Whatever. Reckon you’ll be keeping that coat. I’ll be on my way.” She turned and hobbled down the road toward the far end of the bridge.
Robin stared at Dora’s back. Oh, what the hell, she thought. “Hey, you want a cup of coffee?”
Dora stopped and answered without turning. “Thought you didn’t have any money?”
“I don’t. But I’ve got coffee. Come on, it’s pretty close.”
Back in her apartment, the two of them sat at the tiny kitchen table, waiting for the coffee to brew.
“So,” said Dora, still attired in all of her coats. “What’d he do?”
“This guy. The one who messed with you.”
Robin hung her head. She’d been able to push thoughts of Greg away for a little while, but now they all came flooding back. “He took…” She trailed off, choking back a sob.
The bare bulb over the kitchen table did not complement the streaks of dirt and deep creases that covered Dora’s face. “What?” she snapped after a long pause. “Your heart? Seems to me it’s still beating.”
“It’s not just that.”
“What then? Your money?” She swiveled her head. “Not much to steal.”
“You should talk,” snapped Robin, regretting the words as soon as they’d slipped from her mouth.
Dora stared at her for a moment, then burst into another round of half laughter, half choking fit. “You have no idea,” she said when she got her spasms back under control. “No idea.”
“He’s gone,” said Robin. “And now so am I.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, he…how do I say this? We were building something special. Together. And then—”
“He checked out.”
With a slight nod, Robin stood and walked to the cupboard over the coffee maker. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea, she thought. Taking a deep breath, she retrieved two cups and poured out steaming java.
“Cream? Sugar?” asked Robin as she set the two cups on the table.
“Got any whiskey?” asked Dora.
Robin shook her head. “Drank the last of it a week ago.”
“Yeah. Whatever.” Dora wrapped her hands around the cup. “Heat feels good.”
“I’ll bet. How the hell do you manage, being out on the street this time of year?”
“Meh. Find a sunny spot in the daytime and grab what I can. Sleep at night, I’d never wake up.” She took a long, noisy slurp from her cup before continuing. “So. No warning, huh?”
Robin sipped her coffee. “We had good jobs. Good friends. Each other. And now? I just don’t care anymore.”
Dora scrunched up her face, staring intently at Robin. “He stole your hope.”
Robin snorted. “What’s worth hoping for?”
Dora reached into one of her coats and rummaged around. “Where the hell is it?” she muttered. “Ah, here we go.” She pulled out a small wooden cube, not much larger than their coffee cups.
As Robin watched, Dora fiddled with the cube, and suddenly a hidden lid popped open. Reaching in with two fingers, she extracted something. Then, keeping her fingers tightly clamped together, she dropped the top of the box back in place.
“Hold out your hand,” said Dora.
Robin hesitated for a moment. Then, curious, she did as she’d been told.
Dora dropped whatever she’d been holding into the outstretched palm, then curled Robin’s fingers into a fist. “Hold it closed. Just let it happen. And if you believe hard enough, it will.”
Robin closed her eyes and held the object in her fist, waiting. Maybe it was all just a bad dream. Maybe she could wake up and be back where she was a few short months earlier. Maybe angels really did exist.
After a few minutes of silence, she opened her eyes. The same tiny apartment, the same stained carpet, the same dirty old woman standing in front of her. No magic. No waking up from the bad dream. Nothing.
“Shit,” said Robin. “What do you take me for? You know I’ve got nothing – no money, no job. Next week I’m getting kicked out of this place. And you’re what – trying to sell me a box of magic beans?”
Dora’s face darkened. “What are you saying?”
“Listen, lady, I don’t know what you’re selling. But I’m not buying. I’ve got better things to do—”
“You’re pissed off,” said Dora. “That’s good.”
“You’re damn right I’m pissed! You—”
“When was the last time you got pissed off? Or laughed? Or felt much of anything?”
Robin opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again. She couldn’t answer the question.
“I’ll tell you what,” said Dora. “Being pissed off don’t feel so good. But it does mean you’re feeling. You don’t feel nothing if you don’t give a shit.”
Robin held up her closed fist and slowly unclenched it. Inside was a small gray pebble, no bigger than a marble. She looked at Dora, her eyes full of questions.
“An hour ago, you were ready to toss yourself in the river. Then a few minutes ago, you held a rock in your hand and expected your world to change. So what’s different?”
Robin answered in a quiet voice. “I’m gullible?”
Dora laughed, and this time it didn’t dissolve into coughing. “Maybe some. You wanna know the big difference? It’s hope. You actually hoped that things would change.”
“And they didn’t. So what the hell does that buy me?”
“Hope drives it all. It doesn’t put food on the table. It doesn’t bring back the dead. But it does give you something to live for.”
“So this is hope?” Robin looked more closely at the pebble. “Doesn’t look like much.”
“It’s all we got,” said Dora. And there’s only so much.”
Dora lifted the small box until it was at eye level, directly between the two of them. “If I let it all out, there’ll be no more. And when all the hope’s gone, well, that’s the end of it. The end of all of us.”
“All the hope in the world,” said Robin. “In one little box. Entrusted to a crazy lady who lives outside in the cold. How come you don’t just reach in there and grab some more for yourself?”
“Girlie, I got all I’ll ever need. I’ve been carrying that box around for a long time. A really, really long time. I give out a little here, a little there. But there’s still some left.
“Figure I’ve got all I’ll ever need. You got some now, you’ll spread it around. I know.”
Robin looked at the pebble. “I am feeling better.”
“Hope’s the cure,” continued Dora. “You see, around the time I first opened that lid, some nasty shit happened. What’s in there now is the cure for all that.”
Robin yawned. She felt tired, genuinely tired. It had been weeks since she’d slept through the night, and she felt ready to make up for that. “Hey,” she said. “I’m beat. You’re welcome to crash on the couch if you’d like.”
“Nah,” said Dora. “I got more to do tonight. Thanks for the coffee.”
Robin led her to the door. “I hope to see you again.”
“That’s my girl,” said Pandora as she hobbled out into the hallway. “That’s my girl.”
[Kurt Hohmann has been telling and writing stories for most of his life, and has published several pieces of fiction and opinionated essays in small-press periodicals both online and hard copy. Outside of his career, which involves a lot of translation between engineers and the rest of the world, he is currently pursuing a course of study in Norse myth and lore as well as a graduate level seminary degree. He serves as the local coordinator for the Pagan Pride Project, assistant Pagan chaplain at Syracuse University, and Troth Steward for Upstate NY. Kurt shares a home with his wife, two cats, and one rather affectionate python.]