A sky-high bridge is my entire world; apart from it, no memories exist. The one-mile-long bridge speaks through railing art, metal pillars, and cables resembling harp strings. But I know it hides a dark secret; I can feel it.
Today, I’m begging for coins on the bridge when a noblewoman dashes to the railings. Her long skirt flutters, creating ripples as in a dance. Then a gust pushes the woman’s hat into my hands.
She draws near, bringing her delicate scent to my nostrils. Her perfume makes me bounce on my feet three times faster than usual.
“Thank you, sir,” she says in the most melodic tone I’ve ever heard.
I return the hat to her slender hands and bow against the high winds pushing my messy hair back.
The woman beams. “Sorry to trouble you.”
“Oh, no. I’m delighted to help a gracious and noble young woman.”
“Oh, you make me blush, gentle sir.”
“Please, call me Dorian.”
“You look so familiar, Dorian.”
“Familiar? Now that I think about it, I’ve got the same feeling. Did I dream of you?”
She covers her mouth with a fan to hide her laughter. “You dreamed of me?”
“All the world’s beauty means nothing compared to such a lovely woman.” The words leave my mouth, untamed by my brain.
Oh, no. Have I gone too far?
But she smiles and calls me “sweet.”
“I’m just a hopeless beggar, ma’am.”
“Oh, don’t say that. Where are you from?”
I look down at the cobbles. “No clue. I can’t remember the past—just a few things.”
The woman draws near, and my pulse gallops.
“I, too, remember nothing, Dorian.”
Is it her revelation, scent, or charm that crashes my reasoning?
“Where do you live?”
I point downward. “On the riverbank.”
A wave of dizziness overcomes me. The void’s view is too much to bear.
“Have you got a house?”
“A house?” I ask, curbing a laugh.
“Oh,” she says mournfully.
The glee in the air fades.
“Nobody wants to hire a frail, uneducated beggar, ma’am.”
“You don’t sound uneducated.”
I blush. “Anyway, the bridge is crowded, and people’s offerings allow the beggars to get chicken stew.”
“Chicken stew is delicious.”
Our spontaneous and knowing laughter unites us.
“Tell me more,” she says. “You’re lucky to spend your days on the bridge. The view is stunning.”
“Actually, I fear the height,” I say, feeling a little ashamed. “The bridge is too high, but again, it sustains me.”
“How do you ask for money? Do you stop people?”
“How?” I say, cocking my head. “Well, for hours I shout, ‘Alms for a poor man!’”
“I see. And where do you sleep?”
The woman’s curiosity is intriguing.
“My bed is the riverbank’s stones,” I say, “and the bridge arch my roof.”
“Don’t you feel cold?”
“Cold? Oh, no. Warm rugs cover my body, ma’am. But in the morning…” I sigh. “See, butlers wake up noble people in the morning, but panhandlers have the sun.”
“Yep. When the sunshine hits my face, my eyelids unlock. Thus, I know it’s time to get up and nudge aside the rugs.”
Observing the woman, I notice how warm her dark eyes are.
“Does the bridge protect you from the rain?” she asks.
“Absolutely,” I say. The woman’s silent hesitation encourages me to add more. “Not only does the bridge’s arch overlook the river’s muddy waters, but it also casts a shadow on my refuge.”
“It must be amazing sleeping next to a river. What do you see?”
I shrug. “Just boughs caught in whirlpools and nothing else.”
The woman’s eyes radiate an indescribable force like magnetism, and I find it hard to speak.
Her hands clench on her chest. “I bet you watch it for hours before sleeping.”
“Everything repeats itself,” I say. “The ripples, the begging, the days.”
“You’re a poet.”
I pull a shy smile.
She sighs and whispers, “It’s getting late.”
Then she moves closer, and a smile brightens on her face. Her heavenly perfume makes me think I would live for it if she gave me a chance. The vendors’ shouting is gone, the crowd’s dull chatting doesn’t reach my ears, and the pesky seagulls’ cries belong to another dimension. I gaze at the woman until she speaks again.
“Bye, Dorian,” she says.
The melody of her voice caresses my soul.
I waver. “B-bye.”
Her steps are quick, like she must tend to an urgent task. Then her silhouette vanishes among the indifferent crowd, taking away her scent. I stare at nothing, beaming. But a scowling face paired with a squawking voice crushes my serenity; it’s Theodore, another beggar.
“Why the stupid look?” he growls.
The man’s rum-smelling curses spread through the air.
I recoil. “What?”
“Why are you gawking like a parrot?”
“None of your business.”
He shakes his fists. “Will a blow turn you more friendly?” The man pushes me against the railing. “What are you doing here?”
I frown. “Begging as usual.”
“Ha! This part of the bridge is mine. I’m the official beggar.” He staggers back, wheeling his arms to balance.
“Yours?” I say. “You agreed to take the other side.”
Rage turns his face crimson. “Ha! That was a temporary agreement.”
His voice grows. “This is my bridge, and we do things my way.”
Most of the bystanders snicker; others frown.
“You have twenty-four hours,” he says, hiccupping. “If I see you again—”
But he wavers on the heavy notes of boots hitting the cobbles; it’s the police. Two approaching guards make Theodore flee. I sigh and watch the sky, asking myself what I’ve done to deserve this life.
When I’ve had enough of the dark clouds dulling the sky, I launch my eyes fifteen feet away on Lena, the florist. Her flower stand releases rose flavors that the gusts bring to me intermittently.
She waves. “Good morning, Daniel.”
“Daniel? My name’s Dorian,” I say.
“Oops, sorry! I’ve got a terrible memory.”
“A terrible memory? Same problem here.”
“Oh? How so?”
“Well, I don’t remember my past.”
“Oh, most people don’t remember the past on this bridge,” she says.
Lena shrugs, and oncoming customers grab her attention.
Then Lord Mordel crosses my path. He smells of whiskey and never stays in one place; he owes money to creditors.
“Good day, Lord Mordel.”
“Oh, good day to you, George… or whatever your name is. Alas, my mind fails me.”
The lord disappears into the crowd, leaving me puzzled.
Dusk arrives, and the bridge becomes more frightening, with fewer people staying on it. When the dark prevails, the railing floral coils’ shadows give birth to an alternative world, a realm where ghosts and horrors thrive.
An abrupt roar from a distance freezes me.
“Who is it?” I mutter, my throat hardening.
Nobody appears, and I tell myself I must be imagining things.
* * *
The next day, I restart my routine on the bridge. But something is wrong. I don’t know how I arrived here. After waking up under the bridge, I was immediately on it. So I must have climbed the stairs, but I don’t remember. The more time passes, the less I remember.
“Aw!” I mutter. “The past hides more riddles than the future.”
A thick fog possesses the bridge; its tang smells of the river, and what I imagine as ghosts’ screams echo.
“The screams must be the stray cats,” I tell myself.
With such a thick fog, no coins drop into my hat, and my stomach wails from hunger.
The traders yell. A rug merchant swears his old rugs belonged to emperors, and the fruit seller assures the customers her apples are the best in town.
“Hello, Mister Beggar. How are you doing?” a disembodied voice erupts from the mist. “Have you been working hard?”
The fog spits out a thin police officer.
I sigh. “Working hard?”
“How can I help you, officer?”
“Don’t call me ‘officer,’” he says.
His massive colleague joins us, tapping a stick on his palm.
“Are you a decent citizen?” the thin officer asks.
“A decent citizen?”
“Only decent citizens can use the word ‘officer.’ As you are nothing, and I’m a king compared to you, from now on you will refer to me as ‘Your Majesty.’”
The policeman draws near and drags the peak of his tall helmet down like he wants to scare me.
Then a noble couple appears; she resembles an owl and points at me with her umbrella. “Officers, arrest that man.”
I know the authorities can’t arrest me for staying on the bridge, but I grow concerned when the policemen bow to the couple.
How unjust is the world?
The woman’s fiancé clears his throat. “Beggars spoil the bridge.”
“We’ll take care of the rat,” the thin officer says, watching the couple step away; then, he turns to me, glowering. “Confess to the murder.”
“Murder?” I say, my throat hardening.
“Where were you the night of… I mean, that night?”
“The night of the murder.”
“How can I answer that if you didn’t say when the murder happened?”
“Are you having a laugh? Look here, if I lose my temper, you will pay the consequences. Someone killed a woman under the bridge. Does that ring any bells?”
“Under the bridge? I saw nobody under the bridge.”
“So, why does Theodore say otherwise? The drunk swears he saw you strangling a woman.”
“Strangling a woman? Oh, no. Theodore is a liar.”
“He said you pushed the victim into the river.”
“Into the river? Why don’t you suspect Theodore, officer?”
“Beggars must call me Your Majesty. How many times do I have to repeat myself?”
“Well, Your Majesty, it’s Theodore’s word against mine.”
“You’d better find an alibi for that night, or you’ll go to the scaffold.”
“Please, Your Majesty, tell me more about the murder.”
“Well, uh—I forgot,” he says, narrowing his eyes. Then he looks over at his drowsy colleague tapping the stick on his palm. “Do you remember it?”
“Remember what?” his colleague asks.
“The murder, of course.”
The tall and plump officer’s eyes blink fast. “Nope.”
Scowling, the policemen move away from me. Only when the thick fog hugs them can I relax and sigh.
The more the fog goes by, the higher my mood. The bridge’s girders come into view, and so does the town’s prospect, a colorful expanse of roofs spanning to the horizon. But the sight is a cruel beauty when the entire world crushes you. By and by, my hunch suggests something is wrong with the bridge.
Why don’t I leave this place?
A cry rises. “There you are, swine.”
Theodore’s broken shoes get close to hitting my bottom, but I dodge his kick. His foot misses my backside twice, and on the last try, his leg ends up in the air. Having lost his balance, Theodore plummets, hitting the cobbles with his back. A grating roar breaks the pedestrians’ serenity, and I know he will chase me, angrier than ever, so I give him a wide berth.
People walk past. I outstretch my arm to show the empty hat, and it becomes full of coins in no time. Suppertime comes. I rush to a stall at the foot of the bridge, and after supper, I cross the bridge and resume begging. My back props on the railing, but I’m not relaxed. This life has taught me that problems never end. I should expect Theodore or the police to come at any moment.
Suddenly, a feeble voice freezes me.
I know that voice; it belongs to the noblewoman who makes my pulse quicken. I draw near the pouting fruit seller, searching for the voice. Then I scan the bridge, but a group of people hinders my view.
The voice came from across the railing. I dash to it, bashing against the metal dividing the solid ground from the void, but nobody emerges from the dark.
By and by, the dusk intensifies its grip and cools down my overexcited mind.
“Too late for begging,” I mumble. “The merchants are going home, and the last pedestrians will soon disappear. Time to go under the bridge.”
But eerie screams give life to the bridge at night.
“No reason to be afraid,” I mumble. “What sounds like voices is just the waters’ eddies and splashes.”
Then the night passes between nightmares. The morning’s shine is encouraging, but once on the bridge, Theodore approaches. His funk is a mix between old rags, alcoholic breath, and soil dirt.
The man’s fists clench at the sight of me. “What did you tell the police, idiot?”
“Me? What did you tell the police?”
“Ha! They’re turning us against each other. I-d-i-o-t,” he says, his filthy hands grabbing my collar. “You told the cops I murdered a woman.”
I bat his arms away and free myself. “The police officers said you accused me of murder. Don’t turn this on me.”
He pushes me against the railings and says, “Sing like a rooster.”
“Like a rooster? Why should I do that?”
Theodore’s croaking voice explodes. “Because I’ll twist your neck—just like a chicken.”
I could hit Theodore with a kick and leave, but his thick fingers grab my neck, choking me. “Please, stop.”
His paws yank on my collar. “I’m the king of the bridge.”
When the two policemen show up, Theodore lets me go. I sigh, and long strides take me away from my enemies. But the more I walk, the fewer people I meet.
“Where is everybody?” I mutter. “What is going on? Why is the bridge empty?”
A set of identical twins in matching black double-breasted suits appear from out of nowhere. They march toward me, looking as undertakers set for the graves. My steps veer to the left to avoid them, but the tweens are coming for me.
Their pale flesh and stiff traits speak of horror—mannequins, not humans. The sight freezes my blood. I dash to the bridge’s tip and climb down to my shelter.
Suddenly, roars boom from the twins’ mouths, and my pulse goes crazy.
They aren’t humans by any means.
Further roars explode, the lampposts shake, and the whole bridge trembles. Nobody can witness it but me. The twins’ heads warp like clay statues, molded by an artist’s hand, and their limbs grow and rip their clothes. The sight terrifies and confuses me, but adrenaline pushes me to flee to the staircase under the bridge.
I slew my head back and see the monsters running like wild beasts. I leap and bound down the stairs, and my ankles almost break on the run. Rugs cuddle me under the bridge’s shaded corner, below the arch. Nobody has followed me.
When my mental chaos stops, endless questions float through my head.
Have I dreamed of the monsters? What species are they? Did they escape from a zoo?
One more glance at the staircase calms my nerves. Nothing moves but a cat.
So I climb, assuming I’m a victim of a hallucination. I’ll be a laughingstock if I tell anyone about the monsters. Unable to prove my ordeal, I resume my begging routine, but a shout freezes me.
“On your feet,” the thin guard says.
I stand up, my eyes on the ground, but he screams, “Chin up!”
The big cop’s stick lifts my chin, causing me to look at the sky.
The thin policeman brushes his mustache with his fingers and says, “I’m gonna ask you questions, and you’re gonna answer.”
His onion breath forces me to recoil a few inches, but a rod hits my shoulders.
“Watch your steps, you dirty mendicant,” a nobleman roars, “and move away from the railings because this place is for aristocrats.”
“Can’t you see that nobody likes you?” the thin policeman says.
An array of slaps from the big officer shakes my head. Then he digs into his pocket.
“Do you know the woman in the photo?” he asks, a blank sheet swinging between his fingers.
“The woman in the photo? There’s nothing on the paper,” I say.
The thin officer’s eyes swell.
“Oh, I must have left the picture in the office,” the big guard says.
I try to speak. “Officer—”
But a shout erupts from the thin guard’s mouth. “Your Majesty! How many times must I tell you?” His chin raises. “We’re officers of the law.” He utters the word “law” in a high-pitched tone. “Confess!”
“Confess? I killed no one, Your Majesty.”
“Liar. The next step is the gallows.”
He repeats three times they’ll come back for me and signs to the huge policeman to go. A tight march leads them away, helmets tipping at a noblewoman.
Then someone’s proximity urges me to turn and dodge a punch; it’s Theodore.
I scream. “What the hell?”
Theodore reels and growls. “Get ready to die.”
He slows down his momentum. “Grrr—rat.”
“I’ve got bigger problems than fighting.”
“What problems upset a rat?” he says, feigning seriousness.
“Monsters that crop up from people?”
“Have you seen any monsters?”
“Yep…” Theodore says, hiccupping. “I saw them.”
Among a thousand answers, I did not expect that.
“You saw the monsters?” I say, my eyes bulging.
“Are you stupid? What did I just say?”
“I saw those damned beasts’ engravings.”
Theodore’s red face cracks a toothless grin, and he grips the railing. “Ha! Why should I tell you?”
“Because we are in the same boat. Those creatures might kill us.”
If Theodore knows about the monsters, it means I’m not crazy. But I’m not convinced. What if his words are a result of boozing?
“Getting to the bridge’s center through a narrow ledge is complicated,” he says.
“Is it where you saw the engravings? At the bridge’s center?”
“Why don’t you let the king of the bridge talk, you ungrateful subject?”
I roll my eyes.
“As I said,” he continues, “getting there is hard, especially for a jerk like you. So get the hell outta here.”
“Where exactly can I find the engravings, Theodore?”
“On the outer side.”
“Outer side of what?”
“Outer side of the bridge, right below the railings, idiot. I went there once—a terrible experience. I didn’t find any protection and must tread on a thin ledge.”
The mere idea of playing the acrobat cripples me.
“To get to the damned ledge, you must jump the rail,” he says, his breath stinking of rum. “But you must step on the metal ledge, and you won’t find a steady grip. Ha! I nearly went off the damned ledge.”
“Get stuffed.” His fists clench, and he lifts them like a fighter in a ring. “Now what?”
I know I should leave.
Sometimes, even Theodore can be helpful. How to picture him climbing a slippery ledge, though? The only place where I can visualize him is a tavern surrounded by singing boozers or causing brawls. Every time I see Theodore, he reels, and moving on a ledge with hundreds of yards of terrifying void under your feet could scare an acrobat.
The height is my nemesis. My pulse speeds up as I approach the ledge, and the gorge shows its face. The deep, quiet lack of matter pricks my survival instinct. The mere sight of the waters makes me dizzy.
Wavering, I climb the rail and let my feet slide onto the ledge. Seagulls cry, and pigeons flutter away, annoyed by my side trudging. The bridge is my home; it’s all I remember and have ever seen. The void has always been there. I have feared, ignored, and respected it, but defying it was not in my plans.
Fear deters me from watching the river. I might just give up, return to the rail, climb it, and sigh when my feet touch the safe ground. A part of me wants it, so why not follow that hunch? Maybe because understanding the monsters’ nature is crucial? If I knew them better, I could defend myself from the beasts. My hunch says I must solve that mystery. Afterwards, I might have a decent life and heal my mental chaos. Maybe I will find a decent job and meet the noblewoman again.
My cheek rubs onto the metal wall, and peeking down at the river is hard. A fight with my balance prevents me from progressing.
“To move or not to move?” becomes my persistent question.
The river’s voice roars at the intruder violating its realm, and its rustle sounds as if it stands two inches under the ledge. Dropping is likely.
Barely visible engravings pop out of the corner of my eye. It shows two police officers in uniforms, one chubby and the other thin. The artist must have observed the policemen on the bridge.
Another picture is even more surprising.
“Theodore?” I mutter.
“Reality complicates everything,” someone had once said, and perhaps it’s true.
I want to focus on my purpose, but gaining balance is challenging. My muscles hurt, and my calves tingle. Although my body twists, I continue the stunts, willing to shed light on the monsters’ existence.
Another carving appears.
“Who’s this?” I mumble. “Another beggar? He resembles me.”
Next to the engraving, another shows a noblewoman with a graceful posture.
My jaw drops. “The noblewoman?”
My legs push sideways, and my eyes meet one more image: the monsters. They look real, and my blood freezes to learn such creatures exist.
“Theodore and I don’t suffer from hallucinations,” I mutter.
The deformed creatures’ engraving reminds me of their claws, roars, and fury.
Suddenly, I feel a presence.
“Look how crazy you are, beggar,” a voice whispers.
I wonder if it came from the bridge or my mind.
My energy is abandoning me, so I go back with difficulty. An enormous amount of effort takes me to the rail. After skipping it and landing on the stairs, my pulse relaxes. Watching the ledge, a sense of pride overcomes me.
Can I call myself a brave man now? But the fact the monsters exist spoils my adventure.
When I turn, my heart leaps in my throat.
The twins are there, and I feel like fainting.
“Dorian, we’re here to reset you,” the twins say together.
I swallow. “Reset? What do you mean ‘reset’?”
“Your memories, life, everything,” they say in a dull tone. “Every character runs smoothly in this reality, except you.”
“Characters? What’s wrong with me?”
“You can’t ask yourself too many questions or explore the outer bridge. That’s why gods like us must intervene.”
“We’re the gods’ avatars. In real life, we own Twin Brother, a VR firm, and we are IT engineers. But you must call us gods.”
“So… who am I?”
“You’re nothing, just the product of our creativity. Your life makes sense in this virtual world only.”
“Virtual world? Why make a virtual world, then?”
“Because real people bet on you.”
Accepting the freaks’ story is like gulping down acid. “What bet?
“People bet on how long an event lasts because every virtual character is smart.”
“For example, people bet on how fast Theodore gets drunk or Lord Mordel escapes his creditors. But they also bet on you.”
“How fast the noblewoman’s charm bewitches you is the most common bet in the IT-engineer club. Oh, we have so much fun.”
“You fall in love with the same noblewoman after every regeneration. In the beginning, the passion lasted a couple of hours. But the more the resets, the longer your love.”
“How many resets have I undergone?
The revelations light a fire in my chest, whose intensity pushes me to erupt. “Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves?”
“Why should we be?”
“Creating smart beings to treat like objects?”
“You should be ashamed. Does your faulty mind not realize you wouldn’t exist if we didn’t create this game?”
“Game? I wish you had not created me. Disappearing forever is better than this hell.” Crying spells inhibit me from adding anything.
“No worries. After devouring you, we will rebuild a new Dorian, in the same setting, and you will remember nothing.”
The twins mutate into beasts. Roaring, the creatures pounce on me. Pain overcomes my body as the monsters’ claws rip my skin, and their fangs stab my chest, cracking bones like crisps.
* * *
Today, I’m begging for coins on the bridge when a noblewoman dashes to the railings. Her long skirt flutters, creating ripples as in a dance. Then a gust pushes the woman’s hat into my hands.
Nicola Vallera is an English teacher certified by the University of Cambridge (Celta). Now, he lives in Brazil, and his hobbies are reading and writing. He published a short story: The Endless City – 2019 – Deadman’s Tome and Datura.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Beggar on the Bridge”:
Author Nick Vallera’s piece epitomizes what we mean in our submission guidelines that we want something unexpected. Many, if not most, of the time we decline submissions are that they don’t bring us something new, different, or memorable. We were delighted to see Nick Vallera hit the mark on all counts.
We especially loved how he dropped hints along the way—even in the opening line—that something out of the ordinary was going on, yet he managed to make it an unexpected surprise. Nick Vallera delivered a round, well-told tale with good setting details, interesting characters, tight dialogue, and a really cool ending—exactly what we look for.