THE BRIDGE OF LOST HOPE

Stephen Parker believed he had every right to decide when and where he was going to die. After all, every life eventually comes to an end, he was simply ensuring that it happened at a time and place of his choosing. And he had every confidence that the old bridge would provide a more than suitable way to accomplish the task.

He pulled his midsized SUV onto the shoulder of the road, put it in park, and killed the engine. Seven years old with an odometer reading of 125,000 miles, it had always provided dependable transportation, and now it had safely delivered him to his final destination. He got out and smiled ruefully when, thanks to a life-long driving habit, he locked the doorsbut tonight it didn’t matter if his vehicle was stolen.

Tonight nothing mattered.

The weather would play no part in what was about to occur, but he had to admit that his last day had been spectacular. With warm temperatures and a light breeze, it was the kind of day that normally makes you rejoice in being alive. However, there was nothing normal about the way Stephen felt.

He looked down the sloping curvy road and began walking. His easy strides were more indicative of a leisurely stroll through a meticulously landscaped park than a death march in the middle of nowhere. Even though the sun was sitting low on the horizon and would soon begin to disappear, he could clearly make out the dark gray silhouette of the old bridge. Built by the WPA as part of FDR’s ongoing efforts to provide jobs following the Great Depression, it had long since been forgotten after the interstate opened and stole all the traffic. Now the giant steel relic once considered an engineering marvel, stood desolate gathering rust, out of sight, out of mind.

Because it had become economically unfeasible to repair all of the safety issues, the road leading to and from the massive bridge had been blocked off for years, a fact that was inconsequential since the structural soundness would not be an issue this evening.

Stephen had parked as close as possible, but that still left a short distance to cover on foot. The first glimpse of the bridge had made his skin clammy. He knew this was not going to be easy, but it wasn’t something he was rushing into. After several months of reflection and contemplation, he had begun to carefully plan for this day, and now that it was here, he refused to have second thoughts.

He had lived almost five decades, always assuming he would make it to at least 80 and maybe even 90 – but assumptions are often baseless in the face of reality – and now he found the prospect of living the rest of his life alone to be unbearable.

After 26 years of marriage, Stephen had buried Tonya a year ago. Her breast cancer had led them on a horrifying journey. The double mastectomy followed by chemo and radiation had all been ineffective in slowing the course of the disease. Watching her waste away was something he could not stop reliving. He’d been told his sense of loss would ease with time, but over the last 12 months, it had only increased.

The loneliness that silently lurked in every room of the empty house was insufferable. It had always been their dream to have a family, but after years of trying to conceive, they were forced to turn to reproductive technology to provide the answer. But, despite the latest advancements in fertility treatment, science could not make Tonya a mother any more than it could save her life.

Unfortunately, during his wife’s illness, his sister-in-law, Nora, had managed to make an intolerable situation even worse with her spiritual fanaticism. Throughout their marriage, Tonya and Stephen had shared a vigorous disdain for organized religion, however, that did not stop Nora from constantly intruding with her ever-changing combination of pious prayer partners who showed up to petition the Almighty and lay hands on Tonya who was too sick to protest their supposed divine intervention.

Predictably, it didn’t take long for the phone calls and emails to begin arriving from Nora’s evangelical church pleading for money. As Stephen found out, once you landed on their potential donor list, they sank their hooks in deep, leaving you with little chance of escaping from their relentless financial harassment.

It both amazed and disgusted him that in their blind ignorance they believed that a couple enduring the obscene cost of cancer treatment would be left with the resources to contribute to a church that, to hear the members tell it, was teetering on the edge of financial collapse. It seemed that doing the will of God was an expensive proposition. Consequently, the Lord’s mercy came at a price.

Three weeks before Tonya lost her battle, Nora had shown up at their house with five other women and demanded to be allowed to anoint her dying sister with the holy spirit in a grotesque effort to cast out the “demonic” cancer. But by then, Stephen had run out of patience with their irrational zealotry.

On that morning, Tonya’s pain had soared past the ability of her meds to control it, so Stephen explained to the prayer partners that it wasn’t a good time, and he asked them politely to leave. But Nora refused to budge from the front porch and instead began to pray out loud for the blood of Christ to deliver his wicked soul from the fires of eternal damnation. Her sanctimonious call for his salvation immediately prompted Stephen to slam the door in her face. It had never felt so good to shut someone up, and, at that moment, he decided if heaven was filled with the likes of Nora, he would be more than happy to punch his ticket to hell.

Of course, for Stephen, the question of whether or not there is an afterlife would soon be answered. Surprisingly, with such a powerful revelation being imminent, he had little interest in the subject.

As the bridge grew nearer, he maintained a relaxed pace allowing his mind to wander until it settled on the fact that he had not left a note of explanation behind. Stephen did not believe he was under any obligation to defend his actions, and people didn’t care anyway – so what was the point. Ending one’s life was an intensely personal matter, and he was not inclined to share his last breath with another living soul.

It had been relatively easy to choose the most effective way to carry out the grim task. As a matter of principle, Stephen had never owned a gun, and even as he began to consider this eventuality months ago, he had no desire to go out and purchase one. All of his life, he’d remained convinced that guns were only good for killing people – but he had to admit that bridges could kill too.

That was particularly true of this bridge. Stephen would not be the first to take advantage of its extreme height and obscure location. The abandoned structure was locally known as THE BRIDGE OF LOST HOPE. Although that was frequently shortened to THE NO HOPER. He did not personally know anyone who had jumped, but on multiple occasions, he’d heard about someone who had taken the plunge, and to the best of his knowledge, no one had ever survived the 100-foot drop into the raging river with its unforgiving rocky bed.

As he continued to amble toward the looming structure, he couldn’t help but wonder how long it had been since someone else had taken these same steps. How long had it been since another person reached the point where death was preferable to life? How long had it been since – Stephen’s legs suddenly froze and refused to move forward. For a few seconds, he could not trust what his eyes were seeing. He stared in disbelief, as he tried to wrap his mind around this disturbing development in his well-crafted plan.

As it turned out, at least one more person had recently made this same walk because Stephen was looking directly at him. The man had climbed up on the ancient bridge and was holding on with just one hand. His back was turned as he looked down at the rushing water, so he had not yet noticed that he wasn’t alone.

Stephen was stunned, but that did not prevent him from indulging in his penchant for gallows humor. I didn’t think there’d be a line. Patience please! Take a number, and wait your turn…… Perhaps, in hindsight, he should have bought a cheap handgun after all. He just never dreamed that such an isolated spot would attract another like-minded individual on the same day.

Still out of the man’s view, he thought if he was careful it might be possible to turn back and slip away without being spotted. But what if the man was really going to jump? Didn’t Stephen have a responsibility to prevent it? How could he just walk away and leave him to die? Didn’t he have a moral obligation to intervene? On the other hand, why should he try to save the life of a total stranger when he had come here to do the same thing? The irony of the situation was inescapable.

To make matters worse, Stephen couldn’t even call 911. It hadn’t occurred to him there would be any need to bring his cell phone. It was back at the house laying on the kitchen table.

There was one other, less attractive, option. He could just wait for the man to jump and then take his turn and follow him in – but strangely enough, considering why he was here, Stephen did not want to witness another human being’s death. And because he wanted this to be his own private moment with the universe, without interference from anyone or anything, he guessed the jumper felt the same way. God! Stephen was tired of life being so hard. Even ending it was an ordeal.

However, before he could make up his mind about what to do, the decision was made for him. The man glanced over his shoulder and was startled by the sight of another person. For a split second, he lost his grip on the railing, but he managed to bring his other hand up, grab on, and steady himself. The temporary loss of control scared both of them.

The man yelled angrily, “What are you doing here!?”

Stephen thought, You’d never believe me in a million years, pal. But needing the man to calm down, he answered, “Just out for an early evening stroll. The weather is perfect.”

The man seemed both terrified and furious. “Get out of here! Leave me alone.”

Stephen wanted to tell him the same thing – but the man had beaten him to the punch and staked out his claim on the bridge. One customer at a time, please. Absolutely no sharing! Certainly sharing was a foreign concept when it came to the delicate subject of ending one’s life.

Hoping to cut the tension, Stephen asked, “What’s your name?” As he spoke, he began to slowly move towards the man.

“Stop!! Don’t come any closer. I swear to God, I’ll jump.”

“I believe you. Please, I just want to help.” Stephen kept moving in the man’s direction.

“I said stop.” This time was less emphatic.

Stephen eased closer and was now within 20 feet of the man. “My name is Stephen. Stephen Parker. What’s yours?”

Repositioning his feet, the man yelled angrily, “I don’t care who you are.”

Stephen was 49. As he moved closer and got a better look, he guessed the man was at least 10 years younger, maybe more.

With renewed urgency, the man cried out, “Stand back or I’ll let go!”

Attempting to keep his voice at an even tone, Stephen asked, “What’s your name?”

“It doesn’t matter who I am.”

“It matters to me.”

The man’s frustration was growing. “Jesus!…… My name is Kevin.”

“Last name?”

The man hissed, “Mays. Like the baseball player. Are you happy now?”

“Okay, Kevin Mays. I just want you to talk to me.”

Kevin’s shoulders slumped. “Look, whoever you are –”

“Stephen.”

“Yeah, all right.” With undisguised contempt, he said, “Stephen, surely you can get it through your head that I want to be alone.”

Despite the protests, Stephen believed the only chance he had of reaching the man was to establish a connection with him, so he pressed on. “Tell me what kind of work you do.”

Kevin ignored him and adjusted his hold on the steel crossbar.

Without much enthusiasm, Stephen volunteered, “I’m an insurance agent.”

“So no one is ever happy to see you!”

The observation was both funny and true. Stephen was no mental health expert, but, by God, he was an insurance salesman with a natural gift for gab who was skilled at convincing people to do what he wanted them to do. He was adept at using the power of language to tap into someone’s fears and emotions.

Under ordinary circumstances, Stephen could sell just about anything to anyone, however, this situation was hardly ordinary. Because this was truly a matter of life and death, he would have to rely on the fact that although he had never enjoyed his job, he was quite good at it.

He asked again, “What do you do for a living?” When the man didn’t answer immediately, it dawned on Stephen that this was going to be a lot trickier than selling an insurance policy. The challenge was trying to convince someone that life was worth living when he didn’t fully believe it himself. But he had to try. He asked again about the man’s job.

Through clenched teeth, Kevin spit out, “I don’t have a job anymore. I worked at a warehouse for eight years driving a forklift – but yesterday, my boss, who has always had it in for me, terminated my employment. But he wasn’t content to just fire me. He made it as humiliating as possible by walking me to my locker, making me clean it out, and then escorting me out of the building in front of everyone. I gave them eight years of my life, and they acted like I was some kind of criminal.”

“I’m sorry that happened to you.”

“Why should you care? You don’t know me.”

“Well, I do care…… So why did he treat you that way?” Stephen hoped it would help the man if he could get it off his chest – but he was mistaken.

Enraged, Kevin shouted, “This is ridiculous!! It’s none of your business! All that matters is that I need to pay the mortgage and put food on the table, and they took that away from me.” For a time an ominous silence filled the space between them, and then Kevin’s voice lowered and became threatening. “I am going to jump, and unless you leave right now, you’re going to watch me do it.”

His tone alarmed Stephen. “Okay, okay.” Obviously, his job was at least partially responsible for the negativity in Kevin’s life. Stephen needed to quickly change the topic to something positive, so he asked cautiously, “Are you married?”

Halfway expecting a verbal explosion, Stephen cringed – but instead, Kevin suddenly sounded wounded as if the subject had cut him deeply. In a voice weakened by the harsh realities of his life, he said, “Haven’t you been listening? I don’t want you here. Leave me alone.”

“I can’t just walk away.” Stephen tried again. “So, are you married?”

After enduring months of mental torment, it had all come down to this. Whether this stranger watched or not, Kevin believed he was ready to release his burdens forever. But just as he was about to take his hand off of the crossbeam, the face of his wife flashed in his mind. Thinking of her, instantly had a calming and soothing effect that momentarily diffused his anger.

His wife was an incredible person, and despite everything he’d put her through, she loved him with all her heart. Always patient and supportive as he struggled with the issues that had pursued him to this point, she was the only individual in the world he could count on, and he felt both remorse and shame because he knew what it would do to her if he took his own life.

He answered softly, “Yes, I’m married.”

“Then you are a lucky man.”

Kevin huffed, “You’ve got a lot of nerve saying that to someone standing on the side of a bridge.”

Good point. Stephen would try to choose his words more carefully as he encouraged the man to talk about his family. “Do you have children?”

Now 15 feet away, he watched an expression of tenderness come over Kevin’s face, and Stephen could see from the reaction that he’d hit a nerve. “Yeah, I’ve got kids.”

Continuing to edge closer, Stephen asked, “How many?”

There was a slight shakiness in Kevin’s words. “I have three.”

“Girls or boys?”

The man said reluctantly, “Two girls and one boy.”

“What are their ages?”

Kevin balked. “Stop. I don’t want to talk about them.”

Stephen moved toward him. “I think maybe you do want to talk about them. Who is the oldest?”

There was a long pause, and Stephen wasn’t sure if the man was going to answer, but then with the unmistakable sound of regret creeping into his voice, Kevin said, “My son is the oldest. He’s almost eight. One of my girls is five and the other is three.”

His questioner was at a loss. Why was this man so willing to leave his wife and young children? Kevin Mays had everything in life Stephen had always wanted and yet it wasn’t enough. But despite his puzzlement, Stephen knew he had to focus on the matter at hand and appeal to Kevin’s parental love. Even though he was not sure how the man would react, he took a chance and asked the most painful question of all. “Have you thought about how your death would affect the rest of their lives?”

A hard look swept over Kevin’s face as he asked, “What do you want from me?”

“I just want to see if we can figure this out.”

“I thought I had it figured out until you showed up.”

Stephen sensed that Kevin’s anger was starting to subside and that he now seemed primarily frightened, perhaps frightened of a future he couldn’t predict or control. Most people were. But Stephen also realized that for the first time since his wife died, he was truly concerned about someone else. For a few minutes, he had stopped obsessing about his own pain and instead focused on the needs of another person. And right now that other person was making him extremely anxious.

Kevin, immobile and silent, peered down at the churning water swirling beneath the bridge. Although Stephen could not read his mind, he believed they had reached the moment of truth, and he feared that the troubled man was about to jump. Still 10 feet away, Stephen would not be able to grab him if he did.

“Talk to me, Kevin. I know this is difficult.”

With a heavy weariness, the distraught man answered, “You cannot possibly know what this is like.”

Stephen decided it was time to be brutally honest. If his judgment was correct, confessing the truth about why he was here would help Kevin see that he was not alone. With genuine empathy, he said, “I know exactly what it’s like…… Remember when you asked me what I was doing out here?”

There was no response.

“I lied to you.”

Kevin turned his head just enough to catch Stephen out of the corner of his eye. “If you think I’m surprised, I’m not. The world is full of liars. Why should you be any different?”

“I’m not different. That’s my point. In fact, I’m just like you.”

“What are you talking about?”

Although Stephen found the words difficult to say, he knew he had to bare his soul. “I came here for the same reason you did. I came here today to end my life.”

That admission caught Kevin off guard and caused him to awkwardly turn so he could get a good look at the stranger. “What in the hell? You’re saying you came here to jump off of this bridge?”

“Yes.” Trying to lower the intensity level, Stephen explained as calmly as he could. “A year ago my wife died. I’ve struggled ever since. I didn’t want to go on, and I thought this bridge was the answer. But now I don’t believe it is.”

Kevin’s eyes bored into him, and Stephen knew the man was trying to decide whether or not to believe him. After a long silence, Kevin surprised him by asking, “What happened to your wife?”

“It was cancer. Breast cancer.”

“Same thing my mom died from when I was a teenager.”

“It’s a terrible disease.”

“I guess we all have problems, don’t we?” Kevin adjusted his feet and looked back down at the water. “You actually came here for the same reason?”

“That’s right. But I never dreamed there would be someone else here who wanted to do the same thing.”

Kevin snorted. “Tell me about it.”

“But here we are. The question is, what’s next?”

Mentally and emotionally exhausted, Kevin’s head was muddled, and he couldn’t seem to think straight. He was trapped in a black place, and although he was searching, he didn’t see a way out. “Everything is confused, and I can’t find the answer…… My life is out of control.”

Small beads of perspiration broke out on Stephen’s forehead as he nervously watched the man move his left hand to another position on the gridwork. “You have control right now. You control your next action. You decide whether or not to live.”

Feeling hopelessly lost, Kevin didn’t know what to believe anymore. “Why should I listen to you? Didn’t you come here to do the same thing?”

“That’s a fair point, but I wasn’t thinking clearly. Sometimes we’re not able to see what is really important in life…… But you have a wife and kids. I would give anything to have a family like yours. Please, if you will just come down from there and give yourself some time, I believe you’ll see that your life has meaning, and you’ll be able to appreciate that you are loved and cherished.”

Stephen slowly stepped closer. He could now lunge forward and grab the man if he had to.

Kevin’s mind was ablaze with conflicting voices and images. He wanted it all to stop – but he didn’t want to hurt the ones who loved him. With a massive dose of self-reproach, he mumbled, “I don’t deserve my family.”

Stephen waited, giving the man as much time as he needed to sort it out in his mind. 

With dangerous thoughts raging in his brain, challenging his ability to perceive reality, Kevin tried to fight back against the darkness that had engulfed him. “My family means everything to me, but I can’t always be the man I want to be.”

“That happens to all of us, Kevin. It happened to me. We all fall short. But that doesn’t make you a bad person.”

Kevin shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Being good or bad makes no difference. Anyone is capable of doing terrible things.”

Stephen stopped just a few feet away. He could hear the sound of the rushing water slamming against the rocks below, and he shuddered to think that his body would be down there if he hadn’t encountered this man. “Kevin, I want you to focus for a moment on your son and daughters. They don’t just love their father, they need their father. No matter what else is going on – no matter what you’ve lost – you have your children and that is what matters.”

Kevin turned and for the first time looked directly at him. Stephen could see tears streaming down the man’s face which prompted him to say, “You love your wife and children don’t you.”

As Kevin’s face contorted in acknowledgment, he choked out, “Yes, I love them.”

“Then please don’t do something that will cause your children to suffer.”

The sentence hit with the force that was intended. As Kevin clung tightly to the bridge, he turned the word suffer over and over in his mind. S-U-F-F-E-R. That was it! Suddenly, it all made sense. Dying today would solve nothing. Suffering was the concept that broke through the fog of despondency that had blinded him. It was the realization that others could suffer that ignited his desire to live – and he had Stephen Parker to thank for opening his eyes.

With no way to know what was going on in Kevin’s mind, Stephen urged him to reconsider his actions before it was too late. “Please come down, go home, and hug your kids as tightly as you can.” Because he would be forced to try to grab the man if he chose to let go, every muscle in Stephen’s body tensed in anticipation.

As Kevin looked back over his shoulder at the extreme drop, a plan for the future quickly began to form in his mind. It was now obvious what his course of action should be, and he was ready to embrace it. Taking a deep breath to clear his head, he vowed to himself that tomorrow, this would all be behind him. In fact, in many ways, he believed tomorrow would be the most important day of his life. Tomorrow would be a day lived with a new purpose. Finding comfort and reassurance in that belief, the husband and father of three made the most important decision of his life. Carefully, he began to climb down from the superstructure. When his feet hit the pavement, he instantly felt reborn.

Stephen walked up to him and said, “You will never know how happy I am that we met on this bridge – for both of our sakes.”

Kevin rubbed the tears away. “Maybe you were sent here to save me.”

“Or……”  Stephen smiled. “Maybe it was the other way around.”

“Well, whatever the reason, I’m grateful you showed up. You helped me see that I was not supposed to die tonight.” Kevin turned, looked to the west where the sun was just beginning to slip below the horizon, and with firm resolve said, “I have more in life I want to do.”

Hearing those words caused a huge wave of relief to sweep over Stephen as the stress of the evening began to dissipate. “Can I give you a ride somewhere, Kevin?” 

“No, I’m good. My car is parked about a quarter-mile from here.”

After such a nerve-racking encounter, Stephen wanted it to end on a positive note. “Listen, I’d be happy to give you my phone number. If you ever needed to talk to someone, you could just give me a call. I mean, it might help to talk to a person who understands what it’s like to……you know.”

“I appreciate that, but it’s not necessary.” Kevin had no intention of ever mentioning to anyone what had happened on the bridge.

Stephen studied the man’s face for signs of continuing distress, but Kevin’s expression convinced him that he was calming down and starting to relax. Relieved that the entire episode was over, Stephen worried about whether he’d done enough and if the man would get the help he needed. “Kevin, please, take care of yourself.”

The former warehouse worker responded, “You do the same, and thank you for helping me to see that this was not the way to solve my problem. There is a better answer, and it’s up to me to see it through.”

Stephen extended his right hand and they shook.

As he watched Kevin Mays turn and walk away, Stephen thought he looked like a man who now had a reason to live. Just as importantly, helping someone else to see the value of their life had shown him the value of his. Stephen knew the coming months would still be difficult, but he took solace in the knowledge that, at least on this night, two lives had been saved, and that was enough.

***

The next morning Stephen opened his eyes and was shocked to discover it was 10:30. He hadn’t been sleeping well for months, and it must have caught up with him all at once. When the slumbering fog drifted away, he suddenly remembered the bridge from the night before, but it didn’t seem real. It was more like a disturbing nightmare that jerks you awake and leaves you sweating in the silence of the night. But, thank God, the result was real. He marveled at how two strangers had met under the direst of circumstances and managed to part ways with renewed hope for the future. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Stephen felt profoundly blessed to have been given another day of life.

As always, his thoughts immediately turned to his wife and how much he missed her – but somehow it was now different. He reached over to the nightstand and picked up the framed photo he kept of Tonya next to the bed. As he stared at it, he sensed for the first time that he would find a way to go on without her by his side. Nothing about it would be easy, but something amazing had happened to him on that bridge. Stephen had reached a turning point.

He stretched and was in mid-yawn when he thought again about the other man…… Kevin Mays…… It was a name he would never forget. Their chance meeting had changed everything, and he hoped that when Kevin returned home and embraced his family, he had experienced the same life-affirming tranquility and peace of mind.

Laying back and closing his eyes, the idea of snagging another half-hour of sleep was tempting, but Stephen’s stomach was comically growling at a low roar alerting him that it was overdue for attention. He hadn’t eaten a bite since lunch yesterday, so fixing a hearty breakfast immediately became a top priority.

Hopping out of bed, he hit the bathroom and then headed down the hallway for some much-needed nourishment. On his way to the kitchen, he passed through the living room, stopping long enough to turn on the TV and tune in a cable news channel. He’d always been interested in politics, and before Tonya became ill, he had enjoyed keeping up with the latest developments, but this morning instead of the usual drone of dreary stories, there was breaking news that was garnering extensive coverage. Stephen paid no attention as he continued into the kitchen, popped two slices of bread in the toaster, and got a couple of eggs out of the fridge to scramble.

A minute later, he walked over to switch on the coffee maker and clearly heard the TV news anchor say the unthinkable. “The disgruntled ex-employee entered the warehouse shortly after 8:00 a.m. armed with an AR-15, two handguns, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Firing indiscriminately as he moved through the large building, the suspect killed 29 former co-workers and wounded another 18 before he was confronted by police officer Lee Turner who, even after sustaining a gunshot wound to the chest, continued to exchange fire eventually killing the shooter. Tragically, Officer Turner died at the scene. He was 33 years old and an eight-year veteran of the force. He leaves behind his wife and twin boys age seven.”

Stephen turned off the stove, rushed into the front room, and with his hands shaking, picked up the remote, which he fumbled and dropped on the floor. Swearing, he snatched it up and cranked the volume just in time to hear the dispassionate voice of the anchor deliver the news that would decimate the lives of a devoted wife, a loving son, and two adoring daughters. “The shooter, a 38-year-old white male, has been identified as Kevin Phillip Mays. A long time employee at the large industrial warehouse, Mays was reportedly terminated two days ago for repeated unknown offenses that violated company policy.”

Stephen’s mind reeled in disbelief. He was sure it had to be some kind of mistake – but then a photo of the killer came up on the screen, and he heard himself cry out, “No! Jesus, no! It can’t be him!” But it was. He was staring at the face of the man he had talked down from the bridge.

Stephen’s strength instantly drained away and his legs gave out. Dropping on the couch, waves of nausea turned his stomach as he struggled to comprehend what he’d just seen and heard, but the shock was too extreme to process.

For the next 60 minutes, Stephen hung on every word of the news reports including a live interview with a law enforcement spokesman who lapsed into a grisly detailed description of the AR-15’s lethal ability to shred soft flesh as it tore through tissue and organs, splintering large bones with ferocious power.

The more Stephen watched, the more his soul wept. How could the world have fallen apart so quickly? When he opened his eyes this morning he’d felt better than he had in the last year, but now, less than two hours later, he’d hit rock bottom. Stephen was overwhelmed by the knowledge that he had played a role in unleashing what was now being described as a national tragedy. If he had just stayed home the night before, 30 people would still be alive, and their families would be spared the excruciating grief of burying their loved ones. But Stephen had gone to the bridge, and, although he’d tried to do the right thing when he confronted Kevin Mays, today’s reprehensible carnage was the result.

Completely shattered, Stephen sat and stared vacantly at the TV as the deceased began to be identified. Most of the victims were mothers and fathers with children whose lives would forever be defined by this day. Distraught, he could not comprehend why a man would be willing to give up his family for a murderous act of revenge – and in doing so, deprive other children of a loving parent.

But the man’s twisted reasoning became clear when the news network showed a post that the shooter had left behind on social media.

The message read:

By the grace of God, I’ve been given a second chance in life, and I must take advantage of it. Today the entire country will know who Kevin Mays is. My name will be known far and wide as someone who brought justice to those who wronged me and my family. Those individuals are now going to pay the ultimate price. Today is a day of SUFFERING.

The escalating horror had become too much for Stephen to endure. Unable to watch the heart-wrenching anguish any longer, he shut off the TV and sat in suffocating silence with his breaths coming in short gasps. For the last hour, he’d wondered how he could have missed the tell-tale signs from the night before, but now Stephen recognized that just because he had chosen to live, he should not have assumed that his counterpart had reached the same decision.

The resulting slaughter from that error in judgment broke him psychologically. Stephen now believed he had the blood of innocent people on his hands, and that left him emotionally devastated without the will to go on. As tears began to sting his eyes, he knew there was only one thing left to do.

At 2:00 p.m., Stephen Parker returned to the abandoned bridge. He parked in the same spot and retraced the same path only this time at a much brisker pace. Rushing to his appointment with fate, he was driven by a toxic mixture of guilt and despair that fueled his desire to end the pain once and for all.

Once he got to the bridge, he slowly glanced to his left and right to make sure there was no sign of a good Samaritan coming to talk him down. As expected, he was alone. Climbing up on the steel girders, Stephen supported himself against the stiff breeze and, for a time, stood transfixed with his eyes riveted on the choppy water slapping against the rocks.

Feeling light-headed with a tightening in his chest unlike anything he had ever experienced, Stephen firmly gripped the cross beam with one hand while reaching into his pocket with the other. He found what he was looking for and pulled out a photo of Tonya in her wedding dress. As he gazed at the only woman he had ever loved, she still seemed to radiate a natural beauty that was incandescent. Wanting her face to be the last image he saw in this life, he held her picture up to his lips and tenderly kissed it.

Then he closed his eyes, lifted his face, and let the warm sunshine wash over him one last time.

He was ready.

Without a flicker of hesitation, Stephen Parker released his grip on the cold steel, and in just three heartbeats, eternity began.