‘Exhale’ by Holly Sandberg

The sky was particularly clear for an autumn night just outside downtown Chicago. City traffic was on the slower side considering it was ten o’ clock on a Thursday night. A majority of people had been home from work for a few hours, had eaten dinner with their families and made themselves cozy inside their homes.

Shaun looked up. There weren’t any stars in the sky. They were masked by the bright skyscraper lights. The skyline always looked best from the Dan Ryan expressway, Shaun thought. But that’s why he was there, standing on the overpass of 35th street. He wanted his last view to be his favorite.

A cool breeze rushed through the air, sending shivers down his spine. He could still hear the small amounts of traffic buzzing below him, but the music of the city streets seemed muffled now. His mind was preoccupied with something else. Focused on the idea, that very soon he will be free from the pain, the anxiety and himself.

Looking down at the concrete, Shaun stepped closer toward a hole in the overpass fence that was originally constructed to keep everyone safe from the edge. Taking a deep breath, he squeezed through the fence to face the city lights, gripping tight with his fingers through the fence links behind him and only his heels connected him to the ground. Closing his eyes, he released the air from deep in his lungs, thinking “this is it, here goes nothing.”

“Excuse me, but are you okay?”

Shaun’s eyes jolted open. Still hanging on, with his back to the fence, he looked over his right shoulder. An elderly gentleman stands looking at him with eyes wide. In his left hand he’s holding a leash connected to a scraggly mutt who was sitting at his feet. The man was much shorter than Shaun and wore khakis and a dark blue sweater. Shaun continued looking at him in shock.

“Are you alright?” the old man repeated.

“Does it look like I’m alright?!” Shaun snapped at him, tears welling up behind his eyes. “What the fuck do you care anyway? You don’t even know me!”

“Well…” the old man began, taking a step a little bit closer to Shaun. “My name is Sylvester McCray and this is Willy,” he says gesturing to the mutt. “What’s your name?”

“Shaun Russell,” he mumbled while staring out towards the glowing city lights.

“Nice to meet you, Shaun,” noticing Shaun’s gaze on the skyline he continues, “Sure is a beautiful sight, isn’t it? The way Chicago looks from here. I think Willy likes it too. Whenever we go for a walk, he drags me this way, even when I try to walk a different path. I guess I can’t blame him though, it’s almost too perfect, but I get the feeling that you didn’t just come here for the view…”

Shaun continues staring into the city, focusing on his breathing. He senses that Sylvester is waiting for him to speak, so he does. “No, you’re right. I didn’t just come here for the view,” he admits.

“Talk to me, Shaun. What made you come here?”

Shaun looked over his shoulder again. “Don’t act like you don’t know! I’m here to kill myself!” he sneered.

“That’s not what I mean,” Sylvester went on. “Willy brought me here tonight. What brought you here? What happened?”

For a moment, Shaun let the questions resonate in his head. He understood what Sylvester was asking. Shaun took a deep breath of cool fall air into his lungs and began to release it slowly, hanging his head to his chest. He could feel the cold wire fencing beginning to tear at his fingertips. “I got fired from my job,” he began. “I couldn’t keep up with bills. My wife left me and she took our son and daughter with her. She won’t let me see them…I’ve failed at being a provider, a husband and a father. I’m worthless.”

Sylvester lowered his head, feeling the weight of Shaun’s words hitting his mind, body and soul. He too had lost his job, and consequently lost his wife and daughter when he was in his late thirties. It was a pain like he had never felt in his life. “That doesn’t make you worthless,” he stated now standing next to Shaun with only the hole in the fence between them and Willy laying on the ground beside him.

“What the fuck do you know?” he questioned, sounding defeated. Shaun had lost any energy he had left to be angry. “I have nothing. No purpose. No family. I am alone. I don’t want to live like this. It hurts too much to…” tears began to flood his eyes and run down his face. He leaned forward so the edge of the overpass cut into the arches of his feet, still hanging on.

“I do know,” Sylvester interjected. “I know all too well. I was once in your shoes. Fired from my job of twenty years. Wife left with my four-year-old daughter the second we fell behind on our mortgage…I felt like my world was crumbling beneath my feet. The pain I felt, I thought would never go away. I wanted to give up too.”

“So?” Shaun questioned with tears still streaming down his cheeks, looking down at his feet where his toes hung over the edge. “What’s your point?”

“So you are not alone, Shaun. You don’t have to go through this alone.” Shaun gripped the fence tighter, the wire cut into his skin. He felt tired and cold. “Please come off the ledge. I don’t have all the answers, but I promise you that this is not it,” Sylvester begged.  Shaun continued to hang on in silence. “Please let me help you. Give me the chance to show you that this isn’t the way it has to be. I am here to help you.” Sylvester forced his hand through the hole in the fence ripping the sleeve of his sweater. Shaun was no longer crying, but shaking uncontrollably. “Please, Shaun, take my hand.”

Shaun studied the expressway below, cars zipping by underneath him, unsure. “Please,” Sylvester requested again, prompting Shaun to look at his extended hand. “You can’t turn back if you let go.”

After a brief moment of contemplation, Shaun decided to take his hand. Sylvester yanked him back through the hole to solid ground and pulled him into an embrace, and whispered to Shaun, “Thank you. I won’t let you go through this alone.” And in that instant, for the first time in a long while, Shaun felt a glimmer of hope.

This story was written in hopes of shining some light on Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month. If you are ever feeling like there is no more hope, don’t be afraid or ashamed to seek help.

Please don’t hesitate to call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255

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