Salt, Chapter Three
Bridget opens up
‘Bridget. What’s wrong?’
Of course he answered. Of course he had to see her like this. Riley seemed startled at the sight of her. She must have looked even worse than she thought.
‘Could you help me fix my bike?’ she asked. ‘It’s parked in my front yard.’
‘Sure,’ he said. ‘You don’t want to sit down for a second first?’ He pointed to the blood dripping from her knee. Before she could answer, he turned and walked into the house. ‘Mum!’ he yelled. ‘Where’s the first aid kit?’
Riley sat Bridget down on the sofa in the living room. She could hear his mum bounding up the back stairs and entering the house.
She raised her eyebrows when she saw Bridget. ‘What happened?’
‘She fell off her bike,’ Riley explained.
‘Don’t worry, we’ll fix you up in no time.’ Riley’s mother pulled the first aid kit out from underneath the sink. She passed supplies to Riley, who opened the antiseptic to put on Bridget’s knees.
‘This might hurt a little bit,’ he warned.
Bridget scrunched up her hands into fists. ‘It’s okay.’
His mother insisted she stay to eat. She loaded up Bridget’s plate with sausages, potatoes and salad.
Bridget took a seat on the edge of the fire. She watched the flames dance as they scratched at the air. Riley sat opposite her, sheltered by the blaze. The way it flickered meant that Bridget caught occasional glimpses of him lit up in the darkness. If she asked him to take care of her, would he? She didn’t know if he forgave her. He still smiled, but she wasn’t sure if it was for her.
‘Bridge, do you want to go get ice-cream tomorrow?’ The words echoed in her ears. Bridget was sitting on the edge of a pool, her legs dangling carelessly in the water. It was the last summer she was here. Riley was beside her. They were at a party with all their friends but it felt like the world belonged to them.
‘Sure,’ she said. ‘Why are you asking? We get ice-cream all the time.’
He blushed and she watched as he chose his next words very carefully. ‘I meant just the two of us.’
‘Oh.’ The realisation of what he was saying felt warm spreading from her heart to fill the rest of her body. She hadn’t imagined the stolen glances across crowded rooms, the smiles in her direction, the late nights talking. ‘Yes. That sounds great.’
Later that night, her parents had pulled a suitcase out of her cupboard and the heart out of her chest.
Of course, she had thought that was heartbreak. It felt like the silliest thing in the world when she learned of her mother’s illness.
Perhaps it was possible for different parts of your heart to be broken at the same time.
The next day, bandaids stuck to her wounds, Riley came over to have a look at her bike. Bridget held it upright using her elbows while he clicked the chain back into place.
‘Alright.’ Riley wiped the grease off his hands and rinsed them under the tap. ‘Do you want to give it a go?’
‘Okay.’ Bridget wheeled her bike onto the street. She took a deep breath, swung her leg over the seat and pushed off the ground. Her feet found the pedals and she spun them round and round. ‘It’s working!’
Riley threw his arms into the air. ‘Huzzah!’
They rode together along the foreshore further down the beach than Bridget had ever been before. The sun was just starting to dip beneath the clouds. Eventually, Riley pulled over to the side of the road and parked his bike by the boardwalk. Bridget did the same. They sat on the edge of the boardwalk, the ocean licking their toes. She couldn’t afford to mince her words anymore.
‘I’m sorry I left without saying goodbye.’
Riley shook his head. ‘I wasn’t sure if you were ever coming back.’
The sun burst through the clouds into a thousand shades of pink. Bridget peeled the bandaids off her hands and climbed down the railing into the water. She slowly lowered her hands into the ocean, letting the water into her wounds. It stung at first, but then she was flooded with relief.
‘If it was my choice, I would never leave this place.’
Please understand me, she thought. Please know that I would never choose to leave you.
The summer sped by and Bridget started to get her favourite person back. Riley showed up at her doorstep one morning with two plastic buckets. They were bright neon colours, clearly meant for those much younger than them, but Bridget grabbed hers anyway and they went down to the beach to catch crabs. He rode into town with her and came back with baskets full of fresh food. His family had hers over for dinner when they couldn’t manage the cooking.
Best of all, he drove her mother to the spot by the boardwalk. She had forgotten it was normal for someone her age to get their learner’s permit.
Bridget got to show her mother the most gorgeous sunset in the world and she was so grateful for that moment. Riley waited by the car, not wanting to interrupt. Bridget squeezed her mother’s hand and marvelled at all the colours in the sky.
Bridget was walking along the beach when she saw him standing in the distance. Staring at the ocean. Just as she liked to do.
‘How’s your mother doing?’ Riley asked.
‘She’s okay,’ Bridget said. ‘Better. She came with us to the supermarket this morning.’
‘That’s such good news!’
‘You’re still not smiling.’
‘How are you doing, Bridget?’ Riley asked. It was those words that made Bridget finally look him in the eye.
She couldn’t remember the last time someone had asked her that.
She cared about her mother. That was where all her energy had gone for months. On the tram, jumping between her school, her house and the hospital. Washing the dishes at night because her dad had fallen asleep on the couch. Hanging up the laundry to make sure that her sports uniform was clean for the carnival that her mother couldn’t come to see. Picking up groceries on her way home from school. Anything that made their lives easier.
She hadn’t even noticed the weight on her shoulders until he offered to lift it.
It all came tumbling out. How worried she was. How she couldn’t even celebrate the good times because she knew the cycle would keep going and they would disappear. How she couldn’t think about anything else. How she didn’t mind helping out around the house but that she felt useless. It wasn’t even going to make a difference.
None of this surprised him. He just nodded along and listened. Like he perfectly understood everything she was saying.
‘I’m terrified of losing her,’ she found herself saying. ‘I’m not supposed to think about it, I’m not even allowed to admit that I’ve considered it. I’m supposed to stay positive. But when I don’t have the strength to do that anymore, I realise that all that’s left is fear.’
‘You and your mum are two of the strongest people I know,’ Riley said.
He didn’t tell her it was all going to be alright.
He didn’t tell her to keep her chin up.
He knew not to lie to her. To say things that he thought she should hear.
He just told her the truth.
They sat on the beach together.
She looked at the ocean, a world of opportunity and promise just before her eyes.
Then she leaned on the shoulder of the boy sitting beside her.
She didn’t need to ask him to take care of her. He did it anyway.