He walked down the darkened streets on his spindly legs, watching with vague interest as his shadow got stretched out and twisted by the streetlights he passed under. He was dressed nicely, in coattails and a top hat - he wanted to look his best tonight.
It was a nice night, the sort of night that seemed to contain in it some kind of exceptional mystery, an air of anticipation and breathlessness, as though the stars themselves were waiting for something wonderful to happen.
But nothing wonderful would happen that night - not for him, at any rate. He was going to kill himself.
He hummed a tuneless sort of melody as he walked, kicking a pebble and watching it skitter into the gutter. He felt good tonight. He felt right. He felt as though he was finally, finally doing something he was meant to be doing, and, for the first time in months, he felt as though soon he would be complete. It was a good feeling.
He wondered if it was always this peaceful down at rock bottom. Knowing that nothing mattered anymore, that he wouldn't have to wake up in the morning and deal with his broken life, that he wouldn't ever have to feel like a failure again - he was happy. The last thing he would ever see was the bridge, the bridge and the water and the stars, and it would be beautiful.
He stopped walking. The bridge was just a few feet away now, calm and peaceful like it was supposed to be. But there was someone on it.
He continued walking, slower now. He could wait. He had all night. It might even be nice to talk to one more person, someone who didn't know him, didn't judge him.
The boy - for it was a boy, standing alone on the bridge, wearing a leather jacket and smoking a cigarette he was much too young for - glanced over. He tapped his forehead in a mock salute, not bothering to speak.
"What's your name?"
The boy sighed. "John."
"What's your real name?"
A smile, now. "Very perceptive. Just call me John, okay, buddy?" He shot a sidelong look at the man standing next to him. "What's your name, then?"
The man rested his elbows on the cold stone wall of the bridge, thinking for a moment. Then, "Smith," he said. "Call me Smith."
John laughed, the sound bouncing eerily against the water and into the darkness. "Nice to meet you, Smith. I like your hat."
The man tilted his head curiously - this boy was young, trapped in that painful, stretched-out moment between childhood and adolescence. And while the man was at peace, his broken life left behind him, the boy was not. Despite his stillness, despite his steady breathing and his casual speech, John looked like he might shatter at any minute - like his blood was boiling in his veins, like his fingers might shred anything they touched. Like he was just barely stopping himself from screaming.
The boy glanced up at Smith and proffered the half-smoked cigarette in his hand. "It's my last one. I'll share."
"You're too young to be smoking."
John snorted and withdrew his hand. "Fine," he muttered. "I won't share."
Smith reached for the cigarette, sighing. He took a puff and watched the smoke drift into the darkness, twisting in his breath.
They stood there in silence for some time, passing the cigarette back and forth. The icy wind shoved its way through them. John shivered.
"Here," Smith murmured. He tugged off his jacket and handed it to the young boy.
Silence again. Then, "Where you coming from, anyway? Must have been some party. Don't see many people in top hats."
Smith smiled wryly. "I'm not coming from anywhere special."
"Oh." John blew his bangs out of his eyes. "Going somewhere special, then?"
"You could say that."
Smith looked at the boy standing next to him. He was shaking, his hands clenched into worried fists and his face set determinedly in a nonchalant expression.
"Hey," Smith said softly. "Are you okay?"
The boy swallowed. Smiled. "Sure."
The lie in that single word rang out so clearly that neither of them felt the need to acknowledge it. Instead, John just laughed quietly, shaking his head and looking down at his hands.
"Oh," he whispered, drawing out the syllable as long as he could. "Oh. No." He laughed again, a slightly desperate sound. "I was gonna jump, you know."
Smith looked up sharply. "What?"
"Yeah. Before you came. I was smoking my last smoke and then..." He sighed, and said softly, "Do you have any idea what it's like to be falling apart and have no one even realize it?"
Smith nodded slowly, but the boy wasn't looking.
There was nothing but silence then, for hours. No one felt the need to say anything else, but they didn't feel the need to leave, either. They just stood - and then sat, on the cold pavement - basking in the knowledge that, just for the night, they weren't lost and alone.
The sky was tinged with pink.
"Well," said John, stretching like a cat, "guess I'd better get going. Wanna be back in bed before everyone wakes up."
"Oh, yeah. Here's your jacket. Thanks."
"No. Just..." Smith rubbed his tired eyes and bit his lip. "Just... I'm sure there are people that care about you--"
John snorted. "Don't give me that."
Smith nodded, sighing. "I just mean... Sometimes... Sometimes the hardest thing in the world is just to wake up. And not everyone understands that. People think that if you're not getting lots of things done, if you're not matching up with everyone else, you're a failure. What they don't see is how hard you're fucking fighting everyday just to keep going. But just because they can't see that fight doesn't mean it's not happening, and it doesn't mean you're not brave, and it doesn't mean you can't fucking win. Because you can."
"Not everyone understands. But there are people who do. There are people who can appreciate just how hard you're fighting. And frankly..." Smith sniffed. "Well, frankly I'd be really upset if tomorrow you disappeared off the face of the earth. You seem like a good kid. Maybe your life has more of a reason than you can understand right now."
The young boy was standing perfectly still. And just for one moment, his face was completely open, completely vulnerable, completely bare. He whispered a word that might have been thanks, and then he turned to leave.
"Wait," said Smith again.
The boy turned.
"Tell me your real name."
John grinned and shook his head.
"Please? At least give me a hint."
John raised an eyebrow. Then he leaned forward and said confidingly, "It begins with a J."
And then he was gone.
Smith stood under the slowly lightening sky, and he gazed down at the water. Then he put his jacket on and went home.
He often told his children, later, about the winter night he stood on a bridge and shared a cigarette with a boy in a leather jacket - a boy whose name began with J, a boy who fought to get through the day, a boy who, without even realizing it, had saved his life that night.