And then it hit him. Manny sat up in bed and looked at the time on his desk. Under a bridge. Ava had all but confirmed what Manny already figured: if Angel had not gone back to his pimp, then he was homeless. And if he had been beside that gutter stream two days and a night after the frat party, then he might be staying close to campus for some reason. If that was the case, the number of places he might be was significantly narrowed. According to Manny’s internet search, there were no homeless shelters within walking distance. But Ava had mentioned bridges.
There was a bridge within walking distance.
At a little past eleven P.M., the air outside was deathly frigid. A few students were still milling about campus under the bright sidewalk lighting. Manny passed a group of laughing boys close to the UC.
The walk back to that gutter where Manny had seen Angel felt longer than it should. Shivering in the cold and panting on the dry air, Manny found himself wishing he had worn a heavier coat. All he could do was press his hands into his pockets and try not to think about how insane he seemed to be becoming.
Manny’s steps slowed as he came up on the fence-enclosed drain way. But peering into the small patch of scraggly trees and shadow-cast ground revealed nothing. The trickling of water could be heard over the reduced late-night traffic running over the highway bridge. Nonetheless, Manny pulled out his phone and showed his flashlight briefly over the area. Nothing. Only the incessant run of that gutter.
Manny continued towards the bridge. The sounds of traffic grew louder. Every car that passed over the concrete frame seemed to strum the structure like a guitar. Rhythmic rumbling echoed under each set of wheels.
Manny was shivering wildly by the time he stepped under the shadow of the first of the twin bridges that carried the interstate over 12th Avenue. A line of sleeping pigeons met Manny’s eyes when he turned his flashlight beam up at the rafters.
It was disturbingly dark down there. Sloped walls ran up on either side of 12th Avenue, reaching up, then plateauing in small cliffs close to the underside of the bridge. That plateau was where someone would go, if someone decided to live under a bridge, Manny felt certain. But it was hard to see into the dark recesses from the sidewalk.
A car ran under the bridge, rushing past Manny and momentarily blinding him with its headlights. Then it was gone, rumbling away unconcerned.
Manny bit his lip to keep his teeth from chattering. He grasped onto one of the giant pillars supporting the bridge, then started up the sloped wall. It was a little slippery. Manny found it easiest to half-scramble to the top. But when he got to the plateau, all he found was caked-on graffiti and a sense of claustrophobia inspired by the low-hanging ceiling.
He got down again, nervous he had walked through some spiderwebs on the way. Still flicking at his shoulders and hair, Manny crossed the street and headed up the other side. The ceiling here was a little higher. But again, all that met his eyes was layered graffiti, one tag artist overlaying the work of another. “Suck my dick,” was the only legible line on that wall. Shuddering, Manny got down again.
“This is crazy,” he muttered to himself as he crossed the short stretch of open air before entering under the other bridge. “This is stupid and dangerous and pointless. I don’t even know what I’m looking for, or why I’m looking for it, or—”
Manny’s muttering came to an abrupt stop. There was something dark and shadowy perched up on the plateau of the wall on the opposite side from where he stood. It looked rather like a trash bag, but it was big enough to be a person.
What if it’s not the right person? Hand shaking on his phone slightly, Manny crossed the street again. He held up the flashlight beam, trying to get the shaft of light on that dark shape so he could decipher what it was. But the shadows of the rafters kept the thing well-guarded, no matter how Manny angled his phone.
He dropped his phone to his side, letting the beam of light center on the sidewalk for a moment. Several seconds passed, and Manny’s head was filled with the uncomfortable pounding of his heartbeat. I’m too scared to go up there, he realized finally. Hell, I have no idea what that thing is. And maybe I just don’t want to know.
Suddenly feeling completely deterred, Manny turned back the way he had come. But he hesitated, Ava’s words ringing back in his ears. “Struggling to stay alive under a bridge.”
I can outrun a hobo if I have to.
Not if he has a gun.
Manny drew in a slow, careful breath, then lifted his flashlight beam back up towards that shadowy object. He didn’t have to get too close. Only close enough to make sure that shape was not the person he was looking for. Keeping his flashlight beam focused on that thing, Manny started to climb the slanted wall.
This one was more slanted than the others. Manny found himself having to lean over and steady his ascent with his free hand. A dry, dusty smell filled his nostrils as he approached the top. Then, panting, Manny straightened on the incline. Fumbling for his balance for a moment, he shifted the flashlight a little to the left, relieving the shadow that hung over that object.
Manny’s breath fell away like pebbles in a landslide. That thing was not a trash bag. It was indeed a person, and it was undoubtably Angel. There was only one thing off: the beautiful boy was not moving.
Manny scrambled up the rest of the way to the plateau. Angel sat there, hands pressed between curled legs, his hooded head resting against the concrete pillar beside him. His face was downcast, eyes closed. Nothing on him moved. He wasn’t even moving enough to be breathing.
Manny’s nerves flooded with panic. For a moment, all he could do was crouch frozen under the low-hanging ceiling and stare. “Angel.” The word left his throat as a squeak. Why was I so stupid? Why didn’t I come looking here sooner? He’s really dead, isn’t he? Damn it, damn it, damn it, why didn’t I come here sooner?
What had he been waiting for, sitting there silent and still? Someone to find him? Someone to save him? Maybe he had been waiting for death. He could have gone for help. Stopped a car, walked to campus, borrowed someone’s phone and called the police, anything. And yet, he had chosen to sit there.
Frightened tears welled up in Manny’s eyes. He crept closer to that silent figure, inching his way on hands and knees. Regret raked at his heart. It was a splitting sensation, like knives cutting through flesh. Painful, sharp, keen. Not only because Angel was young, not only because Angel was beautiful, and not only because Manny owed it to Angel to care a little.
Manny stretched out a hand, and his fingers contacted the fabric of that thin black jacket. The fabric felt as cold as the air around him. No sign of breath, no sign of life. Feeling tears brimming up against the edges of his eyelids, Manny’s trembling hand closed over that shoulder. “Angel,” he whispered.
And suddenly, the figure moved. A harsh flinch ran through that cold body, and Angel abruptly shook off Manny’s hand. He raised his head, face turning towards the student. A sharp gasp cut the air, and he shrank against the pillar.
Manny was too shocked to move. He stared at the face looking back at him, unsure if he had just witnessed some kind of resurrection or was only looking into the eyes of a ghost.
A car ran past on 12th Avenue, and it seemed to shake Angel out of his surprise. “What the hell do you want?” His voice was harsh, defensive, back still pressed against the concrete pillar.
Manny gaped. He swallowed. Then, “A-Angel—I thought you were dead…”
A new wave of tension seemed to gust over Angel at the sound of his own name. Manny could not make out his expression in the darkness. Flashlight lowered and forgotten, Manny simply stared at the dark shape in front of him.
“Who the hell are you?” The question came with equal aggression, but also a new level of caution.
“I—I’m Emanuel.” Manny swallowed. Suddenly realizing the chances of Angel knowing him by name were rather slim, he quickly elaborated. “My name is Emanuel. We met at the frat party.”
“Fuck’s sake.” Angel slid against the pillar, clearly intending to slip out of his cornered position without getting any closer to Manny.
“Wait, no, please.” As if by instinct, Manny reached out to catch Angel’s shoulder. But when he saw the beautiful boy shy away, he quickly retracted his hand. Then, as if finally realizing his very presence might be threatening to Angel, he moved back several inches.
The gesture seemed successful in gaining Angel’s attention, and he hesitated.
“Angel, please. I—I know you must hate my guts—and w-with good reason.” Manny’s mouth flapped for a few seconds, mind racing for a way to say it. “Look, I—I don’t know how to say this, but I was really, really drunk that night, and I never, never, never would have done any of that had I been thinking clearly. A-actually, I have no idea what I did, Angel, I got blackout drunk and I…I woke up next to you in the morning and had no idea who you were or what had happened—I thought you were a frat boy at first!”
Angel tilted his head slightly, the shadow on his face making it unclear whether the expression was cynical or attentive.
Manny took several quick breaths. “It was awful what happened to you. I—I’m ashamed of what they did, and really, really sorry about what I might have done. Please, you—you don’t have to forgive me, but please let me help you.” Manny glanced stiffly over his shoulder, then glanced around the small space on that plateau under the bridge. “I don’t know if…you’re planning to sleep here…but it’s super cold. It’s warm in my dorm room—or—or a homeless shelter, if you just want me to get you an Uber. Wherever you want to go…” Just not back to your pimp, Manny silently added. Please, please, please, don’t go back to your pimp.
Angel seemed unsure. He sat there still, halfway between leaving and staying, waiting like he thought the decision might come any minute. Then he sighed. “I’ll stay the night in your dorm room under two conditions.”
Damn, his voice is cute, Manny thought distractedly. It was so much softer without the defensiveness. Quiet, almost gentle. “What conditions? A-anything.”
“You won’t tell anyone I’m there,” Angel replied firmly. “Not your friends, not your frat boys, not anyone.”
Manny nodded readily. “I won’t tell anyone.”
“And also.” Angel lifted his face slightly, his chin tilting upward just a little. “You’ll walk ahead of me all the way there. Three feet.”