From the author: Otto's ghosts are more real than most, and are dangerous even though they only want to love him.
Otto froze, one hand splayed on the fire brigade’s new gasoline truck. The woman perched outside the bridge railing leveled him a knowing smile.
His stomach curdled. Not like Anna! He stretched his hand towards the unknown woman.
She jumped. Her long woolen skirts flared outwards in the November winds as she fell backwards to the Maumee River below. Her eyes blazed—victory!—before her mouth opened in an ‘O’ of dismay.
Otto surged to the rail, leaning to see the splash rising from the gelid gray water. The woman surfaced, flailed, and sank again.
Time stretched. His sister Anna had jumped from this very bridge; her laughter as they’d raced and bumped through childhood together, her lovely blonde braids flapping before him. His father’s deep, warm baritone; the waters had claimed him so long ago that Otto couldn’t recall Father’s face. Only his voice remained. And Oma, Father’s mother–strange, how the dry-memories came in reverse order from the water-memories.
“That dame just jumped!”
“Look! There she is!”
The onlookers’ shouts broke Otto’s trance. The woman surfaced, pale against the gray. Their gazes entangled, her dark eyes wild and desperate. She raised a yearning arm towards him as she sank.
He dropped his fireman’s coat, kicked off his boots–they’d only weigh him down–and stepped over the railing. Otto clung, aiming his drop, trying not to remember.
Anna. Father. Oma.
Anticipation threaded the dread gnawing his gut. His drowned family waited below. It would be so simple to remain with them, which is what any family wanted. Would that be so bad?
His hands shook. No, they’d had the melancholia, not him. He missed them, but it hadn’t come to that.
He stared at the water, gulping cold air like a landed fish.
“You don’t have to do this!” His captain shouted over the wind. He left unsaid that Otto had gone in after all three of Toledo’s bridge jumpers in the two years since joining the brigade.
Otto shivered. The wind cut through him without his heavy fireman’s mantle. Was the melancholia driving him to this?
No. Saving people is what firemen did. Even if it meant jumping into deep water.
Otto’s shivering ceased as his fear hardened into resolve. He shouted back, “But I do.”
He flung his arms wide to slow his descent, and jumped.
As he punctured the water, cold knifed the breath from his lungs. He surfaced, gasping, his teeth already convulsing into chatter.
“To your right!” a voice shouted from above.
Otto spun, his motions sharp and hard against the frigid waters.
There! Her eyes pleaded as she submerged.
He lunged, angling down after her. Silence and darkness enveloped him as he pushed deeper into the icy cold. He spied his jumper, gracefully flowing with the currents tugging them towards Lake Erie, her long hair furling and unfurling like dark wraiths.
Otto grabbed her arm.
Her eyes flew wide. From her opened mouth, air bubbles floated upwards. She struggled, weak from cold.
Otto held on. He kicked sharply, dragging her towards the brighter surface waters. Still she fought. He twisted, grabbed her from behind, around her waist, and surged upwards, towards the surface before the cold sapped his remaining strength.
He cast a glance to the murky depths, regretting his family’s absence even as he struggled away.
The familiar chiming rose, engulfing Otto in a song of such glorious warmth and brilliance that his scissoring feet stilled to better hear it.
Part of him screamed, “Swim! Kick—now!”
But his grandmother’s voice, gruff yet sweet, crooned a song from the old country. He didn’t know the words, and he’d never met Oma Bertha, who’d ended her life in the Rhein River long before he’d been born. But Otto knew her love as it warmed him. Blood called to blood, here in the waters near Death.
His father’s deep baritone joined, beckoning and gentle. Father drowned in Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River when Otto had been seven—another victim of the family melancholia. His death forced the family to Toledo, where Otto and his sister had grown up in their uncle’s dry house. Now, hearing Father’s voice lifted in song, Otto knew the abiding love of the father whose presence he’d ached for. His eyelids drifted shut in the warmth of his father’s loving companionship.
Strongest of all floated his sister’s sweet soprano, haunting and lovely as it swirled from the depths to fill his soul with longing. How he’d missed Anna! His childhood friend and companion, she’d jumped just days before he’d become a fireman. He’d failed her! But her song entangled him like seaweed, like love. She longed for them to be together.
Yearning tugged his soul, replaced aching cold with a soft languor. This is your heritage. You are home—his family’s song called him to lay down his burdens and sorrows, as they had. There was no need for painful remembrances.
Shudders convulsed Otto. He opened his mouth to call for his sister, to hug her to himself and never leave her side again—“Anna”—but the word was distorted by an air bubble that swelled inside his opened mouth. By his thick and clumsy tongue.
Something bumped his chest. A woman floated in his arms.
Not Anna; unbound dark hair rose in weightlessness tangles.
Who was this? The question plagued him. He must answer it before he rested.
But it was peaceful here, in the dark. He no longer felt cold. Heaviness tugged his eyelids down as lassitude stole over him. When he awoke, he’d join his family’s song. Water was his heritage. There was nothing to fear.
He’d seen fear in this woman’s eyes. Fear as she’d… jumped… off the bridge. Fear that she’d succeeded.
Otto jackknifed straight. Not him! Never him. He would save her, not help her die.
He yanked the woman to his chest and forced his stiff legs to kick.
Hurt blazed throughout his body. His lungs screamed with pressure to inhale, and his tightly-clenched body attenuated his motions to near-useless. He shoved it all aside and focused on the surface. He was a trained fireman. He could do this. Saving people—that is what he chose. It would be a new family heritage. He anchored his will to the thought and let it pull him up like a buoy.
A shock of cold wind abraded his face, and air burned his esophagus and lungs. Arms grabbed the woman, then drew him into a boat.
When his convulsive shivering finally ceased, there in the hospital, Otto found his captain in the chair beside his bed, compressing his cap over and over in both hands.
“You didn’t have to do it, Otto,” Captain Polonski said again, his expression grave. “Thought we’d lost you this time.”
A violent shudder shook Otto, but this one had nothing to do with temperature. He heard again the voices of his family, so achingly sweet and familiar, calling him to join them. The pain of rejecting them bit sharper than ever.
That lure would never be broken, but it was chained. The melancholia hadn’t come for him. Not yet. He was safe as long as he remembered his life as a fireman, someone who rescued those in need.
Sometimes, that included himself.
Otto stared his captain directly in the eye. “I know you won’t understand, Captain. But if ever I don’t go after them? That’s when you’ve lost me.”
This story originally appeared in Abyss & Apex.