“I’ve got an extra sauce. I think it says “Pollyanna” on it. Do you want it?”
Jude looked up from his chicken nuggets. He still couldn’t believe he was eating this legendary food for the first time. “Maybe the only time,” he thought glumly.
The speaker was a tall, bespectacled girl whose overactive fingers hinted at nervous energy.
Jude shrugged. “Sure.”
The girl handed him the Chick-fil-A sauce packet. “I’m Rivka. What’s your name?”
Rivka smiled. “It’s nice to meet you, Jude.”
A stray dodgeball walloped Jude, sending his four remaining nuggets spiraling through the air and then down onto the concrete.
“Watch where you’re throwing!” Jude kicked the ground in frustration and then scrambled to pick up the nuggets and put them back in the carton.
Rivka reached down to grab his overturned honey mustard packet oozing onto the pavement. “Should I throw it away, do you think?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
As Rivka walked toward the dumpster, Jude blew on his nuggets, hoping to scare away any dirt or deadly diseases.
Rivka giggled as she looked back at him. “So, um, Jude, how long have you been here? I don’t remember seeing you before this week.”
“Well, uh, yeah, it was this week. My mom just passed away—I mean, she died—so, um, now I’m here. It was cancer.”
Rivka nodded sympathetically.
“And my dad died the day before my second birthday. I don’t remember him. My mom said it was a work accident. The crane had a malfunction and, uh, he was standing underneath.”
Jude looked down at his greasy fingers. “What do you say when you don’t know what to say?” he thought. “I guess she must have lost her parents too. Maybe she understands.”
“I’ve been here since I was four and a half. The people here are my family now. I mean, most of them are nice. Maybe not a real family, I guess. But they’re pretty nice.” Rivka lowered her voice. “Except for, well, a few of them. But I’ll tell you about those ones later so you’ll know. But I have to go help my friend with her homework. She’s not very good at math, but I don’t tell her that. See you later, Jude!”
As she ran, Jude shouted after her. “Thanks for the sauce! Bye!”
That evening, Jude held a small object up to the light of a cheap bulb, then grabbed a tiny metal box from one of his Walmart bags. Once the object was inside the box, he lifted his thin mattress and gently set the box under it.
Rivka grabbed Jude’s hand. “Do you remember the first time we met? Remember how we were having Chick-fil-A for the first time . . .”
“And Karen knocked my chicken nuggets on the ground with a dodgeball.” Jude laughed. “That was a long time ago. We were, like, eleven, I think.”
“Sounds about right. I was taller than you then. Maybe that’s why you found me intimidating.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Jude reached his arm over her head and spun her around. “I’ve loved you from the moment I set eyes on you, Rivka.”
“Is that so? You sure seemed nervous and uncomfortable that first day.”
Jude sighed in mock despair. “I guess some people just can’t read body language very well. I was clearly taken with you.”
Rivka attempted a dignified English accent. “Indeed, good sir. At any rate, you clearly weren’t paying attention to your surroundings too well, as the dodgeball demonstrated.”
“Surely that strengthens my case.”
Rivka looked at Jude intently. “Are you taken with me now?”
“Well, of course I am. It’s hard to know what exactly to call the feelings I had for you at eleven. I was just a kid. I know I did like you. You were nice.” He thought about the box still under his mattress. “I know exactly how I feel about you now. I love you.”
Rivka took his other hand. “What are you going to do after the thirty-first?”
“The day they let me out of this place? I’m gonna find a good job and save up money for a few months and buy something real special.”
“Oh, you know what it is.”
“What? Really, what?”
Jude hesitated, then drew her close and whispered. “A ring.”
Jude got down on one knee. He could feel the cool metal of the Freedom Bridge through his pant leg. He held up a small box to the sunlight and made eye contact with his girlfriend. “Rivka, will you marry me?”
“Yes, Jude. Forever, yes.”
Jude jumped up and embraced her. He gently slid the ring onto her finger.
Rivka held her hand close to her face to admire the ring.
“You’re holding it awfully close to your face. Can you not see it very well?” Jude laughed.
Rivka breathed uneasily. “Actually, there’s something I’ve been needing to tell you.”
“I went to the eye doctor’s last week, and she said it looks like I’m going blind in both eyes. No one caught it before because I only had an eye inspection once at the orphanage, many years ago. The doctor hopes to stop it, but she’s not sure she can.”
“You should have told me this before, Rivka. You can’t keep secrets from me.”
Rivka was on the verge of tears. “I’m sorry.”
Jude’s face was fuzzier than it used to be, but Rivka thought she could perceive a coldness swallowing his expression.
Jude forced a smile. “Well, uh, let’s go get some engagement photos. A friend of mine agreed to do the photos for me.”
The next day, Jude’s boss motioned him into his office. “Jude, you are a remarkable young man. It’s only been four months, and I can already see you’ll go far in business!”
“How is that, sir?”
“You’ve learned this trade well, impressed the boss.” Mr. Vaughn motioned to himself. “And thoroughly charmed his daughter!”
“What do you mean, sir?”
“You mean you haven’t picked up on the signals she’s been sending you? Why, she’s been crazy about you ever since the three of us had dinner in May. It’s always ‘Jude this’ and ‘Jude that’ and ‘If only he would take more interest in me.’ She said she’s yours for the taking.” He shrugged. “And, if it comes to that, you have my blessing.”
“An orphan who only had Chick-fil-A once growing up—thanks to a random donor—could marry an heiress worth millions of dollars, instead of a blind girl who keeps secrets from me!” Jude thought. “No more uncomfortable mattresses, cheap food, and poor living conditions for me. I’m gonna be rich!”
“Now, Vanessa did say she heard you had a girlfriend or something.”
“Think fast. He can’t know about Rivka,” Jude thought. “That’s just an ex-girlfriend,” he said aloud. “We broke up, uh, a long time ago.” He grinned. “Long before I met your charming daughter.”
Back in his apartment, Jude opened a metal box and pulled out a very old Polynesian sauce packet. He tossed it in the wastebasket. “Don’t need that anymore!”
“I have to get the ring back from Rivka,” he thought. “I’m not wasting five thousand dollars.”
After breakfast, Rivka checked her notifications. A text from Jude! He had been strangely silent since Tuesday.
Even in large print, texts were getting too hard to read. Her phone read aloud, “Hey, Rivka, hope you’re having a good week. I need you to meet me at Waterfall Park at 5:30 today. Make sure to bring the ring. I actually need to take it to the jeweler’s to have the cut looked at. I’m just not sure I’m happy with it. See you tonight!”
Rivka dropped the glass she had been holding in her other hand. It shattered.
She reread the text several times. The red heart emoji Jude had tacked on at the end felt very out of place. “First his reaction about my eyesight and now this,” she thought. “What could possibly be wrong with the cut?”
She sat very quietly for a minute and then tried to call Jude. He didn’t pick up. She didn't expect him to. She pulled the ring from her finger and stared at it.
Late afternoon sunlight found Rivka standing at the center of the Freedom Bridge, leaning against the railing.
The waterfall’s sunset glory seemed strangely dull, and not simply because it was growing fuzzier by the day. Rivka saw herself in the rocks beaten down by crashing water. She found a pebble and watched it fall and disappear in the rushing current.
Rivka laid the ring on her palm. Her right index finger traced its contours. She abruptly stuffed it back into her pocket but then gently shook her head. She pulled out the ring and held it over the railing, clutching it tightly between her thumb and index finger.
She heard a voice shouting indistinctly and made out a figure running toward the bridge.
Jude’s gaze glowered at the ring, willing her hand to preserve it.
Rivka smiled and closed her eyes.
Author’s Note: “Rivka” was inspired by the life story of George Matheson, hymnwriter of “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go.” After Matheson began going blind, his fiancée decided to break off their engagement. Matheson never married.