It started as a joke.
Something the high school boys would taunt each other with on Friday nights after football games, the buzz of cheap beer cheering them on. They’d pile into a couple of pickups and cruise down the muddy roads outside of town until they took so many turns they weren’t even sure they were going in the right direction anymore. But eventually they’d come to it, wet with the river’s spray and rusted through. The fog rolling up the embankment was wispy and grey and it would stretch its small fingers toward the boys’ ankles as they stepped out onto the grass. They’d stand there for a moment, quietly observing the scene laid before them. It was always the same. A ritual of their small town, handed down from generations.
The bridge, old and broken, loomed out of the darkness like a giant’s skeleton. The twin beams arching over the river were great metal ribs sticking out against the night sky and the broken planks laid like a spine. Dead trees lined the riverbed and spindly branches tangled overhead. Even in summertime, it was cold and damp and quiet.
A fleeting moment of silence before one of the boys, the unspoken king, would clear his throat and step forward before the group, his arms outstretched. It was always the same slurred speech, full of false bravado and teenage testosterone, to brag about the conquests of those that had come before and then belittle the many who had failed. The imaginary crown would be passed around from victor to victor, these few champions who had prevailed against the yet-unknown foe. They had been football captains and basketball legends, the stuff of local legends, and all had gone on to do many splendored things.
“And to join their ranks, all you have to do is stand up there,” a white finger would point to the rusted railing on the south side, “and face the water. Eyes closed. For three minutes.” A murmur would slip through the group as the untested among them would squint from bridge to river, trying to calculate the drop and the likelihood of this ending badly.
“That’s where she died,” the king would say, the story now rolling from his lips unchanged from generations past. “A hundred years ago, a little girl had been playing in the pasture beside her house when a coyote showed up and chased her down here to the river. She ran onto the bridge and climbed the railing, trying to get out if its reach, when she slipped and fell. As she fell, the ribbons on her dress caught something and she hanged herself. It was slow. The coroner said she scratched herself bloody trying to get loose before she finally died.” Another murmur.
“The crows got to her before anybody found her, and the birds weren’t happy when the cops tried to cut her down. One of the cops lost an eye before the day was done. It’s said that she haunts the bridge to this day,” the boy king would now say, pausing for dramatic effect. And, on cue, the group before him would shuffle nervously and their wide eyes would dart to the darkened treeline and churning waters.
“People have reported seeing a little girl running barefoot down the riverbed and disappearing under the bridge, have slammed their brakes because they swear they saw a little girl on the railing only to watch her fall and vanish. Someone got out of their car once convinced it was a real girl and when he leaned over the railing to try and help her, she wasn’t there. But before he could straighten himself out and turn around, she was behind him and pushed him over. He would have died if the river hadn’t been running high that night. Up to that point, everybody assumed she was just a sad little girl stuck in her own death loop, cursed to replay that day over and over again. But then she pushed that old man and they knew it was something else. Somethin’ dark. Some people say she’s looking for revenge, that she wants someone to feel what she felt and to suffer like she suffered. Other people say she’s just lookin’ for a friend to join her in the afterlife. That she’s lonely. Whatever it is, they all agree that she’s here.” Now the king would turn back to his peers and spread his arms wide once more.
“Who’s brave enough to face her?”
Inevitably, one after another would step forward with a chalk-white face and climb up on the railing, their hands shaking and their feet leaden. They’d balance on the steel beam and ball their fists at their sides, eyes closed. The river would swirl and churn thirty feet below, the water black and bubbling. Seconds would tick by, and the boys on the riverbank would shout out the minute marks if they came around. But time and time again, the test was failed.
A stick would break in the woods and their eyes would snap open. Sullen, they’d hop down and the king would holler for the next one.
The caw of a crow would echo through the valley and they’d chicken out and fumble backward onto the rotten planks, adamant that they had felt small hands on the small of their back.
The boy king would laugh and usher them back into the group with a smile and a fresh beer, congratulating them on the attempt. This was all in good fun, after all, and the tradition had continued.
But then, one night not-so-long ago… The story changed.
It was winter homecoming night, and the boys were bolstered by a win on the football field and from dancing with their pretty dates earlier that evening. Their suit jackets lay discarded in the truck beds and their ties were loosened. The night air was electric, and they barely felt the cold.
But just like before, one by one, the boys failed the test. Eventually, the only one left was the smallest boy. He was skinny and short, new to town and to the group. He walked the bridge like a soldier marching to battle, his muddy boots thumping rhythmically on the wooden boards. His face was serious and determined as he quickly clambered up the railing and took his place on the beam. A single deep breath as he closed his eyes.
Seconds slipped by, and then the group shouted “ONE.”
He wobbled, but kept his footing and his eyes screwed tight.
“TWO,” came the chorus below, the tension rising as the finish line ticked into sight.
An eternity later, the group erupted.
The boy opened his eyes, surprise and elation spreading across his face. He lifted a triumphant fist into the air and howled in celebration, and the group below on the banks howled too, their drinks raised in a toast. The champion turned his back to the group to climb back down, but stopped mid-crouch.
A choked scream filled the air, and the group froze.
In an instant, their great champion had pitched backwards and was falling headfirst off the railing. In horror, the boys watched him plummet toward the icy water, some of them tripping over themselves to rush forward and do something to save him or break his fall.
But before they knew what was happening or what to do, it was over. His necktie caught on a piece of busted steel and stopped his fall. The dull snap of his broken neck fell onto the group below like an avalanche. Everything else in the world was blotted out in that moment. No moon, no stars, their hearts pounded in their ears and their breaths caught in their chests. They couldn’t see anything but his limp body swinging in the stinging, silent wind.
Somewhere up the river, a coyote howled. They didn’t hear it.
Somewhere on the bridge, a little girl stood smiling. They didn’t see her.