|Note: This story is a part of a larger series of short stories and flash fiction. You can find these stories on the Oubliette home page.|
(October 22, 2016)
A gray older model truck slowly navigated down a forgotten gravel road somewhere in southern West Virginia. The vehicle groaned and creaked as its dented and muddy body scraped on multi-hued branches of autumn bushes and trees. Sam, the driver, concentrated as the vehicle lurched when wheels found deep ruts. Denise, his passenger sitting next to him, stared at her glowing cell phone. She wrestled with intermittent reception and the jerking motion of the truck.
Three other passengers sat in the bed. Jake and Angela braced themselves in each other’s arms the best they could even then they tossed about like unsecured cargo. Frustrated, Jake thumped on the back window and shouted at Sam to take it easy. Profanity was the response but nobody heard it over the scratching and screeching. François (who went by Frank when came to America) sat quietly and watched the scenery surrounding them despite the rough ride.
After traveling another 15 minutes on what seems like the backbone of some long-forgotten monster, the truck came to a stop at an old railway bridge spanning the Green Springs river. The decaying concrete support pillar that rose from the depths of the river featured pock marks. Trees growing among the girders of the old steel truss bridge told a story of decades of disuse. Sam put the truck in park and turned it off but kept the lights on.
Sam climbed out of the truck and stretched. His passengers followed his lead and did the same as if they followed an unwritten rule as each of them took a turn. They gathered around the driver side door. Jake carried a bulky cooler that rattled as it moved. Denise poked at her cell phone and frowned. She wore a letterman’s jacket that featured Sam’s name in gold stitching. She signed in resignation, turned it off, and placed it in her back pocket.
Sam presented himself to the group and boldly proclaimed, “We are here.”
“Just where is here?” questioned Denise.
Sam made a grandiose gesture by sweeping his arms in the direction of the bridge, “We are at the old Spartan Hills railway bridge.”
Jake chuckled and sat the cooler next to Angela. She took his hand and smiled at him. Frank glanced at them as he joined Sam and Denise by the bridge to find a place to sit. When Frank was out of earshot, Jake put his lips near her ear.
He whispered, “Did you have to bring Frenchie?”
Angela rolled her eyes and sighed, “Yes. Mom and Dad wouldn’t let me come without him. It was Dad’s idea.”
Jake brought his lips close to Angela’s neck to where they just barely touched, “Too bad. That’s going to make things more difficult.”
Angela shook off a chill and pushed him away, “Maybe we’ll figure something out.”
Jake hefted the cooler and its contents rattled. They joined the others at the bridge who sat on makeshift seating left by previous visitors to the old bridge. Jake slammed the cooler on the ground and its icy contents thumped and rattled. Angela found a log and noticed a worn and faded carving spelling “Pete 2012” on it as she sat. Jake stood over the cooler as he opened it. He reached into the ice water, found a pair of red and white cans, and pulled them out.
Jake tossed one of the cans to Sam who caught it between his body and the crook of his elbow. The other can went flying at Frank who tried to grab it one handed. The beer can slipped from his fingers; deflecting it upwards. It landed safely in the cradle of his arms. Sam applauded.
“Nice catch. Maybe you can play real football.”
Frank gave Sam a side-eyed glance. He knew Sam was trying to start trouble and he was not going to play along this time. He secured his finger under the tab and with a hissing noise it opened. He drank foul liquid from it and as if it was instinct, his face scrunched up in disgust. He frowned as he examined the can.
“Is zis what Americans do? Go out in ze middle of woods and drink orse urine?”
Everybody laughed except Jake who finished handing Denise a beer and joined Angela on the log.
He shrugged, “They don’t carry Perrier at the liquor store.”
Angela added, “We’re not old enough to buy beer let alone drink it. That’s why we came out here. You can thank Jake’s brother for the ‘horse piss.’”
Jake nodded at Sam and asked, “Why are we here?”
Sam grinned widely and said, “I am glad you asked.”
He looked at Denise and asked, “Can you hold my beer?”
Denise took the can as Sam pulled a flashlight from his pocket. Using the flashlight, he illuminated the top girder nearest to the group. The light revealed the numerals “1902” engraved in the metal.
Sam began, “This is the old Spartan Hills railway bridge. As you can see, it was built in 1902. It might look like an ordinary bridge but it hides secrets that circulated briefly after it was built. One of the workers said that somebody, probably another worker, died here. Instead of taking him back to Spartan Hills, they buried him in that concrete support.”
Sam pointed the flash light at the lone pillar. Shadows danced about it as Sam held the light to it with an unsteady hand. After making his point, he walked closer to the bridge. His footsteps made crunching and cracking noises.
He continued, “However, the worker’s ghost is restless and they say that on some nights much like tonight, you can see him walking along the bridge. They also say that you don’t want to let him catch you because you will die under mysterious circumstances… and get this…”
He pulled back some weeds. They rustled and snapped as they moved to reveal a rusted girder. Sam pointed the light at the girder. The light exposed a series of marks in the girder. Each of them was about an inch in length and arranged in a neat line. The rust suggested that some scratches were older than others.
“See those marks? Every time the ghost kills somebody, he makes a scratch as a sort of grisly trophy.”
At that moment, there was a scream and everyone jumped including Sam. Angela stood and stared trembling with wide eyes at Jake. He smiled with a grin much like the Cheshire cat. In one hand, he held a foxtail that he rolled between two fingers. Angela’s expression changed to a nasty scowl. She thrust her finger at him.
“You son of a bitch!”
Jake laughed at her, “Leave my mom out of it.”
Angela snorted and joined Denise sitting on the log and whispered, “God, I hate Halloween,” to her.
Jake glanced at Sam who chuckled at him. Sam took a seat on the ground next to Denise. He leaned back and used the log as a support. He took a drink from his beer as Angela and Denise began talking. Dejected, Jake took a drink from his beer and struck up a conversation with Sam.
Frank watched the group as they resumed talking and drinking. Nobody offered to talk to him and he just sat there sipping from his poor excuse of an alcoholic beverage. He had only been in the United States for four months living with Angela’s family.
He found it hard making friends at the school especially when people learned he was from France. Somebody once called him a “cheese eating surrender monkey.” One of the teachers tried to help him by telling him it was because of the upcoming election. The teacher explained that some people were being nasty because of it and things will go back to normal in a month.
Regardless, he was lonely and wished for this school year to end so he could go back home. He did not even want to go on this trip with this group. The only reason he came was that Angela’s father insisted that she invite him. Frank rolled his eyes because he was confident there was an ulterior motive.
As he sat there, lost in thought, he caught something in the corner of his eye. He thought he saw someone standing at the tree line. When he turned his head, he did not see anything. His eyes searched the woods and all he saw was darkness and trees. He stood up and walked towards where he thought he saw it. As he approached, twigs snapped and leaves rustled under his feet. Other than trees and brush, he did not find anything but it was quiet. The only noise he heard was the others talking. There were no sounds of animals or insects.
“Hey, Frenchie. What’s up?” shouted Jake.
Frank frowned slightly and responded, “I zought I saw somezing or someone standing ere.”
Everybody became silent and looked at each other and then to Sam who shrugged and shook his head.
Jake grinned, “I think I might know what you saw.”
Jake stood and joined Frank who turned around and watched him as he approached.
Jake stated, “Yeah, it might have been a snipe. They are small ground dwelling birds that live around here. My dad said that they like to nest in this area.”
Frank had a furrowed brow and turned his attention to Angela who frowned and Denise who sat next to her with her hand over her mouth. Just as Frank was about to say something, Sam interrupted.
“It might have been a snipe. They’re easy to catch and they are good to eat; pretty close to squab.”
“I am sure zis was not a small bird.”
Jake looked at him. “Okay, you can still go hunting for them.”
“In the dark?”
“Best time to catch them because they are not as active.”
Jake pulled a cloth shopping bag from his pocket and offered it to Frank. He reluctantly accepted it.
“You will need to make a clucking sound to attract them.”
“Why would I want to hunt snipes?” asked Frank as he looked at Jake through narrowed eyes.
“It’s American gourmet cooking!” exclaimed Jake.
“American gourmet cooking? Is zat what you call an oxymoron?”
Jake looked at him, “You guys eat snails.”
Sam shouted to add, “Aw come on man, have some faith. It’s similar to your… uh… coco van.”
Frank stood there studying Jake and glanced at the others. Angela had a neutral expression and Denise wore a slight smirk. His instinct told him that he should not trust them but watching the others drink beer and talk bored him. Plus, it gave him a reason to be by himself.
“Give me a flash light, please.”
Jake motioned to Sam who tossed his flash light to him. Jake handed the flashlight to Frank. Frank used the flashlight and scanned the area for footprints. After seeing none, he walked further into the woods. The leaves on the ground under the tree canopy were wet. They made his trek difficult and the occasional snapping of a twig made him wince. It was still quiet but he concluded it was due to the downward change of temperature. Also, if there were little flightless birds in these woods, he just scared them off.
He came to a gully. He turned to look back in the direction of the bridge. The others resumed drinking, talking, and laughing. Angela sat next to Jake and they cuddled on that log. He saw Sam squatting in the middle of the group and determined he was trying to light a fire. Frank sighed and descended into the darkened ravine.
At the bottom, he used the light to explore the area. He did not see any birds. He shrugged and decided to give Jake’s suggestion a try. He began clucking but the only thing it accomplished was to make him feel like a fool.
He heard a twig snap behind him causing the hair on the back of his neck to stand on end. He slowly glanced over his shoulder; there was something there. He turned around with a single movement to face it. He barely saw it in the darkness of the woods but it was a silhouette with shimmering gold eyes. It stood there motionless. It carried what appeared to be an old railway lantern. The shadow stared at him.
The scream came from the woods. Everybody froze and stared at each other. Jake jumped up on the log and looked in the direction that Frank took in the woods. As Sam waited for an explanation from Jake, his fledgling fire died.
“I don’t see him,” Jake said with uncertainty in his voice.
Jake and Sam took off running into the woods at the same time. Angela and Denise heard them shouting for Frank along with the swirling of leaves and the snapping of branches as they searched in the darkness. The sounded ended with Sam saying that he found Frank and called for help. Angela and Denise rose and ran to join them.
When they found the guys, Angela and Denise saw Sam and Jake with Frank. Sam had the flash light and pointed it at Frank. Frank laid on the ground motionless with his eyes closed but his mouth was wide open. Jake knelt next to him and shook him. There was no response. He looked at Sam and back at Frank. He leaned his ear close to Frank’s mouth.
Without warning, Frank sat up and howled as loud as he could. Everybody jumped and Denise gave a quick scream. Jake crab-crawled from Frank as fast as possible in that position. He stopped and sat on the ground after he realized there was no danger. Everyone stared at Frank who was now laughing hard at them. He shot a glance at Jake.
“Nique ta mère! You not zink I would not recognize a dahut unt?”
Frank stood up and brushed the leaves from his jacket and jeans. He climbed to the top of the gully as everyone just stood there. He turned around and motioned for them to follow.
“Come on, we have orse piss to drink.”
Denise and Angela turned and watched him swagger towards the bridge.
“What just happened?” Denise whispered to Angela.
Angela looked down at the guys climbing out of the ravine and back at Denise.
She whispered, “Frank made Jake pee his pants?”
Denise chuckled softly, “Do you know what he said?”
Angela shook her head, “I don’t know. I’m sure it wasn’t nice.”
(January 22, 2017)
A new season began followed by a new year. After a fresh snowfall, a pair of snowmobiles raced across an open field towards a wooded area. As snow flew from the rears of the vehicles, they left a trail like a pair of scars on an otherwise unblemished white meadow. As they reached the trees, they changed direction following the tree line until they came to a snow-covered dirt road that twisted through the woods. The road reached the Green Springs river and began to follow it. After a short jaunt, they came to an old derelict foot bridge where they stopped.
Both drivers killed the engines of their snowmobiles. Denise and Angela, the passengers, disembarked and took off their helmets. Sam took his helmet off and sat it on his snowmobile. Frank, who did not wear a helmet, walked and stood next to Sam.
Sam pointed down the road that continued along the river and through snow-covered trees, “About a mile that way is the abandoned Steele-Johnson coal mine.”
“How do you know where to find zese places?”
“My grandfather takes me hunting and he tells me about them.”
“He sounds like an interesting man.”
Sam smiled, “Yes, he is.”
Frank nodded at the bridge, “What about zat?”
“There is an abandoned mining town over there. Everybody left when they closed the mine. Can you give me a moment, I want to check it out?”
As Sam walked to the bridge, Frank went back to his snowmobile and opened a small cooler. A couple pairs of beer cans and a couple sandwiches rested in it. He took one of the cans and with a fluid motion, he opened it. He took a drink and looked at the can with disappointment.
Angela joined him and took the can from his hand. She took a drink from it and give it back to him. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and they smiled at each other. Their lips touched and they kissed between childish giggles.
Frank excused himself and he joined Sam by the bridge. Denise shuffled up to Angela and looked at her with wide eyes.
“What the hell? You dumped Jake for him?”
Angela beamed, “No… Not really, it just worked out that way. Jake was being too much a jerk.”
“But why him? He is such a dork.”
“He’s changed a lot in the last couple months. He’s on the wrestling team.”
Denise pulled her head back and narrowed her eyes, “Is he the Frank that got into a fight with Roger?”
Angela nodded, “Yes, Roger was angry with him because he almost took his place on the varsity team.”
Denise gasped, “Him? He almost beat Roger? I can’t believe it.”
“I didn’t either until the fight.”
“Then, why the big secret?
“I don’t want my Mom or Dad to know; especially Dad.”
“Hey, can you ask Sam to not tell anybody?”
“Sure. So… Okay, I have to ask. Are French guys good at… French kissing?”
Angela chuckled, “Yes, among other things.”
Denise hesitated and shook her head, “Have you two… you know…”
Angela blushed and broke eye contact with her, “Maybe…”
“Oh, my God! You’re going to have to catch me up later.”
Sam motioned for Denise and Angela to join Frank and him by the bridge. As they walked, they laughed as the snow crunched under their feet. Sam watched them and Frank continued staring at the bridge.
Sam spoke, “Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but we are not going to make it across. The bridge is in worse condition than I expected”
Frank asked without changing his expression, “Is zere anofer way?”
“I don’t know. We would have to go back through the woods and hit the main road and use that bridge. Even if I knew the way, it would take too long.”
“I zink we should try ze bridge.”
“Hell no, I’m not that crazy.”
“Zis is bullshit. I can make it.”
“Maybe if you were Spiderman. Don’t you see the missing boards?”
“I see the holes.”
Frank took another drink from his beer. He knew that Sam was right but the challenge called to him. Just like nobody took him seriously when joined the wrestling team. He proved them wrong. He almost won that spot on the varsity team and would have if the coach did not rig it by suspending him from the team for a couple weeks for that fight that Roger started.
He handed his beer to Angela, “Hold my beer, please.”
Frank climbed onto the bridge before Sam or Angela could respond.
“Damn it, don’t be a hero,” warned Sam.
Frank ignored him and bounced up and down. He heard the joists squeak as the bridge reacted. The frame was still sound and he began to walk across the bridge. Sam started to climb on the bridge.
Angela yelled to him, “Frank, don’t! Get down!”
Frank continued down the bridge. He concentrated on keeping his balance as he could feel the bridge sway in the winter wind. Under the snow, he found patches of ice that made the walk more difficult. Sam caught up with him and placed his hand on his shoulder. Frank turned around almost slipped as he faced Sam.
“Come on. Don’t be an asshole.”
“I’m not a surrender monkey.”
Sam took a step back with a wrinkled brow. He shrugged, “Alright, It’s your life.”
Frank turned around and carefully made his way to the first hole. He studied the rest of the bridge. He heard the water running over rocks below and Angela and Denise calling on him to come back. Part of him knew he was being foolish but something compelled him to continue.
He grabbed the supporting cable with his hands and placed his feet on the frame where the boards used to be. He inched his way along the opening. Looking down, he saw the water below rushing over rocks. Half of the way, his foot hit some ice and it slipped. Only by sheer will and fast reflexes kept him from plunging into the river. He heard either Denise or Angela shriek and Sam cursed loudly.
Frank pulled himself up, regained his foothold on the frame, and commenced his quest anew. He heard Angela shouting for him to come back but he had committed to the challenge. When he reached the end of the opening, he placed his feet on the wooden decking and turned to look at the others on the river’s edge. Sam stood at the edge of the bridge staring at him. Denise paced back and forth. She only stopped to check on him. Angela endlessly called for him to turn back.
He stood on the bridge and enjoyed the thrill of making as far as he did. Another opening awaited him but it was not as large as the one he crossed. He waved at the others in triumph. Without any warning, a cracking noise echoed down the river. Frank felt himself falling. A sharp pain shot up his right leg as he hit the shallow water and the rocks underneath.
The rapid current swept him into deeper water before he could react. The rushing water swept his body down to the depths. He experienced a sudden jolt to his body as the icy cold water rushed into his snow suit. He fought not only the river but also the increasing weight of his water-logged suit.
Angela yelled at Denise, “Call 9-1-1! Call 9-1-1!”
“There’s no signal!”
Sam ran along the river on the road the best he could to find Frank in the river. He called out to Frank in desperation. He saw Frank’s body surface near the trunk of a tree that fell in the water. Sam saw him grab a branch and held onto it tightly. Sam slid down the river bank and climbed onto the tree trunk.
“Frank, I’m over here. Climb on the tree.”
Frank looked at him. Sam saw that a combination of shock, pain, and fear on his face. He saw Frank’s struggle as he used the branches of the tree to make his way to the trunk. Frank slowly scooted along the trunk to get closer. When Frank made it to the trunk, he pulled himself out of the water and onto the trunk. He slumped over the trunk like a wet rag on a clothes line.
Sam crawled closer to Frank who reached out his hand. Sam was about to grab his hand when he something black burst from the water. It looked like a black shadow of a deformed hand. Its fingers were long and spindly and ended in talons. Time froze as Sam watched this hand grab Frank’s leg and pulled him back into the icy depths of the river. Sam laid there motionless with his eyes wide open. After what seemed like an eternity, he sat up and searched around the tree desperately calling for Frank.
Further down the river near the Spartan Hills railway bridge, a doe browsed on some plants that poked through the snow-covered brush. She raised her head as if something caught her attention, she looked around the area and her tail flipped hastily. She cautiously stepped closer to the woods without taking her eyes from the bridge. She jumped and bounded through the woods in response to a loud metallic screeching noise that echoed throughout the valley. On the scored girder, a bare metal scratch shined in the waning sunlight.