Under the Bridge: A Short Story (Part 2)
NICHOLAS POPKEY

You can read Part 1 of the story here.

Cassie Drake was working a crossword when the knock came. She looked up from the table, waited, then took her pen and went back to her teeth-tapping. Whoever it was could leave the package on the stoop. But the knock came again.

“You gonna get that?” Jake hollered from the bedroom.

Cassie flared her nostrils. She dealt with every household chore, every late notice, every government aid renewal. Jake did nothing for himself. Cassie took care of everything that didn’t involve selling drugs. And a lot of what did involve them. She sighed, stuck on the last clue anyway, and stood up. Little shocks of pre-migraine ricocheted inside her head. Too much coffee. When she opened the door, a twenty-something girl with elfin blond hair stood behind the screen, alongside a black guy with twisted braids. They looked about the same age and made a nice pair.

“Hi, so sorry to bother you,” the blond said.

Cassie called over her shoulder. “Jaaaaake. People here to see you!”

“Not expecting anyone!” Jake’s voice came back thinly.

“You order food and forget?” Cassie shouted back.

“No… I fucking didn’t!” Jake yelled.

“Actually,” the blond said. “We’re here to see you.”

“If you’re selling salvation I’m not interested,” Cassie said.

“We went to school together. At C-SUN,” the blond said. “You’re Cassie Drake, right?”

“Mmm… don’t remember you, sorry.” Cassie started to shut the door.

“Wait.” The blond stepped forward. “You were in Advocates, right? I remember seeing you there. I’m Georgia. This is Lucas.” Cassie remembered the club — a school-sponsored support group for victims of sexual assault and anyone else who wanted to be an ally. But that was years ago. When she tried to recall the young woman’s face, nothing clicked. Still, she swung the screen door open and stepped forward, slipping a cigarette from the pack in her back pocket and lighting up.

“So,” Cassie said. “C-SUN. Fund-raising?”

“No, no,” Georgia said. “Actually… it’s gonna sound crazy.”

“You’ve got ’til the end of this cigarette.”

“So—” Georgia began.

“It’s a twenty-seven,” Cassie said. “Burns fast.”

Georgia laughed and it didn’t seem fake. Maybe she got it, Cassie thought. Maybe she knew, like Cassie did, that life was a cosmic joke, that nothing mattered except the people close to you. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, and do it fast before somebody makes you quit.

“Like I said, I’m Georgia. This is Lucas. We’re mystics, Wiccans, paranormal detectives, ghost hunters, I promise it’s not a hoax. This is really what we do.”

“No bullshit,” Lucas said.

“And…” Georgia said. “We need your help.”

Cassie’s cigarette was halfway gone. “A reality show? Yeah, this apartment is haunted. Two thousand a day if you want to shoot.”

“No, not a reality show… Reality,” Georgia said, glancing at Lucas, who looked ready to speak but instead cleared his throat.

Jake cracked the door. “What up,” he said.

“Hey man,” Lucas offered his hand. “Lucas. Nice to meet you.”

Jake shook it and looked at Cassie. “What are they selling?”

Cassie took a drag. “Won’t say.”

“I bet this guy smokes weed,” Jake said, grinning at Lucas.

“I’ve been known to dabble,” Lucas said.

Cassie tried to laugh, but it came out lifeless, like the dregs of a can of whipped cream. Jake snickered in that squeaky way he did when he was faking. “Yo…” Jake said. “For real let’s go inside. Y’all look sus out here.” He’d switched to ingratiation mode. New people — new customers. He led them to the living room, dominated by a gaming chair and a full squadron of love seats and beanbags. Recliners yawned and stretched, couches slumped against the walls, and floor pillows filled in the gaps. Underneath it all was a carpet pad as thick as a mattress topper. Everything soft. Even the coffee table was lined with bubble wrap.

“Nice place.” Georgia nodded at the coffee table. “Got a little one?”

Jake laughed again. “Nope. I just… don’t like bumping into it.” He looked at Cassie. “It was a good gift though, really.” Cassie sunk into a beanbag.

“So, y’all together?” Jake asked, slouched in the gaming chair.

“Yeah,” Lucas said, engulfed in a love seat.

“Word,” Jake said. “So what are you guys actually doing here?”

Georgia gave Lucas a searching look. If the elf-lady was phony, at least she dressed the part. She had spooky tattoos and pewter skeleton bones hanging from her earlobes; rings and hoops along the scaffolds of her ears. Cross-legged on a floor pillow, she drew her shoulders back, and the shadows around her green eyes grew darker. She directed them at Cassie. “It’s about your mom. Susan Drake, right?”

Cassie’s heart cracked like a frozen padlock, letting everyone know without a word what the answer was. “First, let me just say how sorry we are,” Georgia said. “For your loss, and also for putting you through this. I wouldn’t bring it up, but your mom needs help. It sounds weird I know, because it is. But I can explain… Lucas and I, we went to the bridge where your mom passed. We… made contact. She… well, her spirit is still there at the bridge. She’s stuck. And she doesn’t know you survived.

“So, we’d like you to come back with us sometime, to the bridge, whenever you’re ready. We think, if you can speak to your mom, if you’re able to, we can help her… help her move on.” The air conditioner droned. Georgia began again. “If you need—”

Jake cut in. “You know how goddamn insane you sound?”

“Shhhh… It’s okay,” Cassie said, eyes fixed on the carpet pattern. “Sorry, it’s not going to happen. You should go.”

Jake stood up. “You heard her. Come on.” He went to hold the door open, and smells from the street rolled in — burnt rubber and a taco truck somewhere down the block. Cassie stared at her shoes until the couple’s car pulled away. Only then did she look at Jake. Chunky tears welled in her bottom lashes but refused to fall, pooling along the rims of her bloodshot eyes. Jake sat next to her, tracing his fingers up and down her back.

Back Alley

Half an hour later, Cassie went down the back steps. The alley spit her out on Catalpa Street, meaning she could get to happy hour without going around the block. A rare summer rain had fallen the night before, but the cigarette butts were dried up like gutter sponges.

A van was parked at the end of the alley. When Cassie tried to squeeze by on the side, the sliding door squealed open. Arms wrapped around her and thrashed her body inside. As she opened her mouth to scream it was packed with something gauzy. She heard duct tape ripping, felt her lips pulled back.

“Shhh,” a grating voice said. A sweaty arm gripped her neck so tightly she could barely breathe. She felt something sharp at her back. “I’ve got a gun.” The voice chuckled. “But I’d rather use the knife. I won’t have to if you stay quiet.” It was definitely a man’s voice. He pinned her arms behind her back, spun her over and jammed the pistol into her chest.

“If you stay quiet, I’ll take the tape off,” he said. The man had yellow teeth and brown eyes so dark they were almost black. All else was hidden by a ski mask over his pointy head, though stringy black hair stuck out beneath the mask. He cocked his head.

“If you make another noise, you’re getting a scar.” He pulled the tape off and Cassie spit out the gag, coughing as she tried to catch her breath.

“Shhh,” the man said, bringing a knife to her throat.

“Please,” she whispered.

“Tell me your name,” the man said.

“Cassie Drake,” she said quietly, and the man withdrew the knife.

After the afternoon glare, Cassie was mostly blinded. In the vague shadows she could see that the back seats were taken out, and furniture blankets hung over the windows. She looked up into the black pools of the man’s eyes and saw her pale reflection. Like a girl stuck at the bottom of a well.

“Cassie Drake?” he asked. “You wouldn’t lie to me?”

Cassie shook her head and pulled back from his sour breath.

“I’ll make this quick,” he said. “The couple that came to your house. What did they want?” She tried to turn, but he pulled her face toward him and bared his jagged teeth. He leaned closer and bit down on her nose. She screamed, and he covered her mouth and slammed her head to the floor.

“Shut up, shut up, shut up,” he said through his teeth. “What did they want? Don’t fucking lie to me or I’ll bite your little nose off.” He took his hand from her mouth.

“They—” She choked on a sob and turned away. “They wanted me to go with them to the suicide bridge… where my mom killed herself. They said her spirit is there, and they need to me to go back and— and… I don’t know!”

He slapped her when her voice rose. “God. I don’t know… I’m sorry,” she sobbed, her mouth pressed to the sticky floor, tasting of metal and gasoline.

“Shhh,” he said. “How did they find you?”

“I don’t know,” Cassie said. But just as she said it, she finally remembered Georgia’s face, turning back to pass her the ‘Intro to Psych’ syllabus, the only class they ever had together. Suddenly, Cassie recalled more and more of Georgia. Her long-suffering scowl, which didn’t always match her mood, her seraphic blond hair offsetting more serious features, the length in her neck — like something from Modigliani, which made Cassie’s round face feel pruned and her brown hair deflated.

Georgia was intimidating even when she didn’t want to be. Maybe that’s why Cassie had forgotten her. She’d been afraid, and replaced Georgia with more pleasant memories. Perhaps the fear burning in the hollows of her bones, the fear stirred up by this man with his black eyes, was so precise, it recalled other fears — other intimidations.

“She must’ve found me online,” Cassie said. “We went to the same school.”

“You’re going with them,” he said.

“What?” She asked.

He laughed, and brought the knife back to her throat. He slid the edge with measured force, just close enough to make her bones ache without actually cutting her. He dragged it all the way behind her ear, where she felt a pinch.

“There,” he said. “You’re doing well, but that’s so you remember. This is bigger than both of us — no fighting it. Go with them. If you don’t, I’ll find you again.” He tucked the knife in his shirt pocket and reached in the front seat for a rag. He wiped the spot behind her ear, showing her the blood. “See? It’s nothing. Now I can let you go, but only after you promise.”

“I promise,” Cassie whimpered.

“Promise what?” Spit flew from his lips.

“To go with them,” she said.

“Good. If we help each other, no one’s getting hurt. But you have to understand, the bridge is not a normal place. Luckily, I know how to protect you there. And after it’s all over, everyone gets to go home.”

Cassie cried quietly, tears blurring her vision.

“I’m a criminal, Cassie. But I’ve broken more rules than they know. The law is slippery, like a fish. But if you catch it, and you hold on by the gills… you get a free ride to the ocean.” He leaned back and smiled. “Give me your phone.”

She stared back. He jabbed her with the gun. She handed her phone over and he started swiping through it. “I’m going to Georgia’s Instagram. Sending her a message saying you changed your mind.” He looked at her with those mahogany-black eyes. “I can see you’re not stupid, and you also want to live. So get Georgia to the bridge. Okay?”

Cassie nodded. He was clearly after Georgia, not her. Pasadena for one night and things would be normal again. He pushed her phone back into her pocket, then took Cassie’s chin between his thumb and forefinger. “You’re gonna get her there?” He nodded her head for her. “Good. Do it by the end of the week.”

The man thrust her head back and slid the door open. Cassie scrambled past and ran back to her apartment. Looking over her shoulder, she saw that the van was gone.

Red Navy Swirl

Cassie pulled up to the Romanian restaurant where Georgia worked. Her engine was cooling off, tick-tick-ticking, when Cassie saw Lucas and Georgia coming toward her. Her hand went to the door, but they were already so close, she decided to stay inside.

“Hey!” Georgia set her hand on the car door. “So good to see you.”

“Hi,” Cassie said. “You too.”

Georgia’s green eyes were a pair of private galaxies, so full of life and hope that Cassie glanced at Lucas instead.

“So,” Lucas said. “Changed your mind?”

Georgia looked back at him quickly, but Cassie couldn’t see her face.

Cassie pulled at the skin between thumb and forefinger. “Yeah… I guess I was curious more than anything.”

“For sure,” Lucas said. It’s just… a quick turnaround.”

Cassie’s shoulder twitched. She sat up and put a hand on the wheel. But then she had to lean over again to meet Lucas’s eyes. While Georgia was bent down to her level, Lucas was standing straight, his hands in his hoodie pouch. Cassie wondered if it wasn’t a little suspicious she’d stayed in the car.

“Well it doesn’t matter why.” Georgia flicked her eyes at Lucas. “We’re just glad you’re coming. Lucas is gonna lead the way. But I thought I could ride with you?”

“Sure,” Cassie said, happy to move on.

“Okay, thanks.” Georgia went to the other side and got in.

Side Mirror

Cassie had no A/C, just the open windows. Once they’d been on the road a while, Georgia turned the music down. “Sorry about that. Lucas is… protective I guess. And he asks too many questions. Ever since we met.”

“It’s fine,” Cassie said.

“Well I though I should say something.”

“It’s fine, really.”

“Okay, thanks,” Georgia said. “And thanks for being down for this. I mean… what made you change your mind?”

The black-eyed man had said the law was like a fish, and Cassie knew the truth was also slippery. First she told herself the lie, grasped it firmly before it swam away, then offered it to others as the truth.

Georgia sat forward in her seat, like a kid on the way to the waterpark, instead of the site of so many suicides. Cassie decided to keep lying. “Well, I was just thinking about everything… How it was in college… in Advocates. How we tried to heal, tried to move on.”

“Yes. Of course,” Georgia said.

“And I just thought…” She could feel Georgia’s eyes on her. Once she’d delivered Georgia to the bridge, how easy would it be to run away?

Cassie’s mother, Susan, had severe anxiety and bouts of depression. Cassie’s father, Norman, made it worse. More breakdowns, more panic attacks. Norman’s outbursts would shake the walls and often end in blood and broken glass. Cassie had never stopped hating him. She couldn’t understand why Susan didn’t take her to live somewhere else. Cassie would have rather been poor — even homeless — than abused and motherless. After Susan died, Cassie was alone with Norman, and she began to understand how her mother had lost her mind.

“I thought I should at least try,” Cassie said. “To forgive her, you know?” She was speaking like some version of herself she’d been told to emulate. Like someone she never believed she could be — a heroine she’d never live up to, because her own mother had proven weak and fallen.

Underneath the lies she told Georgia was a deeper truth, the truth of what Norman had done to her. What he’d done to her every night as soon as she turned thirteen. Checking to make sure her body was growing the proper way, the way that would please the proper husband. The shame of what he made her do was poison in her blood. One day she took one of his razor blades and let some of it out.

But Georgia would have to be a psychic to understand such things, what Cassie had repressed so deeply she couldn’t uncover for herself. But like Georgia, there were things Cassie wanted to believe, like that fact that no one spoke to spirits and no one could read minds. So Cassie pressed on, believing in what she wanted to, and saying what Georgia wanted to hear.

“I’m so happy you feel that way,” Georgia finally said. “Wanting to speak to her is really going to help. There’s a lot of your mom left there. I’ll help you listen. You’re gonna be able to hear her so clearly. You probably still think I’m crazy, but just wait.”

“Everyone’s a little crazy, right?” Cassie said.

“Yes!” Georgia laughed. “Exactly.”

Silence settled in. Gray clouds reflected off the glass and metal boxes, shifting and nudging each other forward like magnets. From the carpool lane, Cassie could only see people driving alone. And she realized, below all the lies there was truth intact, but it was down so deep she’d lost sight of it. Yet some part of her knew it was there, and even if she couldn’t see it, maybe there was someone who could. Someone at the midpoint between life and death, someone mutely aware of the burdens of the living. Someone afloat in the sorrow we set aside.

Georgia spoke again. “Since you brought up Advocates, I wanted to tell you. Something happened at C-SUN,” Georgia said. “I’ve only told a few people. I know you don’t know me but I want you to trust me. Otherwise none of this works.”

Cassie held her breath. “You can tell me if you want.”

“Okay.” Georgia looked at Cassie, then out the window for a long time. “I was with my boyfriend at the time, a guy named Ethan, but it wasn’t going so well. Anyway I went to this party, and I was talking to this guy I sort of knew. He was being really nice — it was just… easy. Banter and jokes and yada yada… we kept laughing at everyone else at the party around us.

“After a while I said I was getting tired, and he said he would ride back with me. We both had our bikes, and his house was on the way to campus, so we were going along, and he rode up next to me and said we should pull over, he wanted to show me his place. It seemed harmless enough and I was having a good time. I wasn’t really all that tired, just ready to leave that party.

“When we got inside he showed me around this big garden. I’d been to parties there and I loved the natural feel. Banana trees, hammocks, a fire pit. Then he wanted to show me his room and I got nervous. I tried to say I should go, but he made me feel bad for not wanting to see his room. I tried again to say no but he kept saying it was part of the tour, and finally he took my hand and led me into his room. Once we were in there, he forced himself onto me, kissing me and holding me tightly.” Georgia let out a shaky breath, glanced at Cassie, then out the window. “At some point it became easier to go along with what was happening. He was so aggressive. When I told my boyfriend, Ethan, he was just… angry. He couldn’t understand why I’d been in that situation. We tried to stay together, but he never forgave me and we broke up.”

“I’m sorry,” Cassie said. “It’s not easy to do. To tell it. To tell me. I’m sorry.”

“Thanks.” Georgia let our her breath. “I couldn’t talk about it for a long time.”

“That’s okay. It takes time,” Cassie said, feeling touched. And recoiling inside at that touch.

“So,” Cassie said, “I actually joined Advocates… sort of because I was guilty. For never doing what you just did — talking about what happened to me.”

“That’s okay,” Georgia said. “It’s not a rule that you have to.”

“I know. But I guess I thought if I was in Advocates, I might be able to help other women speak up, or at least help the ones who already had.”

“Was it like that for you?” Georgia asked.

“I don’t know,” Cassie said. “Those stories… I couldn’t tell if I was more or less depressed.”

“Me neither,” Georgia said. “But I’m glad I did it.”

“Yeah. Me too,” Cassie said. “Anyway Lucas — he seems like a good guy.”

Georgia smiled. “Yeah, he is. He tries really hard. How are things with Jake?”

“Oh. We don’t need to talk about Jake. It’s fine. It works. He’s a dick sometimes… but it works.” Cassie said. Georgia waited for Cassie to go on, but she didn’t want to.

Mountains Blue Light

The sun was out of sight by the time they parked. Blue light crept down from the mountains. Cassie shivered. The heat of the day had been swept off. While Lucas got the gear together, Georgia was explaining how she started out.

“First I was hearing voices,” Georgia said. “Which my parents took me to therapy for.”

Lucas tossed Cassie a bag. “Heads up.”

Cassie caught the bag roughly, fumbling with its weight. “Oof. Thanks.”

Lucas rummaged in the car again, then turned back into the awkward silence. “What?”

Georgia shot him a look that might’ve altered his bone structure.

Lucas turned to Cassie. “Hey, sorry, that’s a heavy one. I’ll take it.”

“I got it,” Cassie said, swinging it over her shoulder.

Cassie could see Georgia fuming, but Georgia just took a breath through her nose and strapped on her own pack. “Anyways…” Georgia looked at each of them in turn. “It was a long time before they started to feel real. I always thought it was… lucid daydreams.”

“You do fall asleep all the time,” Lucas said.

“I take little naps.” She turned to Cassie. “But only during the day. Anywhere. Bars, restaurants… every, single, matinee. So I was getting these visions and I thought they were… daytime nightmares, I guess.”

“It sounds horrible,” Cassie said.

Georgia grinned. “It was at first. But the more I got a hold of them and accepted them, the less scared I was.”

“And now you’re not afraid of anything,” Lucas said.

“If you know what you’re doing,” Georgia said to Cassie, “there’s nothing to be afraid of. The living are always stronger than the dead. Besides, your mother’s spirit — it’s calm. She was gentle, patient. And everything was… crisp. She’s strong, she wants to connect. And I remembered more and more after she broke away.”

“Broke away?” Cassie asked.

“It always happens at some point,” Georgia said. “When it’s too exhausting to go on. It’s totally normal. Takes a lot of energy.”

“Hmm,” Cassie said.

Lucas shut the hatchback. “Before we go down, there’s something you need to see.”

“What?” Georgia asked.

“It might be nothing, but you see that van parked over there?” He pointed.

“No…” Georgia said. “I don’t—”

“It’s behind all those branches. Like it’s been there a while,” Lucas said. “Someone might be living in it.”

“Okay, someone’s living in their van,” Georgia rolled her eyes. “Doesn’t concern us.”

“Maybe not,” he said. “But I’ve seen that van before.”

The color drained from Cassie’s face. She stared at the rusted license plate. It was one of the last things she’d seen before she was thrust inside.

Georgia looked over at Cassie. “Hey, you okay?”

“Yeah, fine.” Cassie looked at Lucas. “You’ve seen it before?”

Georgia took a step toward Cassie. “You look pale…”

“I saw it on our way to the old infirmary,” he said, avoiding Cassie’s eyes.

Georgia chewed her lip. “Alright, let’s go see.”

The van squatted over a bowed piece of road, making its body sag, collapsed like an accordion. The shape of it might’ve been mistaken for a shadow.

“So, where did you see this thing?” Georgia asked Lucas.

He cupped his hands to the windows, trying to look inside. “It stopped at the same gas station when we went to the old infirmary.”

“I remember that place. It wasn’t even haunted.” Cassie stared blankly at the van’s corroded grill. “I mean,” Georgia went on, “I shouldn’t say haunted. We didn’t make contact.”

Cassie knew she should say something. “Wanna keep moving? It’s creepy, but it’s still just a shitty van.”

Georgia started to giggle, and kept on giggling until she doubled over with laughter. She said she was a Wiccan? She laughed like a witch… basically cackled. Like waking up from a dream, Cassie felt the absurdity of it all wash over her. This couldn’t be her life. Georgia had her head tossed back, blond hair flying. Nothing was funny, but Cassie started to laugh along with her. It was too surreal. A moment’s jubilation before they faced the darkness only Cassie knew was coming. Lucas laughed too, but kept his arms crossed. Cassie felt his eyes on her.

Georgia shook her head. “It’s just a shitty van. Let’s get down there, talk to Susan and then we can go home.”

Car Waiting

On their way down, Cassie asked how the seance was going to work. Lucas held his tongue as Georgia explained. Cassie couldn’t sense just how deep his suspicions ran, but he definitely wasn’t happy with how the conversation about the van ended. There was tension.

“So,” Lucas said. “This is where we found the birds.”

Georgia darted her eyes at him. “Yeah, someone or something killed a couple birds under this tree. Irrelevant now.”

“Irrelevant?” Lucas asked. “I thought it was a sign.”

Georgia bit down on her cheeks. “Sure it was. But they’re gone now, aren’t they?”

“I can’t tell. It’s too dark,” Lucas said, then turned to Cassie. “Still wanna keep going?”

“Yeah, I’m okay. Thanks.” Cassie noticed the handgun sticking out of Lucas’s back waistband. “You have a gun?”

“Yeah, it’s just in case,” he said, pulling his jacket down over it. A reflex.

“It’s probably a good thing,” Cassie said.

“You never know,” he said.

“Lucas,” Georgia said. “You okay?”

“I’m fine. Honestly I’m just — still thinking about that van. It has to be the same one. What if it’s following us?”

Georgia laughed, tossing Cassie a discrete look. “Babe. Really it’s fine, don’t get paranoid.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “It feels too quiet tonight. Like I’m not getting the same vibe as before.”

“The vibes I’m getting are fine,” Georgia said, touching his wrist. “Just give us a second,” she said to Cassie, pulling Lucas aside.

Despite the silence that rolled in, Cassie couldn’t make out what Lucas and Georgia were saying. Which made her realize, looking up at the bridge, that there was no way for the drivers belting across to see what happened below. This is a perfect place for a kidnapping, she thought. Beyond the bridge the moon was waxing — not quite full, like something way up there had needed lunar zest for its nightcap.

The silence settled in, crept under her skin. The black-eyed man was out there somewhere, anywhere all at once. Cassie fiddled with her belt loops and brushed imaginary lint from her sweater. Lucas doesn’t trust you. Her mind kept spinning back to the thought like a rigged roulette wheel.

When Lucas and Georgia came back, they took the trail slowly. Cassie wished she’d run off while the couple had left her alone, but now that they were down in the ravine, she was afraid of getting lost, or worse, meeting the black-eyed man on the way back to her car.

Cassie’s fear, unable to express itself, spread across the gully. It crashed between the slopes and seeped into the soil. It whistled through the trees, and tuned her nerves to a breaking point with every rock she stumbled over. She kicked herself for not going to the police, but how could she have? The minute the cops set foot in their house, Jake would be in handcuffs. It was too risky. Like Jake always said when it came to anything — no cops.

They reached the ravine floor, then picked their way across a creek bed. Its shallow veins shimmered in the moonlight. Suddenly something cried out from the underbrush like a lost child. Bellowing, like it was cornered. Racked with extreme pain. Cassie flinched, helpless to the macabre theatre of nature that played out behind her eyes for the split second they were shut. Jaws crunched. Claws wrapped the belly of some fragile creature. The three of them turned toward the sound. How much longer until Cassie broke down? How much worse would it get, before she could go home?

To be continued in next month’s issue…


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