Crumbled Blacktop–Rough Cuts #3

I saw the woman on the bridge right before she jumped. 

A little context: I often take long drives on the weekends. I get in the car, crank the music up and drive until I want to turn around, then I usually come home. I usually go on either Saturday or Sunday. Sometimes, especially if the world has been particularly cruel, I go on both days. Still, on a handful of occasions, I drive until it gets dark, stopping only for gas and food, then park for the night on the side of the road at a rest stop or in a state park if one was near. On those occasions, I usually spend the next day driving home.

This was a Saturday, which was shaping up to be the first day of a two day bender. My head ached, as did my heart. The lady I loved—Lelani—left me a couple of days earlier, while we sat at a restaurant during my lunch break. She barely touched her food and she wouldn’t make eye contact with me. 

“What’s wrong?” I asked her. 

She stared down at the table. Her hands were in her lap. When she brought her right one up she had the ring I gave her when I proposed four months earlier (and she said yes then) in it. She set the ring on the table. 

“What’s this?” I asked. I knew what it was. I knew she was breaking up with me. 

She shook her head. “I can’t do this.” She stood and walked off, leaving me sitting at the table, staring at the engagement ring. I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do. Part of me wanted to chase after her and find out what was going on, what happened and how I could fix it. The other part told me it was over. Our turbulent on again, off again relationship was over and chasing her down would do no good. That part won out. 

I paid for our meals, stood and walked away, leaving the engagement ring on the table. 

This is what I thought about as I drove roads I don’t remember and lost hours I would never get back. And my head hurt and my heart hurt and I wanted nothing more than to stop hurting.

I got off the interstate hours before, following road signs for a town I never actually found. I did come across old houses along the road with rusted out cars in drive ways or sitting up on blocks in front yards. I didn’t see any people and I didn’t pass any other cars. The road was blacktop that was more crumbled than whole with weeds and grass growing through all the cracks and crevices. 

I drove slowly, as if on a dirt road with deep ruts that made the front end shiver and the back end shake. At some point, I turned the music off, silencing some punk rock band or other—I truly can’t recall which one it was. The world grayed at some point and the music felt off, as if where I traveled commanded a quietness that felt loud in my ears. 

I rounded a curve. Ahead about a hundred yards or so sat the bridge. Even from that distance, I could see it was old and wooden. I won’t lie and say my curiosity didn’t suddenly pique. There I was on an old forgotten road after spending all day in my own head and that was in my sights. I drove on, but by then I was mostly on the road’s shoulder and trying to stay off the bumpy black top. 

About fifteen feet from the bridge, I pulled off the side of the road and parked next to a tall, thick tree with bare branches. It was well into mid-afternoon by then and I would need to start trying to find my way back to the interstate. But the bridge … I had to see it up close. 

That’s when I saw her. She stood in the center of the bridge, her back to me, looking out at the world to her right. She wore a light colored blouse and blue slacks, kind of like the ones my grandmother wore when she was alive. Her hair was gray and she was thin—maybe too thin, as if she were sick. 

I got out of my car and closed the door gently. I didn’t want to startle her. Thinking about that now, it sounds stalkerish. I wasn’t trying to be creepy but I thought it odd that there was an old lady out on this road that didn’t seem to have a name and with no other cars to be seen besides mine. I was afraid she might have wandered off from a home and she was lost, or maybe her car had broken down and she needed help.

For a minute or so, I stood at the front end of my car and stared at her. She didn’t move. The slight breeze that came off the water blew through her hair and ruffled her shirt. I took a step forward, suddenly very concerned for this woman I had never met. My head swooned and the pain that had been small earlier, bloomed.  I was slow about it but I made it to the edge of the bridge. The wood was mostly rotten; there were quite a few holes in the planks and some boards were missing all together. The rails to either side were mostly warped but still in place. 

“Ma’am?” I called. “Are you okay?”

She didn’t look back at me or even flinch like she had heard me. 

“Ma’am?” I called again, a little louder this time. “Are you okay?”

I took a deep breath. My head still thumped but it wasn’t swimming. I stepped onto the bridge. The wood was soft beneath my feet and I hesitated, afraid I might fall right through to the … the what? I couldn’t see water in either direction, just land on my side of the bridge and land across it. Up until that moment, I didn’t notice what was beneath the bridge or what it crossed over. I leaned to my right to peer over the rail. I saw muddy water, but it couldn’t have been much more than a wide creek; the bridge probably wasn’t needed.

When I looked back at the woman, she had turned around and now stared at me. Her jaw was slack and her eyes were blank. Beneath her eyes looked like bruises. Her hands hung down at her sides and the front of her blouse had a large brown stain on it, almost in the center of her chest. I knew immediately she had been shot, or at the very least, stabbed.

“Ma’am …” I said. Both of my hands were out in front of me, as if trying to keep her from moving. “You’re hurt.”

I looked down, then took a few unsteady steps toward her, then looked up again. She hadn’t moved. Her eyes still looked distant and her jaw was still slack. She didn’t see me. I was almost certain of that. It didn’t matter if she could see me or not. I could see her and I couldn’t leave her out there to die. Every few feet I looked down to make sure I didn’t step through a weak spot or fall through a hole that was already there. And every few feet my head spun and I had to regain my bearings.

Thirty or so feet from her, she seemed to notice me for the first time. Her eyes seemed to clear and her jaw clamped shut hard enough for her teeth to clack together. She looked out at the world beyond the bridge’s rail. 

“No,” I yelled when she moved far quicker than I believed she could. She took four quick steps, put her hands on the top wooden rail, her foot on the bottom one, then launched herself off the bridge. She didn’t scream. She didn’t yell. She just plummeted. 

I went to the rail and looked over, the pain in my head forgotten. The woman was gone. She didn’t land in the water or hit dry ground. She was just gone, as if she had never been there before. Maybe she hadn’t been. 

“No, no, no, no,” I said over and over. Then, as if someone watched me, my skin began to crawl. I was in a horror movie come to life and fear gripped my heart. I backed away from the rail and hurried back toward my car the best I could. The pain in my head intensified with each step I took. I reached the end of the bridge, stepped off and started to run for my car …

And somehow ended up back on the bridge, standing where the woman had been when I first saw her. I turned, first to my left to the side of the bridge I had no intentions of walking to, then to my right, to where I stepped onto the bridge and where my car … my car didn’t sit on the side of the road where I parked it. It was off the road, the front end smashed into the thick, tall tree. The front windshield was splintered right about the spot a head would have struck if …

I touched my forehead and pulled back red fingers.

“What’s going on?” 

I touched my head again, this tim planting my palm on my forehead. The skin there was torn. I could feel flesh bunched up near my hairline. I probed a gash that seemed like it ran the length of the top of my head, feeling something hard that could only be my skull. I pulled my hand free and looked at it again. Blood dripped from my fingers and palm. I wiped my mouth with my other hand and suddenly felt the urge to run, that something was terribly wrong and I was in danger. 

I ran for my car, not worrying about the holes or weak boards in the bridge. I couldn’t hear my feet or my breaths or feel my heart beat hard in my chest. I only felt the heavy weight of panic and fear in my chest and mind and the sharp, intense pain of the headache that seemed to split my skull. I reached the end of the bridge, stepped off and was back in the center where the woman had been. 

I almost ran for my car a third time but didn’t. Instead, I walked toward the other end. My legs grew weak as I walked and I didn’t think it would matter what happened when I reached the other end. I reached it and stepped off the bridge and back onto it in the exact same spot as before. 

Now, I stand here, in the center of the bridge. I can see both ends of the bridge, but it doesn’t matter. I can’t step off of it. But this waiting, this feeling of being trapped here with no way to get help isn’t the worst of it. That’s reserved for the creature standing at the end of the bridge where my car is. It came up in an old style horse and buggy, both of which are black. It stepped away from the buggy. It is not much taller than I am and it wears a hooded robe. In one of its hands—hands that look skeletal—is a long pole with a sharp blade on one end. It’s spoken a couple of times, but I can’t make out what it’s saying. It can’t be anything good. It’s on the bridge now and coming toward me. A darkness spills off of it, like a thick fog rising into the air and going out before it. It’s coming for me. It’s …

I can’t run away. I’ll just return to this spot and it will be waiting for me. But what if … what if I jump over the rail and off the side of the bridge? What if …

AJB