The Legend of Blackwater Bridge by Amy Weaver
Swoosh. Swoosh. Crack.
The long, wool coat dragged the tops of the broken branches and thriving weeds left in the wake of last summer’s rainstorms. Swoosh. With every quick step, she deleted him from her life, her future. The duffle bag slung across her shoulder forced the extra weight she was already carrying a little deeper into her sore knees and blistering feet. Muddy boots collected layers of soil too thick and time-consuming to clean off with a twig. She had tried already, twice.
“Forty-seven… forty-eight… forty-nine…” she whispered. Counting always calmed her when she had a nightmare, and her current situation seemed to qualify. In between steps, she gripped the brim of the borrowed fedora and thrust herself deeper and deeper into hiding. “Fifty.”
The wooded field was thick; the sky dark. Too dark, she thought. Surely she was almost there – it had been a couple of hours since she and her compass had begun their walk. The sun would be up soon and she couldn’t be left behind.
“Only bring cash and a small first aid kit,” the man had told her. “Memorize the address of your destination – nothing on paper that needs explaining - and no traceable devices!” She had followed his orders, but before she left, her mother stashed a few pieces of fruit into her pouch. She was grateful – these days traveling made her nauseous.
His image appeared in her mind: dark hair, bright blue eyes – she stomped him away. She had fallen in love with the wrong man; or rather, he had fallen in love with the wrong girl. That’s what she had written in the letter she left for him the night before. Since the new regime had come into power, she had gone from being different to damaging - the new President had told them all so – and William’s family had too much clout in the State to risk being associated with her kind. Things had changed drastically over the last two years – new walls, new direction. The incoming leadership had vowed order - the return of greatness, and what was promised as solace to the majority quickly became survival to the rest. She glanced behind herself as she’d done numerous times already this morning. She would always be looking over her shoulder now, she suspected.
As she entered into a small clearing in the woods, her body was blindsided by a giant figure. The hit was so hard it forced her to lose her footing in the thick leaves and fall backward, her spine crashing into the sharp edge of a stump. Crack. Her compass flew into the air.
“No!” She screamed, throwing her arms up for protection. They had found her, she feared. Horrendous pain pulsed through her as she tried to focus in the dark. The large figure hostilely moved toward her until finally morphing into a large man - arm drawn back, palm hidden beneath a willing fist. He paused for only a quick moment but she could see in his eye that he saw her – really saw her. Beyond her masculine clothing and chopped hair, she knew he had seen her softness, the curve of her body. He didn’t swing. Instead, he swiped her compass off the ground and stepped over her, never making a sound. Left with no option, she followed him.
She caught up with the stranger just as red taillights began peeking through the thinning trees. Side-by-side, they picked up their pace.
The woods halted at a narrow dirt road. An old Greyhound bus stood before them - #79 screaming out from its crown, a small line of people hugging its side. Her tired feet began to run - freedom was so close.
Standing behind the others, she kept her head down and waited her turn as instructed. The minutes felt thick and heavy, but it struck her in that time – in the presence of others – that this disguise she was wearing, this costume, had transformed her. Underneath this shield was a new person, an adopted identity. She was changed.
“You! Show me,” barked the man in the front of the line.
Stepping forward with cold, shaking hands, she began unfastening the buttons just below her neck.
“I don’t have all day, boy.”
The man’s voice was gruff; she was immediately intimidated. She tried to move faster – fighting the frozen fabric and ripping lone threads that mysteriously found themselves on the wrong side of closure. Eventually, she slid the stiff sleeve of her shirt and bra strap to the side in one fell swoop. She had practiced this part. Her left shoulder exposed an inch-long scar adorned with black stitching to lace up her unpopular brown skin. Luckily, it was a clean cut – her uncle was a veterinarian and although he dealt with a different beast, he was still gifted with a scalpel and thread.
The man began to examine the wound, leaning in so close she felt her throat widen – a gag reflex to the smell of numerous cups of coffee and cigarettes. Dirt sat comfortably on his uniformed shirt that introduced him as “Hank.” She studied the curly font and wondered if he, too, was playing a role.
“When did you take it out?”
She hesitated. ”When did I…?”
“When did you remove your chip?” He snipped.
“Last night. 8:27.”
“You’re cuttin’ it close. If we have any problems on the road, you’ll be removed.”
He stepped past her. “Next.”
“I was told I had plenty of time before the system could pick me up.” Under the tension, her voice tightened into its natural, higher register.
Hank paused to take in this change – this girl. He softened.
“You’re okay, sweetheart.” He whispered, “We’ll get’cha there in time.” He pulled her in toward him and patted her shoulder. “You’re okay.” It was then that she noticed the prosthetic arm resting at his side. Strangely, it soothed her. She felt safe – they were all flawed.
“Excuse me!” A male voice rang out as she began to step aboard the bus.
“Did you drop this?” A man her age - perhaps just a few years older – stood with an outstretched arm, a floral scarf dangling from his hand.
As their eyes locked, she felt chills surge through her veins. His smile is contaminated, she thought. He was too clean, too composed, with his crisp leather jacket and fresh gray sneakers – not a trace of mud in sight. Instincts told her he was just like the privileged boys she had known in high school – the ones who had taunted her about her hair, her accent.
“I’m Jake. What’s your name?”
Without a word, she stumbled up the stairs.
One by one the seats of the old Greyhound found takers until at last the hydraulic doors shut tight, closing the misfits off from their pasts. Her heart raced – gratitude, regret.
The smell of diesel had already begun to give her a headache. As her fingers massaged the aching temple, she thought back to long vacations spent traveling by bus with her family after her father – God rest his soul - declared his mission to show his girls the country. “All of this can be yours,” he said every time they stopped to admire a new horizon. While now reserved for junkyards and country roads, this beaten up vehicle used to be a window into the ‘possible.’ How foolish we were, she thought.
“Listen, people,” Hank roared above the engine and shuffling feet. “This is my bus. My ass is on the line just as much as yours, so here’s the rules. Sun’s almost up so I suggest you listen closely.” Stillness fell over the crowd. “I’ve searched y’all for traceable devices and you’ve all come up clean. But, if you even think about connecting, you’ll be thrown out into the ditch. No questions asked.”
“Now, we’ll be goin’ straight through on the back roads ‘til sundown, ‘bout 5:30. We’ll stop to refuel right at the Blackwater Bridge and y’all will get a chance to...” Voices rumbled from the back of the bus.
“WHAT?” Hank screamed.
“We can’t stop at Blackwater Bridge!” A large black man jumped up from his seat. His hands shook as he spoke. “That’s only three or four miles away from the hyperloop. It would take only minutes for the authorities to reach us!”
“Who put you on here?” Hank roared back.
“I can vouch for him, Hank!” screamed another.
Hank studied the man, his nervousness. “Have a seat, sir. Relax. We’re safe – they’ve got the fuel we need for this old thing and it’s gonna be a real quick stop. “
Still shaken, the man sat back down.
“Y’a’ll will have ‘bout five minutes to use the facilities there, but that’s it. FIVE MINUTES. Got it? And if the line is too long, you figure it out. That’s the window – I WILL leave you.”
Hank began to walk the aisle – a last glance at his customers. He stopped by the girl.
“I know it’s real cold but hang in there. It’ll git a little warmer when we git goin’.”
The engine roared and exhaust filled the air with steam as the sun began to introduce the day. She grabbed her bag tightly - her companion for this journey. Adrenaline moved through her body and for a moment, she couldn’t feel the pain in her back from the fall this morning. As the wheels began to spin, she closed her eyes and said a prayer to whatever god was out there to listen, counting “safety, strength and peace” among her wishes.
The time passed slowly for the first three or four hours, she couldn’t be sure how long it had been. Winter light could be tricky, filled with relentlessly gloomy fog.
She pulled out the small bag of grapes her mother had stashed in her pouch and curled up next to the cold aluminum to eat. Exhausted from the physical effort of her morning hike, she allowed her body to relax a little. Her eyes grew heavy, begging for rest. Eventually they betrayed her will and shut.
Thump, skid. Thump, skid. Thump, skid.
“Family history is important to us, obviously.” The light from the chandelier hit the silver cane perfectly as the old man stopped to admire the family portraits adorning the wall of his library.
“I would assume family history is important to everyone, Dad. Isn’t that right?” William looked at her mother for confirmation – his apology for his father’s arrogance.
“Yes. Of course.” Her mother muttered.
“I’m sure that’s true on some level,” said the old man. “But, to whom much is given, much is required.” He turned to face them all. “Expected, really.”
The girl had always felt out of place around William’s father and had hoped her mother would receive a warmer greeting. This was not the case.
“When your family is rooted deeply in tradition - prestige - like we are, it’s particularly IMPORTANT to uphold the integrity of the name.”
“The wheels on the bus go round and round…” a child’s voice sang out.
William reached for her hand. “Should we head outside for some tea?”
“round and round…”
As the others left the library, William held her back. “We’re forever, Nina. Don’t let my dad get to you. He doesn’t own me. He doesn’t control us. I want this more than I’ve ever wanted anything.” He held her gaze. “Promise me you’re in.’”
“round and round…”
“I’m in,” she whispered, because it was true then.
“The wheels on the bus…”
Suddenly, her body jerked to life on the cold vinyl. Loose grapes lay wilting on her wool coat, having shimmied out of their protective bag. The sky was black now.
“round and round…” a little boy sat in the row just beyond her, rolling a Hot Wheel back and forth on the top of his tiny leg. “…all through the town,” he sang.
Hands trembling, heart pounding, she cursed her mind for being so cruel. Their power had been left hundreds of miles back, she told herself. She was in control now.
“You get some good sleep?”
Across the aisle, an old woman sat shivering, underdressed for the winter weather in a flannel shirt and cotton gloves – her smile the only source of warmth she carried.
“I did,” the girl replied in the deepest tone her sleepy voice could muster.
“That’s nice. Sleep is good for all of us.”
The girl took her in – genuine kindness radiated from the woman’s face, and she imagined that every line embedded in her skin was the mark of a good deed. She held out the paper bag with the surviving fruit.
“I’d like that very much. Thank you.”
The rhythm of the road had once again settled into background noise when she felt his stare.
From the corner of her eye: the gray sneakers. She didn’t look up.
“Feels like we’ll never get there, right?”
Was she being followed? Panic, helplessness – this unease was tormenting her.
She turned toward the window, clutching her bag to her pounding chest. The moon was just bright enough to cast his reflection into her view. He loomed, threatened. Finally, he was gone.
The tired bus pulled into the truck stop, shielded from the road with abandoned pumps under a rusty awning. “Pay Inside” and an image of an ice cream cone still lingered on display in the windows, proving life existed here in its prime. Paper waste lay sprinkled over broken cement. The bus came to a stop in front of pump #3 - the source of the bootleg diesel.
The girl ran quickly to the bathroom, fearful a line would rob her of the opportunity for privacy. As it turned out, most of the passengers chose convenience over discretion and opted for the fields. Everyone felt the vulnerability of Hank and the close proximity of the hyperloop. No time to waste!
On the cusp of their time limit, the girl and the old woman found themselves locked inside. Heavy clothes and old age slowed them down. The doorknob rattled, startling them.
“Just a minute,” shouted the old woman.
“We’re headin’ in TWO! On the bus or you’re left behind!” Hank’s voice called out from the open air.
Moments later, as the girl reached for the door, the knob shook again.
The old woman sighed, “Jesus, Hank.”
Intuition stopped the girl’s outstretched arm. She placed her index finger to her lips and motioned for the old woman to stand back. Squatting down to the filthy floor, she removed her hat and laid her ear to the ground, looking beyond the threshold. It was just as she feared. Gray sneakers shuffled on the pavement outside and within seconds, disappeared. Back to the bus, she assumed.
Feeling trapped, it was the old woman’s shivering that sparked the girl’s next move.
“Here,” she said while offering her overcoat. “I’ll trade for your shirt. You need this more than I do.”
The woman understood and with that, she began to remove the red flannel. “I’m Cecilia.”
“Nice to meet you… Cecilia.”
The old woman clocked the girl’s hesitation. “Honey, I’m too old not to tell the truth. Passed that mark when I turned 80.”
The girl nodded. “Beautiful name.”
“If you don’t mind my saying, you are quite a lovely ‘boy.’ I hope there’s lots of love awaiting you when you get to where you’re going.”
There is, the girl thought.
She fastened the last button of the coat under Cecelia’s chin and placed the fedora tightly on her tangled silver hair, loose strands were tucked in back. Every possible inch covered.
“Good luck to you,” the girl said. “You better go now.”
The old woman gripped her shoulder, words useless now. She began her exit.
“Uh - Cecilia! I left a small bag of fruit in my seat. 15A, I think. Make sure you sit there and grab it before anyone finds it.”
The old woman assured her the food wouldn’t go wasted, then left quickly.
The Greyhound let out a load roar, then another.
“One… two… three… four…” She began.
The girl held her breath and pushed her body deeper and deeper into the cinderblock wall until the muffled sound began to fade.
“Forty-seven… forty-eight… forty-nine…”
Winding the flannel around her body, she stepped out to brave the unknown. Red lights bounced around in the fog as the bus moved away from her. Desperate to be sure, she slid along the exterior of the building watching as the bus approached the narrow bridge.
As the tires rolled up the incline, the overhead lights lit up. A passenger ran along the aisle as bodies popped up and down from their seats. The girl couldn’t make out what was happening and in a state of bewilderment, she ran toward the bus.
There was no mistaking her fedora as she saw it fly through the air – it had been her protector this day. She braced herself against a tree as she saw the old woman’s body lift through the air and crash into the glass windows. Above the thrown body stood the man the girl had feared all along. Through the dense fog she could clearly see him – there, in plain sight. She was right: he was one of them and had come for her.
Mayhem ruled the bus for the next few moments as the tires began to sway about the bridge, ignoring the warnings of yellow and white lines. Back and forth, it violently tossed the passengers into its walls, its floor. A skid rang out sending the back of the bus to the front and the front of the bus into the icy water below.
The girl ran to the edge of the bridge in time to witness the water crashing into itself - hungry waves devouring metal and flesh alike. She watched in horror as the tide rolled and twisted until small bubbles danced to the top, bragging. She waited in disbelief. Nothing. No one. She waited... Nothing. They were all dead. She began to weep.
Stranded on the border to freedom, she took a moment and gave thanks to Hank and his bus for helping her get this far. She said a prayer for the old lady, “Cecilia,” – her unintentional sacrifice. She owed a lot to them and asked that perhaps they could forgive her in the afterlife.
The heavy burden she had been carrying in her body formed an unexpected explosion inside her stomach. With a rush that took seconds to erupt, she began to vomit – confirmation.
“Safe.” she reminded herself and squeezed her eyes shut.
Thump, skid. Thump, skid. Thump, skid.
Her eyes opened in a flash. The outline of his cane pressed into the side of her shadow. She gasped just before the old man’s hands steadied themselves in the center of her back.
As the air slipped underneath her feet, she grabbed her swollen stomach. It was an honor, if only briefly, to be a mother. She sucked in as much air as her lungs would allow before she slipped into the water.