The Toll Bridge

I hate taking walks.

Don’t get me wrong, nature is pretty and I’m thankful for this whole “wondrous miracle of being alive” or whatever.  If you want me to be completely honest though there’s a laptop at my house that’s full of games, anime, and porn and it’s just sitting there waiting for me to get back to it.  Instead I’m out here, and if you’re wondering why then I have five words for you: God damned Greg fucking King.

Greg is my stepbrother.  He also happens to be the worst human being I’ve ever met.  If I had to choose between spending an hour with him or an hour of getting punched in the face, I’d sign up for two hours of getting my teeth knocked in just to make it perfectly clear which of the two I preferred most.

When Mom told me she was getting married to Phil (who honestly isn’t so terrible for a stepdad) I was a little weirded out but okay with it.  Mom seemed happy and that was good enough for me.  I knew Phil had a son a few years younger than me and that he was going to Mizzou.  I knew he lived on campus and when he wasn’t there he was usually at his mom’s, who I’ve only ever heard referred to as That Evil Whore Bitch from Hell.  It’s pretty hilarious to me when he says anything like that because otherwise Phil hardly ever curses.

A few weeks ago Phil announced that Greg would be coming over for Thanksgiving and I didn’t think twice about it.  There was some talk about how Phil’s ex wife was going to Aruba for the week of Thanksgiving and how he hoped she’d acquire several rare tropical STDs, but that was the only thing I took away from the conversation.  I’ve hung around Phil plenty and he’s mostly a gentle, kind of funny guy so it never occurred to me that Greg might be any different.  All of that changed when I answered the door a couple of days ago, prompted by a car horn being honked repeatedly to announce Greg’s arrival.

“Hey buddy, did you have any trouble finding the place?”  Phil called, getting up to greet our new guest who was currently dragging his belongings into the foyer.  His luggage was a multicolored assortment of old gym bags, all in various states of fatigue and stuffed to capacity with dirty laundry and energy drinks.

“No Dad” Greg muttered while still managing to sound exasperated.  I was disappointed, but I decided to give him the benefit of doubt since it had been a long ride from Columbia, even after I caught him gawking at the house and wrinkling his face in disgust or disappointment (or both.)  “Where should I unload my gear?”

“You’ll be in Todd’s room.”  Phil answered, momentarily flashing that same deflated look he always gets after getting off the phone with That Evil Whore Bitch from Hell, until something occurred to him and his face brightened again.  “Oh Todd!  You guys have never been introduced!  Greg, this is Todd.  You two are going to be roomies for the week.”

“Hey, how are you?”  I smiled putting my hand out to greet him. That hand was met with one of his bags as he tossed it at me and brushed past, grunting a half assed acknowledgement.  His bag smelled like armpit, ass, and Doritos and with it the benefit of doubt I’d given him officially expired.

“Okay dude, show me our room.”

Our room.  I had no idea how literal he was being at first.  Within minutes he was entrenched in there, leaving only to use the restroom or eat with us (at Mom and Phil’s insistence and usually while dicking around with his cell phone the entire time.)  The rest of the time he was either glued to my computer playing Facebook games or napping.

Let me make a clarification.  I only say “napping” because that’s the excuse he used.  The locked door and telltale squeak of my office chair made it pretty obvious that he’d stumbled across my apparently not so well hidden porn cache.  I made plans to move the files the next chance I had, but any time I could get near my computer I’d eventually find Greg hovering around and asking how long it took to do whatever fucking nerd shit I was doing because his pumpkins were probably grown by now, whatever that meant.

In those cherished moments where Greg did bless us with his attention, we were treated to the most mind numbing rants I’ve ever heard.  It was around forty five minutes ago at dinner during a particularly offensive tirade about how all French Canadians were “communist faggots” that I ducked out for this little stroll.

Now I’m out here with no fucking jacket or sweater, freezing my ass off and trying to remember where I’d built that fort back when I was convinced I needed to prepare for the zombie invasion.  I hoped like hell that when I found it the damn thing would still have a wall or two left standing to block the wind.

While I was busy developing frostbite and deluding myself into thinking I could survive out here like some kind of overweight, nerdy male reimagining of Katniss Everdeen I almost stumbled into some weird, random creek that I’d never seen before.  The creek was too wide for me to jump across and though it didn’t appear to be very deep it was too cold and muddy to try wading through.

I was about to give up on the notion of traversing my mystery stream when I noticed another oddity, a bizarre looking bridge just out of the corner of my eye.  It was only barely within my line of sight, probably about a five minute walk further.  After some debate I finally came to the conclusion that if I was ever going to survive in the wilderness I’d better try to generate at least enough energy to go and check it out.

The bridge was old.  I mean really, really old.  I had no idea something could look so old, as if it might fall apart with a gentle nudge.  I jiggled it and was surprised when it didn’t budge, even after I leaned into it with all of my weight.  The hard, knotty wood from which it was assembled was unfinished and gnarled, an amalgam of thick twisted branches wrenched from unidentifiable ancient trees.  From a quick inspection I couldn’t find any fasteners holding it together, though I didn’t spend much time looking because shortly after something else had caught my attention entirely.

You couldn’t see it from anywhere else on my side of the creek, but from where I stood now the field on the other side seemed… lighter.  That isn’t the right word for it but I can’t think of one more apt.  When I say lighter you’re probably thinking of “more bright”, but that’s not what I mean.  More like if you were standing over there you would become less heavy in weight, maybe even in spirit?

As I tried to comprehend what I was seeing I became obsessed with this feeling in my gut that I had to be over there.  Despite the results of my poking and prodding, I still stepped on to the bridge cautiously, bracing myself for a collapse or at least a few snapped branches, but the structure was just as sound as it had been a few minutes earlier.  I inched across slowly until I reached the halfway point then leapt to the other end.  There I was met with and consumed by an immediate transformation.

My first thought when I hopped out into the grassy field across the way was that time seemed to move more quickly.  The sun coasted slowly but visibly across the sky then sunk quickly beyond the horizon, only to pop up once again on the other end a few minutes later.  This happened over and over in what might have been an eternity of revolutions, and in the back of my mind I was beginning to get worried that I should be getting back to… something.  I couldn’t remember what.

I twisted the tall grass around my fingers and tried to gather my bearings.  It felt warm, glowing a deep amber that shimmered unnaturally in both the sun and moonlight that danced playfully above my head.  I wasn’t crunching through the field in my usual juggernaut fashion either, but was instead coasting between each narrow stalk, doing as best I could in my blissful haze to avoid straying too far from the bridge that led me into this place.

With each sunset I could feel myself growing too.  Not my physical body which continued to flutter quietly in the dreamlike meadow, but my sense of being.  Growing and growing until I felt that I could spread my reach across the sky, the universe, and then beyond that, well into the inky depths where starlight was nothing more than a speck or two of dust fluttering across the abyss.

I reached out, touching the darkness and learning that it was older than time or space.  I saw what drifted through that darkness and breathed it in and grew even more until I expanded beyond even the void and became infinite.  I fully understood everything that I had become as well as I understood each particle of every atom moving within me.

Not only could we feel them, but they bent to our will with nothing more than a thought.

Wait… we?

Our will?

Yes.  That was what we were now.  We cared very little for what was left of the “me” from which we were born.  Time flowed through us like blood flows through a vein as we became whole, preparing to take absolute control.  We enveloped all beings sentient or otherwise and began our reign.  To think, to feel, and to act as one bei…

I instinctively pulled away and somehow managed to stumble back on to the bridge.  My head and body ached as if I’d been doing hours of hard labor and I realized even though I’d done it subconsciously, it must have taken a tremendous effort to leave that place.  Shaking it off as best I could, I scrambled the rest of the way across the bridge and started towards home.

We… I had a vague impression that things had gone very wrong.  I’m in the same forest, but now it was early morning instead of late afternoon.  It’s also much, much warmer, feeling more like late Spring than Autumn.  Had I fallen asleep?  Were we…  Sorry.  Was I out all night?  My head spun and my words were coming through my brain all wrong.  I hoped like hell that I wasn’t having a fucking stroke.

The semi-sprint back to the house seemed to take no time at all, but that was wrong too since it must have taken at least half an hour.  The entire concept of time wasn’t sitting so well with me.  Whenever I started to think about how long I’d been gone it made my head ache worse.  I might have stopped long enough to throw up on the way back, but I can’t remember now.

I pulled on the back door and found that it was locked, so I walked around to the front.  If no one was home I’d have to try to remember where we kept the spare key which wasn’t promising considering the shape that I was in.  Before I had a chance to knock, a woman (who I first thought was mom until I realized she was a little older) answered.  She looked as if she’d been crying and I wondered if she was one of Mom’s friends who’d come to confide in her about something.  Mom was great with that kind of stuff.  We stared at each other quizzically for a few moments before she finally asked what she could do to help me.

“Hey.  I’m Todd.  This is my parent’s place, are they here?  I live here with them?”  The last part wasn’t really a question, but I asked as if it were anyway.  I expected her face to relax when I said who I was but instead she looked even more bewildered.

“You must be confused sir.  We’ve lived here for years, just me and my husband.”  She glanced around me, possibly to see if I was alone or how I got here.  I was about to try explaining what had happened to me when I noticed that none of the cars in my driveway were ours.  They didn’t even look like normal cars.

Maybe I really was confused, there were so many things in our head that didn’t seem quite right.  I stood there for a second trying to process when suddenly a familiar voice called out from behind the woman.

“What’s going on over there?  Who is that?”

“There’s a man here who says he’s looking for his parents.”  She turned to the man as he got closer and under her breath but audibly enough added “I think he could be high.”  The man stepped into the light, and though he wasn’t as I’d seen him last it was definitely him.

“Greg?”  My vision was blurring a little and my blood began to race, but even so I could tell it was him.  He was much older now, maybe 30 years older than when I saw him last.  My concerns about having had a stroke were put on hold, but at the cost of being forced to accept that I’d experienced something much worse.  We had been in those woods for quite a long time indeed.

“Who are you?” He said, though even as he spoke I noticed a flicker of recognition in his voice.  That flicker ignited across his face and was soon joined by fear and confusion.  “Todd?  No,” he paused, squinting at me, “are you… related to Todd?”  We nodded.  It was true now in a sense that we were related to Todd.

What?

I fell to the ground, my entire body awash in pain as I began to remember what had happened.  Every single thing.  I was able to remember everything that had happened everywhere between now and then and it was killing me from the inside as it happened.  I saw my mother fall into a depression with my disappearance which she never overcame.  She grew old and died without any answers.  I watched Phil’s heart break as he tried to maintain his sense of humor and quietly turned to alcohol, eventually dying as well.

I saw Greg driving drunk and crashing, injuring two friends in the process and killing the driver of the other car.  I watched the court case and saw That Evil Whore Bitch from Hell writing the checks to cover his defense.  I saw as he inherited the house after Phil died.  I could even remember him begrudgingly proposing to Susan after she threatened to leave him for Jerry, some accounting guy who worked with her in the city.

I saw him move into my bedroom again, this time for good.  I remembered him throwing out all of my stuff that Mom had kept in there.  I saw him fucking Susan on their wedding night, saw him swallowing down his breakfast too fast and almost choking to death on it fourteen years ago, saw him taking a shit in the bathroom last Tuesday.  I watched him wake up today, go out and grab a paper from the convenience store, and be back in time to smack Susan in the face for barely burning his pants with the iron shortly before I’d arrived.

This world was no longer mine.  Still contorting on the ground, I realized that I needed to get us back across the bridge and soon.  Without any further hesitation, we brought ourselves to our feet and ran back to the place where we belonged.  Back to whatever was hopefully still waiting for us beyond the bridge.

“Wait!” shouted Greg from behind us.  Our body was not as it should be, but we pushed knowing we would not need it for much longer.  I shivered.  We heard a door slam behind us as we advanced, and determined Greg was following us into what was now his own backyard.  He was older, but in good shape for his age and there was a very good chance he could catch us before we got to where we needed to be.

“Are you him?” he shouted from behind us.  From his strained voice I could tell he was catching up.  He cried out again “Stop man!  We looked for you for months!  Just tell me what happened to you.”

I stopped, our lungs burning and gasping for breath.  He could not be allowed to follow.  We knew that if he did, he would see what only we should ever see.  We shuddered at the thought of him walking across the bridge, knowing what would happen were he to cross.  The stars that would first burn brighter, then explode, and then the darkness would spread and those things that roamed inside of it would be free.  Greg almost immediately caught up with me.

“Where were you?”  At first he was hunched over, but after only a second he’d caught his breath and was upright again.  “And why the fuck don’t you look older?”  Then his eyes narrowed and he lowered his voice to a whisper.  “Did someone experiment on you?”

He looked around to see if anyone was nearby, but the forest was empty.  Animals knew better than to wander into this place.  Still I couldn’t answer his questions.  Our voice was no longer mine to use, but as he hushed we could hear the stream now babbling down its course.  Greg noticed it too.

“What is that?  Where’s that water coming from?”  Greg had obviously made himself familiar with these woods over the years.  We smirked, remembering how excited he was at first to be able to hunt on all this property and then never seeing as much as a wild squirrel or a field mouse.  He stepped past me to investigate the source of the sounds.

We followed him to the stream and surveyed the area.  The bridge was still far from where we were, but if he looked hard enough he’d be able to see it.  It was almost time for us to take action.

“I’ve lived here for a while now Todd” he said this more to himself, seeming to accept that I was no longer the talkative type.  “There was never a stream here and never that field on the other side, just more hills.”  He finally turned back to me.

We leaned back and kicked hard.  The look on Greg’s face was almost comical as he lost his balance, his arms spinning like windmills as he flailed into the water behind him.  He probably expected to get wet or bruised up at the worst.  Instead the water swallowed him whole.

I looked for signs of him floating or wrestling himself up onto the bank further downstream, but we knew better.  Greg’s body was no longer a part of this world.  We also knew that when we returned across the bridge those waters would no longer be a threat to anyone else and that the hills Greg had known so well would return, although a little late to do him any good.  There would be no sign of a stream or a field or a bridge.

The bridge.  We looked over and it was closer now, only a few feet away helpfully making the trip more convenient for us and our aching, dying head.  There wasn’t enough room for us in this body anymore.  We rested our hands on its rails, this time more assuredly, understanding that this bridge needed us to cross it as much as we needed it.  In our rush to sate that need we failed to notice as Susan confidently steadied her handgun and fired.

 

 

Susan felt a rush of satisfaction as she pulled the trigger.  The firearm recoiled hard in her hand but she shot straight and the stranger tumbled over the side of the bridge and into the creek.  She’d been dying to shoot the small Ruger at something other than a paper silhouette for months and had even briefly toyed with the idea of using it on Greg a few hours earlier.  It occurred to her now that this stranger might have saved her the trouble.  Holstering the gun, she moved to the edge of the stream to look but saw no sign of her husband. “Maybe he crawled up on the other side” she thought to herself and started carefully across the old bridge to find him.

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About thestsp

Brenton Smith used to live in a haunted house. I mean, he never saw a ghost or anything, but he used to hear crap all the time. Also one time while he was in bed, he thinks something touched his leg. He and his friends eventually gave the ghost a silly name and it went away embarrassed. He still feels guilty about that sometimes.
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