First of all, this bridge was much higher. I did not need to look down to know that, because back when I had a car, I used to zip under that bridge several times a day and marvel at how it laid a line from treetop to treetop across the road. But what really stopped me in my tracks was what it looked like from up here, and the fact that, far behind me, I could feel the train approaching.
I was on the small, steel mesh walkway running along the north side of the tracks. True enough, it had a thin rail to hold onto, but still, it was the very edge. I took two tentative steps out upon the metal, and discovered that the walkway had a sickening sway to it..
Or maybe not. Maybe it was just my nerves. Certainly, something had caused me to feel weak and disoriented suddenly. I stopped where I was and tried to determine what exactly was bothering me..
The day was May-warm, with a stiff cool breeze blowing off the Harbor. I was up here, alone, with the trees rustling strange symphonies all around me. But the space where I stood was silent. For an hour, I had been at home upon the ties; my ankles had become accustomed to the weird twisting stride of stepping on the forward edges of the ties or the swiveling gait of crunching along in the sharp brown railroad gravel. I realized as I stood here in the wind that my feet had been almost completely numbed by the weird exertion, and that it would take them some time to become accustomed to the articulations of treading a flat surface again.
I decided then that I should be walking along the tracks, but I could not get to them. There was a bar between me and the tracks as well, and to get to them, I would either have to swing under the bar, or I would have to turn around and retrace my two bold steps. I could not make myself turn, for I would either be forced to look over the edge or set my back to it. Even for just an instant, I knew that would not be possible.
I could not hear the train's clattering pursuit yet, but it had blown its whistle just after my first stride, so I knew it was leaving the station, just a few miles back. I wondered how long I had to get across this narrow, flimsy walkway. The other side was only thirty feet away, after which I could duck into the thick woods and rest. But those thirty feet were long ones. I made two more steps forward, and my fear doubled itself. A string of cars zipped by below me and reminded me of how far up I was. The faint stink of exhaust fumes toyed with my breath.
I felt foolish, and a bit doomed. I could not explain my mounting dread in any normal context. The combination of elements I have described should not have affected me so strongly, and I know I had not let my mind wander from reason. Indeed I had not had a single coherent thought since my feet first clinked upon this accursed strip of steel. I stopped again, to assess my senses. Something was definitely wrong up here.
I found that my fear was not so much a fear of what was below and behind me, but, strangely, a gnawing terror about something that was up ahead. I assumed, for lack of a more rational thing, that this fear was a fear of the middle of the bridge, of the highest and most vulnerable point of the entire crossing. This gave me the courage to step forward once more. A breeze from behind brought the first hint of the approaching train, but I assured myself that it was only my imagination, that maybe it was the sound of someone's lawnmower instead, that it was still possible I might make it across this bridge alive.
Why did I feel so damned? This was the best name I could give my feelings, but then I considered them further and realized that there was death in the air. Not the fear of death, but death itself. I gripped the rails more tightly, and my sweat vainly tried to glue me to the spot. But I defied myself and moved forward again. A loose rusty sliver gouged into my hand, but I did not cry out. I merely gripped the bar more tightly still, for my grip had become the only security I possessed against whatever was up here with me.
I did feel that I was not alone. Was there someone up ahead, hiding in the bushes, waiting for me and masking his laughter at my cowardice? I wanted to stop and scan the area, but somehow I knew that I would not see anyone.
Still, with my next step forward, spurned on by the approaching sounds that could no longer be dismissed, my terror increased. The air was thicker, now no more than a dead, humid weight without any curative breeze. Now a sharp scent drove its way through my hay-fevered nostrils. Death. It was just a hint, since my sense of smell was so thoroughly neutralized this time of year. Usually I could only smell petroleum or ammonia, scents so strong they burned. And now, if I could smell a trace of death, I knew I was immersed in a coiling reek of horror.
I had to move forward. It was a mechanical thing, my body seeking to save itself without the benefit of a functioning mind. For the train was huffing along distinctly and I still had many paces to go. Somewhere, probably at my realization of the smell, I had lost a minute or so, and the train had suddenly become imminent and undeniable.
The smell escalated into the gnawing certainty of seething grey rot. The air closed in as I wheezed forward, but it was no longer completely inert. A small breeze formed and began to walk alongside me. It pleaded with me, touching me with tiny ice fingers that ignored my flesh to sear my bone. My body wanted to jerk away at the sensation, but wanted less to plummet down onto the hand-sized cars that danced below me. I could not turn to face this thing beside me, but my eyes squeezed shut at its touch. Tears which felt like blood seeped out, hotly. I felt my steps falter. There were only about ten steps left.
The cold thing stopped poking at me then, but at eight steps I realized that it was standing in front of me, blocking my way. I opened my eyes, the lashes cracking with tears and sweat dried by the dead air. There was nothing to see, but I sensed vaguely a patch of air which distorted the things behind it. The distortion swam like an arm reaching forward. I wanted to back away, but I could not.
Things closed in on me swiftly. The day grew dark. Was that a train whistle just behind me? Something was pulling at my hair, stretching my pores wide, and I felt follicles tearing. Sweat or pus welled out from its touch.
Something in this pain told me that I needed to fight back. I did not ask what it wanted, because I knew. At its first assault I felt that it wanted me dead, yet I knew if this was its sole purpose it could have done away with me by now. It ran a finger down my arm and the skin swelled a line of sickly red anger. I understood it somehow. It wanted attention. As it reached forward to envelop me in its scalding body, I found the courage to speak.
"What is it?" My voice was hollow, distant, lost in its angry wind. "Show me." With those words, the thing cried. Like a scream ricocheting off canyon walls, it cherished my words. It called me saviour and friend, and took my hand in a breeze that no longer hurt me. My previous injuries melted away. The approaching train did not slow, but time seemed to stretch. The world was a slow-motion blur of instincts and emotions.
I ran the last few steps and dove down the rocky embankment while the train billowed past in a blinding screaming surge of momentum.
When the last train car had whipped past and the sound of power and bulk had been replaced by the sound of emptiness, I rubbed the grit from my face and saw the distorting outline of the ghost sliding down the steep rocky incline to the underpinnings of the bridge. By the time I had picked my way down to where I last saw the thing, it was gone, but I stumbled over what it wanted me to see.
There, between two mossy vine-crept stones and bent against the base of a tree, a body lay crumpled, almost skinless with age. Here was a kid who had not survived the crossing. From the looks of the twisted body and crushed skull, he had been flung here from the tracks far above, but it was clear that he did not die instantly. Though his body had been picked clean by animals and insects, and I could not make out details of his death from the jumbled sticky bones, his dead skeletal hand held a magic marker. Terribly mangled and bent nearly in two, the boy had managed to write one last message on the tree that caught his fall.
In shaky letters laced with pain, it read simply, "Leonard Alberg. Find my ...."
I promised the air that I would tell the police where the body was, and I found myself near tears, reassuring the spectre that I would help him and never forget him.
There was a slight settling of the bones then, as if the body had finally relaxed. As if its hellish exertions were finished forever. I looked back up at the silent tracks, at the fall, at the lonely grave.
"No more tracks for me," I muttered, and I picked my way through the brambles toward the safety of the road.
© s.c. virtes 1995