Saturday afternoon. You and Riley lay flat on your backs on the living room floor, teenager-bored, your legs propped up on the sofa seats. You’ve tossed a basketball back and forth in the driveway; dealt multiple hands of three different card games; dug the year-end homework out of your backpacks with great intentions. That homework is now scattered on the rug around you, ignored as much as the cat hair tumbleweeds fluttering beneath the sofa. You watch the ceiling fan twist in lazy circles. The breeze does nothing to cut through the close air of almost summer. It will rain later, all that heavy breaking to pieces, but right now it’s only hot.
Riley’s phone pings. She sighs, digging it out of her pocket. Her elbow rests on your arm while she reads the text. You should tell her to move, that it’s too warm for any kind of touching. You don’t. Besides, you’re sure that she will move soon enough. She’ll tap out a response and the two of you will drift back to your weekend stagnation. Instead, she looks at you in darting glances. She says your name, a question. “Mia?”
“Yeah?” The dust is a faint line of grey on each edge of the fan blades. You wonder if anyone has bothered to clean there since your family moved in. You never could figure out how the fuzz stays there, how it keeps from shaking loose to drift as the fan turns and turns.
“Nate says the car’s free. Want to go somewhere?”
“Don’t you want to know where?”
You shrug with one shoulder, the carpet fibers catching on your polyester tank-top. This isn’t new. It’s something you two sometimes do, ever since Riley got her license. You get in Riley’s Geo, a complete beater, and just drive. But not often. You won’t take the test for another four months, and the beater, older than you both are, is shared with her brothers. But the thought of it comes on you in fits. It’s freedom, or close enough. Freedom set on rails.
You tell Riley it doesn’t really matter. It’s something to do, isn’t it?
This is Riley: she likes your answer but would never say so out loud. She smiles widely, shows you all of her crooked teeth. She rushes to where she’s left her sneakers in a pile by the door. She fights the laces, shoving her feet into the high tops without loosening them enough first, harried and hurried like she’s running out of time. And this is Riley: bent over her knees to tie her shoes, hair escaping her braid in frizzes and bursts. There’s a hole in her t-shirt at the seam where sleeve meets torso. Through it, you can see the crease of her underarm.
* * *
Riley takes a two-lane highway north. She turns the car onto a road that climbs up a steep hill. At the top, it forks sharply to the left and into the woods. The asphalt has been patched, tarred, repaired so many times that it’s an echo of itself, the memory of a once smooth road caught in gravel and bumps. You plant your feet against the floor and reach up to anchor yourself against the ceiling, palm flat against a sunroof that has been jammed for years.
In a few months, Riley’s oldest brother will be struggling to open the sunroof even though he’s the one who broke it. He won’t see that at the next intersection the light has turned red. It will be touch-and-go for a while, but he’ll survive. The beater will be totaled. Riley will text you, and Riley will call you, and you will not answer.
For years you’ll think about that. You’ll tell yourself you didn’t know that’s why she was calling. How could you have known? Your phone will ring. Riley’s picture will appear on the screen. You will turn the phone face-down on the table. You will watch until it falls silent.
Right now, driving down that country road, you concentrate on the cool glass against your palm and try not to think about how the beater is surviving such a rough drive. The front wheel hits a pothole. You bite down on your tongue hard enough to taste blood.
Your resolve caves as the radio turns to static. “All right. Where’re we going?”
Riley drums her fingers against the steering wheel in a steady but indecipherable beat. “Here’s the thing,” she says, and slides her sunglasses to the top of her head. The trees around you are puffed with spring-fresh leaves, the green glow swelling in the late afternoon sun and brushing over Riley’s profile. “You’re gonna think I’m crazy.”
“I already think that.”
“Shut up,” says Riley, but there’s no real heat to the words. “Can I tell you a story?”
She doesn’t wait for you to nod yes or shake your head no. She jumps right in.
There was a woman. This was five years ago, or fifteen, or fifty. But, Riley says, the when is not important. It’s the what, the who, the woman. That’s who Riley’s more interested in. The woman had a fiancé. Their wedding was a few weeks away when the woman found out that she was going to have a baby. She told her fiancé.
Maybe the man already had cold feet about his coming nuptials. Maybe the baby was one step too much. Maybe someone attacked him and he was left for dead, never found. Maybe, maybe. Whatever the reason, he disappeared. The woman was heartbroken and shattered. So, the should-have-been night before her wedding, she put on her gown, drove to a local bridge that stretched over a river, and flung herself off. She died, taking the unborn baby with her, and no one ever found her body.
You wrinkle your nose. “How do they know she was in the wedding dress?” you ask. “If they never found her?”
Riley shushes you. It might have been offensive, but you’ve been shushed by her a hundred times before. It’s the same kind of shushing she uses when you talk during a movie, or partway through the good part of a song. She’s too excited for what comes next to bear any kind of delay. Riley says that after the woman died, they started to see her, hear her, walking along the bridge. The tattered train of her wedding dress, the dirty veil hanging over her face. The echoing call as she searches for her fiancé. They see her climb over the edge of the bridge and plummet. That’s where Riley’s taking you. To the bridge she haunts.
“Who’s they?” you ask.
“The one’s seeing her. How’d you even hear about this?”
“Should’ve guessed,” you say. This isn’t the first you’ve heard from Riley about the paranormal events thread, or ghosts, or monsters. When you were kids, she was convinced your grandmother haunted your attic. Last semester, in Speech class, you were assigned to teach the class a new skill. Riley gave fifteen minutes on how to tell if a photograph of a cryptid is real or fake. She showed examples of both. Whenever she talks about the Reddit thread, she says she only checks it once a day, sometimes twice. She uses the word reads, but you think consumes is probably closer.
“Less than two hours from us,” Riley says. “I couldn’t believe it when I read where it was. Crazy, right? The last time anything came so close was someone seeing sasquatch down by Carbondale last year. But this is right here. Spitting distance. Can you believe it?”
“No,” you say. She reaches over and shoves your shoulder. You don’t ask if she really believes it, or if this is just something to do on a slow afternoon. It’s a stale conversation, and anyway, you can see the answer glowing off her. It tangles with the green light from the woods. It’s always easier to give Riley the lead. It’s usually more fun. You say, “I kind of doubt Bigfoot’s running around on the prairie.”
“Aren’t we suddenly the expert?”
“There’s nowhere to hide in the grass,” you say. “What’s he do? Crawl?”
All around you are trees, the glow. Riley laughs, and that settles in around you too.
* * *
At the bridge, Riley kills the engine and kicks open her car door in a single motion. She has parked on one end, and she beelines toward the center. You unfold from the passenger seat but stay next to the beater. You don’t close your door, not right away. You keep it wide open in front of you, a dinged-up, flimsy-hinged wall between you and what’s out there.
Riley says something, but she’s too far ahead for you to make it out. When you don’t answer right away, she turns, arms crossed. “What’re you waiting for?” she asks.
You follow her out to the middle. Even now, newly May, it’s covered in dead and crackling leaves. The temperature and heaviness of the air is the same as it was back home, but it feels different here. The dampness of it sits on your collarbone like a hand pressing down. The sweat on your back feels like tiny fingers running down your spine, or something scurrying across your skin. Below you, below the cracked asphalt of the bridge, a dried-up, deep gully has been overtaken by weeds and saplings.
“I thought you said there was a river,” you say. You stay near the middle of the road, but peer as well as you can over the side. You don’t want to go any closer to the drop. There’s too much you can’t see: shadows tangled up in undergrowth; spaces hidden behind trees; a dog barking somewhere in the distance, the sound careening from trunk to trunk.
“Must’ve dried up,” says Riley. She has bounded straight to the rusted safety railing that runs along the bridge’s edge to look straight down.
“It couldn’t have been that big, then,” you say. You’re turning Riley’s story over in your mind, finding problems in logistics. “How’d she die jumping from here? It’s not tall enough.”
“Maybe she went headfirst.” Riley slams her fist into her open palm, a definitive thunk. “Maybe the river was still around and she didn’t know how to swim.” It takes rivers longer than that to run dry and for so much plant life to spring up. You say so. Riley says, “Maybe she just got hurt and no one found her until it was too late.”
“You said they said they never found her body.”
“So that part might be wrong. But I’m telling you, people have seen her out here. She shows up at night, in her dress, and plummets off the edge, but when you go to look—gone. Nothing at all.” Riley’s eyes get brighter and she walks a few feet further across the bridge, fingers trailing along the rail. This is Riley: all in, damn the torpedoes. “Maybe she just drove straight off. See how the fence is different here? Like it was replaced or something.”
You look as hard as you can to try and see what Riley sees, but it looks the exact same to you. The same scratched and scuffed green paint. The same spots of rust showing through. The same all the way down. You let her walk to the other side and look up. The sky’s been stained purple by the setting sun, the shadows around stretching long.
The bridge is the kind of old where it creaks and groans even though the air is still. A decade later, you’ll try to go see it again. Maybe you take a wrong turn, maybe someone tore it down, but you won’t find it. You’ll drive through the backwoods, double back, spin yourself in circles. You’ll be so frustrated that when tears perch along your eyelashes, your boyfriend will put his hand over yours on the steering wheel.
This is the same boyfriend who you will marry one day. Who, when you tell him about having too many drinks one night and kissing someone else, will smile when he says that it’s fine, it’s fine. Girls don’t count. But the day you can’t find the bridge, he’ll put his hand on yours and ask, “Mia?” He’ll ask why this is so important to you, and you’ll answer that it’s just one of those things. You won’t say anything about the dead woman’s maybe-story or Riley and the times she said your name like a question, the same way that he does.
Today, before you’ve ever kissed anyone, you walk back towards the car. At the start of the bridge, you find some graffiti. First, in a lopsided heart, P+C. Second, just below, Caitlin Marcus is a fucking slut. When Riley comes back over, you point at it.
“I bet P wrote both of these,” you say.
“Sure,” says Riley, and she does not look. You know this Riley. The one who gets so deep into her newest thing that she forgets you have not fallen in with her. She is too busy leaning close to the rail again. “Anyway. We’ll see soon enough.”
“See what?” You look around, like a bitter teenager will come barreling out towards you, brandishing a can of spray paint like a grenade. “P?”
“What? No,” says Riley. She looks confused, the same look people get when they surface in a pool, chlorine-water in their eyes making the whole world blurry. “The ghost.”
“Right. The ghost,” you say. “How long are we going to wait for it, exactly?”
“As long as it takes.”
“What if it doesn’t show up?” When. When it doesn’t show up.
“She will,” says Riley.
She leans against the railing and you get a little bit nervous. You’ve never been good at being up on high things. You once climbed up onto the high dive at the community pool and stood there, looking down and paralyzed, for nearly ten minutes. You couldn’t figure out which would be worse, to climb down all that ladder or tip off the end of the board. You climbed down, eventually, so maybe it wasn’t the height after all. It must be the jumping that you’ve never gotten the knack of. The choosing. The step forward before all that falling.
“How do you know?”
Riley shrugs, a rise and fall of a single shoulder. “I just do.”
Up above, while you are talking, rain clouds bustle in. The sun has set, dragging most of the day’s heat down with it. You cross your arms and wonder how you’d managed to complain about the warm temperature. If Riley had told you that you’d be here this late, you would’ve taken the time to grab a jacket, or at least a sweater. Worst of all, it’s still humid and the air is still heavy. But now that damp is cold, cold that hunkers down under your skin to stay.
If Riley feels the same chill, you can’t tell. You think if she did notice, she’d be talking a mile a minute about it. If movies and television have taught you anything, it’s that cold announces the oncoming dead. It’s a good thing you don’t believe in ghosts. You keep telling yourself that, looking from tree to tree, shadow to shadow. Good thing.
“Scared?” asks Riley.
“You are. You don’t have to admit it. But I know you are.”
Your answer is swallowed up by a bellow of thunder, the lightning veining the sky above you. It’s so close that the bridge shakes. The trees shake. The thought of the ghost drifts away from your minds to the ground with the leaves. You and Riley flinch and hunch down, arms over your head like that can protect you. The rain comes, big rain that slaps against your skin. You fumble with the passenger door you’ve been leaning against, struggling to jump inside. All around you, the day’s humidity breaks and crashes, shattering to pieces on the ground.
It takes Riley longer to get to the car than you. By the time she throws herself behind the wheel, she’s soaked to the bone. She laughs loudly, brightly, wildly.
“The heat, the heat!” you say.
She fires up the engine. You both raise your hands to the vents even though the beater always takes ten, fifteen minutes for any real shift in temperature to happen. You huddle together, hair raising on skin in the cold, ripples of goosebumps erupting up and down both of your arms. Riley is still laughing. Her hair is plastered to her face. Your heart tries to match the rhythm of the rain drumming down against the beater’s roof.
This is where you will return to, again and again. It will come to you at night when you can’t fall asleep, find you when the rain is big and loud, rise over you when the sun hits the tree leaves and makes them glow. Who moves first? Is it Riley, still laughing? Does she lean forward and kiss you, lightly, at the corner of your mouth? Or maybe it’s you. You start it. You’re already breathing one another’s air. It’s nothing at all to close the gap.
You won’t remember who kisses who. This will be important, one day, when you realize you don’t remember. But in the car, it’s not even half a thought. It’s your first kiss, not Riley’s, and she’s better at it than you. She’s always been better at things than you. What are you supposed to do with your hands? They end up in loose fists, resting on Riley’s arm. Her fingers drift up to your jaw. You panic. You end it. You pull away.
You turn, face her, knees pulled up to your chest and shoes leaving muddy prints on the car seat. The beater’s manual window crank digs into your back. Riley smiles at you, but it turns your panic into something else. It’s the same expression she had when she told you that she knew you were scared. She didn’t say it then, but you know what she meant: that she knows you better than you know yourself. She opens her mouth to speak.
“No,” you say, before she can talk you into something more, something else. You shake your head, say it again. “No.”
She looks surprised, then disappointed, then pulls it all together to be carefully blank. You cross your arms, shaking hands tucked out of sight. Your raindrop heartbeat rallies up into a storm to match the one outside. You think you should let it pass, steam out into something as insubstantial as the dead woman’s ghost. Or you will think that. You will look back and see yourself as you were, as you are: angry without questioning it, terrified and not knowing why.
Maybe you and Riley would have passed this, let it turn into a story you could tell one day. But she says, “I’ve seen you looking at me. Come on.”
“You don’t know. You always think you know best but you don’t. You’re wrong.”
“Mia,” she says. Almost a question, but one that Riley knows the answer to already.
You stop listening to the words as you say them—you say again and again that Riley is wrong. That she has imagined it. It’s just another stupid story she’s been telling herself, another imagined ghost she’s been chasing, creating proof from thin air, seeing what she wants to see, trying to compensate for her boring life by making up tales whenever it suits her.
You won’t remember exactly the last words, will you? The phrasing will escape you. You say, “This isn’t going to happen again.” Or you say, “This won’t happen again.” You’ll go back and forth, thinking it over. Isn’t or won’t. Isn’t or won’t. It doesn’t matter. Riley looks like she’s tripped but the fall hasn’t registered yet; she doesn’t blink, her mouth hangs open. It does not matter. It matters entirely.
Outside, the storm has passed. You can’t tell if it’s still raining or if the trees are shaking the last of the drops free from their leaves above you. You tell Riley you want to go home, and she says, “I need a minute,” and gets out of the car. She walks to the rail and leans against it.
When Riley comes back, you won’t wait for the ghost anymore. The two of you will sit in stilted silence made all the worse by the faded storm. Riley will put the car in reverse, and you’ll head back towards the highway. Neither of you will say anything, not for the whole drive. You won’t know if she even looks over at you, since you won’t look up from the tops of your shoes, your rain-splattered jeans.
She will stop at a light three blocks from your house, and you won’t be able to stand it for another second. You’ll get out, right there on the road. Riley will call after you and say she’ll drive you the whole way, and you’ll tell her it’s fine. She’ll say something else but you’ll have already slammed the door behind you. Her words get cut off by the beater’s scratched window, caught inside the car with Riley, the stained seats, the broken sunroof.
You’ll march home, arms crossed tight over your chest. Within the hour, your phone will buzz. A text from Riley. Can we talk? And after, Please? You will stare at these words for five minutes, ten, fifteen. You will not answer.
Right now, you sit in the passenger seat and look at Riley, out there in the passing rain. It steams into a fog rising off of the asphalt. Riley stands against the dark, against the trees, lit up in the beater’s headlights. Riley, facing away from you, looking down into the gully below, the would-be river. Her white t-shirt, her khaki shorts. Her hair has escaped the braid almost completely, rising up around her with the fog, a frizzed and haphazard halo, a glow. She looks like she could tip forward and melt away into the night.
Becca Anderson is a writer from Green Bay, Wisconsin. She earned her BA and MA in English from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire before moving west to pursue an MFA in Fiction from Boise State University. Her work has appeared in Lunch Ticket and was recently selected by Kali Fajardo-Anstine as the recipient of the 2019 Glenn Balch Award. She currently lives in Idaho and splits her time slinging coffee at her day job, finishing her degree, and working on her young adult novel about witches on Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands.