Our guest post today is by the lovely Laura Anne Gilman. She's the author of several series but you will probably know her from her urban fantasy Cosa Nostradamus books, which include the Retrievers series (about Wren and Sergei) and its spinoff, the Paranormal Scene Investigations series.
Laura Anne is here today to celebrate the release of her fourth Paranormal Scene Investigations book, DRAGON JUSTICE, which was released on July 24. She's written a truly spooky story for the event that I hope you'll enjoy.
Under the Bridge
© Laura Anne Gilman 2012
“You don’t have to do this.”
“Yes, I do.”
The bridge curved over the water, high enough that you could paddle underneath without having to duck your head, even Ms. Caroline, who was really, really tall, but not so high that you got dizzy, if you leaned over the edge and looked down to see if there were any fish or snapping turtles lurking below.
It was made of wood that creaked when the cabin raced across on their way to swimming lessons, but there was concrete at either end, holding the planks into the ground. No matter how bad the storms got in the winter, when the camp was closed and nobody was around, the bridge was always there when camp opened.
There were stories about the bridge, though. How, if you stood at the very center at the right moment, under a full moon, and made a wish, that wish would come true. Or if you got kissed just as your canoe went underneath, that relationship would last all year. Things like that, traditions that grew every year, and people tried and sometimes wishes came true, and sometimes couples were still together when they came back to camp next summer, and sometimes they didn’t and sometimes they weren’t, and people still told the stories and maybe-believed.
But there was another story about the bridge.
A story about the cement that was used to hold the wood in place. The story said that there was a body in it. That someone had killed a girl, and thrown her body in to hide it, back when the camp was being built.
I didn’t believe it. Not that it couldn’t have happened; I knew enough that anything could happen, and people were just horrible enough to each other that the thought of someone being thrown into the cement and left there to die? Yeah, I could believe that. At my age, everyone’s crap to each other. Adults are crap because they’re too busy to worry about what you think or feel, and we’re crap to each other because… because we are, I guess. And I knew years ago that there were people, there are people, who think there’s only half a step between being mean and murder.
But dead is dead. Ghosts were our minds and memories playing tricks us on, or some wiggly atmospheric stuff sticking around for a while, or something, I don’t know. But they weren’t physical. They couldn’t really hurt you. Everyone knew that.
“You’re really going to do it?”
“Sure.” I shrugged. “I’m not going back and admitting I chickened out.” Being with the right group was important. It mattered. I wasn’t going to screw it up.
We were standing on the bridge, just past where it curved and started back down to the other bank. It was dark out – all the younger kids were lights-out already, and the older cabins were doing an overnight hike on Pine Mountain, the other side of camp. It was just us, and Ms. Joan and Ms Kathy thought we were in our bunks with the others, playing poker.
We weren’t supposed to play poker, and there would be trouble if anyone told, but it kept us quiet and out of trouble and we were only playing penny stakes anyway, so our counselors pretended we were reading, or writing letters home, or something the rules approved of.
“I mean, it’s not like they say she comes out of the block and murdered you or anything,” I said.
“No,” Meg said, chewing on the end of her braid like she was still nine, like wen we first met. “No, they don’t say anything at all about what she does.”
Meg always worried. But she was here with me anyway. Grace and Tish were on the other side of the creek. It was a full moon, and the sky was clear and bright enough that I could see them, Tish’s sunburn almost glowing against the shadows, while Grace was only a dark outline in jeans and a sweatshirt. They were there to make sure I went through with it. Nobody would trust Meg as the sole witness, not with this.
The others stayed in the cabin, covering for us. I’d been the only one willing enough to pick up the dare. It wasn’t bravery if you knew there wasn’t anything to be scared of. Well, other than getting caught, anyway.
“If you’re going to do it,” Meg started, then stopped without finishing her sentence.
“Yeah, I know.” We were wasting time, just standing here. I pulled my own sweatshirt off, and shimmied out of my shorts. Walking down to the creek at night was cause to get scolded, maybe grounded. If a counselor had seen me in a swimsuit after dark, I’d have been sent home tomorrow morning, no ifs ands or waitaminutes. And then my parents would kill me.
The water was cold, and kind of clammy against my toes. I wasn’t worried about fish, and only a little worried about the snapping turtles – I’d been coming to Camp Greenhill since I was ten, and nobody’d lost a toe to a turtle yet. But the familiar depths of the creek suddenly looked strange in the darkness, no matter how many times we’d tromped over the bridge, flashlights waving and voices raised either in song or gossip or shouts just to hear the echoes up the hill to where the cabins were.
“All right” I said, because I wasn’t going to back out now, not and face the ribbing I’d get all summer, not to mention the fifty dollars on the table back at the cabin. Fifty dollars, five from every girl in the cabin, including Meg. I’d give her share back, once I had it.
The water here was only to my ankles. It dropped off fast, though. I shivered, braced myself, and pushed off in a surface dive, exactly the way we’d been taught. Mr. Karl would have been proud, I don’t think I made a splash.
I knew that nobody back at the cabin thought I’d do it. That’s why they’d send Grace and Tish with me, to make sure it happened. Even Meg didn’t think I’d do it, that’s why she was with me, to see me actually swim underneath. I’d screwed up during swimming lessons last week, hadn’t been able to swim the entire distance underwater like I was supposed to. I thought I had, I’d been sure I’d gone far enough, but I hadn’t. I’d come to the surface, gasping for air, barely halfway there. None of them really thought I’d do it this time, either.
I would. I’d show them.
The creek fed into the lake where we had out swimming lessons, so I was used to the kind of weird taste to it, and I knew from canoeing that there was a current that would push me toward the middle, away from where I wanted to be. But the darkness still made everything weird, and when I opened my eyes underwater, I couldn’t figure out where I was.
Panic hit me, and I almost surfaced. But that would just mean having to go back underwater again, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do that. So I swam forward, and the thick shadow in front of me turned out to be one of the bridge posts. All right, I knew where I was then. All I had to do was turn left, and swim up to the concrete block. Then touch it, and call out the ghost. That was all.
The block was entirely underwater, maybe three feet down. It looked bigger than I’d thought, bigger than was really needed to hold a footbridge steady, but my dad always said they’d built every thing better, back when the camp was first built. It was a government project, when my grandpa was around. The cabins had been upgraded, and the showers, but everything else was still like it had been back then.
All that, stuff I already knew, stupid stuff, went through my head as I reached out and let my fingers rest on the concrete block.
It felt gross. Slick gross, slimy and rough. Knowing it was just algae and crap, same as was on the dock on the lake, didn’t make it feel any better.
My lungs were starting to hurt. I tried to figure out if I’d be able to get to the surface without losing touch of the block; probably not. I had to do it here, or lost the bet. But how would they know if I did it or not, if they couldn’t see me?
Duh, I thought. They wouldn’t be able to see me anyway: I was under the bridge.
I opened my mouth to say the girl’s name, and water flooded in. I coughed, and managed to mouth the words: Lucy Page.
Was it enough? I didn’t care. I scraped my nails against the slime, and let my body shoot upward, spitting out a mouth of water and gasping for breath like before, but triumphant this time. I’d done it.
“Lucy Page” I said again, out loud, just in case, just to show them.
There probably was no girl, killed and thrown into cement, haunting this bridge. And even if someone had died here, that probably wasn’t her name. Why would a teenaged girl be down here, back then?
They killed me.
Soft, the words were so soft, but right in my ear, like a game of pass-the-word. Wet, cold fingers on my shoulder, sliding across the back of my neck. No, it was just my hair, wet, falling across my skin.
They brought me down here and held me down and cut my throat and I could feel the cold fingers drawing across my neck, and suddenly I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t scream, couldn’t even croak out Meg’s name, even through she was only a couple of feet away, on the bank waiting… she was waiting, right?
They’ll wait the voice said they’ll wait to see what happens, and giggle, and be glad it wasn’t them.
Two other girls, standing up the hill, just outside the tree line. I could see them, even though there was no way I could see them, not from under the bridge. They were wearing skirts, not shorts, and the bridge was raw-looking, not the battered, weathered wood we walked over every day, but they were my memories, I knew them, I knew those girls, and I raised my hand to try and call them, to reach them. Why didn’t they come help me?
Slowly, I remembered. We’d been walking, up along the fire road. There had been two men. Young, good-looking. They’d invited us down to the creek. We’d giggled, knowing we shouldn’t be there, but it was an adventure, something mildly forbidden, and there were three of us so that was okay. Then… they’d said they only wanted one, and the others could go.
They hadn’t gone, though. Not far, just far enough to be safe, and then they’d watched, clutching each other. Watched as my throat went icy-cold, then hot, and then slowly slowly it all drained back to cold. Watched, and let me die.
Cold anger, burning hot in my guts, my bones. Coiled and ready to lash out, given half the chance.
No, I thought, trying to shake it off. I wasn’t dead. That wasn’t me. I tried to remember the feel of the water on my skin, the taste of it in my mouth, the sound of laughter as we were playing poker, talking crap about how brave we were, even though we weren’t old enough yet to do the overnight hike…
They threw me away. They left me to die.
So cold. So angry. Not at me, for me. For us. The fingers weren’t threatening any more, they held me, cuddled me, and there was a moment when that was all I wanted, and I wanted her to feel the same, wanted her to feel safe, and protected, and…revenged.
Let them die. Let them feel the knife, the cold, the long silence when everyone else leaves, abandons them…
Who was I? It was all hazy, like trying to see through the dark water. Nothing felt real, only the hot-cold voice scraping across in my brain., and that wasn’t me, it wasn’t…
The algae-coated fingers on my neck pushed in, under my skin, and I shivered. So cold. So cold and angry and alone.
“Sue, come on. Where are you?”
I knew that voice. I knew that name.
They left me alone. Hurt. Hurt them.
There was a rustle of sound, more voices. They had come back to see. To gawk. Too late.
“She went under, and then I heard a splash, but she hasn’t come out.”
“Sue!” Tish’s voice, brash and hard. “Sue come on, this isn’t funny."
Yes, yes it is. It will be. Call them in, tell them you saw something. Tell them they have to see this.
“I-“ I tried to say, but my throat was still choked up by the water, the fingers against my throat.
Bring them here. Let them know what it feels like.
The anger drowned me where water had not. Snubbed. Ignored. Passed-over. Like at school, everyone else in on the joke, texting and giggling. I’d thought it was different here, thought they were my friends. But they didn’t think I’d do it. They came down here to see me fail. They watched me die. I could have died. I died.
“Over here!” I called. “You’re not going to believe this!”
My voice didn’t sound right, but they didn’t notice.
“Oh my god, you scared us!” Grace, and I could see her legs now, hear her splashing towards me, from the edge of the creek. “I’ve got a towel, and oh my god the water’s freezing, we’re going to get you some hot chocolate if I have to raid the dining hall myself, what the hell were we thinking? Get out of there, now!”
The water was warm. I stayed where I was, my fingers curled around something that hadn’t been there before, something hard and cool and sharp.
They hadn’t believed I’d do it. They’d laughed at me. They’d abandoned me, let things happen to me, and they hadn’t done anything.
People were crap. You couldn’t trust anyone.
My throat was filled with blood; I couldn’t breathe.
“Come on,” Grace said, just out of reach. “This was stupid. Come on, let’s get back to the bunk before you spend the rest of the summer sneezing with a cold and I feel even worse.”
She was almost within reach.
“Sue, come on.” Meg, splashing beside her, the water almost up to her hips, short as she was. “No, I won’t come out,” she said over her shoulder, to Tish. “If we’re all wet we’ll all get in trouble. That’s only fair.”
Yes. Only fair. Everyone suffers.
“Sue?” Grace’s voice, quiet, and her fingers touched my arm. “Come on.”
She was in reach. Two of them, within reach. Do it. The fingers resting at my throat tightened, the taste of blood all I could feel, and then it was just a knot in my throat, and my nose was running, and Grace’s arms were around me, and she was shaking, too.
My fingers loosened, and the knife fell away, and was gone.
More about DRAGON JUSTICE:
WE KNEW THE JOB WAS IMPOSSIBLE WHEN WE TOOK IT...
In my time with PUPI, formally known as Private, Unaffiliated Paranormal Investigations, I've seen a lot. Learned a lot. And not all of it's been good. But what we do-make people accountable for crimes committed with magic-is important work.
Still. Even I need to take a break every now and again. Or so I've just been told (ordered).
So hey, vacation. Maybe I'll finally figure out what's going on with the "special bond" between me and the boss man, Benjamin Venec. Venec seems to like that idea-he's invited me down to join him on a jaunt to Philly. But no sooner do I arrive in the City of Brotherly Love than we're called in to look at a dead body.
And that's when life gets really complicated....
More books by Laura Anne:
Paranormal Scene Investigations
The Vineart Wars Trilogy
To enter the giveaway, fill out the Rafflecopter form below.
Ends Wednesday, September 5th, 2012
(like all of our Paranormal Summer Camp giveaways)
Laura Anne is the author of the popular Cosa Nostradamus novels for Luna, and the award-nominated The Vineart War trilogy from Pocket, as well as the story collection Dragon Virus. In 2012 she will be dipping her pen into the mystery field as well, writing as L.A. Kornetsky.
A member of the on-line writers’ consortium BookView Cafe, she continues to write and sell short fiction in a variety of genres, selling most recently to Daily Science Fiction and the anthology DEAD MAN’S HAND.