Marcus Hunter won't stay dead; he stalks his bridge all bloody red...
As a pregnant fifteen year old, Autumn Fields learned firsthand that the town ghost was more than a creepy legend. All alone in the world, rejected by her boyfriend and beaten bloody by her father, Autumn climbed out onto Hunter’s Bridge to kill herself, but an encounter with a mysterious man convinced her that dying wouldn't necessarily solve her problems.
Sixteen years later, she's coming back to Prospect with her teenaged daughter to make peace with her dying father and finally discover the truth about that night long ago. But with the haunted bridge about to be torn down, has Autumn waited too long to come back and find her ghost?
Gilbert M. Stack has been creating stories almost since he began speaking and publishing fiction and non-fiction since 2006.
A professional historian, Gilbert delights in bringing the past to life in his fiction, depicting characters who are both true to their time and empathetic with modern sensibilities. His work can be found online and in the pages of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.
He lives in New Jersey with his wonderful wife, Michelle, and their son, Michael.
On the Bridge
Sixteen Years Ago
Wednesday, October 15, 1975
Autumn wiped at the blood dripping from her broken nose with the back of her hand and ground her teeth against the spiking pain this caused her. Raindrops splattered against her face. Her long black hair was already thoroughly soaked and she shivered in her wet clothes as she stumbled onto the walkway that lined the side of the old railroad bridge that crossed Miner’s Gorge.
She felt so stupid. Rich hadn’t cared about her at all. Nobody cared about her. He’d gotten what he wanted and then accused her of sleeping around when she’d told him she was pregnant.
The girl bumped against the protective railing, jarring the bruises Daddy had given her when he kicked her in the ribs. She just couldn’t believe how stupid she’d been. A high school senior had shown interest in a lowly freshman and she’d let herself believe it was love.
The wind blew strong and steady out over the gorge, adding to Autumn’s misery. There were lights high up on the bridge but they didn’t do much to hold back the darkness. Overhead somewhere the moon shone full, but she couldn’t see it through the clouds. So it was as much by sense and gut-feeling, as by sight, that Autumn determined she was in the center of the bridge and stopped to stare down at the stream three hundred feet below.
She couldn’t quite see it in the absence of true illumination, but she could hear the water rushing over the rocks, a steady background to the sound of the rain striking the steel frame of the bridge. Rich shouldn’t have talked about what he’d done—not that he admitted being the father of the little life growing within her. He’d let all of her friends find out and someone had told the teachers. She’d been called in to face Sister Catherine Thomas in the principal’s office and she hadn’t believed her about Rich either. Everyone seemed to think it was all Autumn’s fault.
She put her trembling hands on the cold wet steel of the railing and painfully hauled herself on top of it, fighting for breath through the coalescing blood clogging her broken nose. It should have been harder Maybe this was why so many people ended their lives by jumping into Miner’s Gorge.
Exercising an intense amount of care that seemed at odds with her determination to kill herself, Autumn eased herself down the far side of the rail until the soaked leather of her school shoes touched the slippery steel of the bridge again.
Daddy shouldn’t have told her she was dead to him and thrown her out of the house. Ivy shouldn’t have watched and not said anything. It wasn’t like everyone didn’t know why she’d married Paul last year—it hadn’t been nine months before John was born.
Very carefully, making absolutely certain of every movement, Autumn turned around until she faced away from the steel structure and out toward the gorge. Her trembling hands kept their grip on the cold wet rail so that she wouldn’t prematurely fall into the abyss below her. She was going to die tonight but she wanted to do it on her terms.
She snuffed at the bloody mucus dripping from her nose and wished she could wipe the tears and rain from her face, but she was afraid to let go with one hand so she could do so. It seemed important that she jump, not fall.
She snuffed again.
Rich shouldn’t have laughed at her when she’d asked if she could stay with him. Her best friend Diane should have at least asked her parents if they would help. They were all supposed to be Catholics, weren’t they? Why did they all want to drive her out on her own?
She closed her eyes and leaned forward so her body tottered out above the inky blackness beneath her. Her elbows locked as her hands kept their grip on the railing. She wanted to pray, but what was the point? God had obviously abandoned her.
She tried to calm her heart beat and moderate her breathing. The waters rushing through the gorge far below were not the welcoming sound she had imagined they’d be. For a brief moment, she considered not jumping—contemplated returning home and sitting on the sidewalk until the police finally came and forced Daddy to let her back inside. It was two more weeks before she’d turn sixteen. Surely they wouldn’t let him throw her out on the street?
But Daddy got on well with the police. He was a foreman at the Pembroke Steel Plant in town and an usher at church and everybody liked him. Even if they made him take her inside again, they weren’t going to stop the beatings. It was better to make everybody happy and end it.
She opened her eyes and stared down toward the water beneath her. Despite the rain, the clouds had thinned enough to let a single ray of moonlight penetrate the blackness beneath her and reflect across the water surging over the rocks. She couldn’t actually see the jagged stones, but she knew they were there. Bodies didn’t usually disappear when people jumped off the bridge. Everyone would know what Daddy, Rich and Diane had driven her to.
Her arms trembled now with the strain of holding her weight. Her fingers began to slip on the wet rail. It was time.
Autumn filled her mind with imagined images of her long departed mother. They were imagined because Daddy didn’t keep any pictures of her after she’d died giving birth to Autumn, but she knew in her heart what Mama would have looked like if she were here, and she knew in her soul that Mama wouldn’t have let Daddy hit her, or kick her, or throw her out of the house because Rich lied and didn’t really love her.
She took a deep breath despite the pain in her side and braced herself to let go.
“Is that a little girl beneath those bruises?” a deep voice asked. “There’s so many of them I can’t tell for certain.”
Startled, Autumn’s left hand slipped off the railing and she screamed as she fell forward into the abyss. Her right hand held tight for an extra second and a half, long enough to swing her around so that her torso crashed against the railing and jarred her free. She screamed again as she plummeted downward, both hands flailing toward the steel rods that formed the railing. She caught it again at the very last instant, right hand fingers snagging the crossbar near the base of the rail while her left hand clawed at the slick steel surface of the bridge itself.
“Oh, my God, I’m going to die.”
A man squatted down in front of her on the other side of the rail—crouching to speak—not to offer assistance. He had short dark hair that ruffled in the wind and the falling rain hadn’t soaked him yet. “I don’t see the difficulty. Isn’t dying why you came out on my bridge tonight? It’s what most people who climb over the rail intend to do.”
Autumn’s fingers on the slick surface of the bridge could not find anything to catch hold of and her grip on the base of the railing was weakening rapidly. “Please!” Autumn shouted. Her voice had turned shrill and piercing.
“Please what?” the man asked her. “Are you saying you didn’t come here to kill yourself?”
Despite the intense pain in her side, Autumn fought to readjust her grip and secure a few more precious seconds of life. “I’m not ready!” Terrified of falling, she wasn’t certain she was speaking coherently.
A horn sounded far in the distance, evidence a train was winding its way through the mountains toward this bridge. If it was close enough to shake the structure before she climbed back up she was done for.
The man was unmoved by her protestations. “Why not? I mean you’re nine-tenths of the way to your goal. Wouldn’t it be easier to just let go? Isn’t that why you came out here tonight?”
“No!” Autumn pleaded. “I don’t want to. I’ve changed my mind.”
She was only holding on by her fingertips now and her cold digits couldn’t maintain their grip on the slick metal much longer. Another second or two and she’d plunge into the darkness below her.
“Young minds are very malleable,” the man agreed. He seemed to feel no sense of urgency at all. “They’re always changing. Are you sure you don’t want to jump? I’d hate to make the effort to save you if you’re just going to turn around and leap again in a few minutes.”
“Help me!” Autumn screamed. Her fingers slipped free of the railing and—
She had no idea how the man crossed the barrier so quickly, but his strong fingers closed around her wrist and caught her dangling precariously above the gorge. The rushing sound of water far below her seemed to swell and fill her ears, pierced only by the sound of her own incoherent scream of terror.
“You only had to ask,” the man told her. He made no immediate move to finish rescuing her but leaned far out from the bridge above her holding her body high above the water.
Autumn twisted and turned, aggravating the pain in her side as she tried vainly to catch his arm with her free hand so she could hold on to him in turn. “Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God,” she screamed.
Still the man would not pull her to safety. “It’s more frightening than one of those roller coasters. When you make this drop, you don’t swoop up the other side—you break on the rocks and then drown in the frigid waters.”
“Help me,” Autumn screamed again.
“If you’re sure now this is what you want,” the man agreed amiably enough.
His muscles tensed and he began to pull her back onto the bridge. His left hand anchored them on the same railing she’d so recently held, while his right hauled her up against him until she could grab hold of his dry overcoat and regain a modest measure of control over her own suddenly dear life.
The relief of being halfway safe again brought new tears to Autumn’s eyes and she buried her wet face into the man’s shoulder and began to sob.
“Here now, there’ll be time for that in a moment when we have you back on the other side of the rail.” His right hand dropped beneath her and hefted her higher until he could ease her legs over the top of the railing.
She never once released her death grip on the front of his overcoat—even after her feet landed safely on the bridge again.
The man embraced her over the rail and let her cry, patiently absorbing her tears as she sobbed against his chest while he gently stroked her wet hair. “There, there, now, you don’t have to jump. You’re safe enough—for now.”
Autumn snuffed at the bloody mucus in her nose and pulled away from the musty smell of his overcoat, backing toward the center of the bridge.
The man smiled and gracefully hopped over the rail to stand beside her. Something about him didn’t seem quite right to Autumn, but she couldn’t put her finger on what it was.
Evidently, he sensed her discomfort. “There, there, now, I’m not going to hurt you. From the looks of you, someone has already done a good enough job at that. If you want me to, I’ll leave you alone now. It’s just that that.” He indicated the gorge with a jerk of his thumb. “That might begin to look a lot more attractive than it does now if I leave you alone here with it.”
A gust of wind swirled the rain beneath the skirt of her Catholic school uniform, making Autumn shiver. She wrapped her arms around her chest and braced herself against the cold. “What do you care? Why did you help me?”
“You’re cold,” the man sounded surprised as if it would have never occurred to him that a girl might get cold standing on a windy bridge in the middle of a rain storm in October. He pulled his overcoat off and draped it over Autumn’s shoulders. It was heavier than she expected—heavy and dry with the musty smell of disuse clinging to its surface, but Autumn gratefully gripped its edges with her hands and pulled it tight around her.
The man stepped back, facing Autumn without crowding her. The rain ran down on his face and spattered against his newly exposed white dress shirt without drenching him.
Autumn’s sense of unease grew more substantial. There was something very troubling about this strange man who had rescued her. As she shivered beneath his coat, her mind ran back over the past few minutes and she remembered he hadn’t simply come to her assistance. She remembered he’d almost watched her fall.
She backed up, firmly placing another step between them. Behind her from the far end of the bridge, a horn reminded her the train was on its way. It sounded much closer this time, but it didn’t seem as important or immediately dangerous to Autumn as this strange man standing in front of her. He had saved her life—she had no reason to believe he intended her ill—but the hairs on the back of her neck wanted to stand up despite the rain that drenched her hair and deluged the overcoat the man had lent her. “Why didn’t you grab hold of me out there? I almost fell while you were still talking.”
A wry smile formed on the man’s face. “I wanted to make certain you wanted me to save you.”
“Wanted you to…”
Autumn’s voice trailed off as for the first time she noticed that no matter how hard the wind blew or how furiously the rain pelted against the man, he never seemed to get any wetter than he had when the first few drops hit him. “Who are you?” she asked.
The man bowed good naturedly. It was a formal gesture. The kind you see in movies but never in real life. “Marcus Hunter, at your service, Miss.”
“Hunter?” Autumn asked. A half remembered jump rope chant rang through her mind. Marcus Hunter won’t stay dead; he stalks his bridge all bloody red. Throws people off on stormy nights; and smiles as they scream in fright.
Unconsciously she shrank further away from him. “You can’t be Marcus Hunter. He’s—”
“I know,” Hunter interrupted. His grin faltered. “It happened a long time ago. I’d consider it a courtesy if you wouldn’t mention it.”
“But how?” Autumn asked, taking another step away from him.
“If you back up anymore, you’ll be on the railroad tracks and that train that’s about to come out of the mountains might do for you what the fall didn’t,” Hunter warned.
Startled, Autumn glanced over her shoulder up the tracks just as the horn sounded again. She could see the light on the front of the train at what appeared to be a great distance.
The man disillusioned her. “It’s closer than it looks. I ought to know. I’ve seen it pass enough times.”
The roar of the train split the night, preceded by the wedge of its horn as it shot onto the bridge toward them. The entire structure began to shake beneath its weight—a disconcerting feeling that caused Autumn to hesitate just a moment when she should have been fleeing to the side of the bridge. When she finally did move, her foot slipped beneath her on the wet steel of the bridge and she fell backward onto the tracks.
The train blasted its horn again, and she imagined the conductor’s face grimacing in horror as he realized his iron horse was going to clip her. It was a worse death than she’d originally planned—an absolutely fitting ending to her short and miserable life. She got her feet beneath her but knew in her heart that she wasn’t moving quickly enough.
Marcus Hunter stepped in behind her, grasped her beneath her elbows and threw her toward the side of the bridge. The train rushed past even as her bruised ribs smashed against the iron rail bar and her scream pierced the night before a new blast of the horn overwhelmed it. She glanced back over her shoulder to find Hunter stepping out of the shadow of the train to join her at the rail. His dark expression seemed terribly menacing in the stormy night.
She turned around—back to the rail—and found him standing close enough to trap her against the steel bars with his body. Frightened, she tried to edge to the side but he moved closer, pressing her harder against the rail with his solid chest and enfolding her in his arms to remove any possibility of lateral movement. He dipped his mouth down near her ear and said something, but over the din of the train she couldn’t make out his words. She strained against his body but his flesh might have been made of the same iron as the rail behind her—it certainly felt as cold against her torso.
The childhood rhyme passed through her head again. Marcus Hunter won’t stay dead; he stalks his bridge all bloody red…
She wondered why the rhyme didn’t warn that Hunter played with his victims as well. How many people had changed their minds like her only to have this ghost throw them into the gorge anyway?
The last rail car passed and Hunter relaxed his grip on her, stepping back toward the center of the bridge.
Autumn took half a step away from the railing and stood staring warily at him—wondering what the strange man would do next.
“A fair number of people turn to the trains when they can’t find the courage to jump. I would guess that they think it will be a quicker, easier death—but they obviously haven’t seen the corpses of train victims.”
Autumn shuddered. “I wasn’t thinking of that.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Hunter said. He sat down on the track and gestured for Autumn to sit down next to him. “So why are you here tonight?” His voice sounded so very human and his interest seemed sincere.
Cautiously, Autumn sat down beside him a little more than an arm’s length away. “I…don’t know,” she lied. Tears formed in her eyes again, running down her face to mix with the rain.
Hunter just stared at her. Perhaps, being dead, if he really was the ghost of her rhyme, he was simply comfortable with silence.
Autumn was not. As the lack of speech drew longer between them, it weighed ever more heavily upon her, building within her an overpowering need to confess. “I’m pregnant,” Autumn told him.
“Ah,” Hunter said.
Tears fell faster. “I’m pregnant and Rich won’t…” She snuffed at the bloody mucus in her nose. “Diane didn’t…” She dragged the back of her hand across her eyes. “Sister Catherine Thomas said…”
Hunter was beside her again, wrapping her in his arms and pulling her against him so that the blood dripping from her broken nose stained his white shirt. “Ivy wouldn’t… Not even when Daddy knocked me down and started kicking me.”
Suddenly Hunter forced her back away from his body and his strong right hand gripped her hair so he could pull her head back and force her to look into his eyes. They were deep and gray and spoke of age and visions that a child like Autumn could not begin to fathom. “Your father did this? Your father broke your nose and your ribs?”
Terrified anew, Autumn found she could not look away from him or keep herself from answering. “Y-y-yes,” she stammered.
Hunter’s features softened and he pulled her wet form against him again. The hand in her hair began to stroke the back of her head as a decent father might when comforting his daughter. For a long time he said nothing again, while Autumn, still terrified, listened to the sound of her heart racing within her chest and shivered beneath the musty old coat he had given her.
After a long while, he spoke again. “Some things can’t be forgiven. Bring him out here if you like and I’ll get your vengeance for you.”
The words did not comfort her. Instead they increased her terror. She stood. “Why are you doing this? You’re supposed to throw people off…” Standing next to him as she was, she began to realize that the cold of the storm wasn’t the only chill her body fought this night. It wasn’t only the ghost’s touch. The very air around him seemed to radiate cold.
“It’s what he deserves, isn’t it?” the ghost asked.
For a moment, Autumn imagined what it would be like to lure her father out on this bridge and watch Marcus Hunter do unto him what Daddy had done unto her. She wondered if he’d scream or beg as the ghost lifted him over the railing, or if he’d curse them both as Hunter tossed him into the abyss. What would he do? Daddy always talked big, but the only people she’d actually seen him hit were herself and every once in a while, Ivy.
She shivered and this time it had nothing to do with the cold of the storm or the chill emanating from the ghost’s body. “No,” she said. Her mind became more certain as she said the words. “I don’t want you to kill him.”
Hunter lightly touched her face near her broken nose. The coldness in his fingers numbed the pain. “Even after he did this to you?”
“I don’t want him dead,” Autumn repeated. She had no doubts anymore and there was no room here for fanciful musing. Her father’s life might literally be on the line. “I don’t want him dead. I want him to care.”
Hunter lowered his hand. “I’m afraid I have no control over that.”
His admission damped the burst of righteous fire that had just taken life within Autumn’s belly. Dejected, she sat down again on the track, facing into the storm. “No one does. Maybe not even him.”
Hunter sat down beside her. “I’d like to help you.” Somehow Autumn found this more believable than if he’d simply protested that he cared. “But I’m bound here to this bridge so there are significant limits to what I can do. May I offer a bit of advice?”
Autumn didn’t even look up. Her agreement was without enthusiasm. Marcus Hunter had just confirmed what she already knew. No one was going to help her.
“Look to the right and tell me what you see,” the ghost instructed.
She did as he asked, looking back to the town of her birth. It was a squalid place, barely visible in the storm. Mostly what she saw from this angle were old factory buildings. Not the Pembroke Steel Plant—that was on the hill—but a gaggle of lesser industries many of which were closed down—their jobs moving south and west and overseas.
Saint Thomas Moore, her high school, was visible off to the left, popping up with the church near the edge of the factory zone. Houses—homes—sprawled out around it—visible only because of the lights in many of the windows. Car headlights moved along the streets, presumably with automobiles behind them. There was more, of course, but those were the parts that mattered to her life. Those were the parts in which she lived.
“What do you see?” Hunter repeated.
Autumn looked harder. She hated this place, she realized. With all of the people she knew—friends, teachers, parents, priests—not one of them had stepped up to help her. Not one of them would care if she had jumped off this bridge. “I see cruel people—hypocrites, fake friends…” Her voice dropped so low that it couldn’t even be termed a whisper. “Despair…”
“Now look to the left,” Hunter told her. If he’d had any trouble hearing her words he gave no indication of the problem. “What do you see?”
Autumn followed his directions. After the lights on the end of the bridge she could see nothing. The storm clouds blocked the moon and stars leaving the world painted in ever darker shadows.
“What do you see?” Hunter prompted her.
“It’s too dark,” Autumn told him. “I can’t—”
Hunter cut her off. “What do you see?” he insisted.
Autumn rose to her feet, holding her side when her ribs protested the movement. She strained her eyes against the darkness, trying to figure out what the man beside her wanted her to identify. “It’s too dark,” she repeated. Her voice rose in volume with her frustration.
Hunter stood beside her and shouted back. His suddenly angry face frightened her. “What do you see?”
“I don’t know,” Autumn screamed.
All signs of temper departed from his face. “That’s exactly right,” he told her. Calm again, his face looked quite handsome. “You don’t know what the world holds for you across the bridge. So that’s the choice you have to make.”
“I don’t understand,” Autumn protested but in her heart of hearts she was shocked by his suggestion. She’d intended to kill herself—not run away.
The ghost did not permit her to dissemble. “Yes, you do. Your home life is so bad you decided to kill yourself to escape it. What’s out there,” he gestured toward the dark end of the bridge, “it might be bad too, but you don’t know that for certain.”
The idea flabbergasted Autumn. “I can’t run away. How would I live? How would I support myself?”
“I don’t know,” Hunter told her. He stepped up beside her so she wouldn’t have to look back toward town to speak with him. “The world has changed. Even the trains look different. I can’t tell you what kinds of jobs you might find or who might offer you help. But here is something just as important that you do know. Back there in that town you decided to kill yourself. Maybe in leaving it, you’ll decide to live.”
Autumn couldn’t quite believe she was having this conversation—forget about the ghost. She couldn’t believe she was talking about running away from home. Somehow it seemed far more extreme to her than killing herself. Without consciously deciding to do it, she started forward toward the darkness and the unknown. “But where would I go?”
The ghost had no help for her. “I don’t know. What I do know it’s going to be hard—harder than anything you’ve ever done before. But maybe, just maybe, it’s the first step to a better road.”
Autumn stopped walking and turned to face him. “You really don’t know what’s out there?”
He shook his head. “Everything I know about now is here on this bridge.”
Autumn kept staring at him and this one time he seemed to grow uncomfortable with the silence. “I’ve talk several people out of jumping off this bridge. Those that leave that way toward town often return here in a few weeks or months more determined than ever to meet their ends.” He paused for a moment before adding: “No one who’s turned their back on that town has ever come back to kill themselves.”
Autumn thought about what he’d told her for a moment. Hunter didn’t know if those who had left this way before her had survived. He didn’t know anything about what had happened to them. This wasn’t necessarily a better future. So why was he pushing her away from home?
In a startling moment of clarity, Autumn understood what he was trying to tell her. “Hope. Are you offering me hope?”
The ghost nodded. “Hope is the one thing you lacked when you stepped onto my bridge this evening. And other than that coat it’s the only thing I have to give you.”
Autumn turned back to face the darkness at the end of the bridge. “I’m afraid,” she whispered.
The ghost stepped up beside her and took her cold hand in his colder one. “I can’t take the fear away and I can’t go with you. But this I can promise you: a girl who is strong enough to hold on to life tonight as you did—kicking and screaming as you fought to survive—that girl is strong enough to make it in the world on her own.”
He tried to get her walking again, but she resisted. Fresh tears brimmed in her eyes. “It’s so unfair.”
He didn’t disagree with her. “Yours is an exceptionally hard lot, but you know what waits for you behind you. Why not give yourself and the little baby you carry a chance to find some happiness?”
Autumn touched her belly above the spot she imagined the little life inside her to be.
For the first time in many hours she smiled.
Unconsciously, she began to walk forward again.
Marcus Hunter strode silently beside her until she stepped off the bridge.