Some of the older people remembered when the soil in Hartsville, South Carolina was dark brown and even the look of it could quench someone’s thirst. But that was thirty years ago and the drought had ended many things. The most important one was the presence of people and the care of the monuments that they’d set up to honor their lives in the country that had once held trees and grasslands and lakes and meadows now desiccated of nearly all life.
Except for the scant river running under the ancient stone bridge.
The one where rust filigree had erased the cryptic tattoos of spray paint applied many, many years ago. As if a palimpsest of spells.
Alicia had forgotten her wallet at the hospital after a grueling 12-hour shift, exhausting not so much because of the workload but because the population of Hartsville was old and dying. This created a vacuum of patients where there were no people only sick. No one capable of being cured. She was an optimist given, since a little girl, to seek the uplifting side of any situation. It was not uncommon for her to feel like a failure if a friend or family member didn’t leave an interaction with her at least smiling. Making people feel good was her obsession. Yet, these days her mind felt water-logged. Everything was so goddamned heavy. She sometimes shut off her thoughts while driving on the country shortcut (her parents, when she was young, would take it home after church because of the beautiful scenery but now she drove it only as the shortest route). She once relished driving back this way to her house. The way the forest intruded on the road made her feel as if she were in a different time. It calmed her nerves after a particularly hectic shift.
The drought had made quick work of it. The land had become a dust bowl where heaven and earth met at no particular place but only merged into one another. Shapeless amalgamations of maroon and indigo were created that, more than once, had caused an accident on late nights such as this one. It was to Alicia’s benefit that the moon was out. That the shortcut was empty of cars by nightfall. That cloud cover was minimal. This was how she noticed a figure on the bridge. She might’ve driven by as if nothing of considerable importance was occurring. She often thought of that, I might’ve driven by and never known…
Eons ago, in the 1960s, suicides briefly hit a nationwide peak in Hartsville as a result of the draft of several young men, sons of professors at the local college, who had formed a pact that if their parents would not provide them the means to leave the country that they would jump off the Ellsberg Bridge, the drop wasn’t significant and no one ever considered the Pee Dee River a fearsome god of death, but the young men (twelve in all) succeeded. It was in this way that the bridge was said to be haunted and occasioned by years of high school students forming “Halloween midnight meetings” and even the gathering of a few short lived gangs.
Alicia had come of age on the tail end of this tradition (the drought ended most folkloric exercises as the people who remembered them vanished beneath their bedsheets, reincarnating as marble slabs in local cemeteries). Yet, she still remembered the rumors surrounding it. The campfire stories at Girl Scout camp. The middle school threats wrapped in the ghosts of the lost. The shapes of the damned in the shadows of her room. Her heart rose to her throat as she suddenly imagined that it was the Devil standing in the moonlight, but as the car grew closer she regained her wits and realized that it was a person, a young girl, and she shifted into park.
Delicately opening the door, she turning off the ignition. She was unsure of what was happening at first, her eyes still glazed from the hours of mind-numbing activity, life and care reduced to paperwork. She couldn’t be too sure that this wasn’t her imagination. Yet, the soft gulps of air coming from the figure assured her that it was real. She spoke gently, “Are you okay?” The breathing increased in speed and she tip-toed closer. The figure turned to her and Alicia suddenly saw the whites of a girl’s eyes. Alicia jumped, screeched. The eyes confirmed it. Everything was real at that moment. Alicia clamped her hands to her mouth to hide the sound, but she could already hear it echoing off the bridge. The figure made a sound like a whimper and disappeared into the dark. Once the eyes were gone, Alicia was sure that it must be a dream. Walking back and forth but stopping short of the bridge, Alicia was positive that it had been a dream. More than this, it was a folk tale that she’d heard back in high school. It fell out of her head and ran out on the bridge to meet her. She’d seen a bogeyman jumping into the Pee Dee River. Another legend for the Ellsberg Bridge…
The night was quiet. No cars on the shortcut. Not even crickets. Was it possible? She could hear her feet scraping against the asphalt worn to a gruff sandpaper texture. Nothing lived here, she thought. Other thoughts were creeping up, but she pushed them back down as she returned to her car. The sound of the engine. The sudden explosion of the radio. A pop song. She wasn’t even sure of the words, so she made sounds. Eventually she caught on to the cadence. The beat was easy. The same harmonies recurring over repetitive four-four time. Nothing lived here, she thought. “Nothing lived here,” she said, not even able to hear her own voice over the music.
The Pee Dee River was once a thundering queen of the South Carolina Low Country, but after the drought the average water level dropped several inches each year until it was a muddy bed of rocks festering with mosquitoes and other unruly pests. Many people regarded it as a sewage dump of sorts even though local governments insisted that this wasn’t the case; yet, drivers often complain about the smell emanating from the river. Especially over last summer when many people confessed that it smelled “as if something was dying down there.” County officials assured citizens that the smell was just detritus (fish, sea creatures, plant life, etc.) decaying naturally: another sad consequence of the drought that had destroyed so many beautiful things in that once lush southern countryside. “Can you be sure?” one local asked at a town meeting. The county official, tired and recovering from a recent bout of the flu, said, “If you don’t believe me, then go down there and look for yourself.” No one ever took him up on the offer. Even if they felt something serious was down there, no one had time to worry about the dead when they themselves were busy to get on with their own insufferable days in the desiccating heat of a roasting underworld.
Brennan Burnside lives in between Upstate New York and southeastern Pennsylvania. He reminds himself of a weather system. His work has appeared in Word Riot, Gravel and Atlas and Alice, among others. His blog is burnsideonburnside.tumblr.com.