By Megan Paasch
It was a nice little bridge. Stone, carved in an art deco sort of style. He knew every crevice and every crack. He knew the spot where the mason had messed up and made one of the pillars a smidgeon too short and had tried to fix it by mortaring in an extra half-inch slab. He’d done a good job of it. There wasn’t much more than a hairline to tell that it was there.
He remembered every single person that had walked across it since he’d arrived – all two-thousand thirty-six of them. They didn’t come as frequently as he would have thought, though time was irrelevant here. They came from eras out of order – flappers followed hippies, Gibson girls followed yuppies. People clad in simple attire out of fabric that he didn’t recognize from an era way beyond his own. Young and old and every age in between – they all passed over the bridge while he leaned back against the ledge and waited.
Logic said she should have arrived the same time he did. But it had been months, he was sure. Probably years even. Maybe just a few days.
He felt the push to follow the others, but he refused. Not until she came. She was coming, wasn’t she? What was her name again? H-something. Harriet? Helen? Maybe it was Hester. And her face…he would know it when he saw it, though at the moment it was all fuzzy in his mind. If he even had a mind anymore. Did that come with you?
His own name was Carl – that, he was certain of. Carlos Anders. Charles Andrews. Whatever, his name started with a “car”. It was funny how he could remember every person who passed – what they looked like, what they wore – but he couldn’t quite remember the things that mattered: who he was, and who she was, or even why exactly he was waiting for her. But he would know. When she got here, he would know.
The bridge around Chuck blurred and a woman came into focus in front of him, lit by her own light, glowing. The colors of the background left, but hers were vivid: sea-blue eyes that he could lose himself in, cherry cheeks, and blood-red lips that turned up on the ends even when she wasn’t smiling. He knew what those lips felt like. He remembered. He remembered everything.
“Hannah.” He whispered. Her name was Hannah. And he was Chuck.
“You waited? For me? You shouldn’t have.” The sweetness of her voice was deceptive – sugar water to dull the pain.
“You’ve always been an odd one.” She stuck out her hand. “Shall we?”
He took it, but when he tried to walk, she held fast. He pulled against her grip. There was nothing for it; she wouldn’t budge.
Her sweetness turned sour as she curled her upper lip. “You can’t go that way. Beyond that bridge is where you pass on to a new life. You’re not ready.”
“And you’re not Hannah.” His voice was steady and soft, but his words pierced her outer shell and split it open.
One minute she was a tidy, demure little thing. The next, she was all his sins personified. The red-soaked dress and the caked hair and the mascara streaked cheeks – the last things he saw in life revealed themselves now. Her breath reeked of death, and theft, and hate.
“I’m what you did to Hannah.” Her fingernails extended into claws and pressed into his hand. They would have drawn blood if he’d had any left.
“I’m your guilt.” She spun around, her arm twisting like rubber, stretching as she made a full three-sixty, whipping her foot up and connecting it with his cheek. His head snapped back, and when it came forward again, they stood in his kitchen.
“I’m your demon.”
The note sat on the table, crunched where Hannah had gripped it. She’d come home too soon. The ink hadn’t dried. Her fingers had smudged it.
They were in the bedroom doorway now, the horror of his final moments unfolding before him, like a picture show. Hannah – the real Hannah – grabbed at the gun as Chuck brought it to his mouth. She yanked it forward. It went off.
“It was an accident.” Chuck whispered.
“It was your fault,” his demon growled.
“It was my fault.”
The gun went off again as the scene dissolved and the bridge reformed around them.
“She’d forgiven you time and time again. She always forgave you. But you knew better. You could never forgive yourself.” The demon threw back its head and laughed an evil, guttural, painful laugh.
“And it killed her…” Chuck loosened his grip. “You killed her.”
The laughter stopped.
“You are my demon, my sins, my guilt.”
The demon writhed.
“I’ve kept you with me. When I couldn’t find you, I waited.”
The demon growled.
“I have to let you go.”
Chuck pushed it away from him. It flew backwards and slammed against the stone pillar of the bridge, slumping to the ground. Its desperate eyes stared back at him, imploring. Chuck wanted to hate it, but he couldn’t anymore. He had to forgive himself.
“I’m letting you go.”
With a howl, the demon burst apart into a million tiny pieces. They swirled around and around, enveloping Chuck in darkness. In his mind’s eye, he saw the faces once again – each and every face that had crossed the bridge as he’d waited to confront his guilt.
“We are the lives you’ve lived and the lives yet to come,” the faces said. “We are your lessons. Have you learned forgiveness? Are you ready?”
Hannah waited at the end of the bridge. She wore her favorite dress – the yellow one with the grey dragonfly print. The sun shone behind her, bathing her in a halo of white light. A warm smile spread across her ruby lips, and she held her hand out to him. She giggled as Chuck dashed across the bridge to clasp it.
“Are you ready?” she said.