This story is by Karen Margaret Hall and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
My cocoon tightens, colors tease, I’m feeling for the air.
A dim capacity for wings degrades the dress I wear.
The swish, swish of wipers on my windshield formed a hypnotic rhythm, leading my mind to wander dangerously. I had an ominous déjà vu feeling about the bridge ahead. My stomach quivered, though I drove this route daily.
As the mist rose from the cavernous, gothic arches of St. John’s Bridge, a Portland landmark, I discovered that traffic was stalled in both lanes. I quickly called my boss at Flying Pigs, the design firm where I worked, explaining I’d be late. “How late this time Kristen?” He replied tersely. I apologized meekly, wishing I was brave enough to quit.
I dreaded getting stuck on the bridge over that dark, churning river. To lift my spirits I focused on some Swallowtail butterflies flitting on the riverbank. They reminded me of a blissful day last August. I’d been painting in Montana, meadows ablaze with wild flowers – lupines, Indian paintbrush, daisies – under an azure-blue sky while my boyfriend, Dan, had identified plants and animals from a naturalist guidebook. At dusk Dan had waded into a stream to fly fish and I’d painted him surrounded by a cloud of mayflies and bright-speckled jumping trout. Then we’d camped and lain awake under a thick blanket of stars. Why had I insisted on returning to dreary Portland and my dull job? I’d thought I was being responsible, but truthfully I was just terrified. I’d always been irrationally afraid of water and my heart was as prickly as a blackberry bush.
Honking horns startled me out of my reverie, and I slammed on the breaks, pulse racing. I’d nearly hit the car in front of me. Peering ahead, I was surprised to see a familiar looking teenager running across the bridge past a stalled car. She was dressed in a torn, vintage cotton dress. Wavy blond hair framed her face and she looked straight at me with frightened eyes. She was the mirror image of myself as a teen! Behind her, a man with greasy hair and a scar running down his cheek was yelling. Then he stabbed at her with a small knife and she screamed and broke away bleeding from her arm, running to the bridge railing.
“Leave her alone,” I yelled angrily, surprising myself by leaping from my car with my bag swinging. The man vanished. People from several cars honked at me.
I pounded on the window of the car in the next lane.“Please stop that guy! He’s got a knife.”
“Are you on drugs?” A man with glasses glared up from his kindle. I realized my recently-dyed short violet hair wasn’t helping my credibility.
“Please help me!” screamed the girl, climbing over the railing. I instinctively headed towards her to stop her from falling.
The man in glasses ran up behind me yelling, “Don’t jump!”
“This girl needs help! Please dial 911! Do something!”
“What girl?” He replied, looking around, concerned.
“Oh my God, She’s slipping. I can’t hold her much longer.”
“Where is she?”
“In my arms.”
“Are you nuts?”
I decided he must be blind and I wrapped my arms around her as tight as I could saying, “Please hold on, sweetheart! We’re here to help.”
“I want to die” she cried, tears running down her cheeks. “That man made me feel so dirty.”
Then her foot slipped and she fell, pulling me down with her. I screamed. The man with glasses grabbed me and kept me from falling into the water. I suddenly felt so cold. I couldn’t breathe. I was choking, fighting for air.
The people in the cars nearby opened their windows. “What’s wrong?”
The man with glasses held me as I doubled over and threw up. I was sobbing and too shaken to resist when he wrapped his coat over my worn yoga t-shirt and jeans and led me shivering across the bridge to Cathedral Park.
“I don’t know what’s wrong, but can I help you?” he said awkwardly.
I looked around, dazed. The scar-faced man was gone. “There was a man with a knife chasing a girl. She was only about 15, dressed in old-fashioned clothes. You must have seen her. And the guy – he’s probably nearby.”
“I saw nothing but stalled traffic and you leaning over the bridge.”
“I saw them. I know I did.”
“Well, you look like you saw a ghost. I’m Jeffrey. You?”
“What? Oh, Kristen.”
“Have you ever heard the story of Christina Taylor? She was a teenager who was kidnapped, molested, and stabbed here on August 6, 1949. People say she haunts the bridge.”
“That’s my birthday, different year, of course … Oh my God! I was her! I remember it all.” My eyes brimmed with angry tears as memories of the attack made my skin crawl – horrible breath and his disgusting body forcing himself onto me. “It was another life.”
Jeff looked at me strangely. “Well … How about I get some coffee, and then move our cars. Are you okay by yourself?”
I nodded, sinking onto a park bench. What had just happened? I pulled my sketch pad from my bag to calm myself. I opened on a sketch of Dan as crepuscular rays broke through the clouds like beams from heaven. I felt him silently calling for me. Something had shifted on that bridge. The monkey wrench in my heart had loosened and I was no longer afraid. Then a beautiful Monarch butterfly landed on my sketch. I reached out gently with a Portland pale arm and the butterfly stepped onto my finger.
“What are you doing here?” I asked the fragile creature aloud. “You’ve come such a long way.” Amazingly the butterfly stayed alight on my finger.
“Feeling better?” asked Jeff, returning with a café mocha.
“Yes, much. Thank you so much. I’d like to explain what just happened, but I gotta run.”
“No, Montana,” I said, watching the monarch fly away.