The Girl on the Bridge, страница 1
Once again, to Jeanne.
“In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up
About the Author
Also by James Hayman
About the Publisher
WINTER COMES EARLY to northern New York State. By the third Saturday in October nighttime temperatures on the Holden College campus in Willardville had dropped to well below freezing. A light snow was falling and a thin coating of white covered the lawn and brick path leading to the elegant Georgian mansion on Sycamore Street. Greek letters over the door announced that this was the home of Alpha Chi Delta, Holden’s first and, arguably, most prestigious fraternity. By ten P.M., the silence of the night had long since been shattered by the amplified blast of guitars and drums that even through tightly closed windows could be heard blocks away. On the semidarkened ground floor, strobes lit a mass of bodies glowing red and green. Dancers gyrating to the sound.
Outside on the sidewalk, Hannah Reindel, a petite and exceptionally pretty seventeen-year-old freshman, stood, arms folded tightly around herself. Ignoring the white flakes floating down onto her head and shoulders, Hannah looked up at the thin boy next to her who was only a few inches taller than she was.
“I’m not your girlfriend, Evan.” The words were spoken firmly, but with a gentle smile. “I don’t want you . . . or them . . . getting the idea I am.”
Evan sighed. “I know that. I never thought you were. But you are my friend and I need you to help me get into the party.”
Hannah pulled the collar of her sweater more tightly around her neck in a vain attempt to stop melting snow from dripping down her back.
“I already told you,” Evan went on, “the rules of the invite state it very clearly. Any freshman guy who wants to attend the rush party is required to bring a good-looking girl—well, actually, the word they used was hot-looking—or they wouldn’t be allowed in.”
“And I’m hot-looking?”
“Yes, you are and don’t pretend you don’t know it.”
“I’m a short brunette. All those guys are interested in is tall blonde cheerleader types. Not a nerdy grind like me.”
“Hannah, you’re the best-looking girl I know.”
“Thank you.” Hannah sighed. She couldn’t bring herself to tell Evan he’d never in a million years be asked to pledge a house like Alpha Chi Delta. He was too sweetly goofy, too physically clumsy and much, much too serious about his studies even to be considered by the alcoholic preppies and oversized jocks Alpha Chi was known for. Even if he somehow did manage to get a bid, she couldn’t imagine why he’d ever want to open himself up to the vicious hazing every Alpha Chi pledge was supposedly put through. Probably he just needed to belong and figured he’d start with the house everybody on campus said was the best one to belong to.
Hannah shivered and told herself for about the fifth time she should have worn a real coat instead of just the totally uncool knee-length black woolly thing she had on. But she hadn’t and now she was shivering in the gusty wind that was blowing the last of the autumn leaves from the branches of the tall trees that had given Sycamore Street its name. She figured she might as well go inside to a warm room or risk catching pneumonia. But Alpha Chi? With Evan?
Oh, what the hell, she finally told herself. Maybe it’ll be more fun than I think and they can’t all be assholes. And at least it would be warm in there. From all the body heat being generated on the dance floor if nothing else.
“Okay, let’s go,” she told Evan, “but remember, do not tell them I’m your girlfriend. This isn’t a date.”
“I know,” Evan Fischer replied with more than a hint of regret. “I wish you were and I wish I was. But I understand. You’re just my admission ticket. Period. End of story. Once we’re inside you don’t have to hang with me. You don’t even have to talk to me. Talk to whoever you want. Dance with whoever you want.”
“Fine,” she said. “Let’s go in. But if I decide I want to go home you have to promise you’ll drive me. It’s too frigging cold to walk.”
“Yes, I promise. I won’t leave without checking with you. Now let’s have a little fun.”
“Right. Fun. Okay. Let’s go. I’m freezing my butt off hanging around out here.”
With that, Hannah Reindel and Evan Fischer started up the path to the door.
A guy about six-four who looked like he weighed at least two forty was sitting on a stool just inside the front door. A tackle on the football team? He looked it. Tackle or not, he checked Evan’s name against a list, then gave Hannah the once-over. He must have thought she looked sufficiently hot because he waved them in. They went from the vestibule into a large room where the furniture had been pulled back to the walls and piled up in order to create a dance floor that was crowded with at least fifty or sixty gyrating college kids. Between the fire burning in the oversized fireplace and the effect of body heat, the room felt warm and welcoming to Hannah compared to the biting cold outside. She began to relax.
Evan asked Hannah if she wanted a beer. She shook her head no and he headed toward the bar. Within seconds she lost sight of him.
Almost involuntarily she started moving to the rhythm of the music. A hand touched her shoulder. She turned. A tall, good-looking guy dressed in black jeans and a black sweater was looking down at her. He was sipping from a bottle and smiling. “Hi, I’m Josh. Welcome to Alpha Chi. You look like you could use a beer.”
“I don’t drink beer.”
“Everybody in college drinks beer.”
“Don’t you get ever get thirsty?”
“Not for beer. Actually, I don’t drink alcohol at all.”
Josh cocked his head to one side and winked. “Got it. No problem. We’ve got an excellent alternative we call our Freshman Punch. The college requires us to have plenty of nonalcoholic drinks available.”
“How did you know I was a freshman?”
“It’s a small campus. If you’d been here last year, I’m sure I would have noticed you. Besides, this is a rush party. You must have come with a freshman guy. What’s your name?”
“Mostly fruit juice. We make it especially for folks who don’t want to get drunk. And to satisfy the admins who say we have to have something appropriate for the underaged. Wait here and I’ll get you a glass.” Josh disappeared into the crowd, heading, presumably, to the bar. While she was waiting, Hannah kept moving in time to the music, which was both good and loud. She allowed herself to relax and smile. Suddenly she really felt like dancing. She recognized one or two faces but didn’t see anyone she knew by name.
“Here you go.” Josh handed her a tall frosted glass filled with a clear pink liquid.
“Not a drop. Scout’s honor.”
Hannah took a sip. It was cold, a touch salty and just slightly sweet. “Umm, I love it. What’s in it?”
“About six different kinds of fruit juice. And a couple of secret ingredients.” Josh winked again. She wished he’d stop winking. She was tempted to ask him if there was something wrong with his eye but she was pretty sure he wouldn’t find that funny.
Hannah took a few more swallows. Licked her lips.
Josh finished the last of his beer and took her hand. “C’mon, drink it down so we can dance. This band cost too much to waste.”
Hannah shrugged, drained her glass and deposited the empty on the mantel next to about ten others. She kicked off her shoes, pushed them into a corner where she figured she could find them, took Josh’s hand and followed him to the dance floor. After about five minutes of going full speed, the loud music was replaced by something lower and slower. Josh smiled, moved closer and put his right arm around Hannah’s back.
The band was good, the dance floor too crowded for much movement. Josh and Hannah swayed softly in the middle of the throng.
It only took a couple of minutes before she started feeling woozy. She figured it had to be the warmth and the closeness of the room. “I don’t feel so good. I think I better sit down.”
“Oh geez, I hope you’re not getting the flu or something.”
“Nothing like that. I just feel a little dizzy.”
“Come with me. We’ll get you out of this crowd.”
She didn’t think she ought to follow this Josh guy, who she didn’t even know. “Where’s Evan?” she asked. She was having trouble getting the words out. “The guy I came with.”
“Probably upstairs. That’s where we interview the wannabe pledges. I’ll bring you to him. Come with me.”
Hannah tried to puzzle out how Josh could know Evan would be up there. She felt him take her hand and pull. She stumbled along till they came to a wide set of stairs; the music, loud again, was pounding in her head.
Hannah looked up. She felt like she couldn’t even walk let alone climb what looked like an endless flight of stairs. She mumbled something but what came out didn’t make sense. Didn’t even sound like real words.
“Come on, let’s go.” Josh started pulling her up the stairs. No, pulling wasn’t the right word. Dragging was more like it. A couple of times she felt her knees banging against the treads but Josh kept pulling. She tried and failed to shake off the fuzziness in her head as she stumbled up after him. A bunch of kids were on the landing at the top. She wanted to call out for help but her voice didn’t seem to work and most of them were too involved in making out to notice her anyway. Two couples lay sprawled on either end of a beat-up couch. Others stood squashed against each other along the wall and in the corners. Each so focused on the other’s face and body there was no way they’d notice anything or anyone else. Hannah tried to pull away from Josh. Somewhere deep down she was sure she didn’t want to be going where he was pulling her. But somehow she couldn’t summon the energy to resist. She looked desperately down the long hall. No sign of Evan or anyone else she knew. Not anywhere.
Josh opened the door to a dimly lit room and pushed her in. Hannah tripped over something and slipped to the floor. Someone’s hands pulled her to her feet. She fought to keep her eyelids open. Fought to understand what was going on. With her head drooping down, all she could see were a sea of legs in front of her. She looked up and saw a bunch of guys smiling down at her. The one in front happened to be totally naked. Before her mind could make sense of that, she heard the click of the door being locked behind her.
Durham, New Hampshire
THE OTHER SIDE of the bed is empty when I wake in the early-morning darkness. The bedside clock tells me it’s ten after three. This is not unusual. My wife sleeps poorly and often leaves our bed in the middle of the night. She always has in the eight years we’ve been married. I know it’s the illness that makes sleep so hard for her.
Even when she takes a double dose of the meds her doctor prescribes to calm the anxiety that keeps her awake, she sleeps only fitfully. And when she does the nightmares wake her. The panic can strike at any hour of the night.
I know the middle of the night is the worst for her. It has taken her from our bed more nights than I can count or care to remember. And at this time of year in New Hampshire the darkness will remain for another four hours or more.
A dozen times I’ve asked her doctor what more we can do. A dozen times the doctor shrugs and says continuing with the drugs and her therapy are the only things she can think of.
“This is always going to be with her,” her doctor tells me, and sadly I agree. “She won’t ever be able to pretend it never happened or put it totally behind her. But I’m hopeful between drugs and therapy we can make the flashbacks and bouts of terror less frequent and maybe less immediate.”
The words upset me though I try not to show it. Her friends, what few she has left, often tell her to try not to think about it. “Can’t you just put it behind you? Get on with your life?” several have asked. The answer is no. The horror of what happened that night in the fraternity at Holden College will always be part of who she is and friends who don’t understand that, well, it’s usually what leads to the end of the friendship. What’s past is never past for Hannah. It will always be as real and immediate as the night it happened. As a psychologist myself I know better than most that there is no way the woman I love, the woman I feel so guilty about, can ever “put this behind her.” There is no way she can ever talk it away. It will always be there. Always waiting to suck her back into the vortex of that night. I feel helpless there’s so little I can do. Other than to love her. To listen to her. To comfort her. To let her know how precious she is to me.
I listen for her footsteps in the living room. When she leaves our bed she sometimes spends hours in the living room pacing back and forth. Passing time and again through the light and long shadows the fire in the stove throws across the room. The stove burns day and night. It’s the only source of heat we have in the cabin.
I get up and leave the bed. The floor is cold under my bare feet. I walk to the bedroom door and open it. “Are you all right?” I ask.
She turns at the sound of my voice. When she looks at me like she does now, with fear in her eyes, I know she’s no longer here with me in the present but back in that filthy room where it all happened twelve years ago. She never escapes the room entirely but sometimes the flashbacks are worse than others. When she has the look I now see on her face I know she’s reliving every hideous moment of the night that changed her life. And, in the end, changed both our lives.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to bring her back from that place. Sometimes I’m able to. But mostly I simply have to stay with her and wait it out. It is my job to do that not only because I love her and have always loved her but because of the guilt I’ve carried from that night. It was for me that she agreed to go to that party in the first place.
She’s dressed for the outdoors. She wears jeans and a sweater. Boots. A heavy down parka. She has a woolen cap that she knitted herself pulled down over her ears.
“Where are you going?” I ask.
I turn and hurry back to our bedroom. I grab my clothes and pull them on as fast as I can. As I lace up my boots I hear the door to our cabin open. It doesn’t close and I can hear the wind whipping through the opening. I finish dressing as quickly as I can. Hurry back into the next room. Of course she is gone. I swear under my breath and grab the big yellow flashlight off the shelf. On the way out I glance at the thermometer nailed to the tree just outside the window. Eighteen degrees. Not too bad for a New Hampshire winter night, but with a strong wind blowing, the windchill will be considerably colder than that.
I peer into the darkness outside the cabin door. There is no sign of her. She hasn’t taken either of the vehicles. Her ancient Jeep Wrangler sits where it has been parked for the last week next to my only marginally newer Dodge Ram pickup. She’s going on foot and I think I know where. I turn on the flashlight, go around to the back of the cabin and point it down the snow-covered trail. There’s been no fresh snow for a couple of weeks so it’s not easy to make out any tracks she might have left tonight. Differentiate them from those of other days and other nights. Still I’m sure she’s headed to the old rusty railroad bridge that spans the Lamprey River. I debate whether or not to take the truck and drive the long way around. It will get me there faster but not much faster because the path is a much more direct route. Also there is no way to know for sure that the bridge is where she’s headed. The path gives her choices. I decide to follow on foot. I start after her. I want to run but the uneven ice makes running or even walking with any kind of speed difficult. Even dangerous. If I trip and twist or sprain an ankle, I’ll never catch up to her.
I call her name as loudly as I can. “Hannah! Come back! Hannah!” But even if she’s within the sound of my voice I know she can’t hear me. In the middle of a flashback she wouldn’t hear me even if I was standing and shouting right next to her. In the middle of a flashback she isn’t here. She’s back at Holden College in Willardville, New York, and it’s twelve years ago. Nevertheless, I shout again and then again as I follow. Once I think I see her briefly on the path ahead of me. But the moving thing is not her. Just a good-sized doe darting across the path. Followed by two or three others trying to find something green for their breakfast.