By Kate LaDew 

You were doomed, of course (the two of you) from the beginning.  But you had to live out those years (eleven for her, eighteen for you) before you ever knew it.

Because it was you (the two of you) who would be in that car, driving to that grocery, at that moment.

And it would be them, the two of them, who would find the two of you, though it was not you for whom they were particularly looking (and, ultimately, could be no one else).  An opportunity, an impulse, a spur of the moment decision without premeditation (there’s no such thing, in any case.  It happens, or it doesn’t, is or is not, and in your case, particularly, is and is and only could be).  It was always that particular tire on that particular car, those particular hands slashing into that particular rubber with that particular knife, obtained in a particular place without any of you knowing it would be used here, particularly, in this instance that doomed all of you (they two, you two) when you became four, never together but not ever, since that moment, separate.

Because your sister was dead the moment her body hit the water.  Because you were dead the moment you could no longer find her.  Because they were dead the moment they took your arms and pushed you both into the car.  All of you dead, on different days in different years but gone, one way or another.

The moment you finally collided, late September, 1973, on a nighttime grocery run, with Amy tagging along to the Thrifty in Casper, Wyoming.  Walking through the parking lot, paper bags against your chest, the flat tire bringing them to the ground.  Digging into your purse for change to call a mother who had no way to get to you, and then.  There they were.  Right on time.  Some vague promises of help you didn’t quite believe from slurring smiles (a smell like the nail polish your mother just decided to let you wear gusting from them) sent your arm curling instinctively around Amy.  And then.  You were in their car.  As if teleported, a sudden reforming of your cells, pressed into a backseat, greasy with hair oil and old food and your sister tight against you.  The fat one saying in long drawn out syllables, there will be a reckoning, a reckoning, for it was your car, or one that looked just like it, which struck his friend, and it will be up to him, the friend, to decide your fate (the two of you).  The thin one saying nothing, turned around in the passenger seat, looks at you, a starvation in his eyes, and you wish, as loud as you can without opening your mouth, to become invisible, to cease to exist, to fold in on yourself until you are nowhere at all.

The story isn’t true.  There is no friend, no man waiting to decide fates.  You know this.  The men know this. The men know you know this.  And that is the moment you realize:  there is no need for a convincing lie when the people hearing it will soon be bodies.

You drive for a long time (you two, they two, you four).  And then.  You recognize the bridge.  You’ve been here, somewhere in the Before, on the other side of the jagged line separating eighteen years lived from the nineteen you will live After (though you do not know this, not yet).  Amy has been here too, surely, and you almost lean your temple against hers to ask, a reflex, as if it is only an ordinary car trip on an ordinary night, watching scenery, pointing out the new, the familiar.  An ordinary scene from ordinary lives and not an attack, a violation, a messy elbowing in of the outside world where anything can happen.  The shaking of Amy’s little body vibrates under your jaw, where she has tucked herself, as if you were all she needed to save her, and the words sink into your tongue, letters you will taste in the morning when everything is over and done and irretrievable. As your eyes drift back to the bridge, the night seems to stretch over them like fingers, a darkness you can feel (you don’t know but the police will tell you, standing in front of your hospital bed, that it was already after midnight, already the next day) and the moon is absent.  You think, Where did it go? Why tonight, of all nights, has it left us? Because there is no one else in the world except the two of you, you and Amy (and the two of them, of course. They will say each others names, sure of your death, and you will remember and you will tell the police and it will change nothing that happens tonight, the only one that matters). 

And then the thin one is pressing his right hand against your face, driving it into the seat, as his left hand grabs one of Amy’s pigtails, pulling. A sharp little shriek of surprise hits the roof of the car and, as if by magic, Amy is gone.  The door slams and your own hands slam against the window.  The fat one tells you, deep and dark, don’t move, don’t make a sound and you press your ear against the glass, searching for noise, for Amy (hours later the police will say that while your ears, your hands, your body were pressed against the inside of a stranger’s car,  your little sister was dragged 100 feet, picked up and thrown over the side of the Fremont Canyon Bridge and into Alcova Lake.  Years later, you will read Amy’s spine was driven into her brain, and she couldn’t have lived more than a few seconds. They do not say how many seconds).

And then the thin one is back, opening the door and pushing you down, pushing your legs apart, pushing, pushing, and then the fat one and then the thin one and then the fat one and your brain says Where is Amy? Where is Amy? Where is Amy? until nothing is alive but that question because you die, right then and there, while your heart beats on and on and on and the fat one and the thin one keep pushing and pushing and pushing and your body is in the air, hoisted over the thin one’s shoulder and you are at the bridge and the fat one says, Make sure she dies and your arms fall and your legs fall and your torso falls, as if separate entities before crashing together all at once, Where is Amy?  Where is Amy?  Where is Amy? following you down.

It might have been minutes or hours (there is no one to know but you).  Your shoulders raise, lower too quick as everything whirls.  Your entire self is drumming with an agony so mean and deep you are certain you have split in two.  There is nothing in your head but pain and your chest heaves with the weight of it, sending out sharp little currents through every cell.  And then there is cold, down to the bone.  You have teleported again into some place where only water exists.  It is consuming you, filling up your throat, invading your lungs and you choke and gasp and your hands are paddling, paddling, a muscle memory, swim, swim, swim until there is no more water.  As your hands reach a gritty solid, everything slowing, that certainty comes back.  You have been split in two.  Your legs are gone, your feet are gone, and as you roll yourself over, the shards of what used to make up your lower half spark and crackle, convulsing every inch (at trial, the medical examiner tells the jury your legs were broken, your pelvis bashed into pieces.  It was a miracle from God you were able to get to the road at the top of the canyon, and the yelp of a laugh you kept from spilling out in the courtroom hurt all over). 

You don’t decide to live.  You just don’t die.  Tapping your thumb and index finger against your chest, the heart underneath keeps beating and beating.  There’s a flash of a thought, Amy’s out there somewhere, but it isn’t what moves you, it isn’t what puts one hand in front of the other.  You simply keep on existing, and if you are going to, you have to find your way out from under the bridge and to the road and back to where you came from. 

It is only much later, after you are in a hospital bed, the doses of morphine less frequent, that anything like guts or will or determination or all the other grand words for just not dying are spoken aloud and register in your brain as possibly true.  All the reasons you must have lived:

Because Amy was out there somewhere.
Because your mother was out there somewhere.
Because someone had to tell about that night, about what happened, about what you had and what was taken.      
Because, because —  
And all the reasons you did live:
Because it was always going to be this way. 
Because your sister was going to die and you were going to live. 
Because your whole body shivered with blood, lapping at the dirt in waves. 
Because the sun came up.
Because you turned over, digging and grasping and holding (like the rope in gym class you could never make it up).
Because you were unsure at first if the pain was from the two of them moving inside you or your shattered pelvis rocking up and down, piano pedals vibrating every bone, making your whole body a sympathetic string, moving without you.  
Because when the old couple found you face down, left hand just touching the yellow line of the road, and they put you in the backseat (marveling at the strength in you, yelling, no, no, just formed memories of cars and backseats and what they held splashing) and found a phone and called the police — it is was too late to turn back.  You had saved yourself.  And now you must live with it.  (The police didn’t believe at first.  How do you know she crawled from under the bridge?  Because we saw her trail, the old couple said.  The blood from her body spanned the ground entire).
Because, finally, you did.

. . .

     Ineluctable, you discovered later.  An SAT word.  Not to be avoided changed or resisted; inevitable.  After the trial, deemed successful by the town of Casper, the two of them sentenced to death, then life in prison, you watched your family dwindle until they disappeared (all living longer than they cared to, that moonless night an obstruction they could never see over).

You graduated from high school, became a meter maid, working for the Casper Police Department (seeing the same men who were in your hospital room that day, those days, those weeks) and your friends (you had them, still) singing “Lovely Rita” at you, voices high in Beatles harmony.

You got married, had a baby (a girl whose hair you never put in pigtails) living an ordinary life in an ordinary way in an ordinary town in which nothing about you was ordinary.  You were the Girl Under the Bridge, a cautionary tale to keep kids home and safe at night.  A story told around campfires, on Halloween as all the little children covered their little faces and all the parents grabbed at all the little hands, watching, watching.  There are bad men in the dark, they will catch you, they will eat you up, they will drag you under a bridge and no one will save you (and it was true, after all). 

You moved on from writing parking tickets (all those eyes, your clothes from that night still in the evidence room) and on to sales at Casper’s radio station, KVOC and then KTWO.  You were pretty and sweet and smart (though not in that order) and if anyone asked, you tried not to notice the gleam of excitement in their eyes, presenting the details as if reading from a list.  Grocery.  Tire.  Men.  Car.  Driving.  Bridge.  It was only the ones you loved, the ones you trusted, who did not ask, whom you told everything (mostly).  How you waited under the bridge, sure the men would come back, covering your body with rocks and your waist length hair.  How, as you crawled backwards, up and up the canyon, your stomach was falling out, hands clutching at the slippery insides.  How after everything you prayed to a God you didn’t quite believe in anymore, asking to die and send back Amy.

Then there were the parole hearings.  The fat one and the thin one demanding to be set free, to come back to the world where you were and Amy was not.  Where part of the money you earned went to keeping them alive.  Where the night that had begun to recede, flooded back, full force as you told the story, calm and cool.  Grocery.  Tire.  Men.  Car.  Driving.  Bridge.  Every time you left the prison, and every time they did not.  And every time, nothing got better.

Then you drank.  You drank and you drank and you drank and you were under the bridge and then you drank and you drank and you drank a little more and were nowhere at all, exactly where you wanted to be.  When your husband left, you didn’t blame him.  He knew what everyone knew.  And he knew you were trying to be the girl from The Before.  And he knew you could only be the girl in The After.

19 years from the night you died the first time, you died again.  In the heat of July, 1992, you and your daughter and the man you were dating (no paper ever named him, and you suppose he was thankful) drove to the Fremont Canyon Bridge, three sets of hands sliding down the steel 112 feet above the North Platte River.  Why that day at that moment, you don’t know, except it was always going to be this way.  Tears falling so fast and so hard from your eyes you  heard them hit like bullets and the man is picking up your daughter and for an instant your throw out your arms, blocking him, sure he’s going to throw her over.  But of course not.  She shouldn’t see her Mommy cry and he’s walking away, back to the car and you are alone in the huge, complete way you were alone that night, without even the moon to find you.  Then, as if by magic, you are gone.

Because it was always you (Becky) it was always her (Amy) as the two of them waited for the two of you in the doom stretched out long and forever.  Maybe your foot slipped.  Maybe your fingers opened just enough to let go.  Maybe late September found you and pulled you down.  Maybe you saw your sister in that deep dark, pigtails loosened and spreading until they took up the whole world.  Maybe you reached out your hand, braiding your fingers until you felt the heat of her heart under them, alive, finally and again at last.  Or maybe it was something else entirely.  There is no one to know but you.

About the Author:

kate ledew

Kate LaDew is a graduate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a BA in Studio Art.  She resides in Graham, NC with her cats, Charlie Chaplin and Janis Joplin.