A Short Story by David Thomas Peacock
Part 1: Setting Out
“If you’ve never seen it, I’ve got to show it to you – you’re not going to believe it,” you said, smiling. Sounded good to me, I had nowhere else to go, and what seemed like all the time in the world.
It was a cool fall night, and we were doing what we always did, which wasn’t much – just hanging out and aimlessly driving around, smoking pot, drinking warm beer, and looking for something to do. I was probably around 17, you were a couple of years older and life seemed like a long and mysterious road stretching out endlessly in front of us.
Nothing much had ever been expected of us, and it was clear that unless it came from within, that wasn’t going to change. I wasn’t yet at a point where I thought too much about this kind of thing – for me, at that point in time, the moment was all I had.
It was enough.
”So what exactly is the Question Mark bridge?” I asked. You were smiling and mildly animated, which was kind of unusual. It was still early, maybe 8 o’clock, but already getting cold. In the Appalachian Mountains, winter could come up real fast. “You’ll see,” you said, “It’s about an hour and a half away.”
I really started to get interested when you added “There’s just one thing – you’ve got to promise me you won’t tell anyone we went there.”
I only had one response: “Let’s go…”
Part 2: Partners In Crime
Part of the excitement of going on what seemed like an innocent adventure was the fact that I didn’t really know you very well. At that age, at that point in my life, intense relationships just seemed to spontaneously happen. It wasn’t anything I really questioned or gave that much thought – if I met someone who seemed to be even remotely tuned in to the same bizarre wavelength as me, I was all in. It probably wasn’t the best policy for living a cautious, safe life – but maybe that’s why it worked for me. I’m not sure I would even have been able to identify cautious and safe in a lineup if I had to.
No, my comfort zone was more along the lines of unpredictable danger and uncertainty – the more out of control any given situation became, the more at home I felt. I knew this wasn’t normal, and that it made most people very, very nervous, but I always seemed to find a kindred spirit somewhere on the fringe of society. Since that’s where I lived, this wasn’t difficult.
At the time I was at a particularly weird and unstable point in my young life. I had a strong sense of things that interested me, yet no real sense of self-identity. I didn’t know who I was, or where I was going – I had grown up in an environment of violence, madness, and neglect, and it left me unsure of where the boundaries were in life. I had learned how to survive pretty well on my own, but I didn’t yet really understand how anything in life worked. Knowing how to survive is great if you are living in an apocalypse, but in a first world society, it’s about as useful as knowing how to handle yourself in wartime. Which is to say not much…
So I guess I gravitated to dangerous situations because that’s where I felt comfortable – if you’re in imminent danger, knowing how to survive is a very valuable skill. In a sick way I was setting myself up to succeed.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, all of my strengths would turn out to be very, very useful before the night was over.
I didn’t know it yet, but the fun was about to start.
Part 3: Sparks
We had met at a party, and immediately found each other interesting enough to want to hang out more – this wasn’t something that happened very often, so when it did, I was keen to see where things might go. I loved that mysterious feeling of finding someone who seemed like they knew something that no one else did, that weird electricity when two people coming together sparked like a dangerous electrical connection that would either power something useful, or start a fire that would burn everything in its wake.
You were a couple of years older than me and had your own car, so when we would get together you would usually meet me somewhere and off we’d go. Most of the time there was no particular destination; maybe we’d hook up with friends, acquaintances, or strangers, or we’d just head out on our own, figuring out what we wanted to do as we went.
You were quiet but unafraid and I liked the fact that if I wanted to know more, I’d have to probe, and even then I might not get the answer I was looking for. We were from poor white trash with a healthy dose of crazy thrown in, and trust me, there is no crazy like southern crazy. I remember seeing Frank Booth and wondering how many people I knew who fit that profile. More than I could count on one hand, and that was just in my family. You were from the same background, so we didn’t have to explain things to each other. It’s part of what drew us together – we had our own shorthand and could communicate without words, something that would also come in handy before this whole episode finished.
It was a dark, cold night in 1974, and we were very definitely headed for trouble, but we didn’t know it at the time.
Sometimes trouble tragically falls on those who are least prepared to deal with it.
Other times, trouble bites off more than it can chew.
Part 4: Rennie
Rennie was destined for great things, but no one, least of all her, knew it yet. Right now she was just a 16 year-old girl living by her wits, on her own, in a very dangerous world. She was used to it though; she had no choice – it was all she had ever known.
She was the child of someone who either couldn’t, or wouldn’t take care of her, and as a result she had been abandoned as a baby. Whoever her mother had been was lost forever in the long, sad existence of her childhood. All she knew, all she cared to know, was that she was a foundling who had somehow ended up in an orphanage. She didn’t really remember that much about this part of her life, she was either too young or too traumatized by the experience, or perhaps her brain was just protecting her in an effort to survive. What she did remember was the seemingly endless succession of foster homes; after a while, they all just blended together into one giant pile of unhappiness, abuse, and neglect.
She had run away so many times she couldn’t count, but this time she was determined to make it to Memphis. It’s not that she knew anyone there, it’s just because it’s Memphis. She had heard this song called “I’ll Take You There” by Mavis Staples on the radio – the DJ said it was recorded in Memphis at a place called Stax. She had never heard anything like it – Rennie didn’t believe in god, but if there was a god, she thought he must have sounded like Mavis Staples. So without anything but the clothes on her back and the $46.00 she stole from the foster home, she set out.
She didn’t realize it, but things were about to change for her in a big way. Before that could happen though, there was going to be plenty more pain and suffering to endure. How is it that some people are able to survive against all odds, they just don’t seem to break no matter what, while others collapse at the first sign of trouble? How can a child live through what she had experienced and not come out completely broken? And then, like a brown and dried out little wisp of a weed, at the first sign of nourishment suddenly blossom into a beautiful flower? It’s not by nurture, that’s for sure. No, the real magic of humans seems to be that they pop out of the womb pretty much fully formed.
Life was about to test her once again before it decided what to do with her. She may not have looked like it, but she was more than up to the challenge. Looks can be deceiving – this is a lesson smart people learn very early on in life.
The key word here is smart.
Part 5: Burr
Burr had been angry his whole life – angry at his alcoholic father who abused, belittled, and beat him as a child, angry at his mother for not loving and protecting him, angry at his teachers for failing him (both literally and figuratively), angry at the other kids for ostracizing and making fun of him when he was younger, and ultimately angry at the world for his sorry lot in life, one that he felt he didn’t deserve. He never cared about other people, he told himself, because they never cared about him. He had decided at a young age that he would get back at them any way he could, and he spent all of his time dreaming of ways he would accomplish this.
From the age of 12 to 18, Burr had been in and out of court ordered juvenile detention centers so many times he couldn’t count. These places were just warehouses to keep dangerous kids, who would later become dangerous adults, off the streets. It was here, not at home, that he learned how life works. Here is where he really began to understand how to manipulate people. As a child he would try to appear scared and helpless to get what he wanted, but eventually grew out of that, so he developed other strategies. Burr was bigger than most, so he realized he had to offset his intimidating size with an exaggerated friendly demeanor. For a while he tried the religious thing, but on the outside he realized it just freaked people out, so he dropped it. He was good at manipulating people, so he just developed a very quick to smile, relaxed, upbeat and helpful demeanor. He became masterful in reading what people wanted, and could alter his approach seamlessly to fill that need.
By the time it came for him to make his move, they never saw it coming.
He was now 27 and well-practiced in his art. He hadn’t been arrested in five years, and knew if he kept moving, it was unlikely he would get caught. The things he had done would be unimaginable to most people, and he wanted to keep it that way. All in all, life was pretty good, he thought.
The way he figured it, they were all getting what they deserved, and he was confident he could keep this up for quite a while – the rest of his life maybe. But here’s the thing about life: the minute you get too confident is the minute things can go south.
Burr didn’t know it yet, but he was about to hit that minute.
Part 6: Down But Not Out
That’s all Rennie had when the Greyhound bus pulled into the Roanoke Bus Station, and this was as far as her ticket would take her. As usual, things didn’t go according to plan. Before she ran away, her boyfriend told her she could call his aunt who lived just outside of Roanoke and worked as a waitress at a truck stop diner. He said she would help Rennie get a job there and she could save enough money to get to Memphis. Unfortunately, when the bus stopped in Lynchburg, she tried to call the woman and of course the line was disconnected. So now it’s 4:00 pm on a crystal-clear Saturday afternoon in the fall and she’s got $1.62 with nowhere to go.
Dirty, hungry and tired, she headed to the women’s bathroom. At 16, she was blonde and pretty in a way that probably wasn’t going to last that long, but at the moment all she knew was she had to use whatever assets she had to figure out her next move. She knew the drill and had a small bag packed with the essentials: a change of underwear, jeans, a couple of tops, a nice pair of open-toed shoes with a built-up wooden heel that made her look taller, some makeup and nail polish, a toothbrush with toothpaste, a sweatshirt and jacket, a small flip knife for protection, some tampons, a candy bar, a pack of Newport’s, and her favorite book: “Man’s Search For Meaning” by Victor Frankl (she had stolen it from a library one day after reading it). It was easy to shoplift most of this stuff, and she could wash her clothes in bathrooms, drying them with hot air blowers when she could. Same with bathing – you’d be surprised how clean you can get in a roadhouse bathroom. When you’re young it’s not that hard to look good.
While she was changing and getting cleaned up in the bathroom, for some reason she remembered Ms. Barnes, her 5th grade teacher. She had just taken one of those mandatory aptitude tests and Ms. Barnes had kept her after school, clearly excited. “Well Miss Rennie, in all of my years teaching children I’ve never seen a score this high on an aptitude test. We’ll contact your parents and talk to them about putting you in a special school for gifted children – I’m sure they’ll be so proud of you.” Rennie felt bad for Ms. Barnes – she seemed so happy about the whole thing. But there wouldn’t be any special school for Rennie, her foster parents would see to that.
She looked totally different coming out of the bathroom. She had cleaned herself up, changed clothes, and put on some makeup. Looking older than her 16 years, she headed for a diner across the street from the bus station. She had enough money for coffee and a doughnut, and now that she was fixed up, she could get to work finding someone who could help her. A sixteen year old shouldn’t know how to handle a situation like this, but life can be hard on little things and this wasn’t anything new for Rennie. When you’ve always been on your own you learn how to depend on yourself. She just needed somewhere to stay for a night or two while she figured out what to do next.
Almost as soon as she sat down, an older man who appeared to be close to 30 approached her. He was kind of big and looked a little rough but flashed an easy smile like he’d known her for a long time and was just waiting for her to show up.
“Hey there, my name’s Burr – can I buy you a cup of coffee?”
Part 7: Almost There
“Dark Side of the Moon” was playing on the 8-track in your car and we were well on our way to achieving homeostasis, which for us was a nice warm buzz. We’d been smoking pot and drinking beer since we left Roanoke a little over an hour ago, and had been listening to Pink Floyd at deafening volume for the last twenty minutes or so when you suddenly turned the music down to tell me something.
“We’re getting close,” you said, “I think it’s just up this road.” It was dark as hell and I remember thinking that we hadn’t seen a car in a long time. The night outside was getting cold, definitely close to freezing. We were deep in the mountains on some desolate country road out in the middle of nowhere. If you didn’t know this area you’d be lucky to find your way out, and even though I was lost, I had grown up in these hills dense with woods, so I had a general idea of where we were.
“So where the fuck are we going?” I said laughing, vaguely remembering something about a bridge. I’d almost forgotten the purpose of our little trip – when we were hanging out, half the time we didn’t know where we were going anyway. In those days, gas was cheap, so we’d just get in your car and drive. “The Question Mark Bridge” you said. “You told me you’d never been there.”
I didn’t get the full story until later, but it turns out there was this old wooden bridge, way out in the Blue Ridge Mountains in a holler high over the James River, that had been built sometime in the late nineteenth century before there were cars. Somehow it had survived until 1974, and apparently it was open for traffic until two weeks ago when the state closed it down for repairs. Apparently, some dilapidated wooden guard rails on one the side of the bridge had fallen into the James almost a thousand feet below.
It was known as the Question Mark Bridge by the locals for one very peculiar reason. Sometime in the distant past, a long, long time ago (no one could seem to remember when), it had been covered with multi-colored painted question marks. All sizes, all colors. So you had this rickety old bridge out in the middle of nowhere covered in faded question marks that looked like they might have been painted a hundred years ago. Now it was barely standing and closed, so of course you thought this would be a perfect place for us to hang out and get fucked up.
As we were winding around the mountain, I thought I could make something out in the distance. “What the fuck?” I said, pointing at what looked like the shell of some structure between two mountains a few miles up ahead. You slowed the car down, stopped, and we both got out to look. The moon was clear and bright, the air cold and crisp, and all we could hear was the freezing water of the James rushing far below us.
“That’s it,” you said. “We’ll be there in ten minutes.” We jumped back in the warm car, sparked up a joint, and headed off on our rendezvous with destiny.
Reality was about to take a sharp left turn, as if life was placing us in this particular location to ask its own questions.
Sometimes all it takes is answering to define who you really are, and who you will always be.
Part 8: Drowning
Rennie had been raped and beaten before, but this was far worse than anything she had ever experienced. In her brief 16 years, with no mother or father watching out for her, she had known a lifetime of pain and abuse. She knew she was smarter than most people, so her ability to survive these situations depended on being able to outsmart her tormentors. But this time she didn’t know how to get out, and it was getting worse by the minute.
They were staying in some remote cabin up in the mountains and Burr kept the doors locked from the inside. He had a gun – some kind of pistol – and when he raped her the first time he held it to her temple as if he was caressing her with all of his pain and hate, like the gun was some kind of grotesque extension of his soul. He would alternate from fits of deranged laughter when he was hurting her, to outbursts of explosive psychotic rage when he was by himself, but around other people he was nicest, most easygoing person you ever met. He was careful to never beat her on her face, wrists, or hands though. He didn’t want to leave marks in case they ran in to anyone asking questions.
But he knew there would be no one looking for her – one look at that pathetic bag and her dirty clothes told the whole story. Kids like her were easy pickings, you could do whatever you wanted to them and no one cared. Once you were done, as long as you knew how to get rid of the body no one was going to come looking – it was just another missing runaway. These kids were always around somewhere, invisible in the shadows – like fishing, if you knew where to look, you could usually get a bite. It had been five days since Rennie met Burr in that diner, and they had only been out of the cabin twice – once to get liquor and food, and once when he robbed and killed that boy.
They had gone back down to the bus station in Roanoke where they found the kid asking for spare change, his clothes dirty, with no coat – his situation was obvious. Burr offered him some food and a place to stay so the boy willingly got into the pickup truck he had stolen two weeks before. That asshole farmer never should have told him to “get a job” when Burr asked for a ride. That was the last goddamn thing that motherfucker would say.
The kid told them he had been selling a little dope on the street and had saved a few bucks, eagerly telling Burr “I could hook you up if you want.” Burr laughed and Rennie knew something bad was coming. You could count on it – if you just waited, there was always something bad coming. Life is funny that way.
Back at the cabin Burr had the boy take off his clothes and then sodomized him unmercifully, each time choking him harder and laughing while the boy cried and screamed. He made Rennie watch so she would understand what he was capable of. Finally, he let he the game come to its logical conclusion and strangled the child to death.
Rennie knew what was happening, and she knew how it was all going to end. She also knew there wasn’t anything she could do to stop it. In the meantime, she had to make Burr think she was his accomplice, that somehow they were partners, that she knew what he needed and would help him get it. It was her only chance, and she was a survivor if nothing else. She wasn’t ready to die yet.
So when Burr said “Let’s take a ride” she smiled and only had one thing to say.
“Where’re we going, baby?”
Part 9: On The Bridge
“Holy shit” I said, laughing. “You’ve got be fucking kidding me!” There it was, right in front us, illuminated by our headlights and the bright moonlight. It was one of those nights where the moon was almost full and the sky was crystal clear – there weren’t any lights as far as you could see in any direction, so the moon was almost like a white sun, saturating everything in this beautiful pale light. We had just come around a turn on the mountainside and suddenly it appeared: The Question Mark Bridge.
It looked both ridiculous and scary at the same time, almost like a hallucination. This thing must have been 70 or 80 yards long, an old wooden suspension bridge connecting two mountains over a gorge that had to be close to a thousand feet down. When I got out of the car to move the old yellow sawhorse that was painted “CLOSED,” all I could hear was the distant raging water of the James River all the way down at the bottom. Other than that, the night was eerily still. I remember thinking “I guess the detour just means turn around.”
Being young, crazy, and fearless, we pulled the car up onto the bridge about a hundred feet. You could clearly see where the guardrails had fallen off one side, so of course that’s where we stopped. We left the car running and got out so I could fully appreciate the beautiful weirdness of it all. The whole thing was indeed painted with question marks in all different colors and sizes, but they didn’t look like they had been done anytime recently. In fact, they looked to be almost as old as the bridge itself, and to my young eyes it looked like it was built 100 years ago. You could actually feel the thing swinging in the cold night air.
I remember throwing a loose piece of wood over the side to see if we could hear it hit bottom. After what seemed like minutes, we thought we could hear it hit the river, but we weren’t sure – it was too far down. We lit up another joint and hugged each other tight; it was cold but we didn’t want to get back in the car yet. We were excited and giddy to be on this forbidden and dangerous little adventure, and besides, once our eyes had adjusted, the bridge and the woods looked so creepy and beautiful in the moonlight. We were having a good time – the little jolt of danger seemed to somehow both excite and soothe us, bringing everything into sharp focus.
Suddenly we could see the headlights of a pickup truck approaching the bridge from the opposite direction. It stopped at the barrier on the other side and just sat there for what seemed like several minutes, the lights on and the engine running. We both looked at each other and thought the same thing – at least it’s not a cop. Then, the passenger door opened and a small figure got out and waved, proceeding to move the sawhorse warning barrier just like we did. “What the fuck” I thought – “here’s somebody else as crazy as we are.”
The truck slowly approached until it was about fifteen feet in front of us. From that distance I could see there was a man driving and a girl with him. Since it clearly wasn’t a cop, I didn’t bother hiding my joint or beer.
They both got out of the truck and walked towards us. I remember thinking the girl looked young and the guy was in his late 20’s, maybe 30, and big. “Hey, you guys got some reefer?” he said, smiling as he approached, “I’ve got some Jack.” He held up a bottle of Jack Daniels just long enough for me to see the flash of a gun in his waistband. “Sounds good to me” I said, squeezing your hand, as if to say be cool and let’s see where this goes.
As they got closer he flashed an easy smile and said “Hey man, my names Burr and this here’s Rennie. Thanks for sharing some of your weed.”
You squeezed my hand back.
Part 10: An Unfortunate Turn Of Events
I could immediately tell something wasn’t right. When you grow up in an unstable and dangerous environment you develop a sixth sense. It’s almost like a superpower – you have a heightened awareness of everything that’s happening around you, your mind becomes very calm while it’s making calculations at hyper-speed, yet time somehow seems to slow down. I thought this was normal for the longest time, until, as an adult I found out it was a sign of PTSD.
Burr immediately came over to me, handing me the bottle of Jack. I took a hit and passed him the joint, tossing the bottle to you. I don’t know why, but criminals and sociopaths always seem to gravitate to me, as if they think I have something that will be useful to them. I never really understood it – I’m not imposing, and I certainly didn’t have any money. What I did have was the ability to mysteriously seem like I knew something no one else did, all the while projecting a palpable sense of calm confidence. It was all bullshit, but hey, you hone the skills you need to survive out of necessity. It was useful in the sense that it meant these predators didn’t see me as prey – it was more like they thought I could somehow help them. I would always play along, tacitly encouraging it.
“You guys from around here?” he asked. True to your character you kept quiet. “Fincastle” I said, lying. I knew this area like the back of my hand and I could tell he wasn’t from around here. When Rennie reached over to take the joint from him, her sleeve pulled back just long enough for me to see that her left arm was black and blue. I immediately glanced to her right and could just see a hint of discoloration at her wrist.
“We came up here to get high on this fucking bridge” I said. He looked at me real close and then smiled, like I had passed some kind of test. “Fucking A” he laughed, “let’s get fucked up.”
As cold as it was, my mind was in overdrive.
I was starting to form a plan.
Part 11: The Tables Turn
I had to piss real bad, so I walked over to the side where the guardrails had fallen off. You walk into fear – always remember that. The headlights of his truck were shining on me as I let loose with a high powered stream of the kind of clear piss you only get from drinking a shit-ton of beer. I could see the steam rising off the arc in the headlights as Burr walked over and stood next to me, pulling his dick out and crossing his stream with mine. “FUUUUCK” he yelled at the top of his lungs. You could could hear it echoing through the mountains as we both put our dicks back in our pants. He was well on his way to being full blown drunk. I could see you over my shoulder standing in the cold with Rennie maybe fifteen feet away; neither of you were talking, instead you were both staring at us, our backs to you. Burr put his arm around my shoulders like we were friends and whispered in my ear “We could throw these two cunts off this bridge and no one would ever know the difference.”
Suddenly, my mind became very still and I knew exactly what I had to do.
As we turned around and walked to the two of you, I looked at Burr, his arm still around me, and said “I’ve got a surprise.” I can still see his dirty face with its scruffy beard and his eyes wide open like a half-wit child waiting for Santa on Christmas morning. “714’s motherfuckers!” I said, smiling as I reached into my coat pocket and bringing out a bottle filled with white pills.
“Who wants a Rorer?” Burr grabs a fistful like it was candy from god as I took one and popped it in my mouth. Then I turned to give one to you and Rennie, and just as I put one of the pills in each of your hands, I opened my mouth and stuck out my tongue just far enough for you both to see the little white pill still stuck there. I coughed into my hand, making sure you understood my game.
“Let’s get in your truck, Burr – it’s fucking freezing out here” I said. Now that we were good buddies, he turned, opened the passenger door, and with a little bow said “after you my good man.” He jumped in the drivers seat while you and Rennie got in the back.
The truck had been running the whole time, so it was nice and warm. I turned to you and said “What are you waiting for – roll a fucking joint.” Oh you knew all right. I turned to Rennie, who was shivering and holding the bourbon. “Don’t hog the Jack, bitch!” I yelled as she looked at me wide-eyed. She knew too. I grabbed the bottle and took a swig, handing it to Burr. “Let’s have that fucking joint – we don’t have all goddamn night!” Burr said, laughing maniacally. He looked at me, all happy-like, and said “we’ve got shit to do.”
Yes we did, but it wasn’t exactly what he had in mind.
Part 12: Questions Are Answered
A man’s got to know his limitations.
I don’t care how high your tolerance is for intoxicants, mixing Quaalude’s and alcohol is only going to lead to one outcome, and that was exactly where Burr was right now. There’s a reason why they are classified as a sedative-hypnotic: mix them with alcohol and you have a very potent central nervous system depressant.
It had been almost 30 minutes since Burr took his Quaaludes – for good measure, everyone, including him, continued taking turns drinking from the bottle of Jack Daniels along with smoking pot. He was still breathing, but he hadn’t moved for ten minutes.
I slowly reached into his waistband and, millimeter by millimeter, I pulled the pistol out until it was free. I then reached into the right back pocket of his Levi’s and removed his wallet. This time I was wasn’t careful at all, because I didn’t need to be – now I had the gun.
The truck had been running the whole time. I paused and took a deep breath, then I looked in the back seat at you and Rennie. No one said a word, you were both looking at me as if waiting for a signal. I motioned with a nod to get out, then opened the passenger side door, got out myself, and closed it.
Now we were all standing – standing on the Question Mark Bridge, late on a cold fall night deep in the Appalachian Mountains. There was no one around for miles and miles – no lights, no cars, no towns, no people. We were standing in the wilderness, surrounded by question marks painted by god knows who so many years ago. It was as if the whole purpose of this bridge, with it’s mysterious symbols that almost seemed to be mocking us, asking each one of us a question that was unspoken but clearly understood – was to lead up to this moment.
I opened the drivers side door, reached in and put the truck in neutral. Without saying a word, I walked to to the rear and started to push. It was so quiet, all you could hear was the raging, frigid waters of the James far, far below. Silently, you each took your place at the back of the vehicle with me, and together we pushed.
Within minutes, the truck went right through the space where the wooden guardrails had fallen off, and then it was gone. After what seemed like an eternity, we heard it crash into the river, then silence. There was just the beautiful moonlight illuminating the whole scene with an eerie glow, and the crisp night air.
We all got in your car and drove back off the bridge the way we came, stopping so I could get out and put the yellow sawhorse that had been painted “CLOSED” back in place.
No one spoke as we drove away, but we all understood that a very specific question had been asked of each of us.
A question thrust upon us by life, and like all such questions, it represented a test.
We each left our answer, one cold fall night in 1974, on The Question Mark Bridge.