So, I’m trying something new with my blog. Occasionally, I’m going to post some writing of mine. This week, it’s this short story. You’ll want to pay attention to my ratings that will be posted *BEFORE* each story, as sometimes I wobble with subject matter. I will follow the average U.S. film ratings.
Crazy George’s Bridge
By: Heidi R. Norrod
The train whistle could be heard all the way to the old general store on the far end of town. Every time the 3:30 train chugged around the side of Gopher Mountain, folks sitting at the town diner next to the old warehouse knew it was time for their afternoon cup of coffee or tea and a warm slice of Ms. Willie Mae’s pie of the day. The daily pie special was blackberry cobbler, the day of the accident.
George Wilkerson was a regular at Willie Mae’s diner, and normally he sat in the back left corner under the old, moldy deer head. It was dark and somewhat stale back there, but he never minded. George, himself, was stale and usually in a dark mood. That particular day of the accident most of Willie Mae’s regulars showed up, except George. No one much noticed except for Todd Smith and his nephew, Brad. Of course, Todd and Brad normally sat in the booth right beside George.
Willie Mae sat their twin slices of cobbler with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the cracked Formica-covered table. “I ain’t seen him today,” Willie Mae clarified, pouring Todd a refill from the steaming coffee pot in her wrinkled hand.
“Wonder where he got off to,” Brad mused. “I’ve been coming here everyday for ten years an’ he’s always slumped over against that wall.”
“Probably off on his own somewhere,” Todd said, around a mouthful of pie. “Ever since Lilly Anne went and killed herself a couple of months ago, he ain’t been right. He wanted to screw her so bad.”
Willie Mae’s wrinkled face turned wistful. “I remember those days. I was a looker too fifty years ago.”
“Still are, Willie. You still are,” Todd teased. “Why do you always play so hard to get?”
Willie Mae shook her head. “I don’ play hard to get Todd Smith, all this,” she motioned to her ample abdomen and upper thigh area, “is hard to get to.”
The three broke out into laughter, as the train whistle pierced the air again. It stopped abruptly. The crowd in the diner all turned to look down the train tracks that slivered right between the old warehouse and the small building Willie Mae bought forty-five years earlier.
Willie Mae barely made it behind the counter to pass Jonny a stack of dirty plates from the bar, before the first sirens started. Along with everyone else, Willie Mae watched while first two sheriff deputies’ cars passed, and then an ambulance. A fire truck fell into line right behind the other emergency vehicles.
“Wonder what’s goin’ on?” Jonny asked, coming out from the kitchen wiping his hands on a wet towel.
Willie Mae didn’t answer, she just started walking. Most of the diner crowd now huddled on the thin strip of sidewalk between the tracks and the building. The sirens didn’t last long. Willie Mae got a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach. Whatever had happened, had happened close.
Pushing through the crowd and ignoring the murmurs, Willie Mae stepped out on the tracks. Lights pulsated from under the bridge spanning the tracks. A tractor dawdled on by on Shady Road, above the tracks. The train hulked just on the opposite side of the bridge, hissing and spitting.
Willie Mae walked toward the train. The 3:30 always came from Tennessee Limestone, lugging car after car of huge rock. It took her several minutes, and she had to squint against the afternoon sun to see the body on the tracks. She stuffed her hand up against her mouth. She recognized him.
Willie Mae broke into a run, but a deputy stopped her.
“Whoa there, Ms. Willie. Can’t let you through.”
“You let go of me this instant, Greg.”
“Can’t do it,” Greg repeated. “Trust me, you don’t want to see anyway.”
“It’s George isn’t it?” Willie Mae asked.
“Now, Ms. Willie I can’t say nothing.”
Willie Mae narrowed her eyes at him, but Greg was undeterred. She spied the sheriff rubbing his eyes.
The sheriff turned. He said something to the fireman beside him, and made his way over. “How ya doin’ Willie Mae?”
“That there is George isn’t it?” Willie Mae pointed.
The sheriff sighed. “What makes you think so?”
“He wasn’t at the diner today. He’s always there. He’s been there everyday since I opened my door forty-five years ago, exceptin’ that time he was in the hospital with pneumonia back in the seventies.”
Sheriff Taylor arched an eyebrow. He bent his head back and rubbed at his neck. “Looks like he jumped,” he admitted.
“Jumped?” Willie Mae repeated.
“From the Shady Road bridge when the limestone train was a-comin’ through.”
“Why in the tarnation would he do something like that?”
“Come on, Willie Mae. They called him Crazy George for a reason. Remember the chickens?”
Willie Mae planted her hands on her hips. “George was no more crazy than you and me. That chicken stuff was all over Lilly Anne’s brothers and the trouble they caused.”
“He butchered twelve of them and mailed them back to those boys. That ain’t right.”
“George just wanted to marry that girl,” Willie Mae defended him.
“Either way, it ain’t changin’ what happened. He jumped.” Sheriff Taylor said. He turned to the deputy beside them, “Keep those folks back.”
Willie Mae turned to look at the diner crowd that edged up toward them. “You ain’t gonna do any kind of investigation?” She asked the sheriff.
“I’ve seen enough. Footprints that match the boots on his feet are up there in the gravel dust beside the bridge. There ain’t no other footprints there or anywhere else on the bridge. The engineer said he saw George’s body come over the bridge and he couldn’t stop in time. There ain’t no need for more.”
Willie Mae turned to look up at the bridge. A crow perched on the edge of the bridge. It cawed. “We’ll see, Sheriff. We’ll see.”
The sheriff either didn’t hear her, or ignored her, because he didn’t respond. Willie Mae watched the crow take flight and disappear over the swaying tree tops. The first murder happened three weeks later.
The trees were starting to stain their autumn golds, reds, and browns, when Todd Smith found the body of Rachel Bray lying on the tracks still dressed in her wedding dress. Her hands folded on her chest still clutching her bridal bouquet. Even her one carat diamond engagement ring was still on her finger. But she was dead all right. Circular bruises wrapped her neck, and the tiniest trail of blood had dried in a line from the corner of her lipstick down her chin. Her eyes were open and she seemed to be staring up at the sky. According to the medical examiner’s report, there wasn’t a single sign of a defensive wound, and apart from the necklace of bruises, Rachel had been perfectly healthy.
Willie Mae had heard all kinds of talk ranging from suicide to cold-blooded murder raging through the diner. Even now as she sat a double stacked ham sandwich in front of Sheriff Taylor, the table beside him was discussing their thoughts about who would murder such a sweet and kind girl.
Sheriff Taylor picked up his sandwich and bit into it. Willie Mae patted his shoulder, as she shot the table behind him the stink eye.
“I don’ know what’s happenin’, Willie Mae.” Sheriff Taylor took a swig of his sweet tea. “The whole damned town is fallin’ apart.”
Willie Mae slid into the booth with him. “You’ll figure it out, Sheriff.”
“I’ve exhausted every single one of my leads. The husband-to-be said Rachel had been at the church two hours before she…” Sheriff Taylor trailed off. “He talked to her, because his mama was worryin’ about seatin’ at the reception. Her mama said, she left Rachel alone at the church for less than ten minutes to run to the Dollar General to pick up some super glue. When she got back Rachel was gone. Not a single other person saw Rachel that day.”
“Maybe Rachel had to run an errand,” Willie Mae suggested.
“In her wedding dress?” Sheriff Taylor questioned. “Besides her car was still at the church. Everything was still there, even her wallet with over three hundred bucks in it. It jus’ don’ make any sense!”
Willie Mae couldn’t answer him. She couldn’t even offer advice. She squeezed his arm and got up. “I don’ know, Sheriff. Maybe she was just a victim of someone passing through town. Shady Grove isn’t a huge place, but we do get some travelers now and again.”
“Yeah, only I asked Gwen at the bed and breakfast if she had any visitors. She said last three to stay there were over a month ago. Folks don’t travel much in October. I guess it’s possible it was just some random stranger passing by the church on their way elsewhere, but it all seems a bit too convenient to me.”
“You thinkin’ it was someone local?” Willie Mae whispered.
Sheriff Taylor shrugged. “Seems likely, but I ain’t gonna say that for certain.”
“So you’re sayin’ that…”
“Willie, I’m not sure what I’m saying. Nothing makes sense. An’ I feel like I’m fishing in a lake with no fish. They say she died of asphyxiation, only why hang yourself on your wedding day?”
Willie patted the hand clenching his fork in a white-knuckled grip. Sheriff Taylor sighed. “Maybe she was having problems with her beau,” she offered.
“I talked to him an’ their families,” Sheriff Taylor said. He leaned forward, crooking a finger in Willie’s direction. She leaned forward. “Rachel was pregnant. THat’s why they moved the weddin’ up a month.”
Willie’s hands flew up to her mouth. “Dear Lord above!”
Sheriff Taylor shrugged. “That’s why she wouldn’t have hung herself. Besides the fact that no rope was found anywhere. An’ there were no signs of struggle at the church.” The sheriff drained the last dredges of his tea. “Just a good thing that the nine and three-thirty trains see the bodies before they get run over too.”
Todd Smith edged toward them from his usual table in the back. As soon as he reached the table he asked, “Any luck on Rachel, Sheriff?”
Sheriff Taylor looked like he wanted to cuss as Willie Mae excused herself to check on the other patrons. She’d ceased calling them simply customers years ago. She patted Todd’s should as she passed.
“I’ll bring both you boys a slice of coconut pie and another refill for your sweet teas.” She hadn’t served blackberry cobbler since George met the 3:30. Call her superstitious or not, she’d long since learned it was best not to tempt fate.
Her mind whirled. For once, it seemed, the small town rumor mill was right. A killer lurked in Shady Grove.
Nearly a year later when the last customer had long since departed Willie Mae’s diner, and since she just lived right behind it, she sat down in one of the rocking chairs on the front porch. August was hot and humid, but that was normal. The mercury still hovered at the 93 degree mark, even though the sun was almost completely hidden behind Gopher Mountain. Not even the barest breeze stirred the thin branches of the weeping willow wilting beside the dry creek bed.
Willie Mae sighed. In the two weeks following Rachel’s death, three other bodies had been found on the railroad tracks under the Shady Road bridge. Over the course of the last ten months nearly twenty-five people, some townsfolk and four were tourists that seemed enthralled with the urban legend that begin with George and Rachel, lost their lives to the tracks. Every person. Every death. The same.
Willie Mae rocked slowly listening to the night bugs and sniffing the sweet stench of late summer decaying underbrush. The only marks on any of the bodies, were the rings on their necks. Except for Frank Grant, he had that mark on his cheek from having his skin cancer removed four days before he’d been found still in his overalls, lying peaceful on the tracks – dead.
It just didn’t make a lick of sense. The murdered people were good folks. The sheriff’s office had no clues, no hints even to anyone who may be a murderer. Nothing. There was absolutely nothing, except for the bodies. Nothing else was going on in town, no stealin’, no anything. Business as usual.
Sheriff Taylor had no suspects. He’d announced his resignation two days ago. Today while he’d been in the diner, more’n half the town executives circled him askin’ for him to come back. Most of the town’s three thousand four hundred fifty-six people had decided that this stretch of track and the bridge above were haunted. Willie didn’t disagree. Apparently neither did the town executives, since they were voting to either build another bridge or re-route traffic to the other side of town.
Willie didn’t much care for the idea of re-routing traffic. Her diner’s luck was still good, but if they built the new road, she was gonna be on the wrong side of town. She was only sixty-three, a’ no where near ready to hang up her spatula for good. Besides she’d miss all the kids playing the the dry creek bed on the old tire swing across the other side of the tracks. They always run over there to play just as soon as they finished eating, while their parents ate.
Willie Mae sighed. The rocking chair beside her creaked. She twisted her head. It rocked. No one sat in it. It rocked again. Willie Mae watched while the rocker evened out, rocking just like someone sat in it.
Willie Mae jumped. “Who’s there?”
“You can’t tell?”
“Hello?” Willie Mae said.
“Hello.” The voice answered again.
“It’s me al’right. How’re things at the diner?”
Willie Mae trembled. She clenched her hands in the folds of her stained apron. Her tongue felt thick, and she didn’t have enough spit to swallow. Her eyes widened, a very wispy and vague-looking George sat in the rocking chair beside her. Willie Mae screamed. George just sat and rocked.
“You can scream all you like. Ain’t nobody gonna to hear ya. E’rbody’s done gone home for the day.”
George laughed. “Well now, that ain’t my fault.”
“They said you jumped,” Willie Mae faltered. Her heart pounded like a rabbit in heat.
“I didn’t do no such thing. I may have worn the label of the town crazy all these years, but I’m as sane as I can be.”
“What happened then?” Willie Mae asked.
“Now, are ya sure ya wanna know the answer to that? ‘Cuz there ain’t no going back once you learn the secret.” George said. His voice sounded like he was talking through a tunnel.
Willie Mae considered. He was a ghost, he couldn’t hurt her. “I’m sure.”
“Al’right then, ya just go stand up there on the Shady Road bridge. You’ll find out soon enough.”
Willie Mae opened her mouth to answer him, but he disappeared like fog in the sunshine. “George?”
He didn’t answer. Not even his rocking chair moved anymore. Willie Mae stood up, looking around but there was no sign of George or his ghost. She turned and stared at the bridge. It was deserted. The only sounds were the night birds and cricket song. Willie Mae stuck her fingers in her apron pocket to make sure the key to the diner was still there out of habit. It was. If she could find out what happened to George, it would probably solve the rest of the murders too. Then, she could take the news to Abe Taylor, an’ he could just sign right back up as sheriff. She sucked in a breath, and started walking toward the bridge.
Willie Mae stood up at the edge of the bridge right before the gravel road gave away to the concrete of the bridge. She took a deep breath and stepped out on the bridge. Her heart thudded. Her hands shook. Breathing hurt. But it was ridiculous.
“Oh Willie,” Willie Mae mumbled to the night. “Nothing or no one is gonna get to you. This is plume silly. Just get on out there.”
Willie Mae took a deep breath and then, she took a step. One step led to another, her breathing got easier, and the trembling stopped. She didn’t stop until she was standing right, smack dab in the middle of the bridge and looking down at the roof of the diner some five hundred feet in front of her and to the right of the curling tracks. Gopher Mountain stood sentry on the other side, the wilting green colors of August dappling it in the quickly failing light. Total darkness was less than thirty minutes away, but Willie Mae didn’t have to wait that long.
The train whistle blew loud and long, and Willie Mae jumped. It was impossible. No train was expected until tomorrow morning at nine, when it curled up into the mountains heading for the limestone quarry. The train was coming from behind her though, and Willie Mae turned.
A black haired woman in a scarlet dress stood on the concrete railing of the bridge. A thick coarse rope looped her neck. She turned big, black eyes on Willie Mae. Her ruby red lips opened and she whispered. Willie Mae couldn’t hear her, so she took a dozen steps in the woman’s direction.
Only the night reached her ears. The train whistle blew again. Lilly Anne, dressed in the scarlet dress she died in, spun around. Her ankles tottered in her high heels. The train that shouldn’t even be coming thundered directly toward the bridge. Willie Mae reached the far side of the bridge, her hand inches away from Lilly Anne, when she plunged head first toward the tracks.
Willie Mae screamed, but when she looked over the side of the bridge – nothing was there. No train. No woman in a scarlet dress. Nothing just the tracks. George reappeared beside Willie Mae.
“That’s the way of it, Willie. That’s the only way of it. Lilly Anne was murdered. She never committed suicide over her heartbreak when Tom left her like Tom always said. It wasn’t me. It was him. She loved me more’n Tom and he didn’t like it.”
Willie Mae turned to look at him, and the world went dark.
Willie Mae’s body was found just after dawn by some of the breakfast regulars to the diner. She was lying nice and quiet on the tracks, the diner key was still in her apron pocket, and a thick, round bruise circled her throat.
Over the course of the years, more than a hundred bodies have been found on that stretch of tracks and no one yet has been able to solve the mystery. At least, no one has survived that solved it. The high number of deaths prompted closure of this stretch of Shady Lane and a new road to be built bypassing Crazy George’s Bridge. Willie Mae’s diner was boarded up and the willow chopped down. That never stopped some brave, or maybe not so brave, souls from venturing out there. Everyone claiming to want to witness the Train from Hell and the scarlet She-Devil…
Occasionally, bodies are still found.