Spooky Halloween tale of two troublemakers who cross the wrong Old Man and must walk home via the feared Troll Bridge.
Check the microfilm in the library and the disappearance might come up somewhere around the middle of November, just before Thanksgiving. But the way I heard it, and the way everyone else here on the Kentucky side of the river knows it, it was Halloween night.
It gives me the shivers just to think about it–that one night of the year where ghosts slip past moonlit windows, ghouls creep by in a tumble of rusty leaves, and skeleton bones clack-rattle in the windblown trees.
No, it had to be that sleepless October night. That was about the time Ricky Donaly and Tommy Clarke’s old junker of a pickup truck bit the dust anyway. Remember that heap they’d pooled their money to buy just so they could haul every jack o’ lantern in the neighborhood down to Principal Ford’s and pile them in his front yard the year before? No one would be caught dead walking the bridge if they’d had the wheels to go around it.
Of course the bridge was a short cut, but it wasn’t built to be. The expanse of it was railroad tracks laid for freights passing from city to city, town to town over the hilly Bluegrass countryside. If you were walking across and a train came barreling down on you it was either jump and splatter on the rocks by the creek or wait to get plowed over by tons of speeding steel. Well, as the story goes, those might not have been the only dangers, at least not for Ricky and Tommy. You see, their bodies weren’t found stuck to the tracks or scattered in the woods below. Their bodies weren’t found at all. That’s why everyone calls it the Troll Bridge.
Are you listening?
Folks start turning off their lights at eight. When the two hours of trick-or-treating are up, it lets the few stragglers know you are out of candy and have had enough scares for the night. Of course, if you leave them on longer it keeps the older kids, the ones who don’t need to dress up to become evil lurking demons, from egging your car and TP-ing your trees.
That’s what Ricky and Tommy were up to when the sound of sirens blared through the chill quiet of the night. They jumped the hedges and lit out for the woods once they saw the red and blue lights come flashing down the street.
At the time they felt lucky to be on foot. If they had taken the truck, they’d likely have spent the night trying to explain to their parents why they had to be picked up at the police station yet again.
They were seniors at the time, breezing through the twelfth grade on state football scholarships–not that they had even cracked their textbooks before they got scouted. A friend of a friend’s sister said she was a sophomore when it all happened and that she’d even seen them up at the stop sign on Grace that night, stealing candy-filled pillowcases from little Draculas and Frankensteins and Fairies and Robots and Princesses.
Well, the point is, they weren’t in junior high anymore and hadn’t been through the woods in years. The trails had changed or grown over, and Ricky’s lighter threw its flint in the first five minutes of walking through the black trees. They wound their way blindly ahead, slapping down twigs and bashing through spider webs for nearly an hour before reaching the other side of the woods.
There they heard the buzzing even before they spotted the sickly orange light beyond the last of the trees. Have you ever been down Gravesway Lane? To old man Hickley’s? If you have then you’ll know he leaves the porch lamp on day and night, all year round, gathering bugs with its dim flicker and humming loud enough to give the Devil a headache.
They hiked over the tall grass and finally set foot on concrete. Tommy wrinkled his brow at the sight of the lonely old house. The yard was a mess of weeds fanning over busted old tires and cinder blocks and moldy stacks of four-by-fours. The house itself was just large enough to fit two square windows and a door on the front wall above the porch, and it had a slanting shingle roof that jutted out into an awning caked over with soggy brown leaves. The incessant dull light shone down on the walls where cracked and curling peels of gray paint stuck like cobwebs to the clapboards.
“Where are we?” Tommy glanced left and right along the road and squinted to read the street sign through clinging layers of fog. “Graves–way–Lane?”
“Yeah, Old Man Hickley’s.” Ricky flicked him in the chest and capered across the street. “Come on.”
“Didn’t know this place was here,” said Tommy, wading through the fog.
“Sure you did. Remember swimming lessons? The old pool used to be just down that way.”
“Whatever happened to that place?”
“All the little kiddies were probably too scared of the old man’s blasted porch light.” Ricky fluttered his fingers in Tommy’s face, trying to spook him out. Then his eyes lit up and he nodded his head sideways at the house. “Hey, I dare you to go unscrew the bulb.”
“What? No way. Wouldn’t that be like blowing out the eternal flame at some memorial or something? Stuff like that’ll give you some bad juju, man.”
“Seven years bad luck, if you’re lucky.” Ricky’s mouth curled into a smile and he gave his best B-movie performance of a maniacal laugh.
“Shut up, man. You’re gonna wake the dead.”
“Alright then,” said Ricky, turning serious. “You dare me to do it?”
“Yeah, come on. Dare me!” Ricky put a hand on his friend’s shoulder and started creeping up the walkway.
Tommy licked his lips and shifted his eyes before finally giving a shrug. “Whatever. I dare you.”
Ricky barely made it three steps before a voice as husky and crackly as a fresh log sizzling in the campfire broke the silence, “You boys lost?” Their sneakers scrapped against the weedy concrete and stuck in place. There was a howling gust of wind, and Ricky cussed under his breath. How could they not have noticed the gaunt old man leaning back in a rocking
chair on the porch with his feet crossed over the moldy railing–Old Man Hickley himself!
Tommy finally let out a breath and whispered, “Didn’t even see him there. You?”
“Nah, but check it out.” Ricky leaned his head down and shot his eyes toward an eight-pound ax leaning handle up against the wall beside the old man’s chair. “You know he doesn’t use that to chop wood!”
“You boys is trespassin’!” The chair rocked forward and the old man dropped his feet onto the wooden decking.
“Sorry, sir, we were just–”
Ricky jumped in, “We were just trick-or-treating and got lost. That’s all.” He ran a hand through his black undercut and scratched the back of his head.
The old man grumped himself back into the chair and spit into a rusty coffee can. If he wasn’t a ghost then he was just plain creepy. “Trick-or-treating? Where are your costumes? Where are your masks?”
“He thinks we’re in fifth grade,” Ricky laughed.
“You’re never too old to wear a mask.”
“Look, we were just gonna ask the way home.”
The old man cricked his head. “Ask the way home? Does it look like I know where you live?”
“God I hope not,” said Ricky under his breath as he turned to leave. “Sorry to bother you, sir.”
“You know which way to go?” Tommy said, following along.
“No, but let’s just get outta here. We’ll take the woods back.” Ricky glanced over his shoulder and through the fog. “Old loony!”
“I wouldn’t take to the woods, if I were you,” the man suddenly grumped. “Not on a night like tonight.”
From curiosity or fear, or a mixture of the two, the words stopped the boys dead in their tracks. “Yeah? And why not?”
Tommy tugged at his friend’s sleeve. “Ricky, come on.”
“No, no, I wanna know now.” Ricky started walking back. He raised his voice, “You mean ‘cause it’s Halloween? The ghosts are out! Ooooh! Aaaah!” He flittered his hands in the air. “Pssh! We’re taking the woods. Let’s go, Tommy. Bound to run across the railroad tracks sooner or later. Follow ‘em long enough they’ll take us right through my back yard. We could be still be home in time to catch a slasher flick or two.”
The hollow-eyed Mr. Hickley licked his lips and kicked his chair into a steady rock. “Looks like you fellas are in luck, then, since your minds are already set.” He cracked a smile, pale and sick. “Matter of fact, you can find the tracks right out back here. If you ain’t afraid, of course.”
“Afraid?” Then Tommy nodded his head, suddenly remembering. “Oh yeah, there’s that bridge, right?”
Ricky huffed. “You gotta be kidding me! What’re the chances a train’ll come in the couple of minutes it takes us cross? Do trains even pass through here anymore? Let’s blow this joint!”
Ricky was already stomping around the side of the house, through the bushes. But for a moment, Tommy stood frozen, staring at the man. He wanted to say something but didn’t know what, and nothing came out. He watched Ricky wave his hand, “come on,” and disappear around back.
The old man’s chair rocked forward. Slowly, he pulled a grimy nickel harmonica from his shirt pocket and held it over the railing. “They don’t like the noise. It’ll keep ’em away and in the shadows till you’re home.”
Tommy hesitated. “Who are ‘they?’”
“The night creatures. Trolls.” Hickley winked and shook the harmonica.
Tommy stretched out his arm, flinched back, then snatched the rusty thing from the old man’s half-rotten fingers. And then he was gone, behind the house, into the woods to catch up to his friend.
The railroad tracks were ancient steel, rooted into the earth and shooting off like two long blades splitting apart the woods. The boys turned their heads left and right and climbed up the mound of gravel. As they started over the wooden ties, the buzz of the old man’s porch lamp began to fade away behind them, leaving nothing but the chirping and cricking of night insects. “At least he wasn’t completely useless,” said Ricky. And they kept walking, thinking they’d be home in no time.
Soon the gravel was taken over by dirt and grass, and the trees huddled up close to the long stretch of tracks. The fog thickened, and a soggy smell of rain settled in the air. They stopped and held their breath for a second when the trees around them dropped drastically into a deep ravine and there was the narrow bridge, shooting out like a tightrope into the enormous dark ahead. They couldn’t see the creek below but they could hear it rushing along and bubbling like a witch’s hot cauldron.
Ricky gulped. The bridge must have been nearly a quarter mile long and with no end in sight. “Okay. You ready?”
“What if a train does come through?”
“Then we’re wasting precious running time. Besides, it won’t.”
“Then, what if…” Tommy reached a hand into the pocket of his letterman jacket and pulled out the old man’s harmonica. He tapped it in his palm for a minute. “What if there’s, you know, something out there?”
“Something out there? Like what? Night creatures? Trolls?” Ricky laughed.
“You heard him?”
“Yeah. And if there was, you really think some spitty old harmonica’s gonna scare ‘em off?”
“I don’t know. But he’s got that porch lamp. Buzzing all the time. What if there’s something he knows about that no one else does?”
Ricky nodded. “You’re right. Lemme see that thing.”
As soon as Tommy handed over the harmonica, Ricky launched it into the huge black abyss. It whistled in the air like a screaming banshee until finally it hit the rocks below with a cracking echo.
“What the heck, man!”
Ricky laughed. “I just saved you, buddy. Likely to catch something trying to play that thing. Come on.”
The bridge was extremely narrow. One after the other they took cautious, slow steps off the wooden railroad ties and onto steel ones, each separated by a nearly a yard of empty space. They steadied themselves with their hands on the wide riveted beams on either side as they began to cross. Behind them the misty dark was catching up, vanishing the trees and the hill and the only hard ground they knew of.
“What a rush, huh!”
Tommy kept his head down to watch his step and gave a sarcastic laugh, “Yeah, a real good time, Ricky.”
“You know, I hear at State they make you do this kind of stuff all the time.” Ricky stretched his arms out for balance. “Initiation rituals and all that. Easy as cake. What they oughtta do is–” He stopped short. “Wait! You hear that?”
“No, I’m serious. Listen.”
And both boys held still and pricked their ears.
The shrill scream of the steam whistle was like a defibrillator, pumping raw electricity straight through their ribcages to their racing hearts. After it was gone they swore they could hear a dull chugging and screeching of metal wheels. Then a pinpoint of yellow light poked a hole in the dark behind them and grew and brightened and grew and brightened.
The boys took off. They grabbed at each others shoulders and sleeves and elbowed forward, leaping as far as they could without loosing their footing.
Whooooooooooo! The train whistle blared again, louder and sharper. The light at the head of the engine beamed a wide circle and the rusty bridge began to glow here and there with a fiery yellow glare.
Two and three ties at a time, Tommy and Ricky jumped. They slid and tripped and bent their ankles until Ricky slammed down on the tracks, his punting leg fallen through and sticking out the bottom. A voice in Tommy’s head screamed, “Go! Leave him!” But Ricky was screaming, “Help!”
Tommy was just passing over his friend when the rails started to rumble. The train was on the bridge, and the light was an immense, shadow-casting white. And that’s when he spotted it. The other end of the ravine! Brown dirt and green grass and tall trees and prickly bushes. Oh God! It was just a few more steps to the other side…
He jerked back around and took Ricky by the forearm. He braced himself against the rails and yanked until his friend had freed his leg and lifted himself up. The two ran, screaming, watching their own shadows stretched out before them, growing shorter and shorter.
The bridge quaked and rivets clanked loose and the freight train barreled through like an evil metal snake from some deep black hole. But not before the boys dove.
They watched from the cold ground, from either side, as the cars raced by with enormous blasts of wind. And when the last car had passed they swiped the sweat from under their hair and smiled.
“We made it!” they both shouted. “We made it!” They stood and gave each other a huge hug and a hundred pats on the back as the last slithering sounds of the train were devoured by the woods. “I can’t believe it! We made it!”
Ricky and Tommy were safe. Safe from the bridge and the train, at least. But what about the old man’s warnings? They had dismissed thoughts of creatures dwelling below, of monsters lurking amongst the steel pillars and in the shadows of the night ravine. And, side by side, with a hand over each other’s shoulder, they stood in the dead-silent night, staring back at the bridge and catching their breath.
“I know you’re happy to be alive, man, but quit squeezing my shoulder so hard.”
“I was just about to say the same thing to you. Geeze.”
“I’m not squeezing.”
But the grip only grew tighter. And as they glanced over their shoulders, even Ricky, somewhere deep in the back of his mind, expected to see a wart-riddled, grimy green hand with nails like railroad spikes digging into his skin.
“Looks like you made it, boys,” a voice crackled. And through the shadows appeared the wrinkled moonlight face of Old Man Hickley.
They both rolled their shoulders to escape his grip. “How the–”
“Didn’t run into no trolls, did ya, boys? They’re afraid of the noise you know. Mighty strong ears, they have. You’re lucky that train came through when it did.”
“Lucky? The thing almost ran us down!” Tommy shouted.
“How’d you get out here, anyway?”
The old man didn’t speak. Instead he pulled two dark green faces from behind his back. They were all toothy snarls and fierce red eyes and hairy green warts as he held them up for the boys.
“It is Halloween. And you’re never too old to wear a mask.” In the next breath, Hickley jerked his arms forward and pulled the rubber faces tight over the boys’ heads. They struggled to back away, but the masks were already on. They screamed and tore at the green flesh, but there was no removing the hideous faces. The masks were sinking into their skin, changing them. Inch by inch the mold color dyed itself down their necks and chests and stomachs and legs, all they way to their toes. And the old man took a step back to watch them writhe.
“What’s happening!” they shouted, even as their voices turned to nothing more than shrieks and growls. In a few moments Ricky and Tommy were no longer high school boys. They were monsters. They were trolls.
And Old Man Hickley, smiling, pulled a nickel plated harmonica from his pocket and blew a tune as he started to stroll back across the bridge.
The strange creatures, left alone with the whistling-echoing din, clapped their monster hands over their enormous pointed ears. They squirmed and ran. They leaped down through the ravine. They slipped away, gone in the moon-cast shadows of the cold steel bridge.
And now you know why the boys’ bodies were never found. Some say they are still there, cloaked in the dark, hiding from the screeching trains and hungrily awaiting the curious.
About the author
After moving from Kentucky bluegrass to the deserts of Arizona, Nathan Oser has found a home with his wife and kids on the Japanese oceanside where he spends his days teaching English as a second language, exploring the cuisine, restringing his shredded guitars, sketching the scenery, and scribbling out stories.