The Bridge to Zealandia
At thirteen, Samantha decided she was too old to go trick-or-treating. She came to this determination when the popular girls giggled after overhearing her tell her friends she was dressing up as a witch. Not a sexy witch, but a black hat and green nose witch; the kind of witch Puritans burned at the stake. She insisted on staying home, handing out candy to little kids. Samantha lived up on a steep hill in western North Carolina with exactly one neighbor.
Her house was never visited by trick-or-treaters.
Her mother, Amy, saddened at this loss to Samantha’s childhood, decided rather than sitting around at home, she would take her daughter to Helen’s Bridge for some real-life ghost hunting. Samantha rolled her eyes but indulged her mother’s idea.
Amy stopped the car in the middle of the arched, quarried stone bridge at dusk and turned off the engine, leaving the headlights on to slice through the dark. The lights of Asheville glowed beyond, the only noises from crickets and far off music.
“In the early 1900s, Helen was in love with Sir Phillip S. Henry,” Amy told her daughter, who kept texting in the passenger seat. “Did you know there is a secret mansion up there named Zealandia?” She pointed up towards the top of Beaucatcher Mountain, but the castle was hidden by trees and darkness. “Sir Henry was the master of Zealandia, and Helen was one of his maids. He enjoyed having parties, and when he invited Helen to attend as his guest, she wanted to go but had no one to care for her daughter.” When Samantha still didn’t look up, Amy lowered her voice, the way any good ghost story should be told. “Sir Henry told her to just leave her daughter in the library, check on her through the night, and all would be well.”
Samantha rolled her eyes and said, “I’m guessing since we’re parked on this bridge, this is a babysitting horror story, and all was not well.”
“Nope,” Amy said cheerily. “There was a fire that night, starting in the library. Her daughter was burned alive while her mother partied downstairs. By the time anyone noticed the fire, it was too late. Everyone survived but her daughter.”
“And now Helen stalks around forever?” Samantha’s tone was mocking, but at least she put down her phone. What more could a mother ask for?
“She was so blinded by grief and guilt that she came to this bridge and hung herself,” Amy gestured widely in front of herself towards the night. “It’s said that if you say her name three times, she’ll appear.”
“Helen, Helen, Helen,” Samantha deadpanned before looking back down at her phone. “Dang it, no signal.” Then she looked at her mother, her eyes wide in feigned horror, “Did Helen, Helen, Helen do this?”
“They do say that electronics and cars don’t work well when she’s around.” Amy looked back at Samantha with equally large eyes and spoke again in her low ghost story voice. “Wanna get out and look?”
“Not really,” she said quickly, but when her mother scrunched her nose in disappointed, she added, “Sure, why not?”
“Yeah, what’s the worst that can happen?” Amy said while wiggling her eyebrows and eagerly left the car. Samantha followed, and the two walked out to the low wall of the mossy, leaf covered bridge. It didn’t look any different than any other old bridge in Asheville.
“So, this is where she did it,” Amy said, but without any of her theatrical voices or faces. Her mood changed outside the car, not to fear, but to guilt. It felt wrong she was making a joke of a mother’s grief. She wrapped her arms around herself as the air grew colder atop the bridge.
“Can we go now?” Samantha asked. Her hands shook. She was sweating despite the chill in the air, heat emanating inside her. When she took deep labored breaths to try to calm herself down, white puffs of air came out in front of her face.
“I’m so sorry, baby,” Amy said, staring out into the dark, not bothering to wipe away tears that were freely falling down her face. “It was so wrong of me to bring us here.”
“I want to go home, mommy,” Samantha said in a small voice, and she turned away from the low wall and ran back to the passenger door. She tugged on the handle, but it was locked. The headlights flickered then cut out, and they descended into darkness.
“I’m sorry I left you,” Amy continued, “I loved you so much. So, so much, so much...” Her voice faded until her mouth was miming the words.
Samantha screamed, a small, shrill, girlish noise. A pair of invisible hands pulled her away from the bridge, through the woods, carrying her faster than possible over the rocks and between trees. She struggled, flailing her arms and kicking her legs, yelling out “Mommy!”
“Mommy? Mommy? Where are you? Help me! Mommy!” Her voice grew in hysteria. The sweat soaked through her clothes, and she started to cough and choke as smoke swelled inside her lungs. Heat overwhelmed her senses, desperation ruled her mind, the searing pain eviscerating her as her skin bubbled from the heat burning out from inside of her. The last thing she saw before the heat madness took her was the restored library of Zealandia. She reached for her mother blindly and she burned until she was nothing but dust.
“Please forgive me,” Amy said back at the bridge before she stepped off the side. The rope around her neck snapped tight as her weight hit the end. Her trachea crumbled inward like crushed wax, the rope burning a red line across her throat. She kicked her feet erratically, her fingers clawed at the rope, and warm urine trickled down her leg to splatter on the the road below.
Another woman hung beside Amy, her cheeks wet with tears, her grief infinite and terrible.