Shannon visited the old train bridge almost daily during late fall, before the snow set in and the days grew short. It reminded her of old bones or an ancient relic abandoned in the wilderness. But it wasn’t quite that. The tracks themselves were still clean despite the rust that marred the surrounding steel. From a distance, the bridge looked rickety and rotten, worn away by time and misuse. Up close, though, it was ox-sturdy and steadfast.
They’d stopped running trains on it last year. Shannon had an uncle that worked at the rail yard, and she’d heard him complaining about it. One less line to service meant fewer jobs. Not even the union could stop that from happening.
Those problems weren’t Shannon’s problems, though. For her, it meant the bridge was safe. She’d wanted to walk across it for years and would’ve done it sooner if her mother hadn’t found out and scolded her for it.
“That’s a great way to end up like a bug smeared on a windshield,” her mother said. “You don’t go near those tracks. Train might show up while you’re halfway across. Then where would you go?”
Into the water, Shannon wanted to say, but there was no use arguing. That was a great way to get grounded.
Now, though, there were no trains, and Shannon could come and go as she pleased — though she suspected that if her mother found out about it, she’d have some new excuse to keep Shannon away. So Shannon kept it quiet. She stole out to the tracks on her walk home from the bus stop. The bus crossed the tracks right before her stop, and it was easy enough to walk back, then out along the tracks to the bridge.
She’d been frequenting the area for just over a month before she saw the man sitting there. He was seated in the middle of the bridge, feet dangling over the side. Beneath him, the water rippled. Shannon realized that he was throwing rocks into the water.
He waved when he saw her.
“Come on out,” he said. “It’s a perfect day.”
And it was. Bright sun, cool air, slight breeze. The leaves had blown off the trees weeks ago, and the brisk chill cut through Shannon’s light jacket, prickling her skin. She walked to the edge of the bridge but hesitated while she studied him.
He was an older man wearing ragtag clothes and a long beard. He laughed to himself and hurled another stone into the water while he swung his bare feet out and back again at the knee. When he ran out of rocks, he ran a hand through his dirty, brown hair and turned over his shoulder rake another handful into his palms.
“C’mon, girl,” he said. “I don’t bite. What are you afraid of?”
Shannon didn’t know, and that wasn’t reason enough to stay away. She picked up a handful of rocks and hopped out along the tracks to join him. He patted the steel beam beside her and scooted over so that she could join him.
“What’s your name,” he asked when she’d seated herself.
He stuck out a hand. “Pleasure to meet you, Shannon. I’m McAbe.”
Shannon took it, and McAbe gave it a single hearty shake. Then he turned back to his rocks, mumbling at himself as he hurled another one into the water. He laughed when it struck.
“What’s so funny?”
“The water,” McAbe giggled. “Look how the reflections ripple when the rocks splash in. Go on, throw a rock in. You’ll see.”
Shannon took a rock and tossed it into the water. It rippled. McAbe cackled, then threw in one of his own. They took turns, tossing stones into the river until, after Shannon threw one, McAbe didn’t follow suit. Instead, he was studying her.
“What?” Shannon said.
“You’re not laughing,” said McAbe. “It’s funny, isn’t it?”
Shannon shrugged. “It’s okay.”
She threw in another stone.
“It was my turn,” McAbe said. Shannon looked over at him. That glint in his eyes had vanished. There was something else now. Something dangerous. Predatory. And it was focused on her.
“Sorry,” she whispered. “I should go.”
“No!” McAbe snapped. “Not until you laugh. Not until it’s funny.”
He threw a rock into the water, then turned back to her, a deadly glare haunting his face. Shannon looked at the water, then back at him, and forced herself to laugh. She kept at it until she choked out a cough and gasped for air.
“You’re. Lying!” McAbe said. He reached out and grabbed at her jacket.
Shannon screamed and twisted away. Behind her, McAbe lost his footing and stumbled forward, over the edge of the bridge. Shannon saw him fall and sprinted toward edge of the bridge. McAbe hit the water with loud smack and vanished beneath the surface.
Just as she cleared the bridge and hurried down the tracks, Shannon heard McAbe surface, gasping at the air as he cackled and cawed.
“Shannon,” he called out into the perfect, afternoon air, tone tingling with mirth. “Come on back, now, Shannon!”
But Shannon was gone, down the track and toward home as fast as her legs would carry her.