We were just sitting down to dinner when Mama shared the news about Michael Farlowe.
“Poor boy jumped right off the old bridge,” she said, plopping down a heaping bowl of mashed potatoes. “Sheriff had to go down, have some boys help drag him out of the water nearly a mile from the bridge. I heard the news just this morning, from Mrs. Abernathy.”
“Michael Farlowe never had any sense,” Daddy said. “The whole family is bad seed. Pass the salt, would you, Danny?”
“It’s a shame anyhow,” Mama replied. She finally noticed me, sitting across the table with a still empty plate.
“Andrea, what’s gotten into you, child? The food’s going to get cold.” Mama slapped a spoonful of potatoes on my plate, followed by a piece of meatloaf. My throat felt thick with things I wanted to say, but I picked up my fork and ate.
Around me, the conversation finally moved from Michael to other things; how the crops were going to do this year, whether Danny needed a new fishing pole. I said not a single word for the entire evening, but no one noticed.
I dutifully helped Mama with the dishes, and then I fled to my room; where the sob that had been building inside me all night burst free like a wild animal. Michael never would have jumped off the bridge.
He wouldn’t leave me like that. We were going to leave this town together; we’d planned the whole thing right beside that bridge. No one knew besides us and the wild things that grew on Blackberry Ridge.
There was a funeral, but we only stopped off at the church long enough to pay condolences to the Farlowe’s. The sight of the wooden box lying up front nearly undid me. Mitch Farlowe snagged his gaze on mine; he didn’t seem all that sad for someone whose little brother was dead and drowned not even a week ago. Mitch had always been hard, hunting for trouble as much as he hunted deer and rabbits.
Meaner than a rattlesnake, I always thought. I had seen him watching me in town when I was sneaking glances at Michael. I turned away from him and walked right out of the church.
The world began to settle into summer like a pair of soft faded jeans, and I spent little time at home. A month had passed since Michael had been pulled from the river. We were supposed to be gone by now, riding West in his old Chevy. Now Michael would never leave this place and I was trapped with ghosts; haunted by reminders of him everywhere I turned.
No one had known about me and Michael; he was a year older than me and already finished with school. I hadn’t told my parents due to Daddy’s low opinion of the Farlowe family. No one ever really understood Michael; didn’t know him like I did. His daddy and his big brother were known for drinking too much and picking fights and that meant Michael was already written off.
He’d been in some fights too, but only when someone pushed him that far. Michael didn’t like to fight, but he’d had to learn to hold his own. The Farlowe men didn’t just fight other people; Mr. Farlowe would knock his sons senseless as soon as look at them and Mitch would often take out his own rage on his little brother’s hide.
Michael hadn’t been a great student in school, though he did pass. But I knew that he just didn’t like school; didn’t like how the teachers looked down on him for being a Farlowe, didn’t like how other boys tried to start trouble with him. He wrote poetry, though, and could remember things better than anyone else I ever knew. Even if he looked serious most of the time, when he did smile his face looked like the sun coming out after a storm. And I loved him.
Every day I woke to fresh waves of pain. In my dreams, he was still with me, taking long walks and having picnics up at Blackberry Ridge. Then the sun, cruel bully that it was, would force my eyes open. The dream would fade, and my heart had to remember all over again that Michael was gone. And the world just kept moving, kept spinning. I couldn’t share my grief, couldn’t beg off doing chores or going shopping in town with Mama, claiming a bad case of the broken hearts. It was just me and Michael’s ghost.
Once that first month had passed, I finally walked up to the ridge again for the first time. I wandered the ridge with slow steps, tracing all the paths we had made. As night began to fall, my feet carried me to the bridge. I stood high over the pounding Washasee River and imagined Michael standing in this same spot. Had he stood exactly where I was before he leaped? Did he fall silently, straight down like a stone? Or did he flail, twist, try to reach back the way he’d come? Did he think of me on the way down?
I realized tears were running down my face, not for the first time. I pulled back from the railing and turned to leave the bridge before my heartache sent me over the edge, too. I froze. At the end of the bridge there stood a man’s figure. For one wild moment I thought it was Michael, come back for me after all. But as he walked toward me I knew it wasn’t Michael. Michael’s had been a steady, easy sort of stride. This man walked the way a snake slithers after a rabbit.
“Mitch Farlowe,” I called, even before the fading light revealed his face. “You stay away from me.”
“Too good for me, are you?” His lip curled. “You ain’t, you know. You grew up pretty, Andrea, but you’re no fancy high society lady. And I know you’ve already let a Farlowe touch you.”
I bristled at the way he said it; like me and Michael were something dirty. What could I expect from the likes of him anyway; Mitch had never once in his life tried to love anyone. He only wanted to touch if he could bruise.
“Stay away from me,” I said again.
“Here to mourn for my little brother?” Mitch scoffed. He continued toward me, slowly. “I know you two had some crazy plan to run off. I saw you out here together sometimes, thinking you deserved to get out of this fucking place. Not now though, ain’t that right, Andrea?” He laughed, and something in the sound made me pause despite my growing fear.
I had never known Mitch was watching us. We were supposed to leave two days after Michael jumped off the bridge. Mitch would’ve known that if he’d been spying on us.
“My brother always thought he was better than he was,” Mitch went on. He finally stopped advancing on me, though he was barely a foot away. I knew I should probably run, try to make it to the other end of the bridge. But I stayed where I was, staring him down.
“I think you were jealous of Michael,” I said. “And I don’t think he jumped off this bridge.”
“You don’t, huh?” Mitch flicked a glance at the river below us. Then he looked back at me. “You can still run away, you know. I can drive you out of this godforsaken town as easily as he could.”
Mitch’s face twisted into an even harder scowl than usual.
“You wanna know the truth, Andrea? Michael didn’t jump off this bridge that night. I caught him up here after he took you home. I told him he was never getting out of here and just who the fuck did you two think you are, anyway? He told me to get lost. Tried to ignore me. So I decided he needed a lesson. I don’t like to be ignored, Andrea; it makes me real mad, you know? He fought back. I was almost impressed. Pretty sure the bastard broke a couple of my ribs. Gave me a black eye.
But I still bloodied him up good, did a real number on his face. You wouldn’t have thought he was so handsome then, Andrea Ross. We fought some more, and he tried to make a break for it across this old bridge.
But I decided I’d had enough of him and his bullshit. I threw him off this bridge. Hurled him right into the water. I watched him fall, all the way down. And you wanna know the funny part? He said your name as I shoved him over.”
I leaped forward and rammed a fist into Mitch’s face with a howl like a banshee. It caught him off guard. But he grabbed my wrist as I tried to swing again.
“You son of a bitch,” I snarled. I kicked and squirmed and scratched at him, a rabid wildcat. My grief had collapsed into a white hot rage. Mitch twisted my arm in an effort to keep me away from his face. Pain lanced through my shoulder but I didn’t care.
We struggled on the bridge in the dark, and Mitch got his arms around my waist, trying to wrangle me and, I realized, send me flying off the bridge. I raked my nails down his face, drawing blood. He made a sound like a wounded bear and tightened his grip. I thought my ribs were going to snap under the pressure.
I had no doubt that Mitch Farlowe was going to kill me. I was going to free fall through open air like a leaf tossed on the breeze and hit hungry water that would swallow me whole. Blackness loomed, coming for me.
But even if I knew I was going to die, it didn’t mean I planned to go quietly. I fought with all I could, sending both of us sprawling across the bridge. Mitch caught me by the hair as I tried to find my footing and I screamed as he yanked. Tears stung my eyes; pain, rage, terror, grief all burning under the salt. Mitch was going to kill me just like he killed Michael, and tomorrow some family would sit down to dinner and say, “did you hear about Andrea Ross? Silly girl jumped right off the old bridge. Those Rosses never did have any sense anyhow.”
I landed a hard kick to Mitch’s shin, which only seemed to make him madder. He pulled me toward the rail again, cuffed me hard across the cheek. I tasted blood and my vision swam for a moment. But through that haze I saw another figure appear on the bridge. I drew a breath to scream for help. It caught in my throat as the figure came closer and into focus in the faint moonlight.
Then Mitch lifted me off my feet and started to topple me over the side. The world lurched, tilted, turned upside down and raging river became all I could see. I managed a breathless and half choked shriek. A cloud passed in front of the moon, like Death’s wings spreading over me.
Strong hands caught me before the plunge. They pulled me back to safety and set my feet on solid ground again. Mitch had gone slack-jawed and pale. Beside me stood Michael; a slightly translucent version of Michael that seemed to ripple gently. Mitch was seeing a ghost; as far as I’m concerned he was an angel.
“It was bad enough, Mitch, you killin’ me.” Michael’s voice was steady and seemed to echo slightly all around us. He stepped toward his brother. “But layin’ hands on Andrea is the last thing you’re ever gonna do.”
That was the first and the only time I ever saw fear in Mitch’s eyes. Michael reached for him and Mitch twisted in his grasp with a short groan of terror and disbelief. It turned into one long wail as Michael lifted him, and shoved. Mitch hung suspended in the night air for a moment. Then he fell down into the dark, and there he would stay. And my dead boyfriend stood there before me on the bridge and I felt no fear.
“You came back for me,” I said. Ghost-Michael smiled.
“I never left. Maybe we gotta wait a little longer to run away together now, but I’ll be waitin’ right here for you, Andrea Ross.”
I felt his hand brush my cheek ever so slightly; felt phantom lips on mine. Then he was gone. But not really, I knew.
“I love you, Michael Farlowe,” I whispered. Life somehow carried on after that. I told the sheriff that Mitch tried to kill me in a drunken rage and in the struggle fell off the bridge. The bruises on my face and Mitch’s reputation were evidence enough for him.
Mr. Farlowe drank so much that Mrs. Farlowe finally up and left him. Danny got a new fishing pole after all. Summer faded into fall, and fall into winter and eventually summer came around again, just like it always does. Daddy still remarks on who in town doesn’t have a lick of sense, Mama makes potatoes and shares the town gossip. Danny’s hit a growth spurt and his voice cracks sometimes now. Occasionally a warm breeze stirs through my window at night and I could swear I hear a voice saying my name like it’s the most precious thing in the world.
As for me, I spend many an afternoon at the old bridge, picking wildflowers and tossing their petals into the churning river below.