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Vol. 3, No. 2

Northwood
by Paul Griner

~

As she stared at it, the drawing seemed to pulse and grow smaller. At first she thought it was just the dimness of the cave, but then the noise of the falling water receded and the misty air in the cave grew thinner, and soon it was as if she was floating miles above the cave, looking down on the scene and seeing herself inside it as a small speck on a tiny piece of land. Her mother had been here, and Mr. Stemmler knew her mother spoke German, and she watched herself figuring out what it all meant, and none of it could touch her.
      But the sound of Mr. Stemmler entering the cave behind her, his boots scuffing over the rocky floor, locked everything back into place. Her skull tingled, just above her neck, where she imagined his eyes were focused, and she brought the nutcracker closer to her face and saw what she should have noticed immediately, the chip missing from the hand-painted figure, a section of the shoulder that showed new-wood blond rather than tobacco-stain brown.
      "Amanda, you are all right?"
      "Fine," she said, and then repeated it, trying to control the trembling of her voice. She let the nutcracker drop against her thigh. "I'm just feeling overwhelmed," she said, turning and standing so her back hid her mother's drawing. "The time of year, our talk, this." She lifted the nutcracker again. Tears sprung to her eyes, and she began to shake.
      "Amanda, please," he said, reaching out to her. "I have upset you so?"
      "No," she said, lurching back against the cave wall and putting out her hand to ward him off. "I'll be fine." She hugged herself and forced a smile. "I just need some air, I think. It's cold in here." She wanted to get by him, out into the open. Whatever had happened to her mother had probably happened at close quarters, and she guessed she could mislead him for only so long. Already he seemed to be studying her. Tears stung her skin and she rubbed them away with the heel of her palm. "Can we go out, please?"
      "Certainly." He stepped aside and extended his arm, indicating that she should go first.
      He shifted his weight from one foot to the other as she reached him, causing her to flinch, but he made no move to stop her, and suddenly she was beyond him and past the falling water, dizzy from the light and air. She stumbled into the clearing and put her head down and breathed deeply several times, knowing it was important to regain control, yet unable to do so with thoughts of her mother and Mr. Stemmler and the drawing swirling one after the other through her mind. She didn't want Mr. Stemmler to see her in disarray, so she fitted the nutcracker to a knuckle and squeezed hard enough to cause pain. The pain focused her, and as her dizziness began to clear, she straightened and turned back to face the falls.

 

~

When Mr. Stemmler emerged from behind the waterfall, he squatted and began pulling items from his backpack: the cold cuts, some dried fruit, a yellow anorak.
      "Amanda," he said, and produced a tobacco pouch, pipe, and knife from another pocket. "Let's go to the bridge." He scraped the inside of the bowl with the knife, then wiped the blade on his thigh.
      "No thanks." She made herself meet his gaze and, when she realized her fingers were clenched around the nutcracker, loosened her grip.
      "Come, it will allow us to recover the day," he said at last and smiled, then folded away the knife. "Becky told me you have yet to see the bridge up close. You should do so now--its engineering is really marvelous. As you remember, it is one of the draws of the school. In another few weeks it will be unapproachable." He put the pipe in his mouth and repacked all that he'd removed save for the anorak, which he slipped on.
      Amanda scanned the sky. "Is it supposed to rain?"
      "No." He spoke around the pipe. "I am only a little cold. As you were. Too long without activity, I think," he said, and pushed up the anorak's yellow sleeves. "Let us go."
      They would have to walk back through the woods together. A shiver slid down Amanda's spine; she was afraid that if she didn't go, he would intuit her suspicions.
      "All right," she said, trying to convince him that she was interested. Though she didn't want to go, there, at least, it was more likely others would be around. Here, miles from nowhere, it would be easier for him to cause her harm. And perhaps she would at last find out all that had happened.
      She turned and hurried down the trail before him.

 

~

In the car he looked at her only once--to make sure her seat belt was buckled--and then seemed to forget she was there, except when she shifted away from him as he reached to put her visor down, so it would block the sun.
      "You do not like that?" he asked.
      "No, it's fine. I was just startled is all, thinking about something else."
      "Oh yes. I imagine you have much to think about."
      He began to whistle, Christmas carols at first, and then snatches of popular tunes.
      She wasn't sure what to make of that, but the continued silence unnerved her. She was glad she'd refused his offer to put her pack in the trunk beside his--she was gripping it now against her stomach--and that she'd held on to the nutcracker, as well. She ran her fingers over it, to reassure herself, wondering if she'd made a mistake. Inside the car, after all, his superior weight and strength were at their greatest advantage, and if he moved, she would be unable to escape him.
      "Is it far to the bridge?" she asked, hoping conversation might forestall anything from happening.
      "No," he said, lifting one hand from the wheel and checking the odometer. "Not even a mile."
      And it wasn't, though the two minutes it took to reach it seemed an eternity, as she listened to him draw air through his pipe and breathed in the scent of his Old Spice. But at last he nodded at the bridge as they rounded a turn.
      "There, you see? I am true to my word."

 

~

Near the bridge, they pulled off onto a deeply rutted fire road. After fifteen or twenty yards the dense green forest encroached upon it, but Mr. Stemmler didn't slow until making an abrupt turn to the right into a small clearing, where he stopped the car with its bumper scraping against a boulder.
      "Come," he said, getting out and pocketing his pipe. "The car we will not need, nor anything else. Why not leave your pack? The bridge is very close."
      The pack would be no advantage here, so she left it. The nutcracker, the only thing remotely resembling a weapon she could carry, she brought along.

 

~

After a short, difficult hike through the tangled underbrush--branches slashing Amanda's hands and cheeks, pine pitch gumming her fingers--they came out at one end of the bridge.
      It had been oddly built, almost as two separate, one-lane bridges with fenced sides and an opening between them. Looking down into the opening, Amanda saw that the first set of piers rose twenty feet above the water, circular and honeycombed, green and orange with moss, and partially topped with concrete slabs. Into the slabs were bolted the steel trusses of the bridge, and inside the piers water sloshed and boiled. She could not hear herself breathing, though she knew she was doing so loudly.
      This might be exactly what he had done with her mother, and she wanted desperately to know. But if she accused him, he would either laugh or deny her accusations, and she had nothing concrete that she could take to the police. The chip from the nutcracker? He could have dropped that at any time, and he would say its appearance there was merely fortuitous.
      But she could drop it, too, she realized.
      "Mr. Stemmler?"
      He stopped and turned toward her. "Yes?"
      She held the nutcracker out over the fence.
      "I want to know what happened."
      "Excuse me?" he said. "When?" Though his face remained calm, his eyes did not leave the nutcracker, and she saw that it would go on like this, with him feigning ignorance and with her growing ever more frantic to know. In frustration, she flung the nutcracker at him. It bounced off his chest and over the fence, clattering down between the slabs, stopping only when its lever got caught in the weirwork.
      He grabbed for the nutcracker but stopped himself when he saw it hanging above the water, then shook his head.
      "Really, Amanda. This churlishness disappoints me. Your mother would be most surprised."
      He climbed over the fence and lowered himself to the slabs, then lay down and reached into the opening between them for the nutcracker, but as he stretched, he lost his balance and fell into the pier, saving himself from dropping all the way to the water only by shooting out one arm and grasping at the pier's rim. His body arced downward, a yellow blur pivoting around his grip, and he slammed against the inside of the weirwork with such force that the air in his lungs was expelled in a grunt.
      She scrambled down and grabbed his wrist, but the sound of the nutcracker being knocked against the inside of the weirwork by the current caught her attention. Within seconds it had started to break up, first the lever coming loose and then the head.
      "This is where you did it," she said, realizing what had happened. "This is where you got rid of the bodies." The turbulence would have destroyed all traces in a matter of hours.
      "Please!" he said. "Don't let go."
      She felt his weight pulling his hand from beneath her grip and tightened her hold, working her other hand over on top of the first and leaning back as far as she dared.
      "Tell me."
      "Yes," he said, arching his back and swinging his other arm up to try and grab her hands, but something had happened to it when he'd slammed against the cement; the hand was bloody and couldn't grip properly.
      "Why?"
      "My family," he said, clawing at the concrete and kicking at the weirwork in a futile attempt to gain purchase.
      "Becky and I were supposed to be replacements?"
      "Please," he said. "Help me and I'll tell you everything. I swear!"
      But she couldn't help him. All at once his wrist slipped from her hands and he was plunging into the water below. He fell awkwardly, and when he surfaced his face never rose above the water. The current had forced it against the weirwork and she turned away, so as not to see what the water and concrete would already be doing to flesh and bone.

 

~

Some time later she found herself sitting with her back against a pine tree, staring at the mud on the toe of her left boot. A car had passed over the bridge--she knew because she'd heard the odd thrumming of its tires echoing from the piers. Her hands were bloody, and she wiped them with pine needles and stood. Mr. Stemmler's car was nearby. In a few days, a week maybe, someone would find it and report it to the authorities. She and Becky would be at school when the news came, and the two of them would be among the first of all the search parties to begin looking for him.
      Downstream, she would suggest. If in his accumulated grief he had jumped from the bridge--or even if he'd fallen--the water would have carried him away.

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