16 May The Pipe Bridge
“The Pipe Bridge”Written by Eli Pope Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 16 minutes
The thumping inside my chest pounded in a rapid cadence, not skipping a beat. I swear it felt harder and deeper with every slide of my knee drug across the rough and aging concrete encasement. Both sides of the ledge were separated by the iron half pipe nestled tightly into the concrete bridgework my butt sat perched upon. As each knee scooted forward it was mere inches from spilling over the side into the abyss below. I’d gone too far. I couldn’t make myself turn around. My body refused to back up to where I’d climbed on to start my journey. There was no looking down now that I’d passed the rocky bluff the pipe bridge jutted out from. I knew I had to continue to the other side of the deep hollow canyon leading past the river below. The deep waters of the Petit Jean.
I remember the first time I saw the pipe bridge. I wondered what could possibly be carried within the iron pipe that crossed over the river. My best friend Charlie led the way as we carefully scooted across the long passage, small increments with each movement of our knees followed by a butt scoot across the pipe. He told me about the hidden place we could sanction as our secret hideaway fort just the other side of the river secluded from sight inside an area surrounded by a forest of strange white-barked, twisted trees. Charlie told me about the ground underneath the canopy of tree branches covered in magic moss-like carpet that felt cool and squishy on one’s bare feet. He called the place enchanted and told me no one in the world knew of its existence except him. I was only six years old, he having recently turned eight. I believed every word he spoke as if it were gospel. When we finally did cross to the other side and climbed down the rocky bluff—we entered a hidden path into that magical forest—and I realized he had indeed told me the truth. It was beautiful. It was bright green, both serene and eerie as the wind whistled whimsical tunes through the tree limbs and swept through the fragrant space enclosed within. While I dreaded the trip back across the water-filled canyon—I knew I’d be making the pipe bridge crawl many times throughout my childhood years. I knew my parents would ban me from such activity if I ever told them. I also knew Charlie would never forgive me for giving our spot away to anyone from the outside.
The first trip back across that afternoon was almost worse than the first passage coming over. This time I took a chance by moving my focus from looking at the half-pipe leading my way, and instead down to each side of the danger leering below. It felt like hundreds of feet—no—thousands of feet below to the river water and rocks. Looking back now, I realize it was more likely only twenty or thirty feet, but still enough to kill a six-year-old if he fell into its vastness. It wasn’t the part of this pilgrimage traversing above the water of the river that scared me the most. It was the small rocky island sitting almost half-way between the world of Charlie’s secret magical place we were leaving, and the entrance into our parent’s world filled with their protection. I knew those jagged rocks below were deadly. I also noticed the dark crevasse that sat dead center of the island; the black trench Charlie called Hell’s Gate.
At only seven, I held no clue how my friend knew such things, but he had proven his honesty about his secret place with his descriptions matching what I saw exactly. I knew I didn’t want or need to question his knowledge about Hell’s Gate. I wanted no part of that. I only knew from that day on I was most scared during each crossing when I slowly slid precariously over the dark thick hole between the large, jagged rocks. I always took my time and slowly maneuvered each rough-skinned knee along the concrete rough edge which quickly forced the thick callouses on my kneecaps, replacing the once thin, soft skin residing there before.
“My story could probably end with those childhood memories of my growing up and spending every single summer day with my best friend Charlie Wallace in our tiny little town of Pontoon, Arkansas near the Petit Jean River in Conway County, if not for one important detail. Becky Shaye Cayhill, the new move in from a faraway place called California. “
“Well, now Rowdy, this is an interesting addition to your story. I don’t believe you’ve ever mentioned a girl before, have you?”
“No, Doc, I’ve not mentioned her before. She was a real beauty of a young girl—but a truly dark spot within the story. What are the rules of you being able to repeat any of the things I tell you? Protected?” Rowdy questioned.
“That’s a great question, Rowdy. The notes I take containing our conversations are strictly confidential. A court could possibly use a warrant to obtain them, but I write very scant notes for just that reason. I consider our conversations as treatment to aid in your mental health recovery—and have no intent on ever sharing such information with anyone. Not family nor law enforcement. I suppose you will have to put your faith in my word that I believe enough in my profession that I will keep that promise to you. Rowdy, your mental health is my priority. Do you trust me when I tell you this?”
“I do, Doc. I know I need help. I feel a deep pounding thunder inside my heart just about as booming as that day I turned nine. A little less rapid of course, most likely because of my age now. I’m fifty-eight, you know? But my blood still pumps through these tired old veins in such a way it fills my body with crippling anxiety and fear.”
Rowdy’s eyes became fixed, his face and ears began to redden.
“I suppose I’ve got no choice other than let the pressure build ‘til I blow a gasket and it ceases my heart and brain up, but that wouldn’t help me or Becky—now, would it? So, I’ll just you are an honest doctor who will help me kill this demon inside my head.”
“No, Rowdy, your heart or head ceasing up would not help anyone. I’m glad we now have this trust between us. I think we can make major breakthroughs in your condition if we proceed such as we have already.”
“I’m ready to tell you everything, Doc. I can’t go on any longer this way. It’s been far too long already.”
“You’re my last patient for the day, how about we just skip paying any attention to the clock this session—and just keep going until it feels right stopping. Is that okay with you?”
“Double-time? You know my finances surely…?”
“Let’s not worry about the cost. Let’s get that heart rate of yours slowed down to a manageable speed, Rowdy.”
“Becky Shaye was my first and only crush, Doc. In fact, after all this time, I think it must have been true love. I still remember how her blonde curls in her hair caught my attention the first time she was escorted into Mrs. Rice’s second grade class I attended. Principal Reeney opened the door and introduced her to my teacher, and I swear I heard the clatter of melodic wind chimes throughout the classroom. I knew I felt something I’d never felt before, and I was instantly drawn into its clutches. It felt like a magic spell had been cast upon my heart.”
“So, it’s been what, a couple of years now at this point since you’d started crossing the pipe bridge to your and Charlie’s spot?”
“Yeah, it was almost old hat making the crossing there and back by this time. Memory muscle really. I could do it with my eyes shut, or I could watch the world below it—the cliff, the water, the island—even Hell’s Gate—” Rowdy spoke with a calmness in his voice. “If only things had stopped there at that point….”
“That old adage—woulda, coulda, shoulda…?” Doc guffawed as if he’d understood regret.
“That’s right, Doc. You see though—I’m sure—that things didn’t just end there.” The tone changed in Rowdy’s voice. It tightened and became curt. “I should never have suggested to Becky Shaye that she come with me. Never.”
Rowdy’s breathing became elevated in volume and the sound of painful sighs escaped his lips as he exhaled.
“Do we need to stop a minute? I can pour you a Coke or cup of coffee—ice water?”
“No, Doc. I just need to power through it I think.”
“Well, take a breather anytime you need to. There’s no ticking of the timeclock this evening. I’m here to see if we can get this out of your head, once and for all.”
“I appreciate that. I’m just glad you haven’t wanted to just sedate me with meds like all the other doctors have.”
“I won’t say that medicines don’t have their place—I just think we need to see if we can bypass them as long as we can and heal with understanding the whys we sometimes suffer from our experiences and let them rule us.”
“Those words alone are a Godsend, Doc.”
“We’re building trust between us, Rowdy. That’s the first step in solving these problems—trust….”
“Well, Doc, like I was saying, I shouldn’t have invited Becky Shaye, but I did.” Rowdy’s calmness began to sink back into an obvious tightness. “I thought Charlie would be okay with me bringing her across the bridge. I never even thought to ask him. He liked Becky Shaye too, or at least he seemed to. The three of us would sit together at lunch most of the time. Hell, she even liked to play softball with us out on the playground after lunch and during recess. She really wasn’t a girly-girl. More like a tomboy, really.” Rowdy seemed to travel back in time within his mind, pausing briefly for reflection before continuing his story. “There was one aspect I never even thought of about our little triangle of friendship. One Charlie never told me or hinted at to me.” Rowdy guffawed quietly as if he’d just received an epiphany. “Doc, I’ll be damned if Charlie didn’t have the same feelings of puppy love for Becky Shaye as I did. He never told me, but the look on his face when he saw her walking beside me through the tight opening in cover between the tree limbs…” He stopped again and then looked straight into Doc’s eyes, “…I saw red in Charlie’s eyes. He was jealous as could be.”
“Rowdy—what was her experience exhibiting as you both made the trek across the pipe bridge? Fear like you felt your first time?”
“She was like an old pro, Doc. Never cried out or asked me to slow down or stop. In fact, she said the river looked beautiful from up above. ‘Like staring down from heaven at a slice of God’s gift’—if I remember correctly.” Rowdy smiled warmly before continuing, “She was the perfect girl, Doc. Beauty, smarts, brave as a charging bull—but being around her felt as relaxing as a warm bath. Do you know what I mean?”
“I think I do, Rowdy. You’ve been very descriptive in all your story. You have an uncanny ability to paint the picture so vividly. I feel like I was one of your friends who were there with you…living in your childhood as a good friend.”
“Yeah, Doc. That’s funny you say that, because I feel the same way.”
“Ready for a Coke or coffee break yet?”
“No, I think I’m fine.”
“Alright, so—Charlie didn’t seem happy to see you two?”
“At first, I couldn’t tell by just his eyes. It was more in the way he said Becky Shaye’s name. Like he was surprised but was mixed in with anger for the both of us. It wasn’t even his words—just the tone in his voice and then the color change in his eyes and face.”
“Do you remember what he said? As close to exact as possible?”
“Charlie’s eyes were glossed over and kind of droopy or lazy and dark. I can picture him right now as if he were standing in front of us, I mean me.” Rowdy’s voice quivered a bit. “He asked me ‘Why did you have to bring Becky Shaye? You didn’t ask if it was okay with me.” He paused.
“I didn’t think you’d care, Charlie. You like her okay, don’t you?”
Rowdy began having a one-sided conversation as if he could hear how Charlie was responding, but Charlie’s half of the conversation was silent to the room.
“I thought so. That’s why I brought her. She’s more like one of us than anybody else, Charlie. She won’t tell anyone else. She already promised me.”
Rowdy stood up from the couch and began nervously pacing the confines of the room.
“Come on, Charlie, don’t be like that. I know it’s only yours and my place, but… but… it’s time to have other club members don’t you think? We’re the three muskateers! You’ve said it yourself.” He stopped pacing.
“What? What do you mean you ‘like’ her too?”
Rowdy turned to his right and continued talking as if Becky were next to him.
“Who do you like best, Becky Shaye? Me or Charlie?” Rowdy paused as if he were awaiting her to answer. “No! Don’t say that. What do you mean… why… why didn’t… didn’t… you tell me ahead… ahead of time? I wouldn’t have ever brought you… you… here. I’m in love with you Becky Shaye! I’ve nev… never felt… never mind, you and Charlie can just have each other….”
Rowdy took several steps across the office and then dropped quickly to his knees and began crawling as if he were on the pipe bridge quickly scooting away. He looked back, “Don’t follow me, Becky Shaye, I’m not coming back… ever!” He turned back forward and continued carefully crawling. He suddenly stopped and twisted back, facing behind him.
“It’s okay, Becky Shaye… stay there… I’ll turn around and help you… just hang on…” He slowly began to turn as if he were carefully maintaining his balance. “I’ve almost… almost… got it.” Rowdy paused and then began shaking before he rolled off to the side and onto his back—flailing his arms and legs—yelling, “Becky Shaye….” As quickly as he rolled off and over to his back, he became as still as a rock. His arms and legs twisted into positions on the office floor that appeared unnatural and painful.
The office became deafeningly silent. Doc slowly got up and walked over to where Rowdy lay quietly, his eyes shut and completely still. He knelt and touched Rowdy’s arm and lightly shook it. “Rowdy, you’re okay, buddy….”
Rowdy’s eyes began to twitch before they slowly opened. His arms wriggled and he grumbled in a pained tone. His eyes darted back and forth before traveling up and meeting Doc’s. “Charlie?” His pupils appeared dilated for a moment and then appeared to adjust in focus like a camera lens. “Is Becky Shaye, okay? I saw her… she… I… uh… I fell and she… she reached out… and then… she… fell too….”
“You’re okay, Rowdy. Becky Shaye is okay too.” Doc continued to pat Rowdy’s arm.
“I saw her though… she… she fell into the abyss of… of… Hell’s Gate. I saw her. I… I crawled over and looked… looked… inside. I saw the… the… hand… the… long claws….”
“It’s okay, Rowdy. I promise. Becky Shaye is just fine.”
“She can’t be. It’s… It’s all my fault. The hand… it… grabbed her when I reached in to… to try and help….” Rowdy’s eyes flooded with tears. “I tried to save her, Charlie. The devil pulled her away from me and into his darkness… I couldn’t… I tried to climb over the edge and….”
Doc began to lightly shake Rowdy’s shoulder again, this time with a little more force. He looked over toward his office door as a silhouette appeared in the frosted glass panel.
“I’m sorry, Charlie… I… I tried… I’m sorry….”
The doorknob slowly rotated counterclockwise before a click of the latch allowed the door to begin swinging open. The figure slowly peeked around from the door before stepping into the office. “Charlie?” the female voice called out. “Are you in here?” her hand reached for the wall, her fingers trailing across until they touched the light switch.
“Becky, don’t turn the light on just yet….”
“What’s going on, Charlie?” she called out in question. “It’s late, I was worried… are you… are you okay?”
“I’m with Rowdy….”
“Rowdy Buckner? From Pontoon Elementary?” she continued to quietly step further into Charlie’s office.
“He’s a patient. He… he’s in here on the floor… you should… you should probably leave….”
Rowdy moved and attempted to lift his head towards her voice. “Becky Shaye? Is that you?” Rowdy’s body tensed. “Is that really you? You’re alive?”
Doc squeezed Rowdy’s arm tighter and leaned in, “It’s okay, Rowdy, it’s Becky… she’s just fine….” he then turned to Becky and motioned with his head for her to step in closer. He then quietly made a shooshing sound to cue her in to coming in quietly. “Becky Shaye is alive and well, Rowdy. Can you sit up?”
“I don’t… I don’t understand, Doc. What… what’s going… going on? She fell… just… just after… after I fell… and….”
“Rowdy, you did fall. And Becky fell too, but that was a long time ago, friend.”
“But… but… I saw the slimy hand with… with long claws… it… it pulled her away where… where I… I couldn’t… reach her to save… save her. It was my… my fault. She… she followed me… across… across… that damned pipe… pipe bridge….”
“I’m okay, Rowdy. We both lived through that accident. That’s what it was, Rowdy, nobody’s fault… it was… it was an unfortunate… accident.” Becky answered with an almost whispered hushed tone.
“She’s right, Rowdy. You both survived the accident. That was almost fifty years ago, my friend.”
“What? Then where have I been all this time? I don’t believe… I can’t believe… Hell’s Gate was real. I saw….”
“I’m sorry, Rowdy, I should never have told you that name and scary story. It’s all my fault. All these years, it’s been all my fault.”
“But where? Where have I been if that’s true?”
“We’re all here in my office, Rowdy. I’m a doctor here. We’re at the Conway County Mental Sanitarium.” Charlie replied.
“Where? What… for… for… fifty years?”
“I’m sorry, Rowdy. I truly am very, very sorry.”
“My life… has… has all… just…been a… a… dream… a night… nightmare?” Rowdy struggled to get up, his body now tensed and stiff. “But… you… you… and… Beck… Becky Shaye… are still here?”
“I… I couldn’t… just leave you, Rowdy. You… You’re… my… my… best friend….” Doc answered. “It’s all… all been my… my fault. I… I thought… I thought you were dead that day… both… both of you.”
”Take me there, Charlie….”
“The pipe bridge. I want to see our spot again.”
“It… it doesn’t… it doesn’t look like it… like it used to, Rowdy….”
“l need to see it! Is the pipe bridge still there? Does it still cross the Petit Jean?”
“I haven’t been there for years, Rowdy. I couldn’t make myself go back. I’ve not been there for… for over forty-some years….” Doc Charlie replied.
“I haven’t either, Rowdy.” Becky echoed.
“Please, Charlie… my entire… life has… been… trapped in… in that spot. I… I have to see… see it to put it behind me… I’m begging you….”
“I don’t know, Rowdy….”
“You owe me, Charlie… I don’t want to… to… put it like… but you… you owe me that much.”
Charlie looked over at Becky Shaye.
“I think we should… should all three go….” Becky Shaye replied.
Charlie had been correct. The area had changed considerably. Neighborhoods now adorned the area alongside the river and gorge that once was only wooded forests and weeds. They parked on a circle drive that held a path down to the rocky bluff where the pipe bridge still stretched outward over the edge and then across the stretch of a small channel of the Petit Jean River. The rocky island still rested underneath that bridge about halfway across, the spot where Rowdy’s life became encapsulated in a mental jar of sorts for almost fifty years.
Rowdy’s eyes panned out across the horizon that fit nestled tightly between two large multi-level homes overlooking the Petit Jean River and the old now dilapidated pipe bridge. The sun gleamed across the rolling river as the three reunited friends slowly made their way down a weed-covered path to the spot the cement-encased pipe left the rocky covering and stretched outward away from solid ground on scattered pylons reaching the surface of the water before disappearing below it. He looked back at Charlie and Becky Shaye as he slowly straddled the pipe, his much older legs wrapping tightly on either side of the half pipe protruding above the concrete encasement. He looked back with an odd gleam in his eyes before he began sliding one knee forward and then the other. Once he got about ten feet out over the rocky edge, he turned back again and saw his best friend Charlie helping Becky Shaye onto the pipe.
Homeowners began clambering out onto their decks once they noticed three older adults scooting across the old landmark bridge. They turned and spoke across from to each other from one deck to the other, but it was all just jumbled hollering to the three people now almost halfway across the bridge. The sound of the river’s movement mixing with the sounds of the residents in the background created an odd eclectic muffled mix.
Rowdy looked off to his left where the forest once stood tall with twisted, white-barked trees covering Charlie’s and his hideout. Those trees now all gone making Rowdy’s memory feel foggy and discombobulated. The familiarity of the moment now slipped away like the years between back then and now had done. Years vanished in an instant. He glanced behind him seeing his best friend moving slowly behind the girl… the only girl… he’d ever fallen in love with. That once beautiful time in his childhood awoken to a truth of being stolen and then turned into a lifetime of guilt and remorse.
He looked down below as he sat perched directly above Hell’s Gate dark opening in the earth. In this small flicker of his life, he suddenly felt the fear of that distant moment he’d tried to reach for Becky Shaye’s hand to save her from the devil hiding inside the shadows. A small tear formed perfectly in the corner of each eye as if it had taken fifty long years to crystalize and perfect the tiny glistening drops of liquid now adorning his face. Had his best friend betrayed him? He never asked the question which had immediately formed in his brain, but he’d noticed the matching rings on each of their fingers. It immediately caused a painful sting in his heart upon realizing his best friend must have ended up with the love of his life while he remained trapped in a horrible replaying nightmare, his sweet dreams stolen while he remained helpless and unaware. The devil obviously letting go of Becky’s hand releasing her to Charlie and instead grabbing hold of his, pulling him into a darkened unending world he now had thought he’d escaped.
Rowdy’s legs began to tremble without control. He felt a shimmy in the old brittle concrete structure as it rumbled below his knees. The pipe he sat on began growing hot to his butt as if boiling water were beginning to flow inside the round iron interior. He lifted himself up onto his knees which now had grown in size with time and age, now large enough to overhang the edges of the flat, rough concrete edges. He lifted one hand which had helped stabilize his body’s precarious perch so he could twist and look back behind him once again to his friends from his past. The ones who betrayed him. They appeared to feel nothing of the heat or rumble within the structure that held them hovering above the rocky island in the middle of the Petit Jean River. Charlie and Becky Shaye continued to make their way closer to Hell’s Gate and their old friend.
Rowdy began to return his gaze away and back to the ground below, causing his balance to teeter. His loose hand reached forward attempting to latch on to anything his fingers could grasp as the bridge began to rattle and shake beneath him. He lost his balance and fell over the side catching the rough concrete edge with his fingers. Feet dangling, swinging back and forth from the momentum of the fall tugged at his fingers and they began slipping as his knuckles became whiter by the second. Tiny pieces of cement began to break away from under his grip. Becky screamed out, “Rowdy! Hang on!”
He turned and saw the fright in her face as Charlie struggled to lean past her enough to see what was happening.
“Hang on, Rowdy!” Charlie yelled.
There were screams from the resident’s decks as they watched helplessly while Rowdy’s body hung from the bridge’s crumbling ledge. Rowdy looked over at Becky Shaye one last time mouthing the words, “I love you,” before glancing back down to Hell’s Gate which seemed to be calling his name to “come home.” His fingers straightened out as the concrete crumbled into dust forcing his freefall into the dark chasm below.
Becky Shaye and Charlie watched helplessly as Rowdy disappeared into the black hole unable to witness the clawed fist snatch Rowdy into its clutches and quickly pull him into his grip, forever disappearing into the darkness of the gate into Hell’s entrance.
Rowdy’s body was never recovered, and Becky Shaye and her husband Charlie never spoke another word about any of what happened after the case was closed on Rowdy Lee Williams. Charlie did answer the call from the state’s warrant to turn over his notebook on Rowdy’s treatment for the almost fifty years he’d spent under the care of the Conway County Mental Sanitorium. The notes were very sparse, and Charlie claimed patient’s privacy beyond the notes, never answering questions asked. He eventually lost his license to practice care in the medical field in the state of Arkansas and he and wife, Becky Shaye, moved to a small town on Florida’s forgotten coast upon his forced retirement.
Neighbors of homes within sight of the pipe bridge still standing over Hell’s Gate claim to hear a voice they claim are of Rowdy Lee calling out to his childhood love, Becky Shaye Cahill. To this very day, on nights the moon fills the sky with its fully round glowing fullness, the words ‘I love you, Becky Shaye’ can be heard whispering through the pylons of the pipe bridge near the small town of Pontoon, Arkansas.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A