Brendan Detzner's work has previously appeared in Pseudopod, Chizine, and the Book of Dead Things anthology. He curates the monthly Bad Grammar podcast, and hosts the monthly Bad Grammar reading series the second friday of every month in his home town of Chicago. You can get details by looking him up on Facebook or checking out his web site at www.brendandetzner.com.
I refuse to feel bad about it. It was a bad thing that happened, and that's all. I wasn't punished, and did not punish. It's tempting to go further then that, but it's poisonous, and I won't do it.
There's not a lot to tell, anyway. It was the third midnight bike ride we had taken, me and Nicki and Harriet, for the third Saturday night in a row, and I think that even if nothing had happened it would have been the last ride like that we would've taken. We were all in college, a little private place in Wisconsin. The city containing the campus was almost entirely dead, built around factories that no longer existed. I read the local paper sometimes, and there would be articles about the city council arguing over where restaurants should or should not be built, or whether they could get a Best Buy along the highway, and then I'd ride my bike around at night and see the potholes in the road and the billboards that were half one torn picture and half another torn picture, and feel momentarily hollow.
It was winter when we started and painfully cold, which was part of the point, the same impulse that leads people to get so drunk they almost die or play frisbee for forty-eight hours straight just to see if they can. Three girls against the world, that was us. We'd have homeless guys yell at us, or cruise by a station wagon parked on the side of the road with its windows closed and rendered opaque by thick pot smoke. One time we were followed by a car full of townies a little younger than we were who yelled at us and repeatedly called us honkies despite the fact that they were all as white as we were. And we'd go back to the dorm and giggle, and we'd reconvene at the dining hall the following evening and giggle some more.
A river divided the city in half. There three places where you could cross it, two small bridges each a half mile away from campus and a big one that was only a block away that crossed the river at it's widest point, a few hundred yards across and almost as high. There was a playground and some grass on either side, and on the shore opposite campus an elderly man would inevitably be sitting in a deck chair, staring blankly at the water. We started and ended each ride by crossing that bridge. Usually it smelled terrible; that night it was cold enough that it didn't smell at all. We were riding on the sidewalk. To our left was the road; to our right was a metal railing about two feet high. I was in front, Harriet was behind me, and Nicki took up the rear.
As we were riding our bikes, a car- another busted out old station wagon, like the one we'd seen hot-boxing before and laughed about- pulled up alongside us. One of the side doors of the car was pushed open, and somebody half-shoved, half-threw a hollow plastic lawn ornament. It was a Santa Claus the size of a twelve-year old child. It had a light bulb inside it you were meant to plug in.
If the timing of the person throwing it had been slightly different, it would have passed in between us and fallen down into the water. The ghost hit Nicki in the head, knocking her into the railing. She and her bike tilted over and upside down, like a domino, and then she fell. The car stopped, then sped away.
The sound her body made hitting the ice seemed to fly around the world and hit us in the back. We stopped our bikes and looked over the railing, all the way down. We saw a long stretch where the ice seemed to have cracked, where the water slid back and forth, pushed by the wind. Nearby we saw the ghost, sitting on its side on the ice.
I saw a human hand reach up from under the surface of the water. A moment later it disappeared.
My memory becomes less organized at this point. I know that Harriet screamed; I might have screamed too. It was before everybody had cell phones, we had to ride all the way back to campus and call security. They called an ambulance and a real cop and a fire truck, and then they told us there was nothing more we could do, implied that we would only get in the way now, that we should go home.
We walked back to the dorm silently, not even able to comfort each other. Somehow I managed to fall asleep.
I got up in the morning and went straight to the dining hall for breakfast. I didn't tell anybody what had happened. I knew how it would go, had seen last year when that boy killed himself, people who didn't even know him crying and losing their shit. I wanted just a little more time before all that started.
I went inside and there was Nikki, sitting at our usual table, surrounded by our mutual friends, eating a bagel, smiling, laughing. I looked at her closely. I tried to find some sign that I had not hallucinated the events of the previous evening, a bruise or pale skin or a bandage. Not even that. She was more than okay, she had not even recovered from anything.
It had never happened. Somehow, I didn't know how, it had never happened.
I sat at her table, waited for her to acknowledge that something was unusual. She said hello, the same way she always said hello, a little spacey, a little distant. And then everybody talked about boys and their classes and movies they'd just seen.
I waited until she got up to leave, left a minute later, and caught her just as she was stepping outside.
"Are you all right?" I realized only after the words left my lips that my heart was racing, that I was sweating and that my mouth was hanging open like a fucking dog. She looked at me, not unkindly, worried for my sake, but she clearly had no idea what I was talking about.
"You fell in the water. On the bridge. They threw Santa at you."
Still nothing. She stared at me, softly, concerned. She let me off the hook gently.
"Can we maybe talk about this later?"
I took the way out, I told her we'd talk on the phone. I went back to my room as quickly as I could without drawing attention to myself. My head hurt, I was dizzy. People I knew made eye contact with me, silently asking me what the hell was going on, and I ignored them and kept going.
When I went into my room and slammed the door behind me and was about to start crying, I saw Harriet, sitting on my bed. She looked like a house of cards that had half-collapsed and wasn't likely to last much longer; seeing her made me scared to look in the mirror.
She told me that she'd seen what I'd seen, that she'd spoken with Nikki too.
"This isn't right. I'm not crazy," she said, her voice shaking.
"I know, I'm going to talk to her later..."
"Don't." Her voice cracked. "Stay away from her. This isn't right. Promise me you'll stay away from her."
I wouldn't promise. She swore at me and left. We haven't spoken since.
Nikki called me not long after Harriet walked out the door.
"You were right," Nikki said. "Something's wrong. I feel funny. Could you show me where it happened? Could you take me there?"
I told her I would, that I'd come over to her room and that we'd head out from there. As soon as I hung up the phone I felt suddenly, massively unprepared. We'd have to go out on the ice, I decided. So I could show her where the hole was. It was dark, we'd need light.
I got out my flashlight and took it with me to Nikki's room. It made me feel better. I was prepared now.
We left campus without talking, went to the river, walked out onto the ice. I turned on my flashlight and stepped carefully. Nikki stayed right behind me. The old man was sitting in his lawn chair on the opposite shore. He was too stiff to be asleep, but he didn't respond to what we were doing, it was like we weren't even there.
Santa Claus was gone, but the hole in the ice was still there. Nikki stepped out in front of me and crouched down next to the hole.
"Look," she said. She didn't sound like herself, but I decided that nothing was wrong. Maybe she saw something in the water, maybe she needed my flashlight. I crouched down next to her and looked closely.
I didn't see anything, just water too dark to see into.
"I've been thinking..." Nikki said. I looked up at her. She was already looking at me.
"I've been trying to think of a reason that I should die and you should live."
I had a split second to notice that somehow, as she'd left the dorm and came here, the color had drained out of her lips. Then she grabbed my hair and shoved my head underwater.
It was cold enough to burn. I tried to fight, but she was too strong; she was my size, she shouldn't have been so strong, but she was like a machine, nothing I did made any difference. I held my breath for as long as I could, and when I opened my mouth I felt the water rushing in and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that this was it, my time was up and this was all I was going to get.
I heard something; the water muffled the sound and sharpened it at the same time, made it sound halfway between a knife on a stone and a bag of mulch being thrown off a truck. Her fingers loosened, and the pressure abated. I pulled my head out of the water and gasped and choked and cried.
The old man from the lawn chair was standing on the ice next to us with a huge revolver in his hand, at his side. He'd already fired. The top of Nikki's head was mostly gone, there were pieces of it staining the ice and floating on the surface of the water.
"It's not your fault," he said. He took a deep breath and cleared his throat. "You shouldn't feel bad. Timing, that's all it was. You should forget it ever happened."
He fired the gun into her body three more times, poking holes into her. Then he dragged her into the water, ignoring me.
My first reaction was not gratitude, or even relief, but rage. How dare he patronize me like that. I could take care of myself. I had a goddamn flashlight. Then I took a second look at what was left of Nikki, and I just wanted to leave. I stumbled back to campus.
People drove over the bridge while all this was happening. They passed us on the road that ran along the river. Nobody stopped, nobody noticed.
They never found Nikki's body. Long after the ice had melted, she was still a missing person. The police came to talk to me. I didn't tell them anything, didn't even lie, really. Nothing ever came of it.
I've thought about what the man said. I've tried to do that, to forget. But somehow I still have the whole story to tell.
And that's all I have. That's what happened.