Ice Under the Bridge

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Ryan Peterson


It was a classic dare among children in the small town of Amethyst, Wisconsin—a rite of passage by which they tested the waters of urban legend each winter to see who was the bravest. Most of all, it was for the thrill of a good scare.

Press your ear to the ice under Blood River Bridge. If you listen closely, you can still hear them trying to scream as the freezing water rushes into their lungs. You can still hear their tiny fists pounding on the bottom of the ice, and their fingernails scratching at it. If you stare through the ice long enough, you might see their faces—black, dead eyes—gaping mouths. But don’t freeze with fear…they might break through and pull you in with them, pull you all the way down to the bottom of the icy river, where it’s pitch black forever.

What made the dare all the more frightening was that it took place inside a culvert that runs under Cotton Road—a dark, cold, concrete vaulted tunnel, about five feet high and about twenty-five feet from opening to opening. The proper name of the river—the name you’d find on a map—is the Catfish River, but everyone in Amethyst had called it the Blood River Bridge since the time of the school bus accident in the winter of 1945. No one gave any thought to the connotations of the nickname anymore, or about what happened to the children who died so horribly.

Sixty years after the accident, the town hadn’t changed much. It was still small, still rural, and in the dead of winter it felt like the only place that existed in the world to Jacob Sheldon and a group of other twelve-year-old boys who were growing up in the small town of Amethyst. Jacob managed to make it through his first twelve years without being challenged, but on a gray winter afternoon after a heavy snowfall during their Christmas break, his friends called him out.

Jacob stood at the arched mouth under the Blood River Bridge, staring down its length. His friends kept a safe distance behind him, also staring down the tunnel, all of them quiet because each boy was secretly grateful it wasn’t him who had to trespass into the dim cavern. The group’s usual instigator, Toad (they called him that because of the warts he would sometimes get on his fingers) finally spoke up.

“C’mon, pretty soon it’ll be spring—the ice’ll melt, already!”

Jacob squinted with disdain but kept his eyes forward, afraid the others would see his fear. Press your ear to the ice under Blood River Bridge.

With each step Jacob took into the heart of the cave, the other boys echoed his footsteps, until they found themselves at its mouth, where they remained, and then Jacob was truly on his own. He paused to watch his breath puff out into the cave’s dim glow. He didn’t want them to see he was afraid, even though he knew they knew he was. They all were. Otherwise, what would the fun be?

The platoon of boys comprised the usual six: Toad was the leader. He could be antagonistic towards the others, but when push came to shove, they knew Toad would watch their backs. Jimmy was the fat kid, and as long as the teasing was kept to the normal, healthy dose, he took it in stride. Chris was the athlete. He could hit a ball into the outfield every time. His father had played minor league baseball before Chris was born. Alex was the smart kid. Everyone said he would be the first of them—if not the only one—to leave Amethyst. Tommy was two years younger than the other boys. His father had run off before Tommy was born. From the time he was about a year old, Tommy’s mother noticed something wrong with him. In a more cosmopolitan environment, Tommy would have been diagnosed as slightly autistic and non-verbal. In Amethyst, he was considered slow and mute, but Tommy was Toad’s baby brother, so no one ever messed with Tommy.

Jacob stopped mid-span in the concrete barrel vault. The only sound was his breath, and the only movement was the mist it puffed into the crisp air. He snuck a glance over his shoulder to see the silhouettes of the other boys watching and waiting at the cave’s mouth.

If you listen closely, you can still hear them trying to scream as the freezing water rushes into their lungs.

Jacob looked down at the gray ice beneath his feet. He felt his skin crawl and the hair stand on his neck. His racing breath echoed in the cold, concrete cavern. He no longer cared if the others knew he was scared; he just wanted to get it over with. Jacob’s lip quivered as the periphery of his surroundings faded and he stared down at the ice until its sickly, dull sheen drew him to his knees, terrified and hypnotized.

You can still hear their tiny fists pounding on the bottom of the ice, and their fingernails scratching at it. If you stare through the ice long enough, you might see their faces—black, dead eyes—gaping mouths.

Jacob felt his heart beating in his chest, and in his cold hands, and in his freezing ears. A feeling crept in that he was not just looking at the ice, but through it—that at any moment, the animated corpses of the children from that bus accident could torpedo from the deep black bottom of that river with black eyes, gray skin, and gaping mouths, pounding and scratching and clawing at Jacob on the other side of a few inches of ice. He felt a tingle in his bladder and thought he might not be able to control it. Jacob trembled, but he clenched his eyes shut and put his ear to the ice, hoping it would be silent, but as the heat was drawn from the side of his face, he heard a deep, resonating murmur…like the extended echoed thump of a heartbeat. It’s just the sound of the river flowing under the ice, Jacob told himself. That’s all it is.

What could live down there? How long could a child live as the river’s undercurrent dragged him down into its freezing, entombed darkness?

Jacob shuddered. The tingle in his bladder grew until he was sure he was about to let it go. He wanted to jump up and run, but he couldn’t. He was frozen with fear.

But don’t freeze with fear… they might break through and pull you in with them, pull you all the way down to the bottom of the icy river, where it’s pitch black forever.

Jacob pictured the dead children propelling up from the bottom of the water, like demon sea creatures from a nightmare, their pale flesh illuminated by what little light made its through the gray ice. They grew closer and closer to Jacob with their black eyes to pull him down with them into the cold darkness forever. He could hear them coming. Hear them slicing through the dense water.

Run run get up and run.

Jacob summoned strength he didn’t know he had and lifted his ear from the ice. Don’t look, just keep your eyes closed until you’re all the way up and then run run run! But before pushing himself off the ice, Jacob looked.

It was more horrifying than Jacob could have imagined, pressed up against the ice, awakened and risen from the bottom of the river. Its skin was translucent, pale, and alien. Its eyes were two black sockets, and there was evil, unyielding hunger in those two black holes that looked back into Jacob’s eyes and into his soul. When it snapped open its horrible mouth, Jacob screamed, wet his pants, and jumped off the ice as if it were charged with a thousand volts.

The other boys had never actually seen a person react this way, outside of scary movies. The pallid expression of pure horror on Jacob’s face as he ran towards them—the unabashed terror in his eyes that seemed to transform him into something altogether different—caused the other boys to scream as well. The little hairs on their little necks jumped, as did the skin from their little bodies, and they ran across the field, through the wooded area riddled with bunkers, mounds, and natural trenches in the terrain, and along the small country road that lead to their houses. Jacob had not only caught up, but had taken the lead. His house was first, and as he ran up the rattling wood steps to his porch and through the front door, the other boys followed. They huddled in the living room as if they’d just survived a wartime ambush, all of them covered in goose bumps. Jacob was on the couch with his knees tucked under his chin, trembling.

“Wha’d you see?” Toad shouted. Jacob didn’t seem to hear.

“What happened?” Toad cried again. “Wha’d you see?”

Jacob hesitated before whispering. “The kids.”

The other boys knew immediately what Jacob meant. He was telling them the urban legend was real. The boys’ jaws dropped and their eyes went wide. No one uttered a word… until Toad finally spoke up.

“You’re full of it,” Toad said. He turned to the others. “He chickened out… that’s all it is. Look! He pissed himself! He’s a chicken and he got scared and pissed himself and ran, that’s all!”

The other boys looked from Toad to Jacob and back. They didn’t know what to think, but by the looks of Jacob, he either saw something or had one hell of an imagination.

“I’m outta here,” Toad said. “I’m goin’ home.”

Toad cast Jacob a disgusted scowl, let out of puff of air through his teeth, and marched out of the house. The other boys looked at Jacob in excruciating silence until finally Jimmy lowered his head and followed Toad. Jacob peered at Chris, who avoided eye contact and followed Jimmy. Alex sighed. He looked Jacob in the eyes.

“It was real,” Jacob whispered and choked back a sob, “I saw it.”

Alex lowered his head. He noticed Jacob’s wet snow pants, and Jacob saw him notice.

“I gotta go home anyway. See ya, Jake.”

Alex walked out the door and Jacob remained on the couch, trembling and staring out at nothing. The face he saw under the ice was burned into his brain and he didn’t think its impact would ever fade. He thought he would end up in one of those mental institutions he’d heard about. Nut houses, they called them. Or mad houses. Jacob lay down on the couch and curled into a ball. His heart gradually slowed and his breathing relaxed, until darkness came over him and he slept.

Jacob’s slumber was haunted by a nightmare in which he was under water, beneath the ice. He couldn’t breath. It was dark and he felt arms and fingers groping his limbs, pulling and surrounding him like tree branches in the water under the dark ice, into cold blackness forever—

“Jacob!” a voice called.

Jacob opened his eyes. It was dark outside.

“Jacob!” his mother repeated. He turned his head to see her wearing the same nervous expression she had the time they went to the farmer’s market and Jacob got lost.

“What happened to Tommy?” she said, taking a step closer to Jacob as he sat up on the couch, dizzy and in a surreal half-dreaming state.

“Tommy?” Jacob mumbled.

“His mother can’t find him. What happened today? Where is he?”

Jacob squinted his eyes and stood, increasing his sleepy disorientation. “He—what?”

Jacob’s mother took him by the shoulders and shook him. “Where’s Tommy goddam it what happened to him where is he?”

Before Jacob’s eyes, his mother’s frantic face transformed into the face Jacob had seen under the ice. He recoiled as he thrust her arms away, fell to the floor, covered his head with his arms, and wailed uncontrollably.

His mother shook her head and trembled as she looked down on her son. “Jacob? Oh, Jacob…what did you boys do?”

No one had noticed Tommy wasn’t among them when they gathered at Jacob’s house, except for Toad, who figured his little brother had simply run straight home, but when he got there, Tommy had never shown up. Tommy’s mother called the other boys’ parents, who then called other parents, until dozens of parents were searching for Tommy well into the night. The following morning, Amethyst’s sheriff, Sean Grady, had the parents bring the boys to the station where he conducted a group interrogation.

“Do you boys realize the gravity of this situation?” Sheriff Grady berated them. “Wherever Tommy is, he needs our help.”

The boys looked back at the sheriff—mortified, terrified, but helpless.

“Do you understand the longer it is until we find Tommy, the more likely it is we won’t find him at all?” Sheriff Grady sighed and softened his voice. “I don’t care what you boys were doin, now, see? This is my town, and I’m tellin you, you aren’t in any trouble, so no matter what happened, you can tell me.”

Grady looked each of them in the eye, one at a time. All he got in return were blank faces and silence. He took off his hat and smacked it across his thigh. “Goddamn it,” he muttered before leaving the room and slamming the door behind him.

The boys sat silently. Jacob faced the wall. The other boys faced Jacob, who finally felt their eyes burning into the back of his head and turned around.

“It was the kids…” Jacob whispered as if afraid they would hear him. “…from under Blood River Bridge… they got him.”

“Don’t say that,” Toad sneered.

“Jesus,” Jimmy muttered as he trembled, “I can’t believe—”

“Don’t you say it,” Toad glared at Jimmy with a tear in his eye.

Sheriff Grady cracked the door open and poked in his head. “Jacob…”

All the boys turned towards the sheriff.

“…I want to speak with you out here.”

Jacob looked at his friends before reluctantly leaving. The last thing he saw before the door shut was Toad’s glare. Sheriff Grady escorted Jacob to a small room with a coffee machine and refrigerator, where his mother was waiting.

“Sit down, Jacob,” Sheriff Grady said, motioning to a metal folding chair. A very nervous and shaken Jacob sat.

“Your mom thinks you might have something to tell me…” he told Jacob, straightening up and crossing his arms. “…maybe something easier to say away from your friends.”

Jacob realized he was in the hot seat for Tommy’s disappearance, and it filled him with dread. Jacob’s mother had told Sheriff Grady about the way her son reacted when she told him Tommy was missing, and now she and Grady both believed Jacob was hiding something, afraid he’d get into trouble. Jacob was scared now—scared of what happened under the bridge, scared of Sheriff Grady, and scared of what would happen next. There was nothing Jacob could tell them, other than the truth—that the kids from the bus accident had pulled him down to the cold, dark bottom of the water under Blood River Bridge. Jacob’s mother put her hand to her eyes and turned away, at once distraught and embarrassed. Sheriff Grady sighed but didn’t completely dismiss Jacob’s account; he hoped it was Jacob’s way of trying to tell them something… anything that might help them find Tommy.

Sheriff Grady organized a search party to comb the area and brought in a team of divers to check the river. The ice-covered water made the underwater search difficult, and by the time darkness fell, they had found nothing. After two days, the diving team abandoned their efforts. After two weeks, the search party was disbanded. When the boys returned to school after Christmas break, Tommy was not among them.

One day at school during their first week back from break, Jacob was walking down an empty hallway to the bathroom with a hall pass. A moment after he walked past an open classroom door, Toad ran out, prowling towards Jacob, pointing a rigid finger from his balled fist and screaming.

“It’s his fault! It’s all his fault!”

Jacob recoiled as Mr. Hampton, Toad’s teacher, ran out after Toad and pulled him away.

“Where’s my brother!” Toad cried as Mr. Hampton restrained him. Toad gave in and collapsed to his knees, crying, while children and teachers from classrooms within earshot poured into the hallway to check on the commotion.

“Where’s my brother?” Toad pleaded through tears, no longer to Jacob per se, but to God or anyone who could answer. The teachers and dozens of students looked from Toad to Jacob, who was now backed up against a row of lockers, startled and mortified.

It was the kids from the river. They took Tommy away with them… down to the bottom of the icy river, where it’s pitch black forever.

The boys began to avoid each other in the halls and in the cafeteria. Toad didn’t speak to Jacob after that day in the hall, and Jacob began to feel the others believed somehow it was his own fault Tommy was gone. After a while he began to feel like much of the town believed the same. The worst of all, however, was his mother. It wasn’t that she treated Jacob any differently after Tommy’s disappearance, at least not overtly, but there were times when he would daydream she would lay her hand on his back and say, “It wasn’t your fault.” Jacob couldn’t figure out why she never did.

It was impossible for the boys to completely avoid each other in such a small town, but it was a bit easier the following year when they went on to middle school. Forgetting about each other made them feel they could forget about what happened. None of them spoke to anyone of the reoccurring dreams they each had about Tommy—cold and alone at the dark bottom of the water under Blood River Bridge. By the time the boys reached high school, the once inseparable friends were strangers.

Toad excelled in football and became the starting quarterback for Amethyst High School’s meager football team, which rotated playing games against a total of only four other teams from Grace County and Wilbur County each season. Toad was popular, always seemed full of life, and never seemed to take anything too seriously, except for football. He got into trouble now and then, but it was always good-natured trouble, the kind teachers discipline out of obligation while secretly amused. Those who might not have known Toad would never have guessed it was only a few years ago his baby brother disappeared from the face of the earth—but everyone knew Toad because no one moved to the town of Amethyst. They grew up there, and few moved away.

Jimmy grew out of his baby fat and dropped out of high school before his senior year and got a job as a laborer for a local contractor. Chris did well in baseball, but did so poorly in classes he was kicked off the team, dropped out of school, and became an alcoholic before age eighteen. Alex did more or less as everyone expected and got accepted to Dartmouth College with a full-paid scholarship.

Jacob spent most of his time throughout his teens doing homework or reading. He didn’t have many friends. Jacob didn’t know how Tommy’s disappearance could have been his fault, but he felt it must have been, because if he hadn’t been so scared under that bridge, somehow Tommy would still be with them. In Jacob’s dreams over the years, the face he saw under the ice that day slowly transformed into Tommy’s, and each time Jacob woke from the dream, he was crying, and it felt like that day under Blood River Bridge was yesterday.

As their high school graduation approached, the only common bond the boys shared were the town itself and the memory of what happened that gray winter day when they were twelve years old. In a small town like Amethyst, nothing changes, and nothing would have changed for the boys as they grew into young men—nothing, that is, had it not been for a new warehouse under construction near the Blood River Bridge.

It was five days before Amethyst High School’s graduation ceremony. Jacob sat in the dilapidated wood stands of the football field eating his lunch alone, as usual, when he saw a figure standing on the other side of the field, staring at him. Jacob froze as he lifted a turkey sandwich to his mouth. He trembled.

Tommy.

As the figure walked towards him, Jacob realized it was just an old familiarity that he associated with Toad’s missing brother. It was Jimmy, wearing his Dickies work clothes, caked in dirt and dust. Jimmy walked up the steps of the bleachers and sat next to Jacob as if they’d been out for beers together the night before, except he never looked Jacob in the eye, but stared out across the field.

“We’re building that warehouse over there by the river,” Jimmy said, still gazing into the distance. A crow flew over the football field and cawed.

Jimmy went on to tell Jacob about how the construction of the warehouse was behind schedule because of problems they had building the foundations. It turned out the ground wasn’t as solid as they had thought, and they’d run into a series of small crevices and caves during excavation. A week ago, the town of Amethyst had called on state park rangers to explore and document the caves outside of the area where they’d installed the new foundations. That morning, the park rangers found something lodged in a small crevice that led down to a small cave. The only opening to the crevice was a hole in the ground the size of a basketball in the wooded area between Blood River Bridge and where the boys lived. It had since been covered over with dirt and looked no bigger than a prairie dog hole.

“It was tree roots,” Jimmy said as if it explained everything. “Tree roots around the hole… caught the dirt and stuff… made the hole look small. And snow too, I bet. They probably walked right over it a dozen times while they were looking.”

It had also been tree roots that caught Tommy as he fell through the crevice during their flight from Blood River Bridge that day. Tommy had stepped in precisely the wrong place at precisely the wrong angle and fallen about twenty feet, half the distance to the bottom of the crevice. Had anyone seen it happen, they’d have said the ground just swallowed him whole, but no one did see it happen; they had all been running away. The park rangers discovered Tommy’s remains lodged in the tree roots within the crevice. Jacob couldn’t keep from wondering if Tommy was killed as soon as he fell, or if he was awake—and if so, for how long? Did he try to cry out? Could he have? Jacob could only imagine what it would have been like to die down there like that. Amethyst’s most perplexing mystery had been explained.

The funeral was two days later, and most of the town was in attendance. As the small casket was lowered, bringing Tommy’s body into the earth for the second and final time, Toad glanced at Jacob from the other side of the burial plot. Jacob wasn’t sure how to read Toad’s expression, but he didn’t believe it wasn’t contempt or hatred.

Three days after the funeral, many Amethyst town members gathered once again in the football field for the Amethyst High School graduation ceremony, which celebrated the achievement of a graduating class of fifty-two. It was a more somber event than usual. After the ceremony, the parents spoke with each other about their children’s futures and about what was going on in Amethyst that summer. They tried not to talk too much about Tommy or his family, but there was plenty of hushed conversation.

Jacob stood away from the crowd, alone in the end zone, gazing over the town towards Blood River Bridge. He didn’t act surprised when Toad approached and stood near him, gazing off in the same direction.

“I heard Alex is going to Dartmouth,” Toad said.

“Yeah, I heard too.”

A breeze kicked up and blew Jacob’s tassel. He took off his mortarboard, having forgotten he was still wearing it.

“You guys celebrating? Party or whatever?” Toad asked.

“No.”

Toad kicked at the dirt. “We’re going over to O’Neill’s,” Toad said. “Just dinner. No big deal. My mom figured it would be good to get out.”

“That sounds good.”

The two old friends stood in silence and watched a tree line in the distance sway with the spring breeze.

“Well,” Toad added with a sigh, “I’m gonna head home.”

Toad glanced at Jacob as he turned to go, but Jacob didn’t seem to notice, and Toad began walking away.

“Kevin…” Jacob said without looking at him.

Toad stopped and turned around.

“…I’m sorry,” Jacob added.

Toad looked down at the ground. “It wasn’t your fault.”

And Toad walked off.

A wave of peace and forgiveness washed over Jacob—a feeling he had been sure would never come, especially not by the grace of Toad. He thought back to the friends he had when he was twelve years old, and he thought about the dare under Blood River Bridge, and how the younger kids were surely still doing it. They still called it the Blood River Bridge, but no one had thought about the reason why in a long time. Even in a town as small as Amethyst, there’s enough room to forget.
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Ryan Peterson has written two full-length feature film screenplays, a novel, and about twelve short stories. He placed as a quarter- finalist in Fade In Magazine’s Writer’s Network Screenplay competition for the screenplay “Livingston.” He has had multiple short stories remain in the top ten favorites on Triggerstreet.com as well as placing in Triggerstreet’s top ten favorites out of over 3,000 other scripts for the “Livingston” screenplay. E-mail: ryan[at]ryan-peterson.com