Sixteen year old Sally paused for a moment, looked down the road and clutched at the plastic container full of food in her arms. The half full moon made it a dark night. It always seemed darker when she crossed this bridge. Her boyfriend Greg lived on one side of Old Cross Bridge and she lived on the other. The only other way around was a mile trek upstream on a well-lit path to the modern concrete and steel bridge. Of course, a mile walk up meant a mile walk back. This late at night, Sally just didn’t see the point.
She sighed again and started walking across. Heights didn’t scare her; this bridge did. If someone walked with her, they talked to distract her. By herself, she had to concentrate on not looking down. Some of the wooden boards had spaces in between them exposing the river flowing by underneath. Though dark under the bridge, the moon, low in the sky, cast beautiful diamond sparkles on the babbling surface. It was picture perfect, unless you were afraid of what was under the bridge.
Sally shook her head, sighed and started across. She kept her eyes on the end of the bridge, trying to remember where the spaces where. Her flip-flop caught on the edge of a board and she nearly tripped. Cursing, Sally knew she had to look down at the boards. She shook slightly as her gaze slipped through the crack and fell to the water below. She gripped the plastic container a little tighter and took a very deep breath.
Continuing slowly and deliberately, Sally faced forward and lifted her foot high enough to stop her shoe from catching on a board. By the time she heard the footsteps behind her, she had nearly calmed herself down. The footsteps scared her a little, but needing help with keeping her mind off the underside of the bridge, Sally called out.
“I can hear you behind me. If you want, we can walk together. I’m a little afraid of” how could she easily explain this? “Heights. If you walk with me, I won’t be scared.” She looked behind her then, trying to see into the shadows, trying to find who she had called out to.
From the dark, a squat little man with black clothing and unkempt hair emerged. Sally smiled at him and he nodded in greeting.
“Hello. Did not mean to scare you.”
She shook her head. “You didn’t. Thought whoever was following me might like a companion.” She stuck out her hand. “I’m Sally. I live on the other side of the bridge.”
He approached her, giving her an odd look, as if trying to remember her. He gave her a confidant handshake as they appraised each other. He was short, about as tall as Sally, but heavier. His unwashed wild hair and beard were salt and pepper grey. His face was lined with deep wrinkles, a map of canyons. His eyes were dark, and he had dirt stains all over his tattered clothing. He wore loose pants, shirt and a long, well-worn overcoat.
Sally wore jean shorts, a tight t-shirt with the name of a local band, flip-flops, and carried a plastic container. She had a pink pixie hair cut and green eyes. Her face was clear of worry: soft and young. Her smile was quick and genuine. His was a little wary.
As he shook her hand, he tried a better smile. “Most do not shake my hand. Think I’m a vagrant. I’m Kross.”
Sally frowned as she returned the friendly handshake. “Your name is Cross? Like this bridge?”
He laughed softly then let her hand go. “Yes. Like Old Cross Bridge, except with a ‘K’.”
She smiled at his voice. Though he had no accent, he almost sounded British: very polite. “Hello, Kross. Do you want to walk with me or did you have something else going on?”
“I’m rather hungry. I was looking for spare change to possibly purchase some dinner.”
“Oh! How about fried chicken, corn and mashed potatoes?” She looked down at the container, removed the lid, and revealed the meal. “My boyfriend’s mom cooks extra for me to take home.”
“If I eat this, what will you eat?” His voice had an odd quality but she didn’t catch it.
She shrugged. “I already ate tonight. I’ll probably go back tomorrow night. I might not eat this.” She kept the lid, but handed Kross the rest of the container. “Please take it. There should be a fork in there. I don’t know why she gave me one. Consider it a ‘thank you’ for helping me across. ”
He frowned at her and gave her a very concentrated look. “What are you afraid of?”
Sally shook her head.
Kross took the container and gave her a sympathetic smile. “Tell me how you feel.”
She took a shaking breath. “Um…”
“Sometimes it helps to speak of your fears.”
Her next breath was a gasp. The phrase sounded too true to be denied, and echoed slightly off the bridge. The light seemed to run from them, throwing them deeper into shadow and Sally could swear she saw something else standing before her. She took a step back as he dipped he fork in the corn and mixed the nibblets with the mashed potatoes. It broke the near spell. Sally took another breath and shook her head as he started to eat. Thinking her fears were showing their ugly light, she laughed nervously.
“Um… It’s not heights. This bridge scares me. I look over the edge and see the river, but some times, I see something different. Like something is waiting for me and I don’t know if it’s friendly. I get vertigo and everything seems to swirl into a tiny pin prick of light and I feel like I’m falling even when I’m not.”
The poor girl looked terrified. She trembled; her eyes were darting back and forth, to Kross then to the end of the bridge, as if she were deciding whether she should curl into a fetal position or just dart to the other side before anxiety caught up with her. Kross stuck the fork into the corn, reached out and touched her arm to calm her. She jumped a little when she felt his hand on her bare skin. She laughed nervously.
“Sorry.” She laughed again. “I’m…”
His voice was soft and soothing. “No need for sorry. I did not mean to startle you.” He nodded and indicated the other side of the bridge with his head. “Shall we start?”
Sally smiled a relieved smile. “That would be great.”
Kross nodded and they started walking. He ate as they spoke. “What caused the fear, Sally? What caused you to fear this bridge more than anything else?”
She shrugged as she shook her head. “I’m not sure. We’ve lived in this house all my life. Mom told me that on a few occasions, when I was just starting to learn how to walk, I would race across the yard toward the bridge. I would be laughing the whole time and mom would have to pick me up before I got to the bridge. One day she heard me screaming. She ran to me. I was on my stomach, near the riverbank, crying and carrying on as if something scared me. After that, I was afraid of heights and never went near the bridge unless someone was with me.”
“No idea what scared you?” He knew her story. Kross recognized her now, but could not let on. He hid his reaction by talking around a bite of chicken. They were walking slowly, only halfway across the bridge. It wasn’t an overly long bridge. They should have reached the other side by now. Sally seemed not to notice.
“No idea. When dad heard about it, he told mom it was probably for the best. Didn’t need me running across the bridge getting hit by a car or falling into the river.”
She shrugged and smiled as she realized he was almost finished with his food. “Did you enjoy the food?”
He looked at the near empty container, then turned to smile at her. “Yes, quite. Thank you.”
Sally looked to the end of the bridge and realized they were but a few feet away. She slowed her steps a little and looked down at her feet. “I wanted to thank you for helping me. I’m still afraid of this bridge, but I don’t feel as silly.”
“Talking helps sometimes.”
“When I talk to other people about it, they laugh at me. Tell me to get over it.”
“Sometimes strangers are kinder when it comes to our fears. We are less likely to hide our own fears.”
“I’ve heard the exact opposite.” They took three more steps and were off the bridge. Sally visibly relaxed. “Thank you for walking with me.”
He handed the container back to Sally, holding her gaze. “Ask me, Sally. I can see the question in your eyes.”
She nodded. “What are you afraid of?”
“Of unkind people and of being hungry.”
Sally’s view on the world grew a little darker. “You get that a lot don’t you? A lot of unkind people and unkind words.”
“Yes, but once in a while, a kind person comes along and shows that the world is not as dark as it may seem.” He indicated the container with his head and smiled as Sally took it. “Thank you kindly for the food and the conversation. I do greatly appreciate it.”
She closed the container and hugged it to her chest. “Thank you for walking with me and for listening. I hope you…” she frowned as she thought of a way to say it, “find more light in this world.”
He bowed his head and started to turn back to the bridge.
He turned back and smiled.
“I eat at my boyfriend’s house every night. I can leave you food if you want.”
Kross shook his head. “I thank you, but that is not necessary. If you find yourself needing companionship please, call my name and I will come to you.”
She smiled and stuck her hand out. He took it, but this time bowed and kissed her hand gently. Sally giggled with surprise. When he stood tall again, she smiled warmly. He returned the smile, let go of her hand and walked onto the bridge. In the low light, she lost sight of him long before he reached the middle. Taking a deep breath, Sally smiled again and went home.
The meal was good; the conversation, the best he had had in a lifetime. He hadn’t expected her, hadn’t expected the kindness. The spell he threw at her when she was young should have made her afraid of him, should have made it impossible for her to hear and see him.
As he settled in for the night, the sounds of the water beneath him, the wooden bridge settling in all around him, he thought of her. Kross wore his real face, one more lined than what he showed Sally, but his body was roughly the same. Short, stout and bulky, with great strength in his limbs. If a different person had found their way onto his bridge alone, he would have shown them his true form.
The bridge creaked as a car passed over his home and Kross sighed. He looked forward to walking with Sally again. Though it was best if he did not interact with her too much too soon, he hoped she would call out to him again. Smiling, Kross sighed and settled in for a long sleep, wondering when he would have a real meal.
The girls made a racket as they walked close to the old wooden bridge.
“I don’t want to go across this bridge. It’s haunted!” Marisa’s shrill voice insisted.
“What are you talking about?” Elaine’s voice was even shriller and sounded authoritative. “I’m not walking to the other bridge!”
“This is haunted. Do you know how many people have died on it?”
Gasps emitted from the mouths of the others. A chorus of ‘I’m not walking on this bridge! It’s creepy and old!’ rang out.
An argument broke out until finally Elaine’s voice broke through the chatter. “I am not walking one mile down the river and one mile back just to avoid this bridge! You can do what you want, but I am not wasting my time! I’ll see the rest of you back at my house in an hour!”
She started walking across quickly as Marisa called out. “Oh my god, she’s so mean! I’m going this way!”
Elaine continued walking as behind her the others laughed and walked away. The twitter of young girls dissipated to the sound of one lone set of heels trouncing across the bridge. Elaine didn’t care. She’d show them. In a few minutes, she’d be at home. By the time the others arrived at her house, she’d be in her comfy clothing relaxing on the couch, watching “My Mistresses” the new reality TV show she loved. As she thought about the show, she stopped and turned her head. She frowned into the darkness as the odd scraping noise came again. Fear gripped her mind and she started to run.
She heard footsteps on the bridge behind her running to catch up, but she didn’t look back. The footsteps were heavy. Afraid now that her friends were right, Elaine ran even faster. She felt hot breath on the back of her neck then knew nothing but darkness as something descended upon her and swallowed her whole.
Sally stood on the edge of the bridge, trying to decide what to do. It was late and she once again faced walking on the bridge alone. Not really wanting to, she nevertheless started across, straining her ears to hear anything that might signify Kross was out and about.
It had been a while since she had seen him. Almost a year. Since then, she had either crossed with Greg, or convinced him to come to her house. Now that it was spring again, Greg preferred to be at his house, as his mother worked later and he prepared dinner.
Sally sighed heavily and tried not to look down. She often felt that Kross had been a dream anyway. No one had come to walk her across the bridge, it was all in her mind: the imaginings of a sixteen year old. Now, a year older, she felt it best to wear shoes that didn’t catch in the old boards, that way she didn’t have to look down. Only a quarter of the way across, Sally looked up, into the shadows as someone made a noise.
“Kross?” She said in too soft a voice.
A tall man in dark clothing came out of the shadows on the far side. He had a wild grin on his face, which terrified her. Her defenses came up and she spoke rudely.
“Who are you?” Her voice held fear.
The grin kept fading and coming back, as if he was trying to decide if he wanted to look happy or menacing. She turned to run, but he was suddenly before her, his hand around her bicep in a vice grip.
“Let me go!”
“What brings you out here on such a lonely night?”
She looked into his face and felt nothing but terror. His eyes were too wide, his grin too wild. Without thinking, Sally opened her mouth and yelled. “KROSS!”
There was a brief wind, then an elegant voice spoke just loud enough for them to hear. “Let her go.”
Both turned to see a small man in dirty clothing standing not two feet behind them. Sally sighed his name. “Kross.”
He looked to her with kind eyes. “Run, Sally.”
She did and found her assailant no longer had her arm. She ran all the way home and didn’t look back.
“You took her from me.” The man didn’t sound too happy.
“I am sorry to take your meal from you brother, but she is protected.”
“Brother?” The man faced Kross, frowned and pulled a knife out of his belt. “I’m not your brother.”
Kross took a good look at the man in front of him and bowed. “I see. My mistake. In that case…”
The tall man shrieked as the small man in front of him turned into something out of his nightmares. The man turned to run, but the thing reached forward, tripped him and gobbled up his legs. As the tall man watched, more and more of his body disappeared into the thing’s mouth. When his hands were close enough, he used the knife to slash at the head. The knife made an odd noise and bounced off its skin as if it were metal. The man shrieked again and was gone.
Kross gulped down his meal, burped then turned and headed to the edge of the bridge. He hoped that Sally hadn’t seen nor heard too much. He enjoyed her company, even if he saw her but once a year.
Sally looked out her bedroom window and tried to see the bridge. Her bedroom, at the back of the house, faced the river. It was impossible to see the bridge from here. She worried about Kross. The shrieks had echoed in the house, terrifying her. She was a little too scared to find out about Kross, but also afraid not to find out. He was a nice man. What if the other man hurt him? Sally frowned and looked at the clock.
Her mom worked the night shift again. It paid more money therefore she always worked those. Sally sighed heavily and decided. She needed to find out if Kross was all right. Not wanting to waste any more time and possibly change her mind, she stayed in her pajamas, but slipped on her tennis shoes.
Sally grabbed a flashlight and headed downstairs. Sooner than she wanted, she was on the edge of the bridge, peering into the darkness. The moon was full, and no longer hidden by clouds. Instead of using the flashlight to see, she gripped it one handed as she would a bat. Gathering her courage, Sally walked across the bridge and called softly.
“Kross?” She waited a moment, and a few steps. “Kross?”
Finally, toward the middle of the bridge, she heard a noise. She looked to the shadows. Kross appeared to be emerging from the darkness itself.
“Kross! You’re okay!”
“Of course I am, Sally.” He sounded as if there was no other way for him to be.
“I was afraid for you. I heard the screams earlier. They worried me.”
The smile on his face was the kindest she had ever seen, on any person. “Sally, thank you. You needed worry about me.” He stepped closer and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “You should go home though. It is rather late. No school in the morning?”
She shrugged and it made him remove his hand. She wished he left it there. It was warm and comforting. “I have school, but I wanted to make sure…”
“Thank you, Sally. As you can see, I am quite well.”
She smiled, nodded and looked as if she didn’t want to go home, as if she were waiting for something more.
“Good night, Sally.” He said to encourage her.
He turned and headed back to the shadows. Before the dark could envelope him completely, she cried out.
“Let me come with you!”
He turned to see her standing on the edge of the shadows. There was a terribly lost look on her face that Kross recognized. It’s too soon. How could she know to ask that now? Surprise entered his eyes and he walked back to Sally. Kross looked into her green eyes, into her soul and saw the truth.
“It is too soon.”
Sally frowned at him. “What?”
“It is too soon. We do not take the young.” He placed one hand on her hip, near her waistline and moved her pajama pants down just a touch, until his bare hand touched skin only. She didn’t stop him. He whispered a few words, causing her to inhale. When he was done, she looked to her side.
“What did you do?” She did not sound scared.
He looked into her eyes as he moved her pants up to hide the odd mark. It was more scar than mark, a dark pink that marred her otherwise perfect pale skin. “I am sorry, Sally. Your true self has to hide for a little longer.”
She frowned, not understanding. Sally shook her head and stated again her request. “Let me come with you, Kross.”
He looked sadly into her eyes as one of his hands went to her cheek. “You can’t, Sally. You are too young.” Pain entered his eyes. “Much too young. One day you will return to me and remember, but for now you must forget.”
The last word he spoke held power and made Sally close her eyes and collapse. Kross caught her in his arms and carried her to her home. He found she hadn’t bothered to close her front door and walked right in. He took her up the stairs to her room, laid her down on her bed and with a gentle hand, caressed her light hair. Last year it had been pink. He liked it natural.
“When all else is forgotten, you will remember my bridge. Then and only then can you come to me. Sleep well, child of the forsaken.”
He turned and left, knowing he wouldn’t see this one again for a long time. She wouldn’t remember to call to him, but he would keep an eye on her when she crossed his bridge, in case she needed him.
The old woman stared at the bridge. Her left arm shook slightly from holding on to the cane too tightly, and perhaps from the memories coursing through her mind. She hadn’t been here in a long, long time. At the age of eighteen, she ran away, to find her life, to find happiness, to find something that she couldn’t seem to find here. She took odd jobs and did everything she could to keep running. A few times, she fell in love, or thought she did. The relationships all ended badly. She always seemed to be searching for something else.
Somehow, she managed well, always having more money than a woman in her position should, and she used it to travel the world. Everywhere she went, she learned something new about the people on this Earth, but not really about herself. Oh, she knew more about her own mind than most people did, but she could never find that one thing that she was looking for, that one thing that would make her happy. And she tried. She looked in all corners of the world, until her body ached and she had forgotten all she ever knew, including her name.
When there was nothing left within her except pain, she came here. She came back to where she started, and everything was different. The houses on both ends had long since been torn down. The Historical Society had restored the bridge, despite all the terrible things that people said happened here. Over the many years that Old Cross Bridge spanned this river, there were many disappearances, many unexplained noises and many tales to tell around the campfire. It didn’t matter though. It was an old bridge, had been here a long time and people wanted it to stay there.
The old woman sighed. If they had removed it, he would have been forced to find a new home and he would have been lost to her. But it stood, and she knew he had to be here. Since it was daylight, she knew he wouldn’t come out on top of the bridge. She descended the embankment slowly, carefully. When she started to slip, she stopped, dug the four feet of her metal cane into the dirt and took slow breaths. Once she had her footing, she continued.
It took many moments to reach the bottom and when she did, she looked around and smiled for the first time in a very long time. Being here felt like coming home.
The sunlight came through the far end and down the slats in the bridge. The clear water babbled incoherently and sparkled in the sunbeams. She could hear frogs and crickets nearby with birds a little further off. The green grass gleamed invitingly. Even the rocks looked tempting.
The old woman took a deep breath of the crisp air. “Kross.”
The noise cut out immediately. The rocks looked sharp and dangerous. The quiet river no longer looked quite as safe, or as shallow. The hidden pools lurked and the unsuspecting would find no end to the pools, should they step into one. Sunlight vanished on the other side, to be replaced by darkness so deep, not even the midnight sky would challenge it. The air smelled of rotted things, and the old woman felt at home. She called out again, knowing he would hear.
“Kross. I’ve returned to you. Don’t pretend you can’t hear me.”
He stepped out of the deepest black and came toward her. Not dressed as the old man, but in his true form. His size hadn’t changed much: short, squat and rather bulky. The skin on his face, arms, and legs were filled with wrinkles. She supposed his torso was as well, but his long shirt hid that part of him. His eyes, deep and dark, stared out through half closed lids. His teeth protruded like tusks from his mouth, both upper and lower. His nose was flat against his face, like a pig. He had thick bushy eyebrows, and hair grew out of his ears. Kross looked to the old woman in front of him and sniffed. He smiled a kind smile and his eyes showed nothing but happiness.
“Sally. You’ve come back.” His voice was as eloquent as always, and just as lovely.
“It was time. It’s been a long, long time.” She stepped closer to him and tried not to grimace in pain. Everything in her body hurt…well, almost everything. The only spot on her body that never hurt was her birthmark near her waistline. As she grew older, the mark grew and the pain in her body seemed to miss that spot. She came to think that if that area were to start hurting, all would be over for her. Standing here, the mark seemed to radiate pleasant heat. She smiled to Kross. “Too long.”
He shook his head and came forward. He stopped in front of her and placed a gentle hand on her cheek. There were thick nails on that hand, but against her old cheek, it was rather pleasant. “You had to be old, Sally. The young are not welcomed.”
A stray thought occurred. “Some take the young.”
“Our kind does not.”
“I tried to come to you when I was young.”
“I remember. You were too young. I wove a spell to keep you away from the bridge. I did not mean to leave you terrified of my home.”
She shook her head carefully. “It was nothing. I overcame that some years later after you pushed me away the second time.” She sighed. “You sent me away for too long.”
“We do not take the young, even if they were once ours.”
“I am too old, and my body is broken.”
He smiled and she knew she would believe anything he had to say. He placed his hand on her hip, over the scar before he spoke. “You have forgotten much, my dear. I marked you to make you forget. You were already ours when you were born. Had you not been, you would have never seen the truth under this bridge. I hid what you were in the only way I could.”
The heat in her side sparked and grew quickly throughout her body. She inhaled sharply as her true nature emerged. The pain and soft skin were replaced by thick skin. She felt strength in her limps and in heart. She took a deep breath and stood, not with a bent back, but with renewed vigor. She looked exactly like Kross, with wrinkled skin and hair in places that would make a human cringe. Their kind all looked the same, to outsiders. Sally could see the difference in their wrinkles.
When Kross took his hand away, she knew the truth, and smiled to Kross. She was like him, not a human, but a troll. She looked to him. “You hid me amongst the humans.”
“It was that or allow you to be destroyed by our enemies. Though our elders agreed with my actions, I was banished to this bridge because of it.”
“And now that I have returned?”
“If you forgive me, I can enter our world again.”
There was a twinkle in her eye. “And if I don’t?”
“I am banished, forever to guard this bridge.”
She smiled to him. “Come Kross, it is time to return home.”
He bowed to his beloved and held his arm out to her.
She took it and he started to walk her under the bridge. As they walked, a light appeared deep under the bridge and grew as they came toward it.
“It must have taken a great deal of magic to have me born again into the human world.”
“You are worth it.”
“Did you miss me?”
“Everyday, my heart. Everyday.”