Preview: Rose Wood

The location of Crybaby Bridge was listed simply as River Road, Andersonville County, South Carolina. After a little more searching, she found a description that stated it was the rusty steel bridge over the Tugaloo River. Just about every region had its own “Crybaby Bridge” legend, and this one claimed to be haunted by the spirit of a woman who had thrown her baby over the bridge to spite her husband and then instantly regretted it. Supposedly you could occasionally encounter her leaning over the bridge looking for it and sometimes even hear the sound of the baby crying.
     The rain it had been misting suddenly turned into a deluge as she crossed the state line and started down River Road, the old back road that led into Andersonville. Her windshield wipers worked overtime to keep up but were no match for the driving rain, and she struggled to see the road.
     She had just decided to pull over when she spotted the bleary outline of a bridge up ahead. She slowed to a crawl and bumped up on the bridge, trying to get a better look at it through the partially fogged windows. She flipped the heater to defrost and felt the car falter. She gave it more gas and it lurched forward, hitched a few more times, and then quit, rolling slowly to a stop in the middle of the bridge.
     She turned the key a few times, but the engine wouldn't start. Maybe something had gotten too wet? She would just have to wait it out. She picked up her cell phone and looked at the display. She had been down to one bar before she had started down the long road, and now there was nothing except the No Signal icon in the upper left corner.
     She turned on her hazards even though there was virtually no traffic on the road and prepared to wait.
     The rain thundered on the bridge around her.
     As suddenly as it started, the rainstorm was over. She cracked open her door and tentatively stepped out into the weird dripping silence that followed in the wake of a good hard rain.
     Brown murky water rushed beneath her, fast and furious from the storm. The bridge looked nothing like the description she had read, but the river and surrounding area looked similar. It was possible the bridge had been rebuilt since then. There was a small white sign posted on the other side, but it was too far away for her to read.
     She tried the car again with no luck and then went to check the sign.
     When she got close enough to read it, she saw it was indeed the Tugaloo River. So this was it. She turned around and looked back to where her car sat, yellow emergency lights flashing in the stillness. There was still no sign of any traffic, which was starting to seem odd, despite the weather.
     She took her time getting back to the car, listening, but heard nothing but the rushing of the river. She tried to keep an open mind and clear her head of all thoughts. But the crying baby remained elusive.
     She grabbed her camera and took pictures from both sides, capturing the bridge and the river it crossed from all angles.
     After nearly two and a half hours, she was beyond frustrated. The car refused to start, and it was getting close to dark. She was going to have to walk, and sooner rather than later from the looks of the deepening shadows along the road.
     She knew she had not passed any houses back the way she had come, so she started off in the other direction.
     About a half a mile on the other side of the bridge, the rain came again with no warning. One minute she was berating herself with second thoughts about leaving the car, and the next stinging needles of rain were pelting her, drenching her in seconds. It was coming down so hard she could barely see.
     The rain ran freely down her face and body in a steady stream. She was starting to get scared. The road and surrounding area were beginning to flood. Water pooled in the lower lying ground on either side of her and ran in cascades down the sloping road.
     It was almost dark now, and she decided she had better get off the road and look for higher ground. She stepped over a half-filled muddy ditch, climbed the small bank, and ducked under the dead brown leaves of a large oak.
     Thunder rumbled in the distance.
     The cold rain had chilled her, and she shivered as she contemplated her situation. Going back to the car probably wouldn’t be a good idea since the rising river was liable to wash the bridge, and it, away. She turned in a slow circle, looking through the almost pitch-black trees behind her, and spotted the distant flicker of light. Her spirits instantly lifted.
     Trying to keep the small flicker of light in sight, she followed along the tree line looking for a path or driveway in.
     The storm wasn’t abating as she had hoped, but getting worse and now seemed to center right above her. Jagged lightning arced and lit up the dark sky like a heavenly strobe light. Distant thunder rumbled and drew closer, louder with each passing minute.
     Incredibly, amidst the thundering and lightning, it began to hail. First tiny pieces of ice and then larger chunks rained down on her, striking her painfully on the head and shoulders.
     She stumbled along the road, desperate to get out of the storm. She almost passed the dirt and gravel driveway when lightning flashed again and she spotted it. She hurried up the drive, trying unsuccessfully to protect herself from the falling chunks of ice, her shoes slipping and sliding in the mud.
     The driveway wound through the trees, the distant light appearing then disappearing as it curved around and back again, until finally, she reached the end and found herself at the edge of a clearing around a large old house.
     The source of the light she had been following was the headlights of a car parked in a gravel area at the side. She huddled underneath another tree, momentarily escaping the stinging hail. She could just make out the figure of an elderly man standing on the porch, his hunched figure leaning on a cane.
     She jumped and cried out as a particularly loud crash of lightning hit the ground maybe ten yards from her, the concussion deafening. It was immediately followed by another bolt slamming down even closer.
     She navigated toward the old man on the porch at a dead run, bolts of lightning shooting down from the sky and zapping the ground around her. She made it about halfway when there was another blinding flash, and she just had time to hear the beginning of the loudest sound she had ever heard in her life—and then she knew no more.

Aileen couldn’t hear, see, or feel a thing. She lay in the quietness of utter dark and realized she wasn’t breathing. It felt as if the wind had been knocked out of her. After concentrating for several long seconds, she finally managed a breath and her eyesight returned, but she still couldn’t move and her whole body felt numb. She noticed a sweet burning smell and oddly, the intense scent of roses.
     After a minute or two, she was able to lift up her head, and she saw that tendrils of steam were rising from her body. Another minute, and she was able to struggle up into a sitting position, but she still couldn’t feel her legs. A loud ringing punctuated the eerie silence. She reached up and felt something wet coming from her ear. It was blood; her eardrum, possible both of them, had been ruptured.
     From what she could see in the darkness, she had been blown back about ten feet from where she had been standing. Thankfully, the storm was dying down, the night sky only occasionally punctuated by distant flashes of light.
     Something shifted in her peripheral vision. She turned her head and her heart nearly jumped out of her chest. She felt her mind slip in sheer horror at the unnaturalness of this thing that could not possibly be. The girl-thing’s eyes were solid white with tiny pinpoint pupils staring dead at her, its awareness and regard of Aileen flooding her with mindless dread. She could feel her mouth and vocal cords straining but could hear nothing as she screamed silently, scrambling backwards.
     The inhuman form disappeared.
     She looked frantically on either side of her, but there was no sign of the thing.
     Then she felt an almost imperceptible movement on the back of her neck, a small breath of air, and her skin crawled.
     It was behind her!
     She twisted around and there it was—its dead mouth moving, saying something, as it scuttled toward her. She began shrieking again and her mind slipped some more. She screamed soundlessly in terror, the rational world turned into a nightmare.
     Aileen snapped to, the old man shaking her, looming above her. He was mouthing something at her, but she couldn’t make him out. She whipped her head around, but there was nothing there.
     Whatever she had seen was now gone, if it had ever been there at all.

The doctor in the emergency room where she'd been taken said she was probably still alive due to the silver locket she had been wearing. The lightning had been diverted down into the necklace and then across her body, instead of into it, which would have stopped her heart. She had been lucky. Her shoes had been split open and blown off. She had burns on both her ankles and around her neck where her necklace had been. A weird parody of bright red lightning bolts traced down her chest and branched down her abdomen in fern-like patterns. And one of her eardrums had burst but would hopefully heal.
     By ten o’clock that evening, she had been moved into a room and had spoken on the phone to Colleen and then to Ed, who had agreed to drive up with Josh the next morning to retrieve her car. She called her mother last, and with difficulty finally convinced her to wait until the next morning to come, when they would be releasing her.
     Despite the drugs they had given her for the pain, Aileen found herself unable to sleep. She kept coming back to the nightmare image of the girl-thing. Her mind shied away from the horrific image of its milky white eyes trained on her. It had seemed so real—her coming to after she was hit, the wet ground beneath her, the distant flashes of light, the girl-thing, all of it. She clicked off the television mounted on the wall, lowered the bed some, and gingerly turned over. She had one more thought before pushing it away and finally drifting off to sleep. If Ed’s dream was a real visit from his daughter, then did that mean her nightmare encounter was also real?

She awoke some time later and turned painfully over onto her back. Her pain meds had worn off, and she smelled that cloying scent of roses again. When she had mentioned it, the doctor had told her that strange smells were a common response to being hit by lightning and would eventually go away. She pressed the button to call the nurse and waited, but the customary “Yes?” through the speaker behind her bed never came. She pressed it again. Still no response.
     Carefully, she climbed out of bed and walked over and pulled the door to her room open. The long hallway stretched out in front of her. The lights had been dimmed for the evening and pockets of shadow pooled between the meager reach of the small lights above each of the doors. There were no sounds coming from any of the other rooms. All was quiet, unusually so, from her past experiences with hospitals. How anyone had ever been able to sleep with all the noise, and a nurse waking you up for your vital signs every few hours even if you did manage to sleep, was beyond her.
     She started slowly forward, still hearing nothing. It was like a cloak of silence had fallen over the hospital. The first room she passed was empty, the room clearly unoccupied. And so was the next one. And the next. All the way down the hall, she found all the rooms vacant, even the ones with closed doors. When she reached the nursing station, there was no one there either.
     She stood in the bright florescent light, unwilling to go back and enter the void of the darkened wing behind her. It was deathly quiet with no sign of any hospital personnel anywhere. She was completely alone. Anyone could just walk right in off the streets and—
     The elevator dinged loudly in the silence behind her. Aileen jumped and cried out.
     She stepped back fearfully and waited for it to open.
     The doors swished apart. The elevator was empty. She let out the breath she had subconsciously been holding. She was letting her imagination get the best of her. The nurse was probably only gone to the restroom.
     She turned to go wait in her room and met the hideous eyes of the girl-thing standing behind her.
     This time her terror was so great her body’s fight or flight instinct failed her, and she froze in place, petrified. She realized vaguely that the odd keening sound she was hearing was coming from her own throat.
     She finally managed to move her feet and stumbled back against the wall. It responded by moving inhumanly fast from several feet away to inches from her face with no discernable steps in between. Its ghost face stared into hers, and she felt a scream building. The unnatural orbs of its eyes shifted down. Slowly, the girl-thing reached for her throat … Aileen let loose a guttural cry of abject terror.
     Her scream scared the nurse who was coming in so badly that she flung the tray of medications she had been carrying up in the air. It landed with a crash back out in the hallway. Excited voices sounded up and down the floor as frightened patients called out. Several nurses and one doctor filled her door, all of them staring in at her in amazement.
     Aileen shook her head and tried to clear it. She couldn’t think of the word "nightmare." It wouldn’t come to her at all. Finally she gasped out, “Bad dream. Bad dream.”
     She took in the amused relief on everyone’s face and had never been more embarrassed in her life. She came back down off the back of the bed where she had climbed in her terror.
     Her nurse adjusted her IV, and mopped the sweat off her brow. “I think we might need to cut down on your pain medication, sweetie.”
     “Well, I don’t think she’s had anything recently,” said one of the other nurses, looking at her chart.
     “Well maybe we need to get you some then,” her nurse said, and they both laughed.
     Aileen was grateful for their good humor. The bad dream was already fading, replaced by the reality of their laughter.