Patrick flinched from the glare in the rearview. “Jesus Christ, lady.” It had to be a woman. Women were constant over-users from high beams to perfume. No sense of moderation. He flipped the mirror to reduce the glare and discovered the true source of his blindness—the flashing lights of a police car
He parked on the shoulder and rolled down the window. Light flurries swooshed in. He grabbed the wool beanie on the passenger’s seat and covered his head.
Cops lived to make you sweat. What did he care if Patrick hadn’t seen the light of day in over a month? Winter sucked. Once, he’d loved the snow and ice—speed skating. He’d been an Olympic hopeful until an injury sidelined him before the 2014 Russian Games. Afterwhich, his freedom on the ice was hijacked by the whine of patients with abscessed teeth.
A flashlight blinded him. The cop lowered it. “License and registration.”
Patrick fumbled through the wad of insurance papers he kept stuffed inside the pocket of the visor, then reached for his wallet on the dash. “Did the speed limit change? I thought this stretch was forty-five.”
The cop examined the license and paper work. “You blew a headlight. My advice, get to an auto part store tomorrow. The next officer won’t hesitate on a ticket. Have a nice night.”
Great. Like he wanted to spend Saturday figuring out how to change a headlight.
He waited for the cop to drive away to test the high beams. Thank-you, god. Oncoming traffic would hate him, but it was better than a ticket.
Major unwinding was in order. Popcorn and a movie. Something from his Hitchcock collection. Vertigo or Notorious. No one could wipe away the drudge of the week better than Ingrid Bergman.
Patrick turned off the main thoroughfare and headed towards the mountain and home. As the town of Sage faded in the rearview, his high beams slammed into a wall of light. He hit the brakes. The car skidded. Body tensed.
He played with the high beams, on, off, on— damn, he couldn’t see a thing with them on. Both fog lights worked, but a fog this thick would keep him on the road for another hour or more. Worse yet, it’d be harder to spot the goddamn deer that lived to send his vehicle into the shop for repairs. Since he bought the Crosstrek two years ago, he’d needed to replace the windshield, a side mirror and front bumper. He flicked on the highs, squinted in the glare and slammed them off.
The mountain road was a rolling, twisted climb that crossed the Weetuk River. The Weetuk Falls, five miles off the main mountain road just after the trestle bridge, was a favorite hangout for the college kids during warm weather. In summer, the townies fished off the bridge, but not in winter. The residents of Sage weren’t afraid of snow or ice. Skiing and skating were popular activities on Hawk Mountain an hour north. But the Weetuk river and mountain were off limits for winter sports because of the curse.
Patrick was a non-believer. But something gnawed at his gut as the Crosstrek curved up and around the mountain closer to the bridge. Probably on edge because of the cop and the fog, which appeared to be funneling itself into the busted headlight. Or was the right headlight sucking up the fog? What wasn’t sucked into the headlight covered the car like suds in a car wash. Only a sliver of highway was visible in front of him.
He broke into a sweat, opened his overcoat, and switched the heat to air-conditioning. The broken headlight lit up— green.
Patrick stopped the car. Rubbed his eyes. It had been a long day looking through microscopes to perform root canals. Nothing changed.
A single stream of green bled out of the broken headlight and seeped into the fog like a neon lime serpent, which swirled, swooped, and pulled the car forward. Unbelievable. Patrick removed his foot from the gas. The car continued to coast.
Sweat dripped from his forehead. Jaw tightened. Was this how drivers ended up in the river? Didn’t mermaids lure fishermen into the rocks with their melodious songs, golden hair and bare breasts? None of that here, but the neon green serpent coaxed all the same.
The car rolled downhill. The bridge had to be near. He tightened his grip on the wheel. He’d do whatever was needed to prevent the car from going off the bridge, or bail if necessary.
The high beams popped on, illuminated the Bridge Slippery When Wet sign on the side of the road, and popped off.
His pulse quickened. The lime serpent spun into a twister of light that broke away from the bank of fog, twirled behind the car and pushed it faster towards the bridge entrance where it stopped. The engine idled and no amount of pressure on the gas pedal changed the car’s position. He engaged the emergency brake.
The twister of light swirled back onto the bridge, hovered near the rail on the right, then reshaped itself into a long, hooded cape. Patrick feared the nitrous fumes from the office had gone to his head. Again, he rubbed his eyes. Slapped his cheeks. The image sharpened. The lime deepened into a forest green and white fur edged the cape and hood.
The figure turned. Gloved hands lifted the hood to reveal golden tresses and a familiar face. The nitrous had gone to his head. It was impossible for this woman to be here. She smiled. Holy Shit. He’d conjured up Grace Kelly.
Of course. He’d been thinking about Hitchcock when the fog rose up. What Patrick needed was a hot toddy and forty-eight hours of sleep.
Ms. Kelly stepped forward. Beckoned. Forget sleep. He needed three months in the Bahamas. Wait a minute. He wasn’t falling for this. This was some frat boys’ prank.
Patrick stormed towards the bridge. But when he reached it, Ms. Kelly dissolved into the serpent, snaked over the rail. Splash. A voice called back.
“Mind the moon. Mind the latch.”
Her words echoed in the valley. Faded. The fog lifted.
Patrick scanned the sky. Not a star. Not a cloud. No moon.
An extra strong hot toddy soothed his frazzled nerves. But he dumped Ingrid Bergman for Grace Kelly in order to exhaust whatever mysterious hold she had on him and fell asleep during Dial M for Murder.
Morning brought a stiff neck and a weary body from sleeping on the sofa. He revved up the espresso machine and after calling a slew of mechanics who lived on the mountain, found one who said he’d repair the headlight today, for cash.
Mechanic Tom worked out of a small barn on his property, where he also grew fir and spruce trees for the Christmas season. His wife, Aletta, invited Patrick into the kitchen of their farmhouse for coffee, where she insisted he partake in a slice of the apple pecan pie, still warm from the oven, which she topped with a scoop of chocolate chip ice cream.
While Aletta peeled apples for the next pie, she chatted freely about how she and Tom gravitated up the mountain as the town of Sage became inundated with city folks. She was charming old school and well acquainted with the area’s history. Her family going back to one of the first Lenape tribes to move north of Delaware in the early 1600s.
By the time Patrick finished his second slice of pie, he couldn’t shake the notion that his broken headlight was part of some fickle finger of fate, and if he was going to get any clarity on the bizarre happenings of last night— now was the time.
“Any chance you know the truth about what happened on the Weetuk Bridge?”
Aletta set down her paring knife, wiped her hands on the towel in her lap. “I might.”
Excitement and embarrassment rippled through him. He’d never been one to seek out gossip, or buy in to tabloid sensationalism; he made fun of those who did. But here he was shushing his know-better attitude with never-say-never.
The back door opened bringing a rush of cold air then slammed shut. Tom stomped his feet on the mat in the mudroom. “All set.” He handed Patrick his keys.
Aletta pulled Tom’s chair away from the table. “Sit. I’ll get you some coffee and pie. Patrick’s in no rush. He wants to hear about the curse.”
Tom eyed Patrick and dropped into his chair. “That so.” His voice steady, sincere. “You see something?”
Goosebumps tingled across Patrick’s arms and spine. “You saying it’s real?”
“It was to the men who’ve ended up in the Weetuk.”
Aletta set the pie and coffee in front of Tom and refilled Patrick’s mug. “Does your interest in the curse have anything to do with that busted headlight?”
Patrick wiped his forehead with a napkin. “Maybe.” He waited for Aletta to settle in her seat, then shared the events of the previous night, including how the vision looked like Grace Kelly, which made him blush.
“You got that backwards, son.” Tom scraped his fork across his plate to collect the last bits of pecan apple sweetness. “Most of the oral historians round here say Kelly was the reincarnation of Lucia.”
Aletta picked up her paring knife and another apple. “During the first six years of her marriage to Prince Rainier III, not one incident on the bridge was reported.” The apple skin peeled off in one piece. “But the same week the papers reported Grace had to turn down a film with Hitchcock, a car pitched off the bridge, and winter was months away.”
“Aw, come on,” Patrick said. “Aren’t people making a connection that doesn’t exist?”
Tom and Aletta gazed at him. No judgment. A simple reminder that he was the one with a story of a neon green light spinning into Grace Kelly. He gulped coffee. “So, how did the curse come about?”
Aletta smiled and resumed her apple slicing. “Story goes that Addison Bateman, from the Bateman family who founded Sage back in the sevevteen hundreds, had five sons, and a daughter Lucia. His wife died when his daughter was born, so Addison kept tight control on Lucia, forbidding her to go anywhere or see anyone without his permission. But she met the Lenape boy anyway and they fell in love.” She leaned towards Patrick. “Some say Rupert, the oldest, introduced them so Lucia would fall out of favor with his father.”
Tom put his plate in the sink. “Rupert didn’t like the idea of his sister’s dowry cutting into his future inheritance.”
“Lucia and the boy used to meet at the bridge,” Aletta went on. “Don’t know how Addison found out, but again, most people suspect Rupert. Anyway Addison followed her the night of the Full Moon Winter Solstice, shot the boy and set the bridge on fire to hide the body. To avenge the boy’s death the Lenape tribe placed a curse on the bridge. Any man with a reputation for harming women who comes near the bridge in winter loses control of his car and drowns.”
“What happened to Lucia?”
Tom rocked back in his chair. “Some believe while daddy set fire to the bridge, Lucia ran into the mountains and was taken in by the boy’s family. Others say she lost her mind, killed herself under a full moon and it’s her spirit that haunts the bridge and entices men to their death. The missus here thinks otherwise.”
Aletta nudged Tom’s upper arm. “So do you. You just don’t want anyone to know you’re a soft-hearted romantic.”
Tom snatched her hand, kissed it, and the two sank into each other’s eyes as if no one was watching and time no longer existed. Patrick’s heart pinged with envy’s ache. He’d dated a number of women over his twenty-nine years, but none of them took priority over his goal to be an Olympic speed skater or, once that was lost, become an endodontist like his dad. He never imagined he was missing out. Now, he wasn’t sure. Was this why he was growing crankier at work?
“The most coveted tale from the oral histories,” Aletta said, snapping Patrick out of his daze, “is that Addison accidently shot his daughter when she stepped in front of her lover. Then the Lenape boy shot Addison and set fire to the bridge before escaping with Lucia into the mountain forest, where they built a house that can only be found under a full moon. The door is supposed to have a double lock that only opens if the two latchkeys are simultaneously turned by a couple in love. That’s why Lucia haunts the bridge, to search for the next set of lovers to inhabit her home.”
Patrick shivered. “You don’t really believe that.”
“You didn’t end up in the river,” Tom said.
“You could’ve gone to any mechanic. You chose us.” Aletta carried her bowl of sliced apples to the counter.
A nervous chuckle choked in Patrick’s mouth. “That’s nuts.”
The couple looked at each other and shrugged.
Patrick shifted in his seat. “What do you expect me to do?”
“Other than paying for the headlight,” Tom said, “Whatever you want.”
Patrick forked over the cash, promised Aletta he wouldn’t be a stranger, then took his rattled brain home for another Hitchcock marathon. This time Ingrid Bergman, in the hope of shaking off the pull of the curse. But halfway through Spellbound he switched to Rear Window and the next thing he knew he was on the internet searching for the date of the next Full Moon— only five days away
Patrick sat vigil at the bridge every night after work. He parked on the shoulder near the Slippery When Wet sign and waited with the headlights dimmed and fog lights shining on the spot where Lucia had made her presence known. Of course, nothing happened, and by Thursday night he was kicking himself for getting suckered by Aletta and Tom’s theories.
Had he really expected Lucia to materialize out of the sky and take his hand? No. But part of him longed for it to be real because he needed something, or someone to pull him out of the monotony of his days. He enjoyed endodontics because the work relieved people of their pain. But he didn’t want to live his dad’s life. Didn’t want to see patients from eight in the morning until seven at night, then go home to watch Jeopardy and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. That’s why he was obsessed with Hitchcock’s star-crossed lovers. But a celluloid fantasy couldn’t change his life; neither would this curse.
Patrick turned off the main thoroughfare toward the mountain and home ready to release Lucia and her curse to some other sap when a fog kicked up. He used the fog lights until he neared the bridge, then punched the high beams. Lucia stood at the edge of the bridge. He slammed the brakes. The car slid toward the rail. The fog dispersed and so did she. After his heart settled, Patrick walked the bridge, but there was nothing to see until he looked into the sky.
The moon was nearly full, only a sliver remained in shadow. Tomorrow was the night, and there was no way in hell he was going to miss it.
The next night brought a wind that shook the Crosstrek so much he thought he’d end up in the river without Lucia’s help. Clouds obstructed the Full Moon, but the fog’s neon green serpent told Patrick to stay the course.
At the bridge, the wavering serpent spun into the hooded Lucia. She removed the hood and smiled. She beckoned and floated across the bridge. Guided by Lucia’s neon illumination, Patrick turned onto a shale road just after bridge, which led toward the Weetuk Falls. Shortly before the falls, she hung a left and Patrick deadended into a tracker size boulder. Lucia hovered above it. Patrick got out of the car and she swirled into the sky.
“Mind the moon,” she called as the green light dispersed like sparklers.
The wind whipped. He closed his duffle coat, and shoved his hands into the pockets. His breath accented the night as he circled the boulder.
On the other side was an overgrown path of sorts, lit by the fullness of the moon. It wound deep into the mountain forest and headed upward. Patrick climbed as much as he walked. The farther he went, the more he wished he’d brought a flashlight or flare. Black bears were numerous on the Weetuk, as were coyotes, although he’d heard none.
A rustle and a crunch of branches to his left stopped his breath. More rustling, a thud and a subsequent “Oh” quickened his pulse.
The smart thing to do— go back to the car and home. Nothing about following the curse was smart, but Patrick pushed through what was now thick brush.
“Somebody there?” called a female voice.
He paused. Bit back a laugh. This could so easily be a practical joke set up by Tom and Aletta. But if it wasn’t. “Yes. My name is Patrick. Who are you?”
“Where are you?”
“Behind the house.”
“I fell. Now I’m stuck.”
Patrick’s heart raced as he pushed faster through the brush and into a clearing. There it was— a cottage. Neglected and cobwebbed to the Nth degree but cozy.
“You still there?” Loretta said.
“Yes. Sorry,” Patrick made his way around back. “Not sure I really expect to find a house—”
A woman in a parka and earmuffs waved from the mountain floor. “Hi.”
She wasn’t Lucia or Grace Kelly, but she was damn pixie cute. “Hi.” He assessed her position. She was pinned under a trunk. “How’d you manage that?”
“Wasn’t hard. I’m a natural klutz. And when I thought I heard a bear, which was obviously you, I startled and twisted and wah-lah.”
Cute and charming. Patrick plopped down beside her. “What are you doing out here, Loretta?” As if he didn’t know.
Loretta rolled her eyes. Patrick imagined she blushed as well, but wasn’t sure because clouds had moved across the moon. “Following the boy. Did you see him too?”
“The Lenape boy?”
She nodded. “He just appeared out of the mist one night and told me to…”
Patrick laughed. “Mind the moon. Mind the latch.” Her eyes expanded. He wanted to fall into them. “Lucia came to me. On the Weetuk Bridge.”
Loretta leaned in and whispered. “Do you think this is their cabin?”
Patrick stood, got his arms around the trunk and with a deep breath hoisted it off Loretta. He offered her a hand. “Only one way to find out.”
She placed her mittened hand into his palm. Patrick helped her up and the cloud cover lifted to unveil the Full Moon.
Their eyes met. Hers were an extraordinary blue. Probably because of her blue parka, and yet he knew the parka had nothing to do with it.
Patrick squeezed her hand, and when she squeezed back they smiled and went around to the front of the cabin to the locked door. They searched under the mat, the benches, and stools on the porch.
“A wild goose chase,” Loretta said.
A week ago, Patrick might’ve thought the same. But he knew better now because like Aletta and Tom, he was a believer. He opened the lantern hanging by the side of the door, wiped away cobwebs and reached inside. His face lit up. “Bingo.”
He pulled out the latch keys.
“Oh, my god. It’s not a legend.” Loretta wiped the cobwebs off the door plate with her mittens, then shoved them in her pockets. She stared at the door plate’s two latchkey openings and held out her hand.
Patrick handed over a key and looked in her eyes. All the fear and excitement dancing inside of him was also running wild inside of Loretta. “Shall we?”
She nodded. They inserted their keys.
Disappointment washed her face.
Patrick’s jitters escalated. He knew the keys would unlock the door because that’s what latchkeys do. Still, he’d come this far, and he wanted proof Lucia’s haunting was fulfilled. He left the key in the lock and took Loretta’s hand, warm and soft. She offered her other as well. This time when their eyes met, Patrick’s heart opened like it did in Tom and Aletta’s kitchen, without the envy.
Their embrace like the strike of a match lit a fire that consumed them, suspended time and strengthened as they separated. Loretta giggle. Patrick laughe
“Any chance you enjoy ice skating?”