Joe’s Choice — Under the Bridge: A Short Story (Part 4)
Joe Madsen, Editor

When I was first put in touch with Nick Popkey over the Summer, I had no idea that we’d be collaborating on his material for the next four to five months — nor how wonderful the process would be. I was told he was a prolific writer, and when we chatted via email, he seemed excited from the start. Both of those qualities showed very clearly in the first draft he gave me — an unusual ghost story set in present-day LA, based on tragically true events. Nick’s draft was at once enticingly eerie and charmingly sweet. He wove a story of wayward and troubled souls, some with heartbreaking histories, but his talent for instilling humor, wit, and feeling between these characters kept me with them. I loved it right from the beginning. Nick is able to explore big themes in healing and transformation while still delivering the fun and excitement of a deadly, ghost-hunt thriller.

Colorado Street Bridge
Photo of the Colorado Street Bridge that Nick shared with SixByEight Press as an initial visual exploration of the story

And as far as process goes, what I enjoy most about editing for Nick is that he provides a ton of material to work with, both in the sheer amount of words and emotional nuance. Having never worked with pottery in my life, I for some reason compare editing to moulding clay: the more on the table, the more you can do with it. I never need Nick to draw more from himself when we undergo draft after draft after draft. Instead, it comes down to whittling away and fine-tuning, and it makes every re-read even more enjoyable than the last because it’s like watching an image full of all the colors you know are there come into sharp relief.

Seeing Nick come to know his characters across what was three and is now four installments with this story has been one of the highlights of my Fall. The leg work he’s done in mastering this story and the figures within it is an inspiration for anyone who wants to build more creativity into their lives (myself included!), and as an editor, I feel like I’ve enjoyed the fun, scenic side of the ride. He’s written the roadmap through all the work he’s done, and I’ve just had the pleasure of riding along as co-pilot and making comments in real time. And engaging with his fantastic, personal practice has thankfully kept my own creative mindset in shape.

I’m proud and excited to use this opportunity to introduce the fourth installment of Nick Popkey’s Under the Bridge. This chapter marks the final stage in this intricate, heartfelt tale, but I know it’s certainly not the last in the work of this wonderfully talented writer.


NICHOLAS POPKEY

You can read Part 1 of the story here.
You can read Part 2 of the story here.
You can read Part 3 of the story here.

When she finally decided to run, she didn’t feel afraid, not at first. Instead, Cassie Drake felt the wet grass through her tennis shoes. The sensation ran from her toes through her feet and legs, reminding her how hard she was running. Kinesthesia, she knew it was called. An awareness of the position and movement of the body parts, by means of the muscles and joints. They’d studied it in Health class. A fact she could hold onto.

She trampled the neighbors’ lawns, people who couldn’t save her. Her rubber soles drummed on the driveways. Whenever Cassie slipped, the ground felt like a pond. Her feet those of a water strider, skimming the surface in ripples. Dewdrops seeped through her socks and prickled her toes. If nothing else, it was feeling, disparate from her dry and durable routine. Finally an escape from her father’s scaly hands. But if his abuse had left her with any spirit, it survived in a shell. Cassie had suffered in dry soil for so long, she was unsure if she would ever germinate.

Cassie Drake was sixteen when she ran away from home. Norman, her father, had spent years carving Cassie away. The memory of the wet grass in those first moments of freedom came back now, as Cassie ran toward Lucas and Georgia. It was so long ago, but the same, soggy weight pulled at her toes, grounding her now, when at sixteen she was skimming. Coasting.

Tonight she wore boots instead of sneakers, which made her feet feel heavy although they were technically dry. That was part of it. But more so, as the pain’s memory came back, Cassie knew the direction was the difference. Instead of running away from her father — her fear — she ran toward it. For the first time, the fear was worth facing. It was the fact of being needed. A fact she could hold onto.

Leaves in a Puddle

“Back already?” Georgia called out, watching Cassie scramble up the slope. She was covered in scratches, her dark brown hair splattered across her face. “What happened?” Georgia got to her feet. “Did you fall?”

Cassie kept running, straight into Georgia’s arms. Georgia wrapped her up, holding her tightly as Cassie sobbed. They sat down in the alcove below the clematis vine, the first place Georgia had made contact with Cassie’s mother. Georgia rocked Cassie, soothing her as she told Georgia everything, and Lucas listened from the bottom of the hole he was trapped in. Cassie revealed how the black-eyed man, whose real name she didn’t know, had pulled her into his van three days ago. How he’d held held her at gunpoint, forcing Cassie to bring Georgia back to the bridge, where Cassie now cried in Georgia’s arms. How Cassie had only agreed to make peace with her mother’s spirit to comply with the black-eyed man’s demands. How his van was the same one they’d chased on the way down. And finally, how the black-eyed man had threatened Cassie again, just moments ago. How Cassie knew she had to warn them. He was coming.

“We can’t go back that way,” Cassie said, composed, the weight of her secrets lifted.

Lucas seethed at the bottom of the hole, digging his hands in the muddy walls, looking for a root that would hold his weight. Hearing the story had gratified his suspicions. “I’ll kill that sick fucker. Just get me out of here.”

“We will,” Georgia called down to him, emptying her backpack and duffel bag. She passed Cassie some candles. “I know who can help us. Can you make a pentagram with these?”

“I think so,” Cassie said.

“Doesn’t have to be perfect.”

Candlelight flickered on Georgia’s face. Lucas hummed from the bottom of the hole. Georgia burned oils in a crucible, with an old photo of Susan placed beside it. Next, she set up an Ovilus V, which converted EMF disruptions into words. With everything else ready, Georgia opened a padlocked metal case. She took out a leather-bound book and gave it to Cassie.

Cassie took it cautiously. “What’s this?”

“It’s a grimoire.”

“What?”

“A spellbook.”

“It looks… ancient. Where’d you get it?”

“I stole it.” There’d be no more lies between them.

Georgia showed her which page to study. After Cassie had read the words four or five times, she could get through without stumbling. Repeated over and over, the words lost their connotations, allowing Cassie to start feeling the words instead of reading them. Her inflections grew smoother. Georgia nodded approvingly.

When Georgia shut her eyes again, the cathedral from her headache reappeared. At first only in fringes of light behind her eyes. But then, like a mist at the edge of her headspace, the transept, the nave and the chancel rolled into view. The pews were now filled with everyone Susan held dear. Stoic silhouettes in sharp relief. Georgia didn’t recognize the faces, but she knew beyond a doubt they were Susan’s friends, family, and lovers. The companions Susan wanted for a voyage from life to death.

Cassie watched the Ovilus V glimmer to life. Words swept across the screen, much faster than the first time Georgia had spoken with Susan. Georgia heard the same words inside her head, echoing off the stone walls like a sermon from the afterlife. Cassie stared fixedly at her mother’s words, flickering almost too fast to read. “More, power, need, danger, want, save, help, power, give, more.” Finally, the monitor held on a single word:

CASSIE

Georgia turned to Cassie with the jerky cadence of a marionette.

“Cassie.” Georgia’s green eyes were dove-gray and cloudy. Or was it the candles’ fire in the low light, giving such an effect?

“You need to forgive,” Georgia said, her eyelids drooping, shutting.

Cassie looked down at the grimoire. It felt heavier, like it wanted to burst out of its leather binding. She shut the book and then her eyes. She thought of her fondest memory of her mother, like Georgia had instructed her to do when the time came. When Cassie and Susan were in alignment, absorbed in the same memory, Cassie appeared in Georgia’s mind.

Georgia was hovering over the throngs in the cathedral. As they filtered into the pews, she caught sight of something out of place. It was a three-year old Cassie, toddling inside in a white dress. The church-goers ignored the little girl, yet never bumped into her. Georgia lowered to the ground and moved toward the entrance against the flow of the congregation. Little Cassie wavered on chubby legs. When she noticed Georgia, she giggled and ran toward her. Georgia reached down and swept the child into her arms.

Pews

They stepped out of the church into a courtyard, adorned with flowers and fruit trees. The garden was enclosed by hedges that had never known neglect, and so thick they kept secrets. At the center was a fountain. As Georgia carried Cassie toward it, she understood she was no longer herself — she was Susan. She was living a memory, one that Susan and Cassie shared, and Georgia felt such warmths she could’ve levitated. The centerpiece of the fountain was a stone turtle.

Stone Turtle

Georgia sat down at the fountain’s edge, Cassie in her lap. They watched the water spout from the turtle’s beak, troubling the tessellation of lily pads below. When the turtle spoke, Georgia knew they had left the realm of memory and entered the province of dreams, where Susan’s soul had lingered all these years. Little Cassie looked up at the stone turtle with a few fingers in her mouth, slobbering happily. Georgia listened, too.

“Channel your anger. Tie it down,” the turtle said. “Then bring it in slings, arrows and swords. Sharpen its teeth on the world of evil. Let it burn for the black-eyed man. For anyone who has hurt you. Let it smolder. Let it burn at your insides. Let trauma hammer the blade, shatter in sparks and fall to ashes. Absolution is borne from the immolate dust of pain.”

Little Cassie looked up at Georgia with lucent brown eyes, then muttered something in a crescive attempt at English.

“What’s that, honey?” Georgia asked in Susan’s voice.

“I forgive you, mommy,” little Cassie said.

“Forgive me? For what, sweetie?”

“For dropping me off the bridge. You were only trying to save me from him,” little Cassie said, impossibly eloquent.

The turtle smiled and nodded. The water drained from the fountain. The lily pads stayed floating in air, then rose up on a zephyr, carried off to the gardens in the distance. Georgia held Cassie on her hip and watched the world crumble. The dream, the memory, the hallucination twisted and spun, like the inside of a tornado, like chaos. Until it all dispersed in a cloud of vapor.

They were both crying when they broke free. Georgia had reached over and taken up Cassie’s hand with what could only be described as a mother’s touch. The trees creaked around them like old arthritic bones. The ground shook gently and the clematis vines beside them started to grow, stretching themselves down into the pit where Lucas was trapped.

Georgia felt Susan more powerfully than ever. She looked down at her hands. Her left was still holding Cassie’s tightly, but the fingers on her right hand stretched out beyond human ability and beyond her control. If her eyes could’ve seen such light spectrums, she would’ve watched bolts of energy leave her fingertips, spiking and caterwauling into the ground beneath her. Turning her gaze to Cassie, Georgia saw the mirror image of her right hand in Cassie’s left, behaving just as hers was, its fingers twitching erratically. Georgia felt what Cassie felt, the vines curling beneath Lucas’ body. As if those spiny tendrils were extensions of their own hands. Georgia and Cassie’s arms lifted in unison, and the clematis vines pulled Lucas to the surface.

Tree Vines

The slithering vines settled Lucas in front of them. He wasn’t yet conscious, but his eyelids fluttered now and then. Georgia looked over at Cassie, whose eyes were rolling back. Spittle gathered at the sides of her mouth. Georgia had never felt more secure in her powers, but Cassie needed a break. Georgia let go of Cassie’s hand. Cassie relaxed, stretching her neck in loose circles and mumbling under her breath. Without thinking, Georgia reached for a clematis flower growing toward her fingertips. She took the flower and closed her hand around it, chanting softly in Latin.

“Per divinum nomen matris, qui vitam inspirat nos omnes, consecro hunc florem, et cura per donum ipsum sanitatem.” Georgia said. When she opened her eyes she took Cassie’s hand again. They locked eyes until they understood. Georgia leaned over Lucas and peeled back the shredded denim around his wound. A white spur of bone stuck out from the clotted blood. Cassie held the torn edges apart while Georgia crushed the clematis over his leg. She hovered her fist above the tibia and recited the invocation again. Cassie did her best to follow along.

An iridescent liquid fell from Georgia’s fist, dripping down the exposed bone and pooling in the gash. It mixed with the blood and the skin resealed itself. The cloying, floral scent was of almonds, morning rain, and greenwood moss. Sharp notes of cinnamon and clove burned in the nostrils. But the liquid dissolved and the smell faded, as if the almost full moon had melted it.

The clematis vines constricted his leg, setting the bone in place. Georgia kept chanting, eyes swirling like a hurricane. The vines snapped from their roots and furled around his leg. Lucas finally stirred, then looked down at the splint of vines and bloodstains. Once back on his feet, he tested his weight with a few steps. When he limped over to Georgia, she put her arms around him, then pulled Cassie in as well. Georgia held both of them closely, trying to share the energy she brimmed with. She knew if she could, they’d have nothing to fear.

“It’s not over,” Cassie said.

“I know,” Georgia said.

“She’s angry,” Cassie said.

“Yes,” Georgia said.

“Angry at him?” Lucas asked.

“Yes,” Cassie said, then turned to Georgia. “You speak Latin?”

“No,” Georgia said, “But Susan does.”

At the mention of her name, another headache detonated in Georgia’s skull. She fell to her knees, screaming.

Lucas was at her side. “Hey. What’s wrong? I’m here.”

Cassie crouched down as well, but happened to look past Georgia, landing on a set of eyes in the bushes. The pocked face of the black-eyed man was floating toward her. Because of his black clothing, his ruddy visage was all she could make out. A yellow grin spread across his face. He was ten feet away when the candlelight pinged his gun, which he pointed from the hip this time.

Cassie swallowed. “Go away,” she said. “You’ve done enough.”

His smile quivered. But then he simply cackled, his lips cracking.

Lucas got to his feet, his gun drawn as well. “Put it down,” he said.

“How did you get out?” The black-eyed man leered at Lucas.

“Something helped me. Something stronger than both of us. If you walk away right now, we can forget about it.”

“I don’t make deals with niggers,” the black-eyed man said.

Cassie stepped between them. “This is my fault.” She took another step toward the black-eyed man. “You’re not as crazy as you think you are.”

“Cassie. Get back,” Lucas said.

“No,” Cassie said. “We should’ve already had this conversation. What is it you think you need from her? Look at her. She needs a hospital.”

Georgia was curled up on her side, shivering.

When Cassie looked down at Georgia, the black-eyed man lunged for her. Cassie screamed, but before Lucas could react, a scaly hand was around Cassie’s neck, and a gun pressed to her temple.

Lucas held his aim. “Let her go.”

The black-eyed man cocked his pistol. “I’ll trade ya.”

Lucas shook his head. “You twisted son of a bitch, you really prepared to die?”

“Nobody has to die, coon.”

Georgia drew a shaky breath, rising up to her feet. Her skin was nearly translucent, her veins blue beneath it. She was charged with electric current. The hair stuck up on her arms. She looked like a resurrection.

“There she is,” the black-eyed man said, pointing his gun at Georgia, but keeping an arm around Cassie’s neck.

“Garry,” Georgia said, in a voice that didn’t belong to her. A voice from another time.

Lucas flicked his eyes over at Georgia. “Garry? That’s what you said… last time we were here. But you didn’t remember.”

I remember him,” Georgia said in Susan’s voice. “His name is Garrote. She doesn’t remember. Which is why I have to deal with him. He keeps getting in the way…”

“You sound…” Garrote said, cocking his blistered face to the side.

“There’s no point in aiming at me.” Susan’s voice came from Georgia’s lips. “You won’t kill Georgia, and you can’t kill me. I’m already dead.”

“What the… hell do ya’ mean?” Garrote spat. He stepped forward, waving his gun to assert himself.

Georgia’s hand twitched, ever so slightly, then her arm snapped up with fingers flexed, as if she was holding an invisible crystal ball. There was a sharp series of cracks as Garrote’s fingers twisted back, his nails pinned down to his wrist. He screamed and dropped his gun. Lucas sprang forward and kicked it into the hole. Cassie ran safely out of reach. Garrote was stuck there, the lower half of his body in rigor-mortis. He swung his arms insanely, spitting and cursing. The veins in his neck bulged, and he snapped his head around like a rabid dog. He was losing his mind at light speed.

More sharp cracks as Georgia lifted her other arm.

Lucas tried to stop her. “Hey, Georgie.” He stepped between her and Garrote. But Georgia stared straight through him, curling her fingers into fists, lifting Garrote’s body off the ground. He was seizing now, his mouth foaming and his eyes rolled back in their sockets. Total control.

“Hey,” Cassie waved a hand in front of Georgia’s eyes. She tried to touch Georgia, but had to pull her hand back from the electric shock.

Cassie turned to Lucas. “What should we do?”

“I don’t know,” Lucas said. “It’s not her anymore. It’s your mom… controlling her.”

“Mom?” Cassie asked, and Georgia’s scalp twitched along her hairline. “Hey, mom. Mommy? Listen to me. Thank you. Thank you for saving us, but he doesn’t have to die.”

Georgia’s eyebrows danced. Her forehead rippled in waves. For a moment her whole face swelled, and a shockwave of blue lighting crackled through her hair.

At this, Lucas and Cassie shared a bewildered glance. “It’s working,” Lucas said. “Keep going.” Garrote’s feet were back on the ground, and his body only twitched slightly.

“Mom. It’s okay,” Cassie pleaded. “We can put him in that hole and then go and get some help. Really, he doesn’t need to suffer.”

Georgia’s clouded eyes came back to their usual green. She lowered her arms, but the veins were still swollen and blue. Garrote dropped to his knees, his head sagging. Georgia’s vibrant, green eyes were bloodshot and crazed. Lucas tried to take her hand, but his fingers burned at the touch. Steam rose from her shoulders as Georgia’s feet came out of the soil, like she had to put roots down in order to torture Garrote.

A crow cawed from overhead. Lucas and Cassie looked up. The trees were full of birds. Blackbirds, jackdaws, ravens and vultures, preening and fighting over perches. How long had they been there?

Garrote’s head snapped up again. His look into Georgia’s eyes was one of hopeless fear. He bolted, and the airborne scavengers gave chase, swooping to strike at his hair and eyes, even as he cowered for cover in the bushes.

“He’s not getting away,” Lucas said, scooping up Georgia’s backpack and hobbling down the hill.

“Wait!” Cassie shouted, but Lucas was gone. She turned to Georgia, whose eyes were less bloodshot. But her pale skin still glowed, and her hair was brittle with static. “C’mon,” Cassie said, pulling at Georgia’s hand.

Georgia could barely feel the touch, as if she was wearing three pairs of gloves. But she let Cassie pull her down the hill. As her feet went faster and faster, she tried not to fall, losing what focus she had to determine reality. She held onto Cassie, and by the time they reached the creek bed, she could no longer differentiate the real from the imaginary. The round stones and sand dissolved into the granite floor of the cathedral. The congregation hummed in low tones, their faces fixed to the pulpit, where a hooded figure perched in a scarlet cloak.

Possessed

Cassie saw Lucas on the other side of the creek bed.

“Wait!” She shouted after him.

He turned back, slackening his ascent, but kept an eye on Garrote, who scrambled straight up the hillside in lieu of the path. The sheer ravine wall offered shelter from the birds, still circling and dive-bombing.

“How is she?” Lucas asked when Cassie caught up.

Cassie looked quickly at Georgia. “Better, maybe. I don’t know. I have no idea what happened back there. How’s your leg?”

“Feels good.” Lucas reached down and pulled the splint of vines apart. Then he reached over and tucked some of Georgia’s hair behind her ear. “She’ll be okay. I’ve seen her like this. It’s a trance. I just never knew she was… telekinetic. Or could heal broken bones.”

Cassie chewed her lip, looking up at the birds. She glanced at Georgia and knew there was no time to reflect. “Maybe she can lie down in the car.”

“That’s a good idea. I’m sorry I didn’t trust you.”

“It’s okay,” Cassie said, still pulling Georgia by the hand. “You shouldn’t have. It’s my fault, for bringing you back here.”

“It was her idea.”

“I don’t know, I guess…”

“It’s gonna be fine,” Lucas said, looking up at the road. “But he needs to be put away, or he’ll never leave her alone. If I saw his van in Claremont, he was stalking her for months. You bringing us back here just expedited things. Now we can deal with it.”

“Maybe.”

“We can worry about whose fault it was later. Let’s get up there before he does. Who knows what he has stashed in the van.”

Cassie tugged harder on Georgia’s hand, trying to keep up. She looked back. Georgia was dazed, unaware of herself. Rage suddenly churned in Cassie’s stomach. Maybe we should’ve let Mom kill him. Maybe we’ve already forgiven enough.

Birds in a Black Swarm

By the time they reached the road, Garrote’s van was jerking to life. The engine sputtered and roared. Lucas made a run for it, shouting over his shoulder to Cassie, “Call 9-1-1!”

Cassie felt in her pockets, dropping Georgia’s hand. Then she remembered her phone was broken, way down in the creek bed. When she looked back at Georgia, she had disappeared. “Hey! Lucas! She’s gone!”

Lucas was throwing rocks at Garrote’s van as it turned around. The tires were screaming, sending up black smoke. The buzzards and crows dove madly in a thickening swarm. They slammed the windows, splintering glass into the road. A raven went straight for the windshield. Its beak stuck in the glass, wings flapping, trying to dislodge itself from the tributaries of cracks.

Lucas ran to his car. “Cassie! Let’s go! He’s gonna get away!” Cassie was still shutting the door as Lucas peeled out.

“Give me your phone,” Cassie said. “I lost mine.”

“You lost it?” he asked.

“Yes! Just give me your phone!”

Lucas fumbled in his pockets, swerving as he matched Garrote’s speed.

“Never mind!” Cassie straightened the wheel. “Drive. Just tell me where it is.”

“Uhhhhh… backpack. I hope.”

Cassie rifled through the pockets, but then remembered Georgia. “Fuck! Lucas, I was trying to tell you back there!”

Lucas whipped his eyes toward her. “Tell me what? Hold on— ” Lucas hit a speed bump and they soared for a split second. They landed and Cassie bit her tongue. Lucas cranked the wheel to its limit, taking a hairpin turn.

“Ow,” Cassie said, tasting blood.

“Georgia. We left her back there.”

He whipped his eyes at Cassie. “I thought you put her in the back seat!”

“I’m sorry. Everything happened so fast. I let go of her hand for one second and she was gone. Should we go back? I— ” But she didn’t finish her sentence. When she looked past Lucas, she saw Georgia, outside the driver’s side window. She was silhouetted against the nearly full moon, floating, no… flying up the road toward the bridge.

“Lucas,” Cassie said.

He looked, saw Georgia, looked back at Cassie, then back at Georgia. Her blond hair cascaded behind her against the moon’s bright face. He opened his mouth to speak, but instead started to laugh and whoop with astonishment. Laughter overtook Cassie as well. As they barreled onto the bridge, there was nothing on her mind but serendipity. Garrote’s van jolted and choked up ahead. They weren’t far behind. Cassie looked again and saw Georgia flying neck and neck beside them.

This moment was pulled from the assembly-line of events in Cassie’s life, then archived with other such transcendental moments, supposedly only possible in fantasy, but once in a blood moon, veritably experienced. But Cassie’s elation was sucked back to the pit of her stomach, when a vulture went full-force through Garrote’s window. Lucas hit the brakes just in time. Swerving both lanes, the van skipped the curb and went belly-up. It skidded off the chain-link barrier along the sidewalk and rolled onto its roof where it shuddered to a stop.

Dark Shot of Church Pews

The congregation inside Georgia’s head fell silent, but a dirge-like echo of voices remained. The priest lowered his hood and the head of a raven emerged. Its black tongue flicked at the air, tasting it. Georgia backed away. This wasn’t the same vision. When she turned, the congregation rose to its feet, thousands of people wearing the same crimson robes. Pulling back their hoods, they glowered at Georgia with the beady eyes of corvids and vultures. Georgia went for the doors of the cathedral. She felt their eyes upon her. Thwack, thwack, thwack. Dark shapes were flying into the high, leaded windows. Beaks stuck in the glass between thin strips of came.

Outside, Georgia was drawn back to the fountain. But now it was filled with blood, and a stone raven perched where the turtle had been. It preened its stone feathers and blinked coldly at Georgia. Blood dripped from its eyes. Even as she tried to turn, tried to run, the raven spoke. She couldn’t ignore its garbled, thirsty voice, one that was somehow, unmistakably Susan’s. Georgia was paralyzed.

“This is what happens to anger that festers,” the raven said. “This is the burning, this is the rage. This is the storm, this is all the violence we’ve salted away.” It spoke by jerking its neck, its stone feathers dropping in chunks. “This is what we live through, before we can rise from the ashes.”

Georgia heard the cries of a thousand crows and jackdaws. There were dead bodies of smaller birds afloat in the fountain. Blood-soaked feathers of goldfinches and sparrows. Georgia turned to the stone raven and screamed. When her throat burned in protest, and the floor of her lungs caved in, she looked to the horizon and saw it was in flames. A brushfire rushed through the gardens, eating up laurels and hedges with a crimson tongue. The heat of the flames lifted her up. She was floating, rising on the dry wind that rushed through the parterre. Up there, among the swirling cinders and ash clouds, the scavengers circled, winking with red rubies of flame in their eyes.

Red Line of Ink

Garrote crawled feebly out of the broken window. He was bloodied from the birds’ talons, battered by their beaks. He got to his feet and limped toward the chain-link barrier, his final obstacle. Lucas stepped out of the car and pointed his gun.

“Stop,” Lucas shouted, then looked back at Cassie. “Find my phone. Call the police.”

“Don’t shoot him,” Cassie said.

“I’ll try not to,” Lucas said, and kept walking.

Cassie couldn’t find his phone. It’s probably at the bottom of that damn hole, she thought grimly. When she looked back outside, she saw Garrote climbing the chain-link barrier, but the steel toes of his boots were slipping through the holes in the wire. Cassie’s stomach turned. Was he planning to jump? She pitied him more than she ever had, as he threw his shredded hands against the wire fencing, still set upon by the birds. Lucas was within a few feet, holding his gun steady. Cassie gave up on the phone and ran toward them.

“Just relax!” Lucas was shouting. “Come back this way and get inside the car!” He couldn’t get too close without being driven back by the birds. Cassie ran up next to him. She wondered if she was about to see a grown man murdered by crows. Where’s Georgia?

With a sudden burst of energy, Garrote climbed halfway up the barrier, beating back the birds with his free hand. He let loose a scream that was no longer afraid of death. The buzzards and vultures fell back, but the corvids kept striking, without enough strength to knock him down. They were flying up from below now, pushing him to climb faster. He was getting close.

“Pull him back.” Cassie tugged on Lucas’ jacket.

Lucas turned to Cassie. He licked his lips and shifted his eyes.

“Pull him back! Before he makes it over!” Cassie pleaded. Where the fuck is Georgia?

“Okay, okay,” Lucas said.

Garrote had a hand on the part where the fence curved, the last part he had to climb over. Lucas ducked into the circling mass of birds, blocking their talons with an arm over his head. He tried to grab hold of Garrote, but the storm of scaly claws and feathers was overpowering. Lucas fired a shot into the sky and birds scattered. He reached up with his full height and pulled Garrote down by the tails of his tattered sweatshirt. They fell to the ground. Lucas got to his feet, oddly unscathed, as if the birds had meant to avoid him. Garrote rolled onto his side, clutching his stomach and wheezing.

“Must have knocked the wind out of him,” Lucas said taking a few steps back.

Georgia floated down in front of them. She was waiting up there, making sure Garrote would jump. When Lucas met her eyes, he could see they were not only clouded and gray, but burning.

“Hey… Georgia,” Lucas said, sweat beading his brow. But she only glared at him, and Lucas felt hot blood rush in his veins. Suffocating heat. Like a space capsule on fire. Thermal blankets curling down from the walls. Insulation in flames. Lucas’s own body felt like a pressure cooker, and at once he knew what was burning under the grey veils in Georgia’s eyes.

Raven in Profile

The second Lucas broke away from her gaze, his eyes fell on Garrote’s van, which exploded into flames. Lucas and Cassie were driven back to the hatchback as Georgia moved in on them, levitating on heat waves. The crows cawed and the ravens cried. They were regrouping above her. Lucas couldn’t believe it, but he wanted to aim at Georgia. The flames behind her, the vultures and buzzards seemingly at her beck and call… But he surpassed the urge, swallowed and began again.

“Hey. Georgia. Baby, I know you’re in there. It’s me, okay?”

“Mom,” Cassie said, drawing a surprised glance from Lucas. “Mom. He doesn’t have to die. Nobody has to die.”

Georgia’s pace faltered slightly, but she kept moving towards them, as each piece of gravel in the road hovered off the ground. The whole bridge was vibrating.

“Keep talking,” Lucas said. “It’s working.”

“Mom,” Cassie said.

“Susan,” Lucas said, and Georgia bent her knee slightly in her otherwise unbroken stride.

“Mom!” Cassie screamed. “Yes! He hurt me, he’s a criminal, he doesn’t deserve more than a padded cell. But I’m safe now.” She swept her hands over the scene before her — the burning car, the swarming birds and Garrote’s body. “Isn’t this enough?”

Georgia’s eyes flickered green for a moment, and Lucas and Cassie exchanged a hopeful glance. But then Georgia turned on her heel and went straight back to Garrote, who was crawling away from the burning van.

Lucas and Cassie followed, then watched as the entire swarm came down on Garrote. A vulture with a five-foot wingspan was the first to strike. They were tearing off his skin. Garrote’s howling cries cut through the Arroyo Seco as the bridge continued to vibrate. Lucas raised his weapon and fired into the swarm, careful to aim high enough to avoid Garrote and Georgia. Four shots broke up the frenzy.

Cassie was already running into the swarm, reaching out for Georgia’s hand. Georgia was levitating a few inches off the ground, squeezing both her fists and watching the birds tear Garrote to shreds. But as soon as Cassie touched her, she collapsed into Cassie’s arms. The gunshots, and then the feel of her daughter’s touch, through the medium of Georgia’s body… it was too much for Susan. She let go.


Georgia rose higher and higher into the storm of fire above the burning cathedral. Birds spun madly around her in the tornado of flames, singeing their wings, then bursting into flame until they were only flapping skeletons. Georgia was screaming, pleading with Susan to let her go. Until—

Georgia opened her eyes. She was on the bridge in Cassie’s arms. Lucas held his Glock 9mm, smoke trailing from its carbon-steel mouth. Georgia winced when she saw the birds circling. Am I safe? Are we still bound together? She stood up and faced the sky. Only one way to find out.

“Susan!” Georgia shouted, then looked to Cassie. “Say it with me.”

Cassie turned to Lucas. “Is it her?”

Lucas held Georgia by the shoulders and gazed into her eyes. Green oceans. “It’s her,” he said.

Cassie took Georgia’s hand. They shouted her mother’s name until their lungs were dry. They could hear the fire crackle when the birds stopped crying. Stars made pinholes in the sky. “Mom. Listen. We’re all okay,” Cassie said. “We did this so you could move on. If you kill him, you’ll only have more regrets. Holding onto this hate will destroy you.”

Georgia spoke up. “Susan Drake. I’ve seen the darkness pulling you away. The need for your anger to burn. I’ve seen your attraction to rage.” She flicked her eyes at Garrote. “Maybe he’s a bad person, but no one deserves this, no matter how much pain they’ve caused. And we wouldn’t be here without him. He convinced Cassie to come when I couldn’t. We needed each other.”

At this, Garrote lifted his arm. But it fell to the ground. He scrabbled his weak fingers toward her, streaking the road with blood. Georgia looked down at him, breaking her focus on Susan. Another vulture swooped down, but Lucas fired again, hitting it squarely in the chest before it could strike.

I need to get between the two of them. Georgia thought. She went to Garrote’s side. “Cassie,” Georgia said. “She needs to hear from you now.”

“Mom!” Cassie screamed, unsure of where to direct her words. Like Georgia, she looked up at the sky. “Forget about him.” She pointed at Garrote. “This was supposed to be about us. I would’ve come sooner, but I didn’t know you were here. I don’t blame you for anything, mom.

“The reason you’re still here isn’t because you made a mistake. It’s because I survived when you tried to save me from him. I survived, only to be abused until I ran away. No one ever told you. No one could, until Georgia. But it’s okay, mom. You have nothing left to regret. Go ahead and kill him. But I can’t forgive you for that.”

Garrote went spasmodic.

“She’s got him now,” Georgia said. “She’s trying to kill him from inside.”

“Get out of his head!” Cassie screamed. Get out… get out! Mom… please. Or…”

Cassie bolted for the chain-link barrier and started to climb. Garry was seizing, foam surging on his lips like whitewater. Cassie was almost to the curve in the fencing, when Garrote’s body went slack. At the same time, Cassie lost her footing. She fell impossibly slow, and before she hit the ground, a heat wave from the burning van buffeted the air beneath her. It was so strong it cushioned her fall, and her back hit the asphalt with a benign thump. She lay there for a moment, muttering under her breath. But then her eyes rolled back and she started to thrash.

Susan used the last of her strength to project a memory into Cassie’s mind. Lucas went to her side and cradled her head. Like knowing not to wake someone sleepwalking, Lucas decided to let the vision run its course, but he kept Cassie’s body from flailing too violently. Georgia was about to join them when she heard her name. Garrote had said it.

Georgia went to Garrote and sat down beside him, with one leg beneath her and her chin on her knee. He was crying softly.

“You’re just so… beautiful,” Garrote said, then turned to look at Lucas, who was holding Cassie’s hand and stroking her head.

“I thought I was alone,” Garrote said. “I was wrong. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Georgia said, then took off her jacket and folded it beneath Garrote’s head. “We’re gonna get help, don’t worry.” She turned to Lucas and Cassie. “Did anyone call the cops?”

“We never had the chance,” Lucas said.

Cassie stirred and sat up. The birds were gone. Georgia took her phone from her pocket and pressed it to Lucas’s palm. Lucas dialed and went to stand beside Garrote, whose breathing was shallow and raspy, but at least he was alive.

Georgia walked carefully over to Cassie, who was clutching the wire fence and looking out over the bridge. There were city lights in the distance.

“You okay?” Georgia asked.

“Much better.”

“Is this where it happened?”

“Yeah, but the fence was gone. There were other families, people in the benches, or walking along the bridge. She… just now, she showed me what happened. I couldn’t remember before. She put me up on the edge, here, kissed me and told me she loved me. She told me she was saving me.”

“From your dad?” Georgia asked.

Cassie nodded.

“You stopped her,” Georgia said.

“When I climbed the fence. She saw me about to jump and it brought her back from the storm she was in. She was trapped.”

“I saw it too,” Georgia said. “The inside of a tornado.”

“But she escaped,” Cassie said.

“She did. That storm must have been spinning all this time.”

Cassie looked away. “But it’s gone now?”

“I guess so,” Georgia said.

“Is she gone, too?” Cassie asked.

You know the answer to that, Georgia thought, reaching out, pulling her close.

“Yes,” Cassie said. “She’s really gone.”

Quiet Forest

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