… in which the Black Warrior River sirens a song
Kelly Rogers – she had kept his name – guided the green Volkswagen Beetle foot by slippery foot up the driveway. What a ragged noise the engine made on such a still, strange night. Like a giant sewing machine under a turtle shell.
The VW wheels slurred in the snow and lost purchase at the very top of the unpaved steep place that crested out onto the county road. She pressed the accelerator sharply. After a moment, the little vehicle valiantly eased ahead, tires catching on what should have been blacktop. Tonight, it was whitetop. An unblemished carpet of snow completely covered County Road 11.
It crossed Kelly’s mind to turn back, just reverse down the drive, kill the engine, yank the parking brake, retrace her path to the concrete-block steps, and reenter the cheap metal mobile home. That would be easy, safe. She could put something in the toaster. She could listen to the record player. She could take a pill and go to sleep.
But tonight she wanted to see the river.
She looked her best, like every night she visited the Black Warrior. She put on a long beautiful river of a black dress that showed off her long beautiful river of black hair. She always dressed fit to kill when she went to the trestle.
The VW puttered along the road as if it knew the way by heart. Kelly reckoned it did by now. In four inches of snow, the trip might take thirty minutes instead of ten, but the little bug would get her there.
She turned on the radio to catch a weather update. Ghost voices, then ghost music, rose from the one speaker that worked.
Snow falling on central Alabama. Temps just below freezing. Wind from the north.
The snowflakes rushing the windshield fascinated Kelly. She got a fright when an owl unexpectedly lunged at the headlights. It flumed big and scary in the windshield, then quickly disappeared, gone like a memory.
Like some memories, anyway.
The snowy woods and fields ended.
Even with millions of downy flakes falling into it, the Black Warrior ran catastrophically dark, too black to reflect light.
Halfway across the long, narrow wooden train trestle, abandoned for years now to fishermen and beer-drinking college students from Tuscaloosa, Kelly Rogers stopped the VW. An inky drop lay off both sides.
Her own dark obsession crossed Kelly’s mind again, that needle stuck in one place on the phonograph in her head.
Get out of the car.
Walk to the edge in your Sunday best.
Stand on the rail.
Take one step. Just one.
Let go of guilt. Let go of pain. Let go of the twins. Hurt no more.
Slam down hard into that by-god blackness once and for all and forever.
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Since the split with Elmore, five years now and counting, Kelly drove to the Black Warrior at least once a week, rain or shine, summer, spring, winter, fall. She dressed herself, just in case, and got in the car and eased the green Beetle through the wee hours and out over the abyss. Midway across the bridge, she killed the engine.
She did it for many reasons, but mostly … so far … simply to stare the black lethal water in the face and say no.
When Kelly first began her ritual, she would stay in the car and weep and weep and ruin her careful makeup, sometimes banging her forehead for mortification against the steering wheel. The pain never hurt enough. In August, she left the windows up, and she sweltered in the black interior, imaging what the kids must have experienced that unforgettable, unforgivable afternoon.
There came a long string of even worse nights, months of them, when she almost said yes to the river. Kelly climbed out of the car those times. She stood at the guard rail and bit her bottom lip. The wind tossed her skirt and moved her long black hair. She tried to decide what took more courage.
Or not falling.
Then, one night, something happened.
She had never been a believer in anything. A church. A marriage. Herself.
But a voice spoke to her on the bridge.
Kelly was sure. A voice spoke slowly and clearly near her left ear on one of those life-or-death nights. She was high on the good stuff, the pills that made her brave, plus a little dark rum too. But she distinctly heard the words.
It’s not what you did. It’s what you will do.
Amazed and frightened, Kelly Rogers stumbled back from the edge of the trestle and broke down and wept onto the hot metal roof of her VW. She fell like a soggy magnolia blossom plopped onto the black water below.
She somehow did drop and go under that night. She drowned in a rushing flood of grief, old wrongs, guilt, black regret.
She would make her way back to the kids. Will and Mary. Someone would need to tell them. Someone would need to love them.
Maybe she would want her children now. Maybe the children would want her too. Somehow. They wanted her first, coming into this world, so close together.
Beautiful babies. Beautiful children made from her own body, her own blood.
They chose her to grow inside. They chose her to be born.
It’s what happened after they were born that crushed the part of Kelly that had always been fragile.
What happened was almost too terrible for memory.
For so many months, she tried and tried to forget.
Then, after she heard the voice, she tried and tried to remember.
That fateful night, she waited a long, long time, her tears cried out, the weeping ducts so empty they ached. A little gray bird sang somewhere up on the iron trestle, out of tune in the moonless night, but mocking her grief with all its crazy heart.
It’s what you will do, a voice reassured her, though she wasn’t sure this time she really heard it. It’s what you will do.
Was it God? Did God speak to her?
To Kelly Rogers, still such a lost little screwed-up girl inside?
She watched the snowflakes fall in the dark until the wind above the Black Warrior picked up briskly, and it got too cold to watch any more.
The Volkswagen took her safely home.
Again. She made it.
She lived another day of life.