“Hell’s Bridge”

by Roderick T. Long

[written age 12, on 6 October 1976, in Idaho Falls. I don’t know why I set this story in an alternative universe.]

The sound of rushing, roaring water filled Tom’s ears. He stood on the edge of the bank, bag in hand, staring in horror at the thin framework of sticks that supported the narrow, hanging log that was precariously suspended over the falls.

Ever since he was born, and before, the makeshift structure formed by driftwood had been called “Hell’s Bridge.”

Tom saw it every day on the way home from school, and now he saw it even more often, because that was where he picked up his papers to deliver the Rockney City Evening Herald.

Always before, the sight of “Hell’s Bridge” had been comforting to Tom – a landmark, a lodestar, a familiar sign of home. But recently, “Hell’s Bridge” had become a place of horror for Tom.

“How on earth did I ever get myself into this?” Tom asked himself, as his drab, gray newspaper bag with Evening Herald written on it in faded green letters hung limply from his hand. But he needed no answer.

He knew the answer.

Rockney City had replaced Boise as the capital of Idaho in 1973, and now had grown so large that Idaho Falls and Pocatello were merely suburbs of it. Tom went to Tanglewood Junior High School, the best one in Rockney City. But Tom wished he hadn’t. For if he had gone to some other school, he might never have met Ryan Hartford.

Ryan was the leader of a club called the Red Bear and Company. To belong to the Red Bear club was important, because then all the bullies would be afraid to pick on you.

There was just one hitch. Before you could join, you had to be initiated. And part of the initiation required that the joiner must cross “Hell’s Bridge.” So now, “Hell’s Bridge” had become a nightmare to Tom.

“Hey, Green!” Ryan’s voice, misleadingly cheerful, cried out. “Chicken or something?”

Tom Green mumbled something that Ryan couldn’t hear.

“You gettin’ scared?” grinned Ryan. “Gonna back out?”

Tom said something unprintable under his breath. Aloud, he said, “No, I’m not getting ’chicken or something,’ and I’m not going to back out! Now just go and stick your fat head in a slicing mach—”

Tom’s words were cut off by Ryan’s heavy fist pounding into Tom’s face. “You just shut up!” snapped Ryan. “And get yourself across that bridge before I—”

“Okay, okay,” said Tom. “Just leave me alone!” Then, Tom put down his bag and edged toward the beginning of “Hell’s Bridge.” He placed his foot tentatively on the framework. It held. He put his other foot on the framework. Nothing happened.

Tom started across.

As he crossed, Tom started thinking. A few months ago, he had spoken violently against the Red Bear and Company. He had told the students not to join the Red Bear Club. “You’ll be safe from bullies, but what price do you pay! What about all the illegal activities the Police Department discovered?”

“You’re a fine one to talk,” someone had shouted at him. “The only reason you don’t join yourself is because you’re afraid to cross “Hell’s Bridge.”

But now he was crossing it. Now they would have to believe him. But what about the bullies? Tom had to admit he was scared.

“My original idea was to cross the bridge to prove to the kids that I wasn’t scared,” thought Tom, “so that I could help to overthrow the Red Bear and Company. But then the bullies will pick on me more than ever! Maybe I will join the Red Bear and Company. In fact, I’ll have to. I’ll—”

Tom didn’t get a chance to finish the sentence. There was a cracking sound, and the framework started to collapse underneath him. Tom was only halfway across – too far to jump – so he grabbed wildly onto a rock in the middle of the rushing river. From there, he jumped to a five-foot island near the bank of the stream, and from there, he leaped to shore.

“Whattaya know, Green?” said Ryan. “You did it! We’ll have the initiation ceremony tonight. You coming?”

For a moment, Tom wrestled with his conscience. Then, he thought of the bullies.

“Yeah, I’m coming,” said Tom.

On the way home, Tom worried. “Why did I say that?” he wondered. “I’m a coward – a coward!”

Then, Tom made a decision.

That night, Ryan came. “Come on,” he said, “it’s time for the meeting. Rod* “picked up” some neat stuff we’ve gotta show y—”

“Forget it,” Tom said. “I’ve changed my mind.”

“Hey, you can’t do that!” said Ryan.

“Get out of here!” snapped Tom. “Out!”

“Are you trying to order me around?” asked Ryan. “If so, you’re gonna be sorry.”

“Not half as sorry as you’re going to be! Here’s one I owe you!” And Tom punched Ryan in the face.

“I’ll get even with you for that!” shouted Ryan. Tom had no doubt that he would. But now, maybe he could get some other kids interested in fighting the Red Bear and Company. Until someday, no one need fear to walk the grounds of Tanglewood Junior High.

(This has been a public service announcement from Blue Funnel toothpaste.)

* No relation to Rod Long, author of this story.

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