The words I LOVED YOU STEPH, spray painted in red, screamed at me from beneath the bridge. An accusation. A cutting, enduring testimony of my betrayal.
My parents lived on a dead end country road that curled around itself like a snake eating its own tail. There was no way to avoid going under the bridge. No way to avoid seeing my lover’s suicide note. The county tried to paint over it, but the red seeped through, like blood saturating a Band-Aid.
The land beyond the bridge had been in my family for generations, forty-four acres of farmland. My father was as rooted to it as the oak tree in our front yard. Although he was sympathetic to my plight, he was certainly not going to move just because his daughter’s college boyfriend had killed himself two miles down the road.
Everyone had told me that it wasn’t my fault. Travis was sick. But they hadn’t seen the look on his face when I told him it was over, that I couldn’t do it anymore. I’d left school and left him there because I’d been too afraid to deal with a situation that had grown steadily--unrelentingly--worse. And he had chased me.
My father thought he was drunk when he showed up, wild-eyed and disheveled, trampling my mother’s buttercups in his bare feet on a soggy February afternoon. I wish he had been. Drunk or high, both were temporary states, unlike the schizophrenia that had begun its manifestation when he was only sixteen years old. He’d just stood there, screaming my name, as my taciturn father first tried to reason with him, then threatened to call the cops. It was only when my father got his shotgun that I stepped onto the porch.
“Daddy, no!” I cried, then turned to my lover of the past three years. “Travis, you have to go. It’s over.”
“It’s not over,” he insisted, his tears melding with the misting rain. “I need you.”
He took a step toward me and my father pointed the gun at his chest. Travis paid him no mind at all. He took another step and Dad cocked the gun. I’d never seen my father’s face so pale, so grim. One hand gripped the barrel and his finger poised on the trigger. I panicked and did the only thing I could think to do. Travis ran away from anger, a carryover from his childhood. I railed at him. “I don’t love you anymore! Leave me alone! Go!”
His face twisted in grief and he clamped his hands over his ears. Then he ran, straight down the middle of the road, leaving his battered black Sentra parked in the driveway.
“Travis, no!” I screamed, and jumped off the porch. My father threw down the gun and grabbed me, lifting me off my feet as I fought to get free, to chase Travis down and tell him I was sorry. I didn’t mean it.
“Mary, call the police!” Dad shouted, but my mom already had her phone in her hand.
I’m not sure when he painted the message, before or after the confrontation, or where he’d gotten the paint. Graffiti on the abutment was nothing new. He might’ve even found a can there, left behind by some drunken teenagers. All I knew was that the paint wasn’t even dry by the time the cops got there. I’d heard that little detail in a whispered conversation in town. Paint dripping down concrete, blood pooling on asphalt. Red. The color of anger; the color of agony. Travis had scaled the grassy bank and climbed to the bridge seventeen feet above. Then he’d jumped. The plunge had broken his neck.
I LOVED YOU STEPH. His last words to me. What a difference that one little letter made, that change in tense. Those four words burned behind my eyelids when I tried to sleep. I imagined him saying them, the hurt and recrimination in his voice. He had died in turmoil.
Maybe that was why he was haunting me.
I didn’t leave the house for three weeks, didn’t attend his funeral. I couldn’t take the whispers that I was the reason he’d done this, nor could I face his mother. The sight of those crushed flowers out the living room window devastated me. I remembered an English Lit professor saying that buttercups bloomed on the banks of one of the rivers of the Underworld, to lift the spirits of the dead. Only I didn’t think Travis had made that journey. I felt him right there with me.
I noticed it on the radio first. Back in our apartment near school, Travis had an old guitar in the closet. Every once in awhile, we’d go to the park and he’d bring it along. He’d say, “Got any requests, pretty girl? Anything you like, as long as it’s ‘Yellow Ledbetter’ or ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’” We’d laugh, because those were the only two songs he knew how to play. In the weeks following his funeral, it seemed like every time I turned on the radio, I heard one of those songs. Pretty coincidental, considering how old they were. So, I stopped listening to the radio. On the third week, my Mom and little sister coaxed me into going with them to look for Allison’s prom dress. I knew my family was worried about me. I spent most of my time in my room. I forgot to eat. I just wanted to sleep, to escape my thoughts, but even in my dreams, he found me. No one thought to tell me about the spray painted message. When I first saw it, it hit me like a punch in the throat.
“Wha--” I wheezed, and had the crazy thought that maybe no one could see it except me.
Alarmed, my little sister stomped on the brakes, inciting a new level of panic.
“Go!” I tried to gasp. She didn’t understand, but my mother did. “Allison, drive!” she said, and my sister took off so fast we fishtailed. Tears stung my eyes and I couldn’t breathe. What happened next rocked me. The radio blared to life, blasting “Yellow Ledbetter.” My sister said later she must’ve had the radio turned low and accidentally hit the volume button on her steering wheel, but neither of us believed that. The button was one that you had to push up and hold to increase volume. I saw her hands. I saw them. They never moved.
My heart slammed in my chest and I broke out in a sweat. I started shaking so hard my mom thought I was having a seizure. She was screaming at Allie and crawling over the seat to hold me. Instead of prom shopping, we went to the ER, where they said it was a panic attack. They gave me a prescription for anxiety medication and sent us on our way a couple of hours later.
The medicine made me sleepy, because I wasn’t used to taking anything, but I was still awake when we went under the bridge again. It was dark this time, but there was a curve in the road just before the underpass. One moment when the headlights hit the blood red letters.
I LOVED YOU STEPH
All I could see was the grief on his face, see him clamping his hands over his ears, trying to shut out my hateful words. He had died thinking I hated him. It was too much to bear.
The walls seemed to close in after that. I couldn’t stand to be so close to the place where he died. I couldn’t stand my family’s worried looks and whispers. So, I went back to school. Back to the apartment Travis and I had shared. A fresh hell awaited me there.
God, how it hurt to see all the pictures of us. Smiling, kissing, hugging … we had been so happy once. He told me early on that he’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teen, but it seemed to be well controlled with medication. If Travis hadn’t told me, I never would’ve guessed. Not back then, anyway. He was so gentle, so generally happy and loving. We had nearly two and a half perfect, passionate, wonderful years, but last September, he started acting strange. A waiter first drew his suspicion. We were at a bistro near campus, one we frequented for breakfast, when he leaned in and said, “I think that guy just put something in my food.”
“No way!” I whispered. “We always tip well. Why would he do that?”
Travis shrugged, watching him. I think even then I saw something different in his blue eyes, a glint, a gleam….I’m not sure how to describe it, except to say that it later became maniacal. When the waiter set his plate in front of him, Travis didn’t say anything; he just pushed his food around in his plate with his fork, staring at it.
“Here,” I said, and attempted to switch plates.
“No!” he shouted, and knocked it from my hand. It clattered to the floor, splattering both of us with food.
“Oh, God!” he said, grabbing his napkin and trying to get the food off my sleeve. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
Everyone was watching us. Travis grew more agitated. His cleaning became frenzied as he dabbed water on the napkin and scrubbed his pant leg.
“Let’s go,” I said, a little unnerved. I threw some cash on the table and we left.
The suspicions grew worse. A stranger passing on the street was spying on us. A professor was letting people read his papers behind his back, scrutinizing his thoughts. He stopped sleeping and would stay up all night cleaning. I didn’t know what to make of it. I’d never seen him act that way, and I’ll admit, I even searched for signs of drugs. Hesitantly, I brought up his schizophrenia and asked him when he’d seen his doctor last. Travis avoided my eyes and said, “It’s under control. I don’t need him.”
I wanted to call his mother, but I didn’t even have her number. Travis didn’t speak to her often. His childhood had been rough, chaotic. The few times I’d met her led me to believe that his mental illness might have been inherited from her. He was enrolled on scholarship. Travis was brilliant. But he started skipping classes and soon wouldn’t go out at all. I didn’t know what to do.
One day I came home to find he’d taken all the mirrors off the walls. Souls could get trapped in them, he said. He’d unplugged the TV and put it in the closet. We had a fight that night--well, I fought--because he ignored me. I begged him, then I threatened to leave him if he didn’t see a doctor. No response. He sat on the couch, hugging his knees and rocking, staring at the spot on the wall where the TV used to hang.
In the middle of the night, I woke to find his face hovering inches over mine. Startled, I screamed and shoved him. He caught me and pulled me against him, pressing his face against my breast like a child.
“Please don’t leave me!” he sobbed. “I’m sorry for how I am.”
But I did leave. I was scared. Now all I could think, as I boxed away his things, was, “Look what you have done.”
In a stack of his mail, I found a letter from his insurance company. His mother had been terminated from her employment and they’d both been dropped from her plan. I finally had my answer as to why he'd stopped his meds.
I put away his clothes, all of our pictures. I boxed up everything, but I had no one to send it to, so I found myself sitting in an empty living room with only a couch and cardboard boxes stacked in every corner. I tried to stay gone most of the time, because weird things happened at the apartment. One morning I woke up and found a framed picture of us sitting in the middle of the dining room table. I wasn’t sure what scared me worse, the thought that a ghost had done it, or that I had done it and didn’t remember.
I spent most my nights sleeping on a couch at a friend’s apartment. Angie was sympathetic and worried about me. I appreciated her friendship, but mostly I just didn’t want to be alone. That’s how I came to catch a ride with Jack that May after the semester ended. He was friends with Angie’s boyfriend and lived about fifteen minutes from my parents’ house. I knew he was attracted to me, though I never encouraged it. He seemed to take my acceptance of a ride as interest, but it wasn’t. Not at all. I just didn’t want to ride under that bridge alone.
As we drew closer to the bridge, my anxiety increased. I’d already taken two Xanaxes and I had surreptitiously popped another half an hour ago. They weren’t helping at all. My nerves were singing. I tried to push back another panic attack. He kept scanning the radio on and I had to grit my teeth. I felt that the songs were speaking to me. “Dead and Gone,” “Who’s That Man?” “Heartache Tonight.” Country, rock, hip hop….I felt they were all Travis trying to communicate with me.
“I loved you, Steph,” Jack mused, as his headlights lit the graffiti on the wall. The opening chords of “Sweet Home Alabama” blared.
The inside of the car went dark for an instant as we went under the bridge. Then Travis leaned forward from the backseat and spoke to me.
“This is who you replace me with?” he asked, and I began to scream.
“Jesus, what is it?” Jack shouted, but I didn’t look at him. I clawed at the door handle. “Stop! What are you doing?”
“Hey, doll,” Travis said. “Miss me?”
I tumbled out the car door and smacked the asphalt, somehow managing to avoid the tires. Jack screeched the car to a stop and jumped out.
“What’s happening?” he demanded, his face stark in the moonlight. “Are you okay?”
“She’s peachy,” Travis growled behind him, advancing toward me. “Never missed a beat, did you, babe?”
I screamed and scuttled backwards like a crab. “Don’t come near me!” I begged.
In my peripheral vision, Jack lifted his hands, making a gesture of peace. But he wasn’t the one I was focused on. The man moving toward me looked anything but peaceful. He looked enraged.
Dimly, I heard Jack say, “I’m gonna go...get help.”
Then he jumped in his car and slammed it in reverse. He nearly hit the abutment as he whipped it around. He roared off into the night, leaving me alone with my ghost.
“He left you,” Travis said with a sneer. “Just like you left me.”
His words deflated me. I buried my face in my hands and cried. I didn’t know my palms were bleeding until I felt something wet and sticky on my face and looked down to see them in the moonlight.
“I’m sorry,” I gasped. “I’m so sorry.”
His sneer evaporated, melting into a thin, grim line. “Not good enough.”
“What do you want?” I asked, but I think I already knew.
“I want you to feel what I felt that night. Alone. Hopeless.”
That was how I’d felt since the day he’d died. I looked directly at him for the first time. He was wearing the same thing he’d worn the day he’d died, down to his bare feet. I could see his words I LOVED YOU STEPH straight through him, like he was a projection on that grimy wall.
“Okay,” I said, and tugged off my shoes.
Rocks dug into my heels but I didn’t care. The grass was cool and slick beneath my feet, but it was easier than I thought it would be to climb the embankment. Nothing was coming on the bridge. Nothing ever was these days. I stood in the road for a moment, feeling the wind whip my hair. Then I moved to the edge and stepped over the guardrail. I didn’t look at him, but I felt Travis beside me.
My toe was bleeding. I stared at it for a moment, thinking some crazy thought about how my mother would feel about me dying with dirty feet. The height made me dizzy. I swayed a little and almost fell right then. Honeysuckle perfumed the night air. I wondered if you could smell when you were dead. I steadied myself and then held my arms open wide.
“Is this what you want?” I whispered.
I didn’t think he’d answer me, but Travis said, “No. Stop. This isn’t what I want.”
A tear slid down my face, then another one. “What do you want, Travis?”
I looked at him then. He was close enough to touch, close enough that I should’ve felt his breath. His face bore the same anguished, pained look it had the night he died.
“I want to know I mattered to you!” he cried. “I never mattered to anyone else. I thought I mattered to you.”
I turned to face him and nearly lost my balance. His eyes glowed an eerie blue in the moonlight. He reached out a hand to steady me and it passed right through my arm.
“I love you!” I said. “Of course you mattered to me.”
“You cut off my songs. You pack away my pictures. You didn’t even come to my funeral.”
“I couldn’t!” I gasped. “I couldn’t see you like that, and know it was my fault. I was just scared. I didn’t know what to do that night. I don’t--I don’t know what to do now.”
We stood there in silence for a moment. Dimly, I thought I heard sirens.
“I love you,” I said. “I have always loved you.”
“Go home, Steph,” he said softly. And then he disappeared.
Broken, confused, I crossed back over the guardrail and gingerly made my way back down the embankment. I crossed over to the concrete wall and laid my palm against the words written in red.
“I loved you, too,” I whispered.
Then I started walking down the center of the road. I made it almost a mile before the police picked me up. I spent a week in a psychiatric hospital, where they diagnosed me with a mental breakdown. They put me on antidepressants and weekly therapy sessions.
My sister took me to pick up some things from the apartment. I paid my rent up but my family didn’t want me to stay alone for awhile. I took a box of pictures with me. Sometimes I’d spread them out on my bed and just relive those days, the days when he was mine and life was good.
Sometimes my sister would sit with me and let me tell her stories about him while we looked. I know I told her the some of the same ones over, but I don’t think she minded or judged me. She had loved Travis, too.
“This one,” I’d say, tapping a framed photo of us. “This was our first date.”
Travis sat beside me on the grass, his handsome face lit up in a grin that took my breath then, took my breath now. His battered old guitar lay beside him. We’d been at the park with friends and he’d played “Yellow Ledbetter” for me and sang along. Some time later, one of his friends had teased him about his singing voice.
“It was good enough,” he replied with an embarrassed smile. He ducked his head, then grinned up at me as he reached to squeeze my hand. “It kept her in my company.”
The bridge no longer scared me. The songs on the radio didn’t scare me. They only made me miss him. I missed him more and more. I tried to act normal for my family--even for Travis, if he was watching--but the loneliness seared me. Night time was the worst. I missed his arms around me, missed his breath on the back of my neck as he snuggled against my back. I wore his old T-shirts to sleep in. Sometimes I caught a whiff of his scent, but after awhile, they smelled like me, not him.
One beautiful, crisp October day, I was driving to the grocery store for Mom. As I approached the bridge, I slowed down, turned the radio up and hit scan. No song greeting from Travis. It devastated me, to think he was finally, forever slipping away from me. I pulled the car to the side of the road and parked.
“Travis, can you hear me?” I asked, and hit scan again. Nothing meaningful.
I reached under the seat and retrieved something in a paper bag that I’d stolen from my Dad’s garage, a can of black spray paint. I walked up to the wall, traced my name with my fingers, and then wrote over the top of it. I STILL LOVE YOU. I took off my shoes and socks and left them on the side of the road in front of the car.
The radio blared suddenly with the song “Don’t,” but I was already crossing to the embankment. Dimly, I heard static as it scanned on its own and landed on the song “Stop! In the Name of Love.”
I laughed and sang along. When I reached the top of the bridge and stood on that same edge, I felt at peace. I saw a movement from the corner of my eye and wasn’t at all surprised to see Travis beside me, transparent in the late afternoon sunshine. Sadness pulled at his handsome face.
“Don’t look at me like that,” I pleaded. “I miss you. I need you. Play our song.”
Faintly, from the ground, I heard the faint strains of “Yellow Ledbetter.”
Then I jumped.
“So...” The boy put an arm around his date and pulled her closer. “That’s the story behind the graffiti.
“You’re full of crap,” she said with a laugh.
He shut off the car and killed the headlights. When he leaned in to kiss her, the radio blared to life with “Sweet Home Alabama.”
“Tony!” the girl gasped, but he was already fumbling for the keys.
They took off so fast they didn’t notice the couple sitting on top of the bridge, swinging their legs over the edge. They didn’t hear him singing along.
Steph took Travis’s hand and laughed. “You’re so mean.” She winked. “And maybe just a little off-key.”
He kissed her and shrugged. “Good enough, I suppose. I kept you in my company.”
They laughed and he said, “I love you, Steph.”
“And I still love you,” she replied.
About the Author: Michelle Perry is published in romantic suspense and paranormal short fiction. She lives in middle Tennessee with her children, Chase and Selena. When she's not writing, she's working at a tire factory or attending a Jake Owen concert somewhere.