Cast of Wonders 420: Devil’s Bridge

Devil’s Bridge

by Frances Hardinge

“That man.” Lauren peered across the street, eyes narrowed. “He was outside school when we came out. I think he’s following us.”

Petra felt a familiar tickle of apprehension. A quick glance across the road showed her a silver Honda with a male driver. Despite the greyness of the day he wore dark glasses.

“We need to get you home,” said Lauren. Despite being only fourteen she was nearly six foot, and her heavy-featured face had an Easter Island solidity and solemnity. “Actually… maybe we should just head straight to the police.”

“Yeah,” muttered Petra. “Because that always helps.” She flashed Lauren an edged, rueful smile.

Petra was not the sort of person others believed. Shop assistants watched her like hawks. Teachers assumed that she was the cause of all trouble. Everyone’s gaze snagged on the whitish stubble across her scalp. She was fidgety and restless, her eyes evasive and too wise. Everything she said came out sounding like a jibe.

But it was worse when people did take her seriously. Now and then care workers asked her to roll up her sleeve, so they could look for puncture marks or bruises, and make sure that the strange spider-like freckles swarming over her neck, arms and shoulders weren’t tattoos. School nurses dropped in quiet questions about how everything was at home.

“We’ll lose him, then,” said Lauren. She scowled belligerently at the distant car, as if tempted to throw it down the street.

The two girls cut through the mall and the churchyard, then took the tree-lined route back to Petra’s house. Even when they reached Petra’s front door, Lauren was reluctant to abandon her friend.

“You call me, yeah?” she said. “If that man shows up and turns out to be one of those weirdos.”

Petra nodded hard, and to her huge relief saw Lauren’s tall, clumsy figure stride away into the descending dark. Get out of here, Lauren, was all she could think. Before things get creepy again.

Petra unlocked her door, and entered the darkened hall to a host of home-smells – mildewed trainers and the ghost of long-dead ravioli dinners. She closed the door behind her, put it on the chain and drew the bolts. Stepping into the lounge, she shrugged off her anorak and flipped on the light.

The stranger from the car was in the lounge, sitting on the tea-stained sofa.

He was about forty, with jowls that thought he was fifty. Petra looked at his gold-faced watch, long charcoal coat and trim haircut, and she smelt money. He had the soft, pouched mouth of somebody who gets his way too often.

In spite of his comfortable plumpness, Petra’s instincts were screaming. His small grey eyes had a clammy brightness, like stars drowning in glue. The hands resting on his knees had a tensed, braced stillness. Petra cursed herself for bolting the front door. If she sprinted to the hall, he would catch her before she could pull back the bolts.

“Where’s my uncle?” she asked instead.

“I gave him fifty pounds,” answered the stranger. His accent was posh, his voice rather deep. “He said he had friends to see and would ‘leave us to it’.”

Petra ground her teeth. It was all too believable. Her uncle’s once magnificent gesture, the adoption of his sister’s child, seemed to have exhausted his life’s supply of goodwill and responsibility. Ever since, uncle and niece had been bound together in a briar tangle of resentment, guilt and lacerated affection. In her imagination she screamed at him for leaving her in the lurch, but knew exactly what answers would have flown back at her.

You think food pays for itself? Would it kill you to pull your weight? I don’t invite these people, but when customers are breaking the door down trying to give you money, don’t expect me to kick them out.

Could Petra slip a hand into her anorak pocket, and text for help? Unlikely. And who would she text? There was no cavalry, just an uncle who kept alley-cat hours, a hospice-bound mother who no longer knew her and a hole where a father used to be.

There was another means of escape, but Petra did not want to consider it unless there was no other choice.

“It was you I wanted to talk to,” the stranger continued. “You are the Bridgekin, aren’t you?”

And Petra could not lie. She gritted her teeth and tried to keep her head steady, but the nod happened anyway.

“And is it true? That you can create bridges to anywhere? Absolutely anywhere?”

“For a price. Yes.”

The man let out a long breath. There was a world of emotional investment in that sigh.

“My name’s Carlton,” he said, getting out his wallet, “and you don’t need to be afraid. I’m just here to do business. Now… what kind of price?”

“I never said I’d do it,” said Petra. Even as the words left her mouth, she felt the atmosphere become arctic. The man was still pulling notes out of his fat, fawn-coloured wallet, spreading them on the coffee table, but she could see a dangerous tension in his jaw.

“Listen,” she said quickly. “Just listen. You know where the bridges come from? The old story?”

“The legend of Devil’s Bridge?” answered Carlton. “Yes. I know it. An old woman found her route home blocked by a deep gorge with a fast-flowing river. The Devil came by and offered to build a bridge for her, on condition that he could have the soul of the first creature to cross it. He assumed that she would cross first, but instead when the bridge was finished she sent her dog across ahead of her. So she escaped and the Devil was thwarted-”

“He bowed,” interrupted Petra. “He didn’t yell or throw lightning bolts. He bowed to her, and winked. Because he already knew he was going to get the last laugh. The old lady found out afterwards that she still had the power to make bridges to anywhere she liked, and so could her daughters, and so could their daughters. And their granddaughters, and their great-granddaughters, blah blah, until you get to me. But there’s a price for every bridge, and the further the bridge, the higher the price. And who do you think that gets paid to, Mr Carlton?”

“Are you saying that I would have to pay with my soul?” For the first time Carlton looked genuinely taken aback.

Petra wanted to say ‘yes’, and scare him into leaving. But the power that bound her tongue was having none of it.

“No,” she said with bitter reluctance, and saw him relax. “I… don’t think it’s really the Devil, with horns and stuff. I think that’s, you know, apocryphal. But there’s something out there, and it wants everything that’s precious to us. And it believes in bargains.

“Money won’t cut it. Not for you. I bet you could drop a couple of thousand quid and not even feel it, so that’s not worth anything., You’d have to pay something that really mattered to you. Something that hurt you to lose.”

Carlton seemed to be weighing this up.

“How long would the bridge last?” he asked.

“Only until you’ve crossed it. Then it’ll vanish.”

“So… if I wanted to come back here again, I’d have to pay a second time?”

Petra heard him with an icy sense of déjà vu, but could not stop herself answering.

“You can’t make a bridge without me. Once you’re on the other side, you’re on your own.”

Carlton slowly put away his wallet, and sat very still for several long, dangerous seconds.

“I wouldn’t be ‘on my own’,” he said at last, “if you came over the bridge with me.” He pulled something out of his coat pocket.

Before now it had always been knives. Kitchen knives in shaky hands, stupid little penknives, once a Kukri, all waved by men and women with frightened eyes full of need. This was the first time Petra had found herself staring down the barrel of a gun. Guns were from films. The sight of it filled Petra with an electric feeling of the not-quite-real.

“I’m sorry,” said Carlton, “but I need this bridge.”

“Yeah.” Petra’s voice sounded raspy, and there were drums in her ears. “Yeah, they always do.”

It was always ‘need’.

Strange needs, sometimes. I need to walk your bridge as a rite of passage. I need to visit the building in this engraving, in a realm with two yellow moons.

But more often the needs were simple, sordid and mundane. I need to get into the hospital pharmacy, where the drugs are kept. I need to get out of the country before the police find me.

“I need to see my wife,” explained Carlton. “She’s in New Jersey—and she’s leaving me. She won’t see me, won’t talk to me on the phone. This is my last chance before divorce proceedings go through. But nobody will give me her new address. Can you still build a bridge to her if I don’t know exactly where she is?”

Petra reassured him that ‘my wife’s house in New Jersey’ was an address as far as the bridge was concerned. She hadn’t needed to know about the background either, but perhaps it was a good sign that Carlton wanted to explain. Maybe it meant he was still thinking of Petra as a person.

But does he, really? Has he even wondered why I didn’t run off down a bridge of my own when a stranger showed up in my house?

“I’m ready,” said Carlton.

Petra let out a long breath. Bracing herself against a chair back, she closed her eyes and thought of bridges. Not bricks and wood, but stitches in geography, binding places together. Bridges as nowhere zones where the rules broke down. The hearts of towns, the mouths of castles. Troll-roofs.

As always, something responded. There was a pulling sensation that made Petra feel sick, like a gravitation of the spirit. She forced herself to yield to it. She became a conduit, a meeting place for the negotiation. Bid and counterbid rushed through her like gale winds.

The deal was sealed. She did not know what Carlton had paid. Whatever it was had streaked past, leaving a smell like hot summers in its wake. She suspected it was probably a bundle of memories that had once been precious to him. Perhaps his life would be less rich for the loss of them. Perhaps he would be a different man without them.

Petra opened her eyes, stretched out with her hands and mind, and let the bridge into the world.

Wrought iron snaked out of the carpet, forming palings, ornamental curls and banisters. Ghostly slabs of white marble appeared between them, translucent as moonstone, each higher than the last. They floated unsupported, drifting and shifting slightly from side to side as if in a breeze. The strange steps led upwards and disappeared into the ceiling, which had melted into a gently churning smog.

At the same time, the living room darkened and flattened. The posters lost their colour. The bookshelf might have been painted on the wall.
When Petra placed her foot on the lowermost step, it dipped slightly like a raft on water, then righted itself. The next step did the same. As she climbed her home shrank and dulled below her, then vanished.

Carlton was a step behind her, but Petra did not look around. She hated him for being so stupid, for throwing away a precious piece of himself and making her responsible. She was stingingly aware of all the parts of herself that were lost forever. The colour from her hair. Her ability to lie. Her singing voice. An hour of sleep each night. She was a sponge-like mass of holes.

Every bridge was different. Carlton’s bridge was unusually grand and formal, but there were odd little dissonances. Stained silk ties fluttered pennant-like from the palings. Some steps were frosted with fractured bottle glass. Jointed brass dolls dangled from the curls of the balustrade, like dead birds caught in a fender.

Below the floating slabs were mist and the distorted sound of water. Dun-coloured things that might have been boats flitted past with uncanny speed. Without looking, Petra knew that the digital display on her watch would be unchanging.

“Where are we?” asked Carlton. “Another world?”

Petra shrugged. “You planning to go swimming? If not, it doesn’t matter.”

“You’re not curious?”

“My Mum was,” Petra muttered. “She liked making people bridges to… strange places. Places with blue suns and singing stones, that kind of thing. You know what happened on her last trip?”

“No. What?”

“I don’t know either. But Dad went missing that day, and Mum came back broken.”

And that’s how it’ll be with me too if I let anyone matter to me. Some day I’ll panic and use them to pay for a bridge.

The steps were descending now, and heading into a denser darkness. At last they ended in a prosaic wooden door, with an ornamental chrome handle. Petra turned the handle, pushed it open… and stepped out of a closet door into a lavish bedroom.

Petra halted, dazzled by all the floor-to-ceiling mirrors, the expensive-looking gowns draped over the bed, and the stained glass windows looking out upon wide lawns and yellow maples. Before she could muster her wits, Carlton grabbed her by the shoulder.

“Don’t move a step till I get back,” he muttered, his eyes bright and hard. “I’m your bridge-fare home, remember? And if you run out on me… I’ll know where to find you.” With that, he barrelled out through the bedroom door onto the landing.

Petra was still gaping at this sudden departure when she noticed the photographs on the dressing table. Most showed a beautifully turned out woman of middle years, hugging dogs or sitting with what appeared to be family members. She had high cheekbones, careful makeup, and a face that Petra had seen on TV dozens of times, and more recently in all the newspapers.

The celebrated female news presenter. The snowballing rumours of domestic violence followed by proven facts. The imminent divorce. The disputed millions…

Petra’s face grew hot. She raced out onto the landing, just in time to see Carlton running downstairs with his gun in his hand.

He never wanted to talk to his wife. He just wanted to commit a murder with a perfect alibi.

The nearby landing window looked down onto the lawns. Glancing out, Petra spotted a woman walking over the grounds back towards the house, her hair tucked under a knitted hat, her stride casual and comfortable. She was throwing a ball for a large shaggy wolfhound, which bounded, lolloped and fetched.

Petra yanked the catch and threw open the window.

“Run!” she screamed as loudly as she could. “Run for your life!”

The woman shielded her eyes and stared up at her, chin dropping in shock. While she was still motionless, a door crashed open below. Carlton charged out onto the lawn, directly beneath Petra’s window. He raised his gun, and levelled it at his wife.

The TV presenter stared aghast. Petra could see incomprehension, shock and nothing more. Not a will to move, run or be somewhere else.
The wolfhound started to sprint towards Carlton. It was too far from the gunman to be useful, but Petra could feel its jowls rippling with speed and its eyes bulging with effort. Its wish was as simple as rain.

Need to be there. Now. Reach him. Save her.

Petra gave it a bridge

Nobody else saw it. Nobody felt the wolfhound pay all it had without hesitation, without a whimper. Nobody saw it leap onto a glimmering bridge of rabbit bones and race with the beauty and purity of selflessness.

All the others saw was the wolfhound teleporting twenty feet, then leaping onto its enemy, bowling Carlton over backwards. Carlton’s gun fired, and the dog took a bullet through its chest.

It bought its mistress a handful of precious seconds. Seconds in which to fumble a rape alarm out of her pocket and trigger its siren. Seconds in which men in private security firm uniforms sprinted round the side of the house, drawing their own guns. When Carlton pushed away the dead dog and struggled to sit up, raising his gun again, they shot him repeatedly.

The TV presented ran to the wolfhound and dropped to her knees beside it, cradling it in her arms. One of the security guards, however, spotted a young face up at a second floor window, and gave a shout.

Petra ducked back from the window, and fled to the presenter’s bedroom. She could hear the back door being flung open downstairs. People were stampeding around below, shouting things like “room clear!”, the way they did in films. In panic she reached out for a bridge, the way she had every other time she had been kidnapped.

Just get home, forget it happened. What can I pay this time? What have I got left? The ability to see the colour yellow? But what if that means I end up totally blind? I could give up more of my skin—let the spider-spots leak up onto my face. But then there’ll be doctors for sure…

As feet thundered on the stairs, a sly voice seemed to murmur in her brain. You could give up your friendship with Lauren. It would be the best thing for her too.

“No!” hissed Petra aloud. “Not that. Never that. I’d sooner get shot dead right now.” Her head was full of the image of the wolfhound, leaping to its death for sheer love.

And so when the security guards burst into the bedroom, Petra was still there, hands raised above her head. They trained their guns on her, yelled, made her lie down on the floor and secured her wrists behind her. But they did not shoot her.

As she lay at their feet sobbing, they could not have guessed that she was weeping uncontrollably for the death of a dog.

The police interview went badly. At first Petra managed to limit herself to truths that didn’t sound like crazy lies. Carlton had kidnapped her at gunpoint, and forced her to go to New Jersey with him. She hadn’t met him before that night. She hadn’t really known where they were going. She hadn’t known that he wanted to hurt his wife.

However, other questions naturally followed. How did they get to New Jersey? Why was there no record of them passing through an airport? We travelled through darkness on a bridge made from the power of his wishes and bought with fragments of his essence… oh never mind.

She might even have been suspected of being Carlton’s accomplice, if the TV presenter had not interceded, testifying to Petra’s desperately shouted warning from the window. Having seen her dog teleport, the woman may even have guessed that Petra was telling the truth.

The authorities compared notes, re-assessing all the cuts and bruises in Petra’s medical records and the various claims that she had been followed or kidnapped. Her story about Atlantic-spanning phantom bridges was reinterpreted as a ‘cry for help’. With dread inevitability, it became clear that she would be taken away from her uncle, who received the news with a devastated calm. Petra felt just as numb, even when Lauren’s parents swooped in and asked to have her stay with them, ‘for now and then we’ll see how it goes’.

She only cried when she was alone with Lauren, half-crushed in the taller girl’s hug.

“It’s my fault the dog died,” was all she could say.

“He knew what he wanted,” Lauren said at last, after letting Petra cry herself out. “He wasn’t sorry, either. Was he?”

Petra shook her head, and sniffed messily.

“He knew what was important to him,” Lauren went on. “And that’s the big thing, isn’t it? Knowing what to keep, what to throw away. We all make choices like that, and mostly we don’t even notice. Picking which dreams we give up. Choosing the people we spend time with, and the ones we don’t.”

“But I don’t get to keep anything!” exploded Petra. “I just lose things. The bridges are eating me, one bite at a time.”

“You don’t just lose things,” said Lauren, who was big, stubborn and right about everything. “All the weird places you’ve seen—they’re making you smarter, tougher and stronger. You’re beating the Devil every day, Pet. You’re growing faster than he can prune you. Some day soon, nobody will be able to force you to do anything any more. You’ll be the one calling the shots.

“And I’m so proud of you for not bridging back from New Jersey. Because for years you’ve been holding things together like a broken jam jar. You’ve dropped it at last, and that’s good. After this you’ll have a home with food, and the weirdos won’t know where to find you. I’m sorry, but there are some things you’re better off losing.

“Just… don’t lose me, OK?”

Petra held on tight, with both arms and all of her considerable will.

“I won’t,” she said.

About the Author

Frances Hardinge

Frances Hardinge was brought up in a sequence of small, sinister English villages, and spent a number of formative years living in a Gothic-looking, mouse-infested hilltop house in Kent. She studied English Language and Literature at Oxford, fell in love with the city’s crazed archaic beauty, and lived there for many years.

Whilst working full time as a technical author for a software company she started writing her first children’s novel, Fly by Night, and was with difficulty persuaded by a good friend to submit the manuscript to Macmillan.  She has now written nine books for children and young adults, including Cuckoo Song, which won the Robert Holdstock award for Best Fantasy Novel at the British Fantasy Awards, and The Lie Tree, which won the Costa Book of the Year 2015. Her most recent book is Deeplight.

Frances is seldom seen without her hat and is addicted to volcanoes.

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About the Narrator

Katherine Inskip

Katherine Inskip is the editor for Cast of Wonders. She teaches astrophysics for a living and spends her spare time populating the universe with worlds of her own.  You can find more of her stories and poems at Motherboard, the Dunesteef, Luna Station Quarterly, Abyss & Apex and Polu Texni.

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About the Artist

Alexis Goble

Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.

Find more by Alexis Goble