Monday, October 21, 2013

Toll Bridge

Billy Daggett left his bike in the Best Western parking lot and walked to the toll bridge spanning Hood River. He stood for a moment hugging himself against the cold wind and looked out at the old bridge and the reflection of its lights in the gray waters of the Columbia River. There were no cars crossing the bridge at this late hour. No headlights to spot him heading out to the center, where the lift span stood high over the river like a guillotine.

Billy was shivering. He didn't know if it was the cold, or fear. Maybe a little of each. No, that wasn't honest. He was more frightened than cold. He was scared of what might be waiting for him out there. The fear made his legs feel wobbly, but he kept walking. He wanted something very badly, and getting it was worth the risk -- wasn't it?


It never would have occurred to Billy to be scared of going out on the bridge if not for Kyle Howell. Howell was a classmate at Hood River Middle School, where Billy was in the Sixth Grade. He also lived next door, so he and Billy tended to hang out, even though Kyle was a grade ahead of Billy. Kyle was always telling Billy about horror stories he was reading in the weird comics he bought. The latest tale of terror was called “The Monkey’s Paw.” It was creepy.

Kyle was with Billy when they came upon the old man sitting in front of the Sun Markt. Kyle and Billy were headed into the store to buy candy and comics when the old man, not even looking at Billy, said, "I kin get ya yer dog back.”

Billy stopped in his tracks, and stared at the old man. Kyle stood there holding the door open looking at Billy. “You coming?”

Billy waved him on inside. Then he turned to the old man, who was moving a toothpick side to side in his mouth and scratching the grey stubble on his cheek. “You have my dog?” Billy said, his voice sounding strangely high and shaky.


Billy’s dog Tag had disappeared more than a week ago. Billy had ridden his bicycle all over looking for the dog, and his mom had even helped him put up signs around Hood River all the way down to Oak Street, offering a twenty-five dollar reward for the dog, a long-haired golden retriever mix, smaller than a pure breed retriever, but just as lovable and twice as energetic.

Tag was always at the corner of the yard, tail wagging furiously, waiting for Billy when he came home from school. Billy’s mom said Tag was better than an alarm clock. As soon as three o’clock rolled around, there was Tag scratching at the door to get out and greet Billy. Billy and his dog had been inseparable.

“I don’t got ‘em, but I kin get ‘em,” the old man said, finally looking up at Billy over the bags hanging under his bloodshot eyes. The old man had his hands folded in his lap, and he twiddled his thumbs as he spoke, as if bored by the exchange with a scrawny kid like Billy.

“There’s a reward,” Billy said, stepping back involuntarily as the old man rose. Standing, he was taller than he looked all slump-shouldered on the bench. He looked down at Billy. “Don’t want no reward,” the old man said, taking the toothpick from his mouth and examining it intently.

“Ya know what kinda bridge that is over the river there?” the man said, canting his head towards the Columbia.

Billy looked at the old man. “What kind?” he said. "Uh..."

“It’s a toll bridge,” the old man said, with a smile that made a shiver run down Billy’s spine. “You meet me out there at the lift span at Midnight. I’ll have yer dog for ye.”


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