Yellow leaves spiraled down into the murky water of the Missouri. Close your eyes, just hit the gas pedal and close your eyes. It'll be over soon. But she felt each gust of wind as a nail in her coffin, unable to stop her eyes from shooting nervous glances at the suspension of the bridge. Like a warm, familiar blanket her fear wrapped itself around her arms and neck, heating her skin. Mentally she catalogued every rust spot, every suspicious chip in the concrete. Her tires thudded at each hem in the road. Narrow, narrow, it's too narrow and oh God what if there's an earthquake and--she could picture the car slipping past the guardrail, could see herself splashing into the water, trapped in two tons of metal and plastic. She'd bang on the window, but the water would rush in and she wouldn't be able to escape.
She would drown.
The thought was strangely comforting.
Growing up in a river town means learning at a young age to respect water. Healthy respect, as anyone knows, can turn to fear or obsession or hatred if bred under the right circumstances. It is unclear what made Catherine so very afraid of bridges, but her terror was only magnified when those bridges traversed water--rivers in particular. She was loathe to cross any bridge by foot or car, which may seem strange, considering her refusal to abandon her lifelong home, a town cut into sections by three rivers.
From an early age, Catherine believed she would die on a bridge. At seemingly random moments she could picture her eventual death as a moment of great tragedy. She was more than certain that her passing would be untimely and that it would involve three things: a bridge, water, and negligence. The bridge she accepted without question, the idea that it would occur over water only increased her panic. Negligence, however, was an idea that plagued her. In her teens she was sure it would be a car accident. She often pictured someone skidding over the dividing lines and slamming her into the air. Perhaps they were drunk, or not paying attention. It was always the others driving who were negligent.
After college, she became obsessed with the idea that it might be a problem with the bridge itself. Having dated more than her share of promising young architects and engineers, she knew how easy it could be to misplace a beam, to chintz on the steel. Every spot of rust or warp in the design made her cringe and whimper. And if there were a large truck or semi on the suspension with her, well, that was more than unbearable. She knew it was only a matter of time before one of the imperfections was stretched past its limit.
In her early thirties, married and carrying out a quiet life, Catherine's fear finally took full control of her. On one particular evening, her husband had made reservations at an upscale restaurant downtown. To get from work to the city, Catherine knew she'd have to cross the MRL bridge, a monstrous tangle of steel and iron that stretched over the broad belly of the river. There was no way around crossing the river by bridge, however the evening traffic on this particular crossing would mean at least twenty minutes of gridlock, suspended in air over rushing water. Catherine drove north, then west, then north again, searching for a faster way to cross. She'd been three hours late to dinner.
When he'd raged and ranted and finally calmed down, she confessed why she'd been late. "You have to see a psychiatrist, Cath. It's taking over your life. Tomorrow morning," he'd said. "I haven't pushed before but I'm pushing now."
That's when she snapped.
Robert. Hadn't she been just fine before Robert? Like a snake turning in on itself, she could feel her love for him shrivel and die as he listed off her instabilities, as he'd called them. Suddenly she was staring at a stranger, a man she'd thought she loved. Catherine pictured herself playing the good wife, charting off to some quack's office where they'd think her crazy for knowing the truth. They'll try to fix me, she thought. They'll pump me full of medications and I'll be a vegetable. They'll put me in electroshock therapy or make me live in a home with people who are irrational and dirty and insane. They'll force me to confront--oh, God. No. Never. With eerie precision her face went blank, then snapped into a perfectly calm mask. She swallowed a smile and nodded demurely. "Anything you want, Dear. It's time to solve this problem."
Her worst fears confirmed, the psychiatrist encouraged her to take a local walking trail to the small footbridge three times a week. "You can get a little closer to the bridge each time. Who knows? With any effort, you might be able to walk safely across it within a matter of weeks. It's important that we confront our fears." Catherine swallowed each sentence with a heavy dose of humility. She visualized the tired speech as waves, each word battering against her ears like water against a dock at high tide. She allowed it to push there, but get no further. Catherine offered nothing but the appearance of attentiveness; inside she was mapping the solution to an entirely different problem.
They say it is our fears that define us. That might be true, but for Catherine it was a certainty. She'd spent her entire life mulling over the prospect of dying at the foot of a bridge. You might say her phobia was her life's work. You can't change your horse midstream, so to speak. It is this desire to maintain what was normal, what was comfortable, what was known--it is this desire that sparked a self-preserving hatred for her husband to fuel her every act.
"Walk with me," she pouted in his ear one morning. They'd stopped sharing a bed a year before, but she knew the feel of her warm body over his would help sway his decision. Robert had agreed quickly; he'd promised himself to do what it took to see her well. The two of them dressed quietly, then headed out into the brisk autumn air.
"What's in the bag?" he teased playfully as they ambled over leaf-covered sidewalks. Just as she began to puff out a response, she felt his hand tug at the zipper. With a whirl she turned and pushed his hand away, her cool all but lost. Remembering herself, the blank expression returned, then faded into a smile. "Nothing, just... well, I thought we could share a thermos of coffee when we got there." The grin on his face indicated her success; they walked on in silence.
As the couple approached the footbridge, Catherine shied. Her face had grown ruddy, her eyes wide with anxiety. To quell her panic, Robert stepped easily onto the wooden bridge, bouncing dramatically to prove the bridge's foundation solid. He held a hand out to her and smiled encouragingly. "Come on, Cath. You can do it."
"Just--just don't watch me," she stammered. "Turn around so I won't feel so nervous." He complied easily with her request, inwardly chuckling at how strange and awkward his wife could be. It was this focus on her bizarre behavior that prompted him to turn back around, but a moment too late.
He hadn't heard the zipper, hadn't seen the shadow of her stealth figure approaching his. Though her palms were sweaty, she tightly gripped the large hammer she'd grabbed from the garage. She allowed herself one uneasy glance at the creek below before Robert turned toward her. Reacting quickly, she lunged forward and struck his skull with the hammer. His scream stopped short with the sound of cracking, his bone sinking into the soft flesh of his brain. Catherine let out a wild cry and pushed forward, her husband tumbling over the railing and into the rocky creekbed below.
It was this glazed, emotionless look that Catherine allowed herself to conjure as she imagined her own death. The tires of her car found solid ground on the other side of the Missouri river. As they did, a thought exploded in Catherine's mind. A bridge, water, and negligence. Hadn't she already lived through those three things? Was that what she'd been foreseeing all those years, the death of her husband? No. Surely not. Because, after all, she's afraid of bridges and that's why he had to go.