I am a nurse at the elementary school where my daughter, Allison, was a student. The route to school would take us over a wide river which bisects the town. By necessity, we must use one of two bridges. The main bridge is part of the highway, while the other is a smaller, narrower one for local traffic. We used to take the highway, but constant construction had narrowed the lanes by quite a bit which resulted in awful backups. The timetable for completion was another couple years, so we were stuck taking the local one until that whole mess got taken care of.
Allison was terrified of that bridge. The guardrails are quite low; maybe three feet. Also, there’s no physical divider between the inbound and outbound lanes. Years ago, there was a terrible accident involving a drunk driver who crossed into the other lane, struck another vehicle, and sent them both careening into the river below. Five people died – one of whom was May Dougherty – Allie’s best friend.
There was a bit of an uproar when the bridge was repaired and no new safety measures were implemented. The cost for upgrades, we were told, was simply too high for the town to bear. We were assured the bridge was safe and the accident, while tragic, didn’t indicate an inherent problem with that particular crossing. Basically, we were told to suck it up and take the highway if we didn’t like it.
Following the death of May, Allie changed. Her bubbly, outgoing attitude became sullen and brooding. We did everything we could to help her cope with the devastating loss, but little was accomplished. Her therapist said it would take time. We’d have to be patient and allow Allie to grieve on her own terms. Even Allie’s habit of talking to May over the course of the day was to be seen as a coping mechanism; a child’s way of saying goodbye.
Allie resumed school soon after her May’s funeral, and that was when the trouble started. To drive over that bridge with Allie in the car was to learn what it is like to be a torturer. My heart would break as she sobbed and pleaded with me not to take the bridge. If we were stopped at the light before the crossing, she’d fumble with the door handle and try to get out, only to be stopped by the safety locks. Each day she’d arrive at school a red-eyed, dishevelled mess. No one, especially an innocent and kind nine-year old, should have to start their days like that.
My indignation and dismay didn’t change anything. Those rides to school were some of the worst moments of my life. Allie would sob in the backseat and call out to May, begging her to come back and keep the bridge safe for us and everyone else. When we’d reach the other side, Allie would weep and mumble to May about what was going on at school and how everyone else in their class missed her. The only saving grace was that we could take the highway bridge on the way home; traffic was usually light at that time. I couldn’t imagine having to subject Allie to the local bridge more than once a day. I doubt she’d ever get anything done at school if she had that to look forward to when she left.
On March 12th, 2014, Allie came to the breakfast table with a smile on her face. I almost dropped my coffee mug when I saw her; it was as if the daughter I’d lost had finally come home. She was chipper and talkative. She mentioned a spelling test her class was going to have and how her teacher promised a cupcake to the student with the highest grade. Her friend, Christina, was the best speller in the class and Allie was so excited for her to win the cupcake.
Allie talked and talked while she ate her eggs and I got ready for work. I could scarcely believe the improvement she was exhibiting. We finished up our morning routines and got in the car. Allie always insisted on sitting in the back after May’s accident, but that day she got up front with me. We pulled out of the driveway and headed for the school.
There were no signs of concern on Allie’s face as we got closer to the bridge. She chatted with me most of the time, but began informing May about the spelling test/cupcake event that she’d told me earlier. May had also been close with Christina, so apparently it was very important that Allie fill her in on their friend’s impending good fortune.
We stopped at the light at the intersection ahead of the bridge. The light turned green and I drove forward, waiting for Allie to realize where we were and start crying. The opposite happened. She began to giggle – the gleeful, musical sound I’d missed so much. As she laughed, she talked to May.
“May, look how blue the water is! I’m so glad it’s almost Spring and it feels a lot warmer now, doesn’t it? I bet the water’s still cold though. Is it cold? Does it bother you?”
I glanced over at Allie and saw her staring at the water on the other side of the guardrail. She kept talking.
“I don’t mind the cold too much as long as there’s no ice but I don’t see any ice. There’s no ice right?”
“No, there’s no ice.”
The reply came from the backseat. I whipped my head around and saw a figure in the seat behind Allie. It was gray and dripping, with a hideous indentation in its skull and a Y-incision in its chest. Green-blonde hair cascaded over its bruised, bony shoulders. May.
I gasped and turned back toward the road only to see a car stopped dead in front of me. I slammed on the brakes and swerved. Our car hit the guardrail and the vehicle in front of us, pushing the front of our car up onto the rail. Allie was still smiling, apparently unhurt, and whatever I’d seen in the back seat was gone. I reached out for Allie to make sure she was okay, but an impossibly powerful jolt slammed through the car as another vehicle hit us from behind at full speed.
The jarring sensation of the collision was replaced by a sickening, slow lurch as our position shifted from being half on the guardrail, half on the low sports car that’d been in front of us, to a gradual, helpless topple over the rail into a freefall. I couldn’t scream. I saw the water below rushing toward the windshield in a surreal, sunlit haze, and the moment before we hit the river, I glanced sideways at Allie.
Her eyes were closed and a smile was etched across her face. Nothing but the impossibility of the situation registered with me, so when I saw a gray hand reaching from the backseat and unlocking my daughter’s seat belt, I felt little more than acknowledgement.
Then we impacted. I felt my collar bone splinter behind my seat belt. Pain and shock blinked white in my vision and the breath was torn from my lungs. The car righted itself in the water and began to sink.
Allie was embedded up to her neck in the windshield and was dangling over the dashboard and the useless, flaccid airbag. A pile of skin and hair had been pushed down to her shoulders and the water rushing in around her was tinged with red. I have no words for what I felt upon seeing her like that.
I struggled to get out of the sinking car but knew I’d have to wait for it to fill before I could open the door. I wasn’t strong enough to break the window and my shattered collarbone made it impossible to try. We sank.
The car hit the river bottom right when it had filled enough to let me open the door. I gulped in the last bit of air, unlocked my seat belt, and swam out and around to Allie’s side. The devastation to her face and head, despite being blurred by the water, still haunts me to this day. When I reached her side and tried opening the locked door, I knew there was no way I could go back around, unlock it, and try to extricate her. My lungs burned. I felt hot tears leaking out of my eyes and I began to swim up, knowing if I didn’t move fast I’d succumb to hypothermia and die with my daughter. Part of me wished I had the courage to do so.
As I swam, I stared down at the wreck. Then I saw something that made me stop kicking. Another person was standing next to the car. I could see greenish-blonde hair floating in a cloud around her gray head. It was May. She wrenched open the door and with one powerful pull, removed Allie from the windshield. Blood bloomed from her head like the spores of a decapitated mushroom.
The girls looked up. My vision blurred and my feet automatically started kicking again as my body fought to bring me to the surface. I kept watching. My head breached a moment later, but not before I saw the something; something I’ve told my husband, my doctors, my minister, and everyone else who might listen: May and Allie joined hands and began to walk across the muddy bottom of the river in the direction of the lake it fed into. While they walked, Allie turned around to face me, and with her skull grinning, waved goodbye.