“The Troll Bridge” was written for R.B. Wood’s Word Count Podcast, and the story prompt was the following photo:
And yes, I did think of troll almost right away! (I guess it’s just the way my brain works).
The Troll Bridge
Michael’s always told me there’s a troll living under the bridge in the park, even though it’s just an ordinary bridge, not even very old or anything. Still, every time we’re about to cross it, he’ll say stuff like:
“The troll will get you, Emma!”
It wouldn’t be so bad, except we have to walk across that bridge on our way to and from school every day. And every day since grade one, Michael has talked about that troll.
He’s described its needle-sharp fangs; its scaly, green skin; its scraggly brown hair. He’s told me it’s so tall it has to hunch over to fit underneath the bridge, that it peers up through the wooden boards with glowing yellow eyes, ready to grab you with its long arms and clawed fingers.
For as long as I can remember, Michael’s also made fun of me for being too scared to cross that bridge. He’s laughed at me every time I took a detour, sliding into the ditch, scrambling over the creek, getting my shoes and clothes dirty in the process.
Of course, Michael doesn’t just taunt me on the way to school. He sneers at me in the hallways, snickers behind my back in class, teases me in the playground. I’m never safe from Michael. He lives just two houses away from me, so even at home, there’s no escaping him.
“Your friend is waiting for you outside,” mom will say every morning, and there’s Michael, waiting for me, waving at mom, using the same smile he uses to charm the teachers, looking for all the world like he really is my friend.
Teachers fall for that smile all the time, other guys do too, and as we’ve gotten older, I’ve seen girls fall for it as well.
And that’s how it’s been, all my life.
He’s added all sorts of gory details about the troll through the years to scare me even more.
The troll smells of rot and mould. It tears you apart before it eats you. It drinks blood from people’s skulls. It wears the knucklebones of its victims around its neck. It devours rats and stray cats and dogs when it can’t find kids to eat.
I’m thirteen now, but I still haven’t been able to shake my fear of the bridge. I’ve tried to cross it a few times, but Michael’s words are always there, clawing at my back, gnawing at my thoughts.
Then, yesterday, for the first time ever, Michael wasn’t outside my house in the morning.
It’s February, flu-season, so I thought maybe he was sick and had to stay home.
A whole day without Michael. The thought was exhilarating.
On my way to school, I stopped at the bridge as usual, but it felt different standing there without Michael taunting me.
There’s no troll, I told myself, and with my heart thumping, I stepped onto the snow-covered boards.
One step. Two steps. Three…
Something grabbed me from behind.
I screamed and ran, but the boards were slippery with ice and snow, and at the far end of the bridge, I stumbled and fell into the ditch, hitting my head on a rock. I scrambled to get up, still screaming, when I saw Michael, on the bridge, laughing his head off.
At least I didn’t have to go to school. I went to the hospital instead and got ten stitches to close the gash on my forehead. Mom asked me what happened, and when I told her about Michael, the bridge, and the troll, she didn’t believe me.
“Why would your friend do something like that to you?”
“Michael’s not my friend.”
But she just patted my hand and got me a chocolate bar from the vending machine.
That was yesterday. This morning, I get up early, so early mom and dad aren’t even awake. I get dressed for school and leave before Michael shows up outside.
I walk the same way I always walk, and when I get to the bridge, I put my backpack down on the path. The signs of my mad scramble in the ditch yesterday have been covered by fresh snow, and I just stand there, staring at the bridge in the early morning light.
It’s just a normal bridge, nothing special, nothing to be scared of, and today I’m going to prove it to myself once and for all.
Cautiously, I make my way down the slope next to the bridge and peer in underneath it. It smells like mould and rot, but there’s no troll. There’s no one but me, the mud, and some rocks. Shedding my winter coat, I crawl in on all fours, digging my long, sharp fingernails into the mud for traction.
(Were they always this long, this sharp?)
I sit down. Through the boards above me, I see strips of sky and pale sunlight, but down here, here in the shadows, everything is nice and dark. I lean back but it’s hard to get comfortable because my spine rubs against the rocks and my shoulders bump against the bridge.
(Was it this cramped when I first crawled in here?)
I push my scraggly brown hair out of my eyes to see better.
(Wait. Wasn’t my hair blonde?)
My sweater feels strangely tight, and when I rip it off, my long arms look green in the shadows, my skin almost scaly.
A small creature scrambles through the dirt by beside me. A rat. I grab it, squeezing until it stops squeaking. I didn’t realize I was so hungry, but the rat is warm and juicy, the small bones crunching between my needle-sharp teeth when I rip it apart.
Licking my lips, I wait for Michael.
When he gets here, I’ll tell him he can’t scare me anymore. I know the truth now: there is no troll beneath this bridge, and there never was.
© Maria Haskins 2018.
The artwork for this story is a detail taken from the painting “Princess Daga” by John Bauer.