Winterbourne
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Highway | April 21, 2009

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Highway | April 21, 2009

The following story reached me through whispers, and no matter how many details were added to it, I was skeptical of its authenticity. I’m not drawn to disbelief, but this tale contains all of the makings of an urban legend. In order to tell it to you, I felt the need to track down the source. He visited my apartment last night, and I recorded the following as he told it to me. For the sake of privacy, names have been changed.

 

Josh spent the better part of the summer trying to impress his new step-brother, Austin. Austin was worth impressing. He was a year older than Josh, so he had a license, connections to buy booze, and his best friend was Emily. Josh’s tone changed when he described Emily. She was someone he was half in love with, by virtue of her personality and her inaccessibility. They moved in different circles—Emily’s being a world of cigarettes and late night rendezvous, and Josh’s one of video games and acne cream.  This had been a fact of life up until the moment Austin and Josh’s families had merged.

 

That night on the overpass the three of them had been smoking pot and drinking beer. Not with the intention of getting ‘fucked’, but just to pass the time. It was a Sunday night, between two and four in the morning. Time had blurred. They were utterly alone, enjoying the night. There was a breeze, but it was warm. None of them had school or work the next morning.

 

The evening had started with Austin suggesting they throw eggs at cars. They waited for half an hour for a victim before giving up and dropping the eggs down on the empty highway. Josh described it to me as if the world was silent except for their voices, laughing and jeering at whatever topic came to mind. There was no roar of traffic in the distance.

 

Josh listened to Emily and Austin talk about their bad math teacher, and was trying his best to chime in. No matter what he added, neither of them seemed to care.

 

Austin spat over the cement barrier, down onto the road below.

 

Emily cringed. “Disgusting. Why do guys always do that?”

 

“Try it,” Austin said.

 

Emily leaned over the barrier and spat. I can’t help but imagine that Josh watched this, enchanted. Once she was done, she shrugged. Josh spat, too, but Emily didn’t comment on that.

 

Josh wasn’t sure how it happened, but suddenly Emily was throwing a beer can into the abyss. It landed on the lane divider and then fell onto the pavement.

 

“Shitty aim,” Austin said.

 

“Do better, then.”

 

Austin threw down a beer can. Emily threw another. Josh threw one. No one cared, at that point. Emily was laughing at Austin for dribbling beer down his shirt. She wrapped her arm around Austin’s shoulder, pulling him closer.

 

That was when Josh picked up the rock.

 

Do me a favor, just for a moment. However unpleasant this might be, remember what it was like to be sixteen. To avoid looking at yourself in the mirror, or looking too long, memorizing your flaws. Not fitting your skin. The hangover of puberty ruining your perception of the world. Anxiety haunting any thoughts you had of the future—will I be pretty? Will I be rich? Will I be happy?

 

Hopefully, these were the most unpleasant moments in your life. Life doesn’t often take a consistent upward trajectory, but I think for most of us it improves after sixteen. Josh didn’t know that. He was living in these worst moments. This is where Josh was when he picked up the rock.

 

“Check this out,” Josh said. 

 

He hurled the rock over the highway, aiming for oblivion. He didn’t look where it went, but he heard where it landed.

 

Josh heard glass smashing, and then the piercing squeal of breaks. He smelled the burning rubber. He heard the distinct sound of metal crumpling. All of this must have happened in just a few seconds, but Josh described every detail to me like it took hours. He recalled this while sitting on my couch. He shut his eyes and clasped his hands together to keep them from shaking. I asked him if he wanted to take a break, but he continued like he was compelled.

 

Emily gasped and covered her mouth. Austin gagged. Josh was frozen to the sidewalk, his knees buckling.

 

For a moment, none of them moved. The air must have been thick with the sick anticipation of what lay below. It was Emily who took that first step, who peered over the edge. Josh watched as her expression shifted from horror to confusion.

 

“I don’t get it,” she said.

 

“Oh, God, Em, don’t tell me,” Austin pleaded.

 

“No, idiot, look.”

 

For several seconds, Josh’s feet refused to budge. His heart was in his throat. When he finally inched closer, Josh expected to see a body. He imagined a woman, with long, dark hair fanning out over the debris. She would be split in half and connected only by strands of intestines. He spoke about her so vividly that I wondered if he had seen something like that in a movie.

 

When he looked down he found an empty stretch of highway.

 

There were no skid marks. The lane divider was untouched. The smell of burnt rubber had abated. There weren’t even pieces of a car—no headlights, or bumpers.

 

Josh clutched at his head and tried his best not to throw up.

 

“Bad weed, man,” Austin said. “Last time I’m buying from Hurley.” He would have gotten away with seeming calm if he wasn’t shaking so badly.

 

Emily agreed; not in a way that suggested she believed him, but in one that suggested she wanted to. Josh said nothing. Even as he was ushered into Austin’s car, Josh’s mind remained partly on the sidewalk on the overpass, looking for signs of the accident down below.  

 

He went to bed that night still there, staring down. He told me it took him two hours of staring at the ceiling to slow his heart beat. On the back of his eyelids was the image of what could have been; all the scenarios he conjured up in the seconds before he looked. How he fell asleep at all I can’t imagine.

 

But he did, and like with all troubling situations, he felt better about it in the morning. He stared up at the ceiling and told himself they had smoked too much, and heard an owl screech, and that had become something worse in their minds. The light of day always provides convenient answers. Josh had nearly convinced himself it was all okay.

 

When he turned his head, something rough brushed against his cheek. Placed next to his head on the pillow was the rock.

 

He handed it to me, when we met. The blood on it was old, by then. It was brown—nearly black. Stuck to it were pieces of something I couldn’t identify, along with long, black strands of human hair.

 

“Do you believe me now?” Josh asked.

 

The Archivist