Happy Halloween! I hope everyone is enjoying a terrifying day filled with spectral frights. To that end, I’m offering up a short story of my own. “The Shadow Man of Moon Spine Bridge” was originally published in the anthology INDIANA HORROR 2012 by James Ward Kirk Fiction.
It’s about a man returning to his childhood home following the death of his father to discover the ghostly presence that terrified him as a child still inhabits a nearby covered bridge.
I hope you enjoy my tale of the Shadow Man who haunts Moon Spine Bridge, and if you wouldn’t mind, please leave a comment below letting me know what you thought.
“THE SHADOW MAN OF MOON SPINE BRIDGE”
By Matt Cowan
Abraham watched his father’s day-old tombstone from a diner across the street. The approaching line of clouds gave him hope for a moonless night.
“Somewhere you need to be?” Stanton asked.
“What?” Abraham replied, turning his attention to the couple in the booth opposite him. They made an odd pair. Stanton Fugate, his best friend since childhood, was a tall, strapping man with short dark hair. His wife Freda, by contrast, was a petite, 4’11 auburn-haired beauty.
“Way you keep watching the time, thought you might have plans,” Stanton said, without acknowledging the look Freda gave him.
Noticing the clock above the window, Abraham smiled. “I was watching the sky, not the clock.”
“The sky?” Stanton grunted.
“How long are you in town for?” Freda asked, absently readjusting her silverware.
“Why don’t you stay with us at The Bird’s Eye?” she offered. “We don’t have any bookings at the moment. It’s still early for most bird watchers.”
“Thanks, but I think I’ll stay at Dad’s. I haven’t spent a night there since before college.”
“Why’s that?” Freda asked, dabbing her mouth with a napkin.
Abraham shifted in his chair. “I don’t know. It just never worked out, with my job and all.”
Stanton stopped chewing his food. “I don’t think that’s the reason.”
Freda frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, it was the view from his bedroom window that kept him away, the view of Moon Spine Bridge.”
“I don’t understand,” Freda said glancing between her husband and Abraham.
Abraham stiffened. “When I was younger I had these… ideas about the bridge, but that was a long time ago. I’m staying at Dad’s tonight.”
“Yeah?” Stanton mumbled. “You going to stay in your old room?”
Abraham shifted. “Sure, why not?”
“You going to keep the blinds open or shut?”
Abraham met his stare. “I’ll even keep the window open. I enjoy a nice evening breeze.”
Freda placed a hand on Abraham’s arm. “You’ll have to stop by and have dinner with us. We don’t see many of Stanton’s friends.”
“That’s because I was his only friend,” Abraham chuckled.
Abraham arrived at the small Oakhurst, Indiana house he grew up in shortly before nightfall. Weeds and unkempt grass overwhelmed the front yard. The undersized place needed repainting. He regretted not coming by more often. Inside, it smelled of stale cigar smoke and burnt firewood. Faded, seventies-style furniture was arranged around a fireplace of charred, dead logs.
In his father’s room Abraham found a drawer filled with drawings he made for him in elementary school. It surprised him his Dad kept them all these years. He fought a swell of emotion as he made the disheveled bed. His father, a stickler about such things, died in his sleep so it was left undone. A framed picture of his mother stood on the nightstand. She died of cancer a year after he left for college, leaving his father alone these past ten years. The thought pushed Abraham from the room.
His childhood bedroom was unchanged. A castle poster hung above the bed. A shelf of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books stood by the door. In the closet he found his comic books. Looking through them made his childhood seem less distant. It was getting late when he glanced at the room’s lone window. Its blinds were shut, shielding him from the view beyond.
Undressing, he climbed into his old bed. His gaze was drawn to the window across from it. The covered bridge that skirted Shimmering Lake lurked past a backyard of high grass and an empty field. It was white and arched in the middle, giving it the appearance of a giant spinal column.
He was pleased by the cloud-bloated sky. During moonlit nights, the bridge’s paint job caught the incandescence, giving it an unearthly, silver glow. It was only used for pedestrian traffic now; part of a walking path into the Talbot Forest. Wood railings on both sides formed entry and exit points. Old fears began to creep forth, but he pushed them away as nothing more than childish imaginings. He still had trouble convincing himself of that, despite the years that had passed. He opened the window and blinds to the night air before lying down. Several sleepless hours later he got up and closed them again.
Stanton and Freda stopped by the following day with a picnic basket. “We thought we’d treat you to lunch,” Freda said.
They sat at the wood table in the backyard, despite the tall grass.
“How’d it go last night?” Stanton asked.
“I see your window’s shut, what happened?”
“I started with it open, but it got a little cold so I closed it. The blankets on the bed are thin.” Abraham said, avoiding eye contact.
Stanton shook his head. “Didn’t seem cold to me.”
“Stanton,” Freda scolded.
“Why don’t we take a stroll through it, since it doesn’t bother you anymore,” Stanton pressed.
“I swear, it’s a wonder Abraham considers you a friend,” Freda said sternly.
Abraham chuckled. “Its okay, Freda, Stanton’s always been like that. I’m used to him.”
“All part of my charm,” Stanton said. “So, how about it?”
Abraham threw a last piece of sandwich into his mouth. “Ready when you are,” he said with mock confidence.
The three of them walked the short distance to the covered bridge. An icy spring breeze seemed to emanate from it, sweeping across the field, bending the high blades of grass the opposite direction.
“Where’d that ill-wind come from?” Freda asked folding her arms tight to her chest.
“That’s just the old place sending a greeting to its long lost friend, Abe,” Stanton said, giving him a hearty pat on the back.
Abraham pretended to find the comment amusing.
The three of them walked past the rushing flow of Shimmering Lake, its levels high due to recent heavy rainfall. The hulking structure of the bridge swelled before them as they neared it. Abraham suppressed a shudder as he eyed the windows along its side.
“You think he’s still here?” Stanton asked with a smirk.
“Does he think who’s still here?” Freda asked.
“You used to call him The Shadow Man, didn’t you, Abe?”
“Stanton, seriously, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but you have to quit teasing your friend.”
“No,” Abraham said. “He never was… just something I imagined.”
“We’ll find out soon enough,” Stanton said as they stepped onto the gravel path before the bridge.
Being overcast outside further darkened its interior. Boards creaked under their feet. Overhead wooden joists interwove to create a network of support for the roof.
“It’s amazing to believe something built so long ago is strong enough to survive more than a century later,” Freda commented before them.
“Just think of all the stuff this place has been witness to during that time,” Stanton agreed.
“… And absorbed into itself,” Abraham mumbled, too quick to take back.
“What’s that?” Stanton asked.
“It’s a shame people have to deface such a beautiful piece of history like this,” Freda said, referring to graffiti covering its walls.
“It goes with being a kid, I suppose,” Stanton said. “Heck, Abe and I did the same thing when we were young. It’s probably still here somewhere. We should find it.”
“That’ll be difficult, as dark as it is,” Abraham said, resisting the urge to flee. He felt watched by invisible eyes.
“No problem,” Stanton said, producing a small metallic object from his pocket. “I came prepared.”
“Since when do you carry a flashlight?” Freda asked.
“I’m full of surprises, Babe.” He turned it on toward the wall. “I think it’s this way.”
It took him less than a minute to find the section he sought. “Here it is.”
They followed him to peer at the small circle of light on the wood. Carved into a beam were four names: Stanton, Teresa, Abraham, and Reggie. The first initial of each was underlined to create the vertical word, STAR.
“That was our band of friends,” Abraham said with a grin. “We called ourselves The STAR’s, sort of a club.”
“I thought Abraham was your only friend,” Freda said to Stanton.
“Well, the others were really more Abe’s friends than mine, and Reggie died when we were in sixth grade.”
“Is that why his name has a line through it?”
“What?” Abraham asked. Both he and Stanton leaned in for a closer look.
Someone had cut a deep gash through Reggie’s name.
“Who would do something like that?” Abraham pondered aloud, cruel memories forcing their way into his thoughts.
“Same person who wrote these messages, I guess,” Stanton said, shifting the light to the right of the names.
Abraham went pale as he read the carved words.
Stanton – Looking To Get AHead
Teresa – Climbing Trees the Wrong Direction
Abraham – Welcome Home
Reggie – Gone Fishing
“What does it mean?” Freda asked, but neither responded. “Are you two okay?”
“Don’t know what it means, but it’s in incredibly bad taste,” Stanton said.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because Reggie died falling from this bridge. His body was never recovered from the lake. I saw it from my bedroom window,” Abraham told her, swallowing hard.
The three of them left the bridge in silence. Wind flowing through its windows whistled after their retreating forms.
Abraham accompanied the Fugate’s back to their house, glad to be away from the bridge. The Bird’s Eye was without patrons, allowing them to spend the rest of the day playing cards and talking. They sat on the patio eating steaks Stanton grilled. Despite Freda’s attempts to lighten the mood, a somber pall descended upon the men. They were mumbling and fiddling with their drinks when dusk arrived, bringing a gentle twilight breeze. Light from a vibrant moon dwarfed the backyard patio lights.
“Alright you two, it’s obvious you need to talk about what’s bothering you. I think you’ll feel better if you do,” Freda suggested.
“Nothing to talk about,” Stanton mumbled.
Freda snorted. “Yeah, sure there isn’t. Why don’t you start Abraham? You can’t be as stubborn as this lummox.”
Abraham forced a weak smile. “Okay. What do you want to talk about?”
Freda looked him in the eye. “How about this stuff about The Moon Spine Bridge and exactly what you saw there?”
Abraham averted his gaze. “You mean Reggie’s death? There isn’t much to tell. I was watching from my bedroom one night and saw our friend climb out one of its windows. He slipped and fell into the lake. I told Dad. He called the police, but it was too late. Reggie’s body was never found.”
Freda leaned back, folding her hands on her lap. “Alright, now tell me about this Shadow Man.”
Abraham held her gaze for several seconds before rubbing his temples. “I guess I got the idea from legends attached to the bridge. It’s understandable such a weird place would gather its share of spooky stories. My father loved that stuff. I remember him telling my mom and me about The Shadow Man. Actually, he called him The Negative. I was about six, and we were camping in the Talbot Forest. My Dad built a fire and told ghost stories. None of them stuck with me except the one about The Moon Spine Bridge, probably because I saw it every night.”
Freda wrinkled her forehead. “The Negative?”
“That’s what he called him. According to legend, a traveling photographer came to Oakhurst sometime in the early 1800’s to take pictures at the spring festival. There was a bad thunderstorm the evening he arrived. He was crossing The Moon Spine in his horse and buggy when the bridge was struck by lightning. People saw a huge flash before it caught fire. They rallied and put the blaze out, saving the bridge, but it was too late for the photographer. His buggy had been filled with the chemicals and powders of his trade. His body was charred black as midnight. Soon afterward people started seeing this figure walking through the bridge. They said he was like a shadow, no features, just a dark, humanoid image. He could come and go in an instant. Legend says the effect of having been slain by the exploding photographic materials turned his spirit into a negative.”
“They say he was evil?” Freda asked.
“Depends on who’s telling the story. Anytime an accident occurred on the bridge, people blamed him for it, but others said he seemed content to observe and show himself every now and then.”
“But you saw him?” Freda asked, leaning forward.
“I thought I did, but I was young. I was mistaken.”
“When did you see him?”
“I first thought I saw him while walking through the bridge summer of ‘89. I was coming home from playing at Reggie’s house. He lived on the other side of Shimmering Lake, so I took the path through the bridge. It was dark inside, and my father’s story came to mind. I thought I was being brave passing through a haunted place so late and alone. Inside, something was standing before one of the windows facing my house. It looked like the shadowed profile of a man’s head. I froze where I stood. I almost convinced myself there was some explanation, that it couldn’t be The Negative. I changed my mind when the head turned toward me. That’s when I took off running.”
Freda looked unnerved. “You said that was the first time. When did you see him again?”
“I thought I saw him several times after that, mostly from my bedroom window. He scared me for certain, but I was fascinated as well. I would often see his head, particularly on well moonlit nights, the way the bridge seems to glow and all. It was like he was watching me.”
“Do you think this Shadow Man was involved in your friend’s death?” Freda asked.
“I used to believe so, but now I know better. There is no Shadow Man.”
Abraham couldn’t stop thinking of the bridge and the strange messages inside it when he arrived at his father’s house late that night. After preparing for bed, he laid awake reading old books. By the time he was tired enough to sleep, it was two a.m. He walked to the window and opened the blinds. A brilliant silver glow radiated off the bridge. The trees of the Talbot Forest flayed wildly behind it. He watched for a while, entranced by the structure that seemed from a different world. There were rumors attached to the way it caught the moonlight. Some said its paint was sprinkled with dust from a fallen meteor. Others claimed its original painter was a strange, twisted looking man who emerged from the Talbot Forest, using paint he made himself, before disappearing back into the forest upon completion. Whatever lent the bridge its unnatural aura, Abraham believed it created The Shadow Man illusion; nothing more than a trick of light and shadow.
Something moved across the farthest window of the bridge. Abraham tensed. It might have been an owl or someone out for a late stroll. He watched as it passed the next window and continued on. Abraham followed its movement toward the exit, waiting to see what would emerge. A thin, blackened arm reached out from the bridge’s interior, wrapping each finger around the wooden handrail in a slow, ponderous fashion. When the rest of it emerged, it was as he remembered it, the lean silhouette of a man with no discernible facial features on its long, narrow face. It was watching him. There was no question of that. Abraham couldn’t pull his eyes away.
It lifted an ebony arm and beckoned to him.
“It wanted you to go to the bridge?” Freda gasped, when Abraham told her what happened the next day. “What did you do?”
“I closed the blinds and slept in Dad’s room. Well, I tried to sleep. I wasn’t real successful.”
“Why do you think it wanted you to go to it?”
“I don’t know. It never did that before.”
“Do you think someone could’ve been playing a prank?”
“I can’t imagine anyone waiting inside the bridge all night to try and scare me whenever I’d happen to look. Even Stanton wouldn’t have the patience for that. Where is he by the way?”
“He went into Brownsburg for an estate auction to try and pick up some antiques for The Bird’s Eye. I don’t expect him back until tomorrow.”
Abraham ran a hand through his hair. “Do me a favor. Don’t tell him what I saw. I don’t want to give him anymore ammunition.”
Freda gave a sympathetic smile. “It’ll be our secret, as will our visit to the bridge today.”
“What? No way am I going to the bridge,” Abraham said.
Freda placed a hand on his arm. “If we’re going to put this to rest, we have to try and figure out why it wanted you to go there. Maybe it left something.”
Abraham shook his head. “If you mean another message, I don’t want it.”
Freda frowned. “I’m going with or without you, but I hope you won’t make me go alone.”
Abraham pinched the bridge of his nose. “Fine, I’ll go with you, but I think it’s a mistake.”
Abraham drove Freda to his father’s house. They walked to the bridge. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until they found the list of names with the messages beside them.
“Theresa’s name has a line through it,” Freda said, eyes wide with horror. “It wasn’t like that yesterday. Do you think that means…?”
Abraham stared at it. Images of the pretty girl each member of their group secretly adored played through his mind. “I don’t know what it means,” he said, but we have to contact her.”
“I remember Stanton saying she married a guy and moved to Castleton a few years back.”
“Did he happen to mention her new last name?”
Freda thought for a moment before snapping her fingers. “Benson!”
They ran back to the house and dug out the phone book.
“I wish Dad had a computer,” Abraham grumbled. There were four Bensons listed in the Castleton area. They split up the numbers and started dialing. On her second attempt Freda motioned to Abraham. A look of concern overtook her as she spoke into the phone. After hanging up, she bit her lip.
“That was her sister. She said Teresa took the third grade class she teaches into the Talbot Forest this morning. She got separated somehow and hasn’t been seen since. She isn’t answering her cell phone either. A search party’s been looking for her, but the Talbot Forest is enormous.”
Abraham paced through the front room. “I should’ve gone to that thing last night. Maybe then I’d know what’s happening.”
Freda shook her head. “Or it could have gotten you. Come on, let’s go back to The Bird’s Eye and figure out what to do next.”
Guests arrived at The Bird’s Eye that evening, keeping Freda busy. Abraham helped her cater to them for a while, but as evening neared he excused himself to return to his father’s house. She protested, but he wouldn’t be swayed.
He didn’t prepare for bed that night, instead he placed a chair before the open window. The bridge glimmered as he settled in to watch.
It was two a.m. when a gust of wind struck him in the face, awakening him from a brief slumber. He looked out to see a murky figure leaning on the nearest bridge rail. The dark, narrow face was watching him, as though awaiting his attention. It shifted to rest its tilted head on one hand. Abraham jumped from his chair and ran through the back door. When he arrived, The Shadow Man was stepping into the gaping mouth of the bridge, blending into its darkness. Abraham steeled himself before following. In his hurry he’d forgotten his flashlight.
“Where are you?” he screamed, without reply. “Why are you after my friends?” he yelled again.
Darkness faded enough to reveal the silhouetted form standing at the other end of the bridge. Abraham charged at it, but when he got within reach, it stepped backward and winked out of existence. Abraham turned to find it standing at the opposite end of the bridge. He ran toward it again, only to have it repeat what had happened moments before. It vanished the second it stepped off the final rung. Abraham spun around. The Shadow Man blinked to life again at the other end. It took a step toward him, holding out its arms in a gesture Abraham didn’t understand.
“Where’s Theresa?” he demanded, trying to keep his voice calm.
The Shadow Man looked over its shoulder.
“She’s still in the forest?” he asked, trying not to dwell on the message carved beside her name.
“Did you kill her?”
The Shadow Man shook its head.
Abraham felt a twinge of relief. “She’s still alive then?”
It shook its head again.
“How’s she dead if you didn’t do it?”
It didn’t move.
“So which of us is next?” Abraham demanded. He had to find some way to destroy the thing, but how did you kill something made of shadows?
The Shadow Man moved toward Abraham, causing him to step aside. It pointed toward the wall. Darkness lightened from around one of the carved names. Abraham forced himself to look. “No,” he said, quiet at first. “Leave Stanton alone,” he added louder.
Silhouetted by moonlight streaming from a window, Abraham watched the figure begin to shake its head. It stopped suddenly, turning away, as though listening.
“You leave my friends alone,” Abraham repeated.
The Shadow Man turned back toward him. The darkness of the bridge came alive. Funnels of twisting, ink-like shadows flowed into The Shadow Man causing it to grow larger until it blotted out the rear exit.
“Stay away from me,” Abraham said, voice cracking with fear as the giant figure stepped forward. It continued to grow, hunching over to fit within the bridge. It took another step. Abraham tried to retreat, unable to take his eyes off the bizarre scene. By the time he turned to run, it was too late. The massive Shadow Man dropped upon him and everything went black. He fell, blinded against the wood floor. Footsteps sounded within the bridge.
“Abraham?” a voice called. It was Stanton. “You here?”
Abraham tried to respond, but no sound emerged.
“Abe?” Stanton called again. “You know your backdoor’s open?”
Abraham felt wrapped by cold darkness. The smell of damp wood filled his nostrils. He tried to move without success. He wanted to warn Stanton the Shadow Man planned to kill him, but all he could do was listen to him move about the bridge. A couple times he felt Stanton near him but couldn’t gain his attention. After a while the movements stopped. The darkness coating Abraham’s eyes receded. Stanton was stooped before a section of the bridge wall, scraping a large knife across it. He was wearing clothes caked with mud. The bridge darkened, and Abraham was released from the shadow-folds.
“What are you doing, Stanton?” he asked.
Stanton swung around, his face contorted with surprise. He held the bowie knife in a white knuckled grasp.
Abraham took a step toward him.
Stanton had a peculiar look on his face as he straightened from his hunched position to tower over him. “Nothing,” he said, eyeing his friend. “What’re you doing hiding in here, and why didn’t you answer when I called? You spying on me on top of everything else?” There was venom in his voice.
Abraham looked at the wall Stanton had been focused on. A fresh line was cut through his name. “On top of what else, Stan? What have I done that seems to have upset you?”
Stanton glared at Abraham. “I saw you sneaking around with my wife today when you thought I was gone. You just can’t handle there being anyone that likes me more than you, can you? First there was Reggie, your best friend who hated me. Then there was Teresa. You knew I had a thing for her, but you poisoned her against me. Now you’re trying to steal my wife. I thought you were my friend, but I was wrong, too blinded to see your constant betrayals.”
“I never tried to turn anyone against you, Stanton. You managed to do that on your own, and your wife was just trying to help me figure out what’s been going on inside this bridge.”
Stanton laughed. “Oh yes, this Shadow Man that only shows itself to you because your so special. None of us are good enough to see it, I suppose,” Stanton snarled. He began to lumber toward Abraham, knife in hand.
Abraham backed away. “So, where were you today? How’d you get so muddy? Been digging in the Talbot? You didn’t by chance run into Teresa, did you? You know she’s missing?”
Stanton stopped advancing to look over his shoulder toward the distant trees. A hideous grin creased his face when he turned back to Abraham. “Aren’t we clever?” He said with a gleam in his eye. “Let’s just say they’ll need a shovel or a backhoe to find her.”
“Why Teresa after all these years?”
“Bitch was going to call the police. Said I’d been stalking her or something. I wasn’t doing anything… just wanted to talk. She had to make trouble though, and I couldn’t have Freda hearing her lies. She wouldn’t understand.” Stanton said, displaying the brutal looking knife and moving toward Abraham. “Going to have to shut you up too, looks like.”
Abraham stretched his hands before him. “Come on, Stanton, we’re friends remember… best friends even. You’re being paranoid. Think about what you’re doing.”
Stanton stopped for a second seeming to reflect, then regarded Abraham with cold eyes. “Sorry, buddy, but I need to sever this relationship. Look on the bright side. You’re going to get to spend a lot of time with your Dad real soon.” The darkness churned above them.
Still backing away, Abraham searched for something to distract him. He thought if he reached the outer steps of the bridge he might be able to escape. “Why are you looking to get ahead?”
Stanton halted his advance. “What are you talking about?”
“Those messages you carved beside our names, why did you put “Trying to get ahead” beside yours?”
Stanton laughed. “That’s the funny thing. I didn’t carve those messages. I thought you or Teresa did. That’s part of why I wanted to talk to her. Thought she’d learned about what happened with Reggie all those years ago.”
“What happened with Reggie?”
“And here I was thinking you were clever,” Stanton said. “What do you think happened? You really think he was playing on the bridge and just happened to fall? You had a lot more time to hang out with me once he was gone.”
Abraham was close to the bridge’s entrance but needed more time. “So why would it say you were trying to get ahead?”
“A – head, not ahead, and you’ll find out soon enough. I’m about to add you to a collection I keep hidden in a cozy little spot in the Talbot.” With that he lunged at Abraham. The knife missed, but the force of Stanton’s momentum sent them to the floor with Stanton on top. The knife was knocked free. The two struggled with each other, but Stanton’s strength overpowered Abraham. Stanton wrapped his powerful hands around Abraham’s neck. “Maybe you’ll come back as a Shadow Man to haunt the bridge for real, Abe-old-buddy,” Stanton said between grunts.
Abraham couldn’t respond. His body screamed for air, black spots popped in his eyes. Above him the swirling blackness formed into a giant face that leered down at them. This time it had eyes, a nose and a mouth. It was huge, encompassing the roof of the bridge. Abraham’s strength left him. His former friend continued his diatribe, but he couldn’t understand him. The mouth of the giant shadow-face opened releasing a long gelatinous tongue of shadow which floated down toward Stanton’s back. It wrapped around his waist and pulled. He yelled something, but Abraham was choking too hard to make it out. Stanton’s screaming body, wrapped in coils of solidified shadow, was pulled up into the immense gapping maw. His screams stopped as he vanished inside the closing mouth. The ebony face smiled down at Abraham in the seconds before he lost consciousness.
Hikers found Abraham, unconscious but alive. His throat was too bruised to speak. He wrote what happened to investigators from his hospital bed. They didn’t believe the parts about The Shadow Man. They thought someone had scared Stanton off before he could finish the job. They put out an APB, but no sign of him was ever found. The headless body of Teresa Benson was unearthed near the base of a large tree in the Talbot Forest after days of searching. Not far from there they found a little root cave that held her severed head as well as the skull of a long dead boy, later identified as Reggie’s. Freda was shocked and heart broken to learn of her husband’s crimes. She closed The Bird’s Eye and moved out of state. She kept in contact for a while, but eventually her correspondence stopped.
After he recovered Abraham took a job in Oakhurst, moving into his father’s house. He remodeled it but kept many of his Dad’s things. He walked the bridge often, particularly when no one was around to overhear him talking to the entity that resided there.