As Cassie turned the kayak away from the marshy shoreline toward the bridge pilings, she looked closely at their crusty coatings trying to see signs of the tide markings. She’d been floating aimlessly around the Intracoastal, close to the bridge, for the better part of an hour, hoping to familiarize herself with the area around the old bridge and also the area where she’d be building the new bridge.
Oh, she liked the sound of that. She’d be building the new bridge. It would actually be her father’s company that built it, but she was the designer, the architect, and unless she screwed up big time, she’d be the master contractor in charge. It would be her first chance to prove herself, not only to her dad, but to the crew she’d been working with ever since her summers in high school.
As the sun beat down on her head, she remembered the baseball cap she’d left in her GMC Jimmy. Thank God she’d remembered her sunglasses; the sun glinting off the water was enough to blind her with its shiny glare. She paddled over to the small bridge tender’s house that was attached to the bascule part of the bridge. It was low tide right now, so the house was a good fifteen feet above her. This truly was a unique bridge, one of the last of its type, consisting of an apparatus that relied on one end to counterbalance the other by weights, very much like a seesaw. It was a design remarkable in its simplicity.
She marveled at the quaintness of the old bridge and at the same time, she tsk-tsked the condition of it as her tongue repeatedly clicked against the roof of her crimson-lined mouth. Deplorable. It was truly amazing that the state still allowed it to be used. She was under the last swing bridge on the east coast; the bridge connecting the mainland of Brunswick County to the island of Sunset Beach. Sunset Beach was about an hour’s drive south of Wilmington, North Carolina and an hour’s drive north of Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, in fact, it was Sunset Beach and the attached 39 acres of Bird Island that separated the two states.
Cassie knew the history of the bridge well. Her father had insisted she know the local history before coming down the first time, almost two years earlier, before they had put in a bid for the job of replacing bridge number 198 on SR 1172 over the Intracoastal Waterway at Sunset Beach, North Carolina. The first bridge to cross to the island of Sunset Beach was finished in 1958 by a local developer named Mannon C. Gore. It was a cable swing drawbridge controlled by a three-drum winch. It was replaced in 1961 by the North Carolina Department of Transportation and then again in 1973. The bridge maintenance crews of Wilmington replaced it a fourth time in 1984, and here it stood in all its decaying glory all 508 feet 6 inches of it. Oh sure, there’d been a lot of repairs done over the years, but it had been time for a new one a long time ago. And that in itself was an interesting story. Some of the locals had literally been fighting City Hall for over twelve years to keep the Town of Sunset Beach from having a high span bridge built that wouldn’t require hourly openings and closings for the boat traffic on the Intracoastal.
As she looked up at all the toreutic worm holes left by those damnably proliferate sea leeches on the underside of the bridge, she could hear the thumping, creaking and metal-on-metal grating noises as the cars above her drove over to the island. The greedy little marine worms had bored holes everywhere, infesting every plank. She quickly looked down and shook her head trying to shake off the small wood and dust particles that were settling down and embedding themselves in her thick, short, black curls.
It was then that she saw it. There, floating and bobbing against a pylon. What the hell was that? It looked like some kind of a hat bill sticking up out of the murky, green water. Then it flipped over and she screamed with an eerily shrill voice she didn’t even know she’d had inside her.
A man’s grizzled head was bobbing up and down with the currents caused from the last boat’s wake. A graying old man’s head, with a baseball cap still attached to it was spinning around and around as it came closer and closer to her kayak, with one eye open, seemingly staring at her, and the other entirely missing from its socket. His nose was oddly pocked with bite marks and his lips gaped open, appearing to be bleeding where the corners met a deep gash from his cheek. She screamed again, this time louder but not quite so piercing as she frantically paddled and then finally pushed her small boat away from the slimy, creosote-covered timber. When she was finally out from under the shade of the bridge and back in the bright sunlight, she squinted up at the tiny yellow house and shouted and waved until a middle-aged man came out of the house and looked down at her.
“What’s all the hollerin’ about?” he called over the side of the railing.
“There’s a head! A man’s head!” she was finally able to get the horrible words out.
“A man! His head! Just his head is here in the water under the bridge!” she hollered back up at him.
“Look mister, I’m not a kid playing a joke!” Although she knew that to a lot of people she looked like she could be. Her short unruly mop, coupled with her freckled nose and tanned, slender build gave her the look of a seventeen-year-old camp counselor rather than the 24-year-old construction worker that she fancied herself to be. “Call the police! And hurry, before it disappears!”
He leaned over the side of the railing trying to see where she was pointing, but it was too far under the bridge.
“All right. All right. I’m goin’,” he said as he turned around and went back into the bridge tender’s house.
Cassie kept trying to fight the currents that wanted to send her back under the bridge. Using her two-sided paddle, she leveraged it so she could stay in the sun, well away from the head she could still see bobbing over in the shadows. The writing and symbol on the bill of the hat told her that he had apparently been a Duke fan. The blue and white of the Blue Devil mascot smiling at her added an even more menacing element to the gruesome scene just ten feet in front of her . . . .