He pulled the collar of his coat up. Not to keep out the cold, but to keep out the dark. As a ‘big city kid’, which was his nickname here in Chambliss, ‘suburbanite kid’ would have been better, but they didn't know the difference, he wasn't used to the pervasive unlit darkness. He continued putting one foot in front of another and moving forward until he saw a warm light ahead. He knew it to be the Stranger Bridge. It was one of his favorite thinking spots. The wild stories he had heard could provide an endless amount of inspiration for the play he was writing.
He found it odd that the bridge should be both celebrated and feared. The end of September would bring the Covered Bridge Festival or so he was told. He would eventually arrive at the end of September when his skills as artistic director of the Arrgus County Playhouse would be put to the test on that cold autumn day. He didn't know that yet. He couldn't know that yet. So in the meantime, he would go to the Stranger Bridge with regularity and dream up stories for the names he saw carved into its wooden beams. Some of those stories would end up in his writing. Others would end up crumpled and tossed into the mental wastebin of bad ideas.
Richard Flitner had accepted the position as artistic director of the Arrgus County Playhouse a few months earlier. The phone interview had gone well, the website, and Facebook page looked good, and he was desperate leave teaching. The life of an actor was too unpredictable, so he had gone into teaching for stability. The life of a teacher was overwhelming and exhausting. So he started looking for another job. He waited tables and sold shoes to pay the bills until his job came along. He still couldn’t believe his good luck at landing this position. He wasn’t excited about moving 12 hours away from home to a town that was smaller than the high school he attended, but the chance to have a stable position in a theater was too good to pass up. He would make the sacrifices necessary to make it work. And sacrifice he would.
Winter turned into spring which turned into summer. Late nights of rehearsals and early mornings with the books became his normal routine. A successful season had endeared him to several theater patrons and ensured his continued career at the playhouse. As summer was drawing to a close and the leaves were beginning their autumnal fashion show, the county began to gear up for the Covered Bridge Festival. The Stranger Bridge was always the star but several other bridges around would be featured. He was asked to procure period era costumes foe the tour guides to wear. He also volunteered to help with their voice and diction. There had been many rehearsals and a few meltdowns, but as the last Thursday of September approaches, Chambliss was ready to welcome the tourists. Richard’s welcome would run out and he would sacrifice his beloved career to save the town he would grow to hate.
The first Saturday of the Covered Bridge Festival began clear and sunny. The weather had a hint of chill creating the perfect day for touring the bridges, buying souvenirs, and eating lots of Chambliss delicacies. The crowds were large and the atmosphere festive. Richard was beginning to understand how people could so love this town. He greeted his neighbors as he left his rental house and walked toward the town square. He passed a horse drawn wagon full of tourists. He heard his favorite tour guide, Minny Franklin, explaining the history and architecture of the bridges. The hour long tour had just started and they would soon be coming to the White Creek Bridge. The tour always ended with the star attraction, the Stranger Bridge.
He meandered into town and shopped for various souvenirs to send home to his nieces and nephews. He bought an apple strudel from the Anderson sisters. He bought a fall spice cappuccino from The Coffee House. He chuckled remembering Sandy’s diatribe against pumpkin spice. He found an open bench and began eating. The food was cozy and warm. He enjoyed watching the crowd until he spotted the mayor in the crowd glaring at him. A second later the mayor was gone and Richard assumed he had been seeing things. He attempted to forget the look and finish his breakfast peacefully. He tried to imagine what he could have done to incur that look and couldn’t. He sat there thinking and pondering much longer than he had intended. He realized this when Minny sat down next to him.
“Hey Richie. Why so serious? Today is beautiful. The tourists are plenty and the cash is flowing.”
“I didn’t see you get back from your tour.” He said managing a smile. “I got lost in thought.”
“Well save such serious thoughts for later. We need our fearless director to be happy.”
“I’ll do my best.” He responded patting her on the knee.
“Why Richie, look at you getting fresh with me.” She said falling back into character. “Whatever am I going to do with such an unrepentant cad?”
He laughed and shook his head.
She winked at him. “If you keep this up, I will expect nothing less than an offer of marriage.”
“Well that’s a fine idea Miss Minny.” Richard said joining her character. “I would be proud if your father would allow me to have your hand in marriage.”
She leaned over, broke character, and whispered, “Then I could finally get you in the sack you sexy beast.”
An eruption of laughter from deep in his gut followed. “You always keep me guessing.”
“Yep. I have a tour starting in an hour will you be on it?”
“No other place I would rather be.”
“The Stranger Bridge gained its moniker many years ago. In the time of our great-great-great grandparents a stranger came in to town and was welcomed with open arms. This stranger lived among them for many months. He even came to love the prominent daughter in town. On the wedding day, the stranger was caught stealing from the family. He ran from the house and toward the barn. To the surprise of everyone present, the bride was with him on the horse! The happy criminal couple rode towards escape with many townspeople on their heels. As they crossed over the old Arrgus River Bridge, the bag of loot fell from the horse and into Arrgus River. The money and jewels were recovered, the couple was never heard from again, and the town was saved. A new bridge was built to remind them to not trust romancing strangers.” Minny finished the story with a wary glance around to the tourists followed by a laugh. The rest of the tourists chuckled along with her, but Richard couldn’t get her father’s look out of his mind from earlier.
As the tour ended, he made sure to get off the wagon last. He helped Minny down as well. He continued holding her hand as he led her through the crowd and into the back door of the playhouse. “Well Richie, did you take my suggestion from earlier seriously?”
He turned to her with a serious look on his face.
She dropped the flirtatious tone and words. “What’s the matter?”
“The bridge. It’s about a stranger who falls in love with an important girl from town and then gets run out of town.”
“And it’s just a story. Daddy loves you and he loves you with me. We are to be the future of the playhouse and the town. You and I are the perfect couple to ensure his legacy will be intact for future generations.” She repeated leading him towards the office.
“Maybe you’re right.” He said opening the door. They both turned their heads to look to the interior of the room. In that moment they knew that she wasn’t right and that they weren’t okay. They wouldn’t be okay for a very long time.
Her father was taking piles of money from the wall safe. He turned to see them standing in the doorway. “Shut the door and leave.”
“Daddy, what’s going on?”
“This is where the money has been going. Mayor Franklin I’ve been asking you for months about the discrepancies in the books. You’ve told me my math was wrong, but I wasn’t wrong. Was I?”
With a scowl the mayor and theatre owner replied, “No Richard you weren’t wrong. There has been money missing and yes that money has been going in my pocket. My lifestyle isn’t easy to maintain. And neither are you my dear.” He said turning his anger on his daughter. “If you didn’t require quite so many things, then this wouldn’t be happening.”
“What? I ...” Minny voice faltered. She gave him a pained look. “I would have been happy with less.”
“Good. We’ll be one person less. Say goodbye to Richard. His thieving has been discovered and we aren’t going to stand for it.” He said crossing the room to pull his daughter into the room.
She evaded his reach. “I’ll do no such thing. You need to make restitution. Richard has done nothing wrong.”
“It’s just my word against his. Who is everyone going to believe? The man who saved this town from ruin or the stranger who is romancing us out of our money”
Minny looked harshly at her father. She gathered her courage. “And if I speak out against you? What will people think then?”
His eyes narrowed. “That you are a stupid little girl that fell under the spell of a man. You wouldn’t be the first and you won’t be the last.”
A silence fell between them. Richard stepped into the fray. He looked into the eyes of his new enemy. “I take Minny and the rap. You keep your reputation and the town.”
Mayor Franklin’s face morphed into a sneer. “You think she’s worth all that? You keep her.” He turned away from the couple and dismissed them with a wave of his hand.
Minny nearly collapsed. Richard put an arm around her waist and led her away from the scene. He spoke to her in whispers of comfort and promises. Those whispers gave them strength to pack and leave. Those whispers gave them strength to find new careers and a new home. Those whispers carried them through the tough years. And now 10 years 2 children and a new life later, they are happy. Chambliss is unchanged. They still believe the Stranger Bridge is there to remind them to be wary of strangers and keep their loved ones close.