Steven Alligan died on a quiet Wednesday morning in August of 1999.
By all accounts Steven was a happy, healthy, well adjusted 29 year old man. He was a biology professor at a local community college living with his girlfriend, Megan, and their four year old son. Megan was still asleep when two cops knocked on her door a few minutes before 9am.
“Good morning, ma’am. Is your name Megan Owens?”
“Yes, it is…is something wrong?”
“Do you know a person named Steven Alligan?”
“Yes, of course, he’s my boyfriend.”
“Would you like to sit down?”
Megan called her young son to her side and rocked him through tears as the officers explained that the body of a man had been seen falling from Cold Spring Canyon Arch Bridge just after sunrise that morning. The witness called police. Steven’s car was found parked on the bridge with a running video camera positioned on his dash board recording his final minutes.
“Oh my God… And did you, did you watch the recording?”
“Yes, ma’am, we did.”
“And did he…j- jump?”
This was the detail that Megan would suffer from most in her life. After the shock had passed and the grief had built and peaked and finally cooled to a tolerable ache, after years had separated Megan from that traumatic morning…she could never let it go. This one detail was sour to her, it was absurd and inconsistent with Stephen’s character. Why record your own death?
Was it because he wanted her to know, without a doubt, that he’d done it to himself? Did he do it because he knew no one would believe he was capable of suicide and he wanted to avoid exhaustive investigations for his family’s sake? Had he been trying to actually record something else and had fallen over the railing and into the gorge?
After the ME had officially ruled cause of death to be suicide Megan asked for Steven’s body back. His family intervened and took custody of it, opting to cremate their son and spread his ashes over their rural farm. Megan was in no legal position to stop them.
So when the cops offered Megan the tape from the day of the Steven’s death she took it, though they stressed to her that the tape should be destroyed and that watching it would only hurt her more.
She didn’t watch the tape, but she didn’t destroy it either. It sat on top of the VCR in her room for a decade, slowly driving her insane.
Megan spent the last ten years of her life locked in her room drinking gin and wine and occasionally raising her son. I was a good kid; I didn’t get in fights or cause problems or even get sick but my mother still looked at me like a fuck up, a disappointment. She told me I looked like my father. I don’t think she liked that about me.
I had reserved to carry on like this until I was 18 but then, on one very ordinary day, she went missing. I was sixteen at the time and had stayed at a friend’s house the night before. I did find it weird when I returned home the next morning to find her car gone on a day she wasn’t working but I was glad. I went to school as usual but when she still wasn’t back when I got home I started to worry. I spent most of that night debating whether or not I should call the police.
I didn’t, but early the next morning they showed up at my door anyway.
“What’s your name, son?”
“Robby. Ah, Robert Alligan.”
“And is your mother Megan Owens?”
“Is Megan Owens your mom?”
“When did you last see her?”
“Tuesday morning before school. Is she okay? It’s everything okay?”
“It’ll be alright, will you take a seat?”
They told me that a hiker found my mother’s body in the gorge. I should have been surprised to hear it but I wasn’t. If she was going to do it, she would have done it the same way as him, to be with him. They said her car was parked on the shoulder of the road next the Arch Bridge. They asked if she had been depressed or on any medication. I said no, but my eyes wandered to her bedroom door.
One of the cops went outside to make a phone call and the other asked me to go upstairs and pack some things, asked if I had family nearby. Only my dad’s family, I told him, who lived on a farm and whom I’d never met.
I packed a bag in a relieved yet mournful state. At least her suffering was over. At least she wouldn’t live in service to the tape anymore. But I know and I knew then that she had finally watched it. And I knew I couldn’t leave it behind.
It sat on top of her old VCR, outside of it’s sleeve. I picked it up and pushed it into the VCR and then sat on the bed.
The TV screen flickered blue with the bold, white letters of PLAY flashing in the upper right-hand corner.
I’d always respected my mom’s wishes in regard to the tape. The truth was I never wanted to watch it. I hadn’t known my father and I didn’t remember him. But now I wanted to know what she’d seen. I had to know. Whatever was on that tape had killed both of my parents and I needed to know what it was. Because right now, all I felt was a comfortable numbness. Was I in shock? Was there something wrong with me? I knew I would probably regret it but I needed to watch it anyway.
I rewound the cassette back 3 minutes. Then I hit PLAY.
The screen blinked a second and then I was looking at an empty bridge and its concrete railing on the right. There was nothing on the other side of the barrier but dimly lit sky. It was also raining lightly, which is something my mother hadn’t mentioned about that day. The POV was through the windshield of a car, like a modern day dashcam.
There were no people in the shot. I hadn’t gone back far enough.
I hit STOP and then REWIND. I let it go back another twenty minutes and then I hit PLAY again.
This time, the camera was moving, or rather, the car was. The only sounds were the hum of the highway, the pitter-patter of rain on the windshield and my father’s ragged breathing. After a few minutes I could hear another sound as well – his quiet crying.
I could see the bridge approaching from a distance in the thin light of dawn and by the time he pulled up to it, his breathing was even and the crying had stopped. My father parked the car on the side of the bridge and I heard him roll all the windows down. Then he got out and I heard the sound of the backdoor opening and a rustling behind the camera.
When he re-emerged at the front of the car, he was dragging something behind him. When he’d gotten far enough in front of the car I saw it was a little boy. He turned to address the camera.
A cold shudder wracked through my body as I recognized that the little boy was me. I’d been there that day? I’d seen my father die? I remembered none of it. I hugged my arms to my body and turned the volume up as my father began to talk to the camera.
“What did you do, Megan? We were a family, we loved each other. We were happy.”
As he spoke I watched my little face on the screen. Instead of looking scared or confused or uncomfortable, I was smiling. It was the smile of a child who’d gotten away with stealing a cookie from the cupboard. A snarky, satisfied smile.
“I’ve tried it dozens of times in a dozen different ways. I’ve used controls, lab equipment from the school, I’ve taken meticulous notes, and I’ve destroyed it all because the result is always the same. He always comes back.”
Then, he lifted the boy up into his arms and four year old me stared into the camera.
“It’s not natural, Megan. It’s not right. We would have been okay. Why did you do it?” I could hear the tortured emotion bleeding from his voice, the levy about to break. I couldn’t tell for certain in the rain but I was sure he was crying.
“He always comes back. I don’t know how. What did you do, Megan?” His voice cracked and the little boy in his arms picked up his head and started giggling. My father’s face registered fear and then he took two determined steps to the concrete railing and then threw the child over the side of the bridge. The giggling turned to laughing and just faded down into the abyss as I fell with the rain.
I dropped the remote and felt the sick roiling up my throat. What the fuck? How did I survive a fall from a 400 foot tall bridge? I took quick, unnecessary, stock of my body to see if I could find any scars, phantom pains, or permanent damage.
When I finally looked back at the screen my father was staring out of it, looking directly at me as if he’d been waiting for my attention.
“What did you do, Megan?” He whispered one last time. Then he casually walked over to the side of the bridge, threw one leg over the railing and then sort of just rolling off the ledge.
The rest of the tape was what I’d seen earlier: the sky lightening and the rain letting up. And then the tape just ended. I took it with me. I never watched it again.
I spent the next year living on my grandparent’s farm, doing every drug I could get a hold of in their small town trying to avoid the thoughts and questions in my head and the implications of the tape I’d watched. Toward the end of my time there I sobered up just long enough to realize there was no escape. I decided to track down the cops who’d responded on the day of my dad’s suicide.
Of the three who had watched the tape, only one remained on the force. I bombarded his office with calls that he never responded to. I left messages and sent a dozen emails. I was debating going back to home town to ambush the him in his office when a letter arrived in the mail for me. It was from the officer, a detective now. He asked me to stop calling his office and to please never contact him again. He’d wanted nothing to do with me then and even less so now. But it was a polite letter and he did answer my question.
Your father’s body was the only one found under the bridge. When we went to inform your mother that her husband was dead and likely her son as well, we found you playing at her side. How can we charge a dead man with the murder of a boy whose body is still breathing? We walked away from this case and I don’t speak of it.
Although I’m too afraid to continue my father’s experiments, I have had some confirmation that I would likely get the same results. During one of my more intense binges I did enough heroine to kill ten Keith Richards, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to live anymore. But I woke up the next day feeling fine. And then last year I was in a car accident that reduced my truck to two square meters of twisted metal. The cops found me dazed, sitting next to the wreckage – my clothes coated in my own blood and torn to shreds. But of course I didn’t have a scratch on me.
Sometimes I sober up just long enough for the clouds to part and clarity to descend. I remember more of my childhood in these moments, and I remember further back than I should. Lost memories resurface like whales from the depths of the ocean, breaking the water so briefly and then sinking back into the abyss.
I remember how much my parents loved each other. I remember how much they loved me. I can see my mother smiling; I’d never seen her smile before. I remember the sickness too, sometimes. Laying in my warm bed at home for months and then laying in the cold one at the hospital. So much pain. Sad faces, sober doctors and my parent’s tears. But then another memory laps in and I’m outside playing, just your average healthy three year old. And then I remember my father on the tape, confused and scared and desperate.
“What did you do, Megan?”