In Hart’s Ridge, there is no crime, or traffic accidents. It never rains on soccer games, weddings, or parades. With it’s beautiful pine-covered bluffs overlooking the winding Red River, Hart’s Ridge is, in fact, the perfect place to live. But that perfection comes at a price, and every February 14th for the last one hundred and fifty years, that price has been paid in blood.
The story goes that sixteen-year-olds Jed Macon and Camilla Hart were secretly in love. So secret that no one had any idea until the echo of a gunshot brought the townspeople out to the ridge where they found Jed, dead, the shotgun still in his mouth, and Camilla bloody and broken on the rocky shore of the Red River below. Each had one half of a locket clutched in their hand. To this day no one knows if Camilla fell, jumped, or was pushed.
Now, every Valentine’s Day, one boy and one girl from town end up dead the same way. This year it’s my turn.
Oh, if you ask anyone from town they’ll tell you they have no idea who it’s going to be. It’s always a surprise. The curse has its own mysterious methods of choosing. But if you listened in to their whispered conversations you’d hear what they really think. Cami Hart is going over that cliff and she’s taking that curse with her.
The good people of Hart’s Ridge have been waiting for this moment ever since the day I was born, Valentine’s Day, sixteen years ago. A particularly tough year on the town, since we lost the star quarterback and the first girl ever to get early acceptance to an Ivy League school. My parents named me after my great-great-great Aunt Camilla in that hopes that honoring her would keep me safe, but all they did was fuel the town's hopes that getting rid of Camilla meant getting rid of the curse for good.
This year, while all the fathers lock up their shotguns and the mothers clutch their bibles in their sleep, I sneak out my bedroom window to the place I love most even though I shouldn’t.
If it’s my last day on earth, I want to watch the sunrise from the bluff. In the early morning light, the Red River really does look like blood running through the snow. I think I should feel sad, but I don’t. I hate this place. It’s hard to miss people who won’t even talk to you. Not that I blame them. Who wants to be friends with someone they know is going to die.
Up on the ridge, the pine trees have kept the ground relatively snow-free. I throw rocks over the edge wonder how it will feel to be possessed. Will I even know what’s happening? Will the fall hurt? Or will I already be gone by that point, taken over by another Camilla and her never-ending heartache.
“Cami!” My name echoes through the trees. Faint at first, but it grows louder as it repeats. I don’t recognize the voice. Male, but not my father. I wonder if it’s starting already.
I stay silent, whoever it is will find me soon enough. I watch the last of the streaks of color fade from the sky and wait. I want these final few moments of peace.
The crunch of footsteps behind me doesn’t make me turn, but I can’t ignore the wheezing sounds.
I turn around to find scrawny Nate Beckstrom hunched over, one hand on his knees, the other clutching his asthma inhaler. He peers up at me through his longish red hair, and says the first words he’s ever spoken to me in my life. “Oh thank God, I thought I was too late.”
“Not yet.” I toss another rock over the ridge, turning my back to Nate.
He’s probably come to watch the curse go down. Since no one has ever seen it play out, it’s been the source of much friendly contention and about a thousand different ghost stories over the centuries. Anyone who could return to school with a first-hand account of the true story would be crowned king or emperor or god. I can’t really begrudge him that sort of fame.
I hear two short puffs and then a pause before Nate’s breathing becomes normal and closer than before. “I’ve been thinking about the curse,” he says from my right.
“Who hasn’t?” I toss another pebble and watch its hopeless descent. It’s paving the way for me, carving a small path through the air so I won’t get lost when the time comes.
“I don’t think it happens the way people say. I don’t think Jed and Cami were in love and I don’t think they killed each other. Have you ever held a shotgun, Cami? It’s not really the easiest way to commit suicide, but if the story is true then they found it in his hands. In his hands. And a hole straight through him. It doesn’t add up and I don’t think you should be out here.”
It’s difficult to picture Nate holding a shotgun in any way that looks real. I try it, but it’s like imagining a child wielding a broom or a sword, awkward and incomplete and in some small way adorable.
It’s less adorable when I imagine a bloody hole in his head.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “At least not for me, but you should get out of here.”
Quiet opens between us like the Red River below. Nate stands stone still, watching me through strands of red hair. He stands out against the dark pines behind him the contrast makes him seem older and not at all awkward.
“Don’t let them do this to you.” He doesn't plead. He says it like it’s something he’s said to me before. Only he hasn’t, because this is our first conversation of all time. “Don’t let them make you their sacrifice.”
Sacrifice? I don’t like the word, the idea, the implication, but it rattles uncomfortably in my mind. Sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice. Hart’s Ridge is cursed, I remind myself. This isn’t the sort of thing people would do willingly. The town is trapped and I am the only one who can free it. I’m not their sacrifice, I’m my own.
But I remember how my mother hugged me longer than usual last night before bed and how my windows opened soundlessly on the worst day of the year.
“Why are you here?” I step away from him, angrily dragging my foot through the dirt and pebbles. Dust rises between us, a thick distance in the morning sun.
“Because –“ He stops and I watch as he files straight past his first answer to the second. “Because I remember when you chased Cindy Dirks through the playground in the third grade for calling you the “curse maker” and how you used to fight this whole damn town for putting their own destiny on you. And I remember when you used to answer questions in class and wear bright colors and make eye contact and I just – just – “
Right at the end, his voice splinters high and low, but it doesn’t matter. I step forward, slipping my hands around his cheeks and press my lips to his.
For just a second, we are quiet and still, but then his hands settle on my waist and our kisses become quick and breathless.
When we pull away, I feel a smile on my face. I can’t remember the last time I smiled and that thought makes me laugh and laugh until I have kneel on the ground, my fingers pushing the pebbles apart. Nate kneels with me, his eyes narrowed with a hint of concern, but his mouth is a reflection of my own – a wide-open smile. Our breath moves together in little white clouds.
“You’re right, Nate.” I press my palms flat to the ground, steadying myself. “I’m not going to let this happen.”
He grins at me then and I’m half certain that if I did step off this cliff right now, I wouldn’t fall. I’d fly.
The sun glitters on the ground between us and I shuffle the pebbles around to find whatever it is the sun has. It’s half buried in the dirt, but I uncover it easily. As soon as I do, I wish I hadn’t. I wish I’d taken Nate’s hand and run while we had the chance.
“No,” he whispers, reaching for the small, silver locket in my hand. Beneath his touch, it separates leaving us each with half a heart and the beginning of the curse in our hands.
“It’s nothing. Just an old locket,” Nate says between deep inhales. He knows it not nothing just as well as I do.
“So this is how it works? For over a hundred years some boy just came up here trying to stop some girl and they both found this?” The light catches the locket as I hold my half in front of our faces. “That seems impossible.”
“Because it is impossible. C’mon. Let’s just—let’s go.” The fear is evident in Nate’s voice and it takes him back a step to that small awkward boy wheezing up the hill. “We can still go home, Cami.”
“No. We can’t.” I can't. What am I going home to? An entire town of people, including my parents, who will resent me for the rest of my life because I didn’t go over the cliff and stop it all? This is it. It has to end with me.
“Why not?” Nate keeps glancing over his shoulder at the tree line. A shadow moves in the dark—a bird probably, unless someone else has come to watch the show.
I close my eyes and wait for the pull of it, the invisible thread that will draw me to the edge of the bluff and send me sailing to the Red River below, but there’s nothing. Just the heat of the morning sun on my eyelids. “I don’t understand?”
Nate wraps his arms around himself, shivering. “Please, Cami. It doesn’t have to happen this way. You don’t have to be their sacrifice.” He waves his arm back behind him toward the tress, or the town below. “Please.”
Shadows darken Nate’s eyes and create creases around his mouth that I hadn’t noticed before. Memories from all the years we’ve known each other crash together like the waves down below us. How could I have had Nate all this time and not known it? Not cared? Is this how Cami felt about Jed? Is this why there love was so secret, because even she didn’t know?
I lean into him and tuck my face into the bend of his neck. “What were you going to say before?”
“Before you reminded me of who I used to be.”
Nate pulls back to peer at me behind the thin red curtain of his hair. “I was going to say—” He searches my face.
“Please,” I whisper, brushing the hair out of his eyes. “I really need to know.”
Nate laughs. “What the heck, it is Valentine’s, right? I was going to say that…that I love you, Cami. I’ve always loved you.”
As soon as the words leave his lips an icy chill runs through me. It’s the confirmation I need. I snatch the locket out of Nate’s hand as I pull away from his warm arms and back toward the edge of the bluff.
Love. Love is what brought this curse to the perfect town of Hart’s Ridge. The curse that has to end before it takes another life. Before it takes Nate.
My feet keep shuffling my body backward. My mind is reeling, spinning with all the things I can’t make my mouth say. It’s better if I don’t say anything to him now.
If I choose to jump, rather than wait for the possession of the curse, will that end it?
“Cami, what are you doing?” His eyes flash between me and the woods.
I shake my head no, tears prick my eyes. Why did he have to say that? I can’t stop thinking that maybe I love him too. It makes it that much harder, but convinces me that I have to do this.
“Please, Cami.” He’s not pleading with his words, but with his eyes, like he’s trying hard to convey some secret message. Whatever it is it doesn’t matter.
I reach the edge and pause just long enough to whisper, “I’m sorry,” and watch Nate’s eyes grow wide and scared as he lunges for me, screaming my name.
Like the pebbles I’d tossed so carelessly, I sail down over the cliff. My fingers fold tight around the locket, knowing in my heart that I had no choice. I had to do it to save him. I saved Nate, and I saved the town. The curse of Hart’s Ridge ends with me, Camilla Hart. A sad smile crosses my lips and just as I know my head will hit the water of the blood-red river, somewhere above me I hear the crack of a gun.
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