Here’s an urban fantasy piece that might have gone somewhere, but I felt it was too weak. It’s an older bit, and kind of an exercise in character type and world-tinkering.
I drive the dead. It’s a job.
If you were to ask how it started, I couldn’t answer. The cab has always been there, just like the apartment on 34th, and the clients. I’m always hard-pressed when I try to explain how or when it began, the gaps in my memory like dark chasms between neurons. It’s the same black blank that comes to me when I try to make sense of the fact that I can see and speak with the dead, or that I should know the roads they travel. After so many years, it just is, and I’ve learned to accept it.
Still, on some nights, when I’m sitting in the cab, and the meter’s off for a bit, in the silences that come between the drumming of rain on the roof, or the voice of a fare, I catch glimpses. My mother, dressed in black, humming lullabies in a dim room, twilight filtering through. My father, a hulking man, dark like mahogany, and depending on his mood, wearing either a fierce scowl, or a smile like moonlight.
It was one of those nights when she came to my cab. Pale skin, the color of milk, and auburn hair that rippled and strayed in the wind. She was wearing a knee-length dress, the kind of red that reminds you of dark roses, or wine. She smiled through the window, her teeth straight and just white enough to let you know she’d lived, and got in.
My heart ached and let out a pang that let me know if she hadn’t already been gone, I would’ve never had a chance with her.
She got in, and closed the door behind her. In the space of that second, I could hear the wind picking up, playing music on the concrete of the city while the rain increased its tempo against the roof of the cab, as though it wanted to go where she was. More importantly, I could smell her. Not in a creepy let-me-borrow-your-hair way, but in the way you notice someone when they pass by.
I could smell jasmine and vanilla, the wet musk of her hair, and the cloth of the dress that clung to her like a second skin. I was trying not to stare in the rearview. I reached for the meter, and stopped.
Her clothes were wet.
You might think a thing like that shouldn’t surprise me. The thing is, regular people, everyday people, with jobs and kids and mortgages, and most importantly, lives, don’t see the cab. You only get a glimpse, a chance to ride if you’re already gone. For this woman to get into my cab, she had to be very close, practically knocking on death’s door herself, and yet I saw only a healthy, rain-soaked lady.
I looked into the rearview again, and met her eyes. They were the kind of dark green you only see on grass in the summer after a good rain.
“You sure you want this cab, miss?” I looked for an excuse. “I’m off-duty. Should be another along in a few minutes.”
She smiled at my reflection. “Yes, this is fine. I’ll match half your fare if you can take me home.”
I thought about it. I usually kept a pretty tight schedule, but it wasn’t like the dead were short on time. I turned the heat up in the back a bit, and put the cab into gear.
“42nd and Broadway.” She said.
I eased into the street, traffic sparse that time of night. The cab’s headlights cut the dark, revealed the edges of buildings, sidewalk, and asphalt, the white lines throwing back the light and glowing with a ghostlike quality. Here and there pedestrians strolled beneath umbrellas, the glow of streetlamps making the black fabric glow in the night.
As I drove, I snuck quick glances into the rearview to check on the woman. She stared out of the window, watching the city slip by. Streetlight and neon lit her face in flashes as we passed. She had begun to dry somewhat, though her hair still clung to her neck, and her clothing looked like it would be chilly if she stepped into the wind.
Despite her condition, her eyes had begun to droop, and I figured it wouldn’t be long before she was asleep. I reached up and shut the meter off as quietly as possible, and heard her stir in the back.
I turned my attention back to the road, made a right, and drove on.
Bram Stoker once wrote that the dead travel fast. Those dead had never come over the Jefferson Bridge at bar close. I slowed the cab to a near halt, and waited for traffic to move along. While I did, I kept an eye out for bicyclers who were crazy enough to still be riding this time of night and for the occasional case of road rage that might flare up and result in the cab being trashed.
What I said before – about the living not being able to see the cab. It wasn’t exactly right. The living can see the cab, in traffic, or in passing, but not when they’re looking for one. They won’t go out of their way to hail me, or try to get in. Most will even walk an extra few feet out of their way to avoid it. To those people, the cab is dim, a shadow of a shadow in the waking world. As a bonus, that instinct for the living to avoid it has kept my insurance premiums down.
I flicked a glance to the back of the cab. The woman there slumped halfway between the seat and the window, her cheek pressed against the soft fabric. I worried that she had passed, and I hadn’t noticed. I watched for another moment, and saw her chest rise and fall, her pulse beating in the hollow of her throat. I turned back to the road, and crept forward with the traffic.
As we moved, traffic began to thin, revealing a small crowd of uniforms and flashing lights ahead. Behind an officer directing traffic, was a group of about five others, police and EMTs, gathered around a twisted wreck. Blood ran from the passenger door, either torn or cut off from the accident. It pooled on the asphalt, shimmering in the flashing emergency lights, darker than the rain.
Between two officers, a black bag lay on the ground, zipped closed. They stood over it, watching the scene with cool detachment. Neither could see the middle-aged bespectacled man dressed in khakis and a button-down shirt, staring at the bag. As I approached the officer directing traffic, the man looked up. He raised his hand, and waved. I shook my head and gestured at the back, and he let his hand drop. The look on his face went from hopeful to annoyed, and then, as though he realized he had plenty of time, he nodded, and waved me off.
Like I said before, the dead understand. They have all the time in the world.
The officer waved the cab through, and I took the right, moving toward the upper side of town, and the young lady’s home. I still didn’t understand how she had found my cab.
I pulled onto 30th and Jewel, at the lower end of the shopping district. Markets and boutiques, small bakeries and specialty shops nestled against one another here. Tasteful awnings and big plate windows declared the names of the shops, and showed off their merchandise. Out of the heavier traffic, I relaxed, and slowed the cab a bit.
With the meter off, most cabbies would have hurried their fare to the destination, regardless of altruism. One off, one on, equals more money. Unlike most cabbies and their fares, I had plenty of time, and no real money to make. To be honest, the meter was more of an affectation anyways. Besides, I was enjoying the quiet time. The rain on the roof of the cab beat out a steady hypnotic rhythm, the woman in the back was sleeping contentedly, and also, she smelled nice.
I turned up a side street, and a pair of headlights that had been behind me for some time separated from the stream of cars and followed at a discrete distance. Probably just a late-night window-shopper, I thought. My gut knotted, and I doubted the idea. I took a couple of more turns at a leisurely pace, so as not to let on I had seen the car.
I can’t explain why the car behind me, a late-model grey sedan, bothered me so much. It wouldn’t be the first time I was followed, and probably wouldn’t be the last. With so many people around, you’re more than likely to share a destination with more than one of them. Maybe it’s just that I’m not dead yet, and don’t plan to be any time soon, if I can help it. So, when trouble rears its head, which it does from time to time, I do the only thing I’ve ever really known. I drive.
When zigzagging through the streets didn’t work, I picked a block and circled it, hoping the car behind me would think I just had a window-shopper on board. He followed, still at a discrete distance, though I got the impression that he didn’t so much as care about being seen as he did about how I’d react. For the situation being unnerving, I thought I was reacting well.
Ten minutes of driving aimlessly hadn’t shaken the car behind me, and I watched in the rearview as it began to gain ground. The action made my mind up. I sped up, and pushed the cab around the nearest corner, and then again, making a quick left and a right. The sedan kept up, and inched closer. Again, I whipped into a turn and a turn, and the grey car kept up. In the back, the woman in red stirred in her sleep and murmured, but didn’t wake.
Clive Barker once wrote that the dead have highways. I weighed my options, and did the only thing I knew. I drove them.
I took a left, turning off from the circle I had been driving. Ahead, the road diverged, splitting into left and right forks. The fork hadn’t been planned by an engineer, nor laid in a pique brought on by a panic triggered by a lack of roadway. It was a secret road, laid by a divine hand, and it led to one of a hundred thousand afterlives.
I pulled onto the fork while it wended and wound its way between and around buildings, over the river, and past factories and homes. The road ahead shimmered with a pale haze, as though it had been baking in the sun all day. The city began to drop away, buildings and utility poles replaced with trees, the lights replaced with stars.
I glanced in the rearview, and nearly drove the cab into a small pond that had sprung up beside the road. The grey sedan was still behind me, a feat that should’ve been impossible for anyone else. It was still gaining, as well, and I put the pedal down, hoping to at least keep them at distance. An alarm bell was going off in my head, and I shifted my gaze to the woman in the back seat.
She was still sleeping in that easy slouch, though it looked as though she were dreaming now, her eyes dashing out Morse code behind her eyelids. Whoever she was, and whatever her situation, the alarm in my head was screaming this woman was Trouble, capital T, and if I didn’t get her home soon, I might be better off kicking her out on the side of the road somewhere.
I rejected that idea out of hand. I may deal with the dead, but that doesn’t make me immune to compassion for the living. Besides, my shallow side said, she’s gorgeous. She was, at that. I flicked a glance back at her one more time, taking in her delicate cheekbones, the gentle curve of her neck, and her full lips. I swallowed hard, and returned to the road.
Not wanting to dump a damsel in distress off in the middle of nowhere left me with one option. Get her home in one piece. I glanced again at the sedan behind me. For the first time, I noticed the windows were tinted, and what would normally be chrome on a car was a black matte that seemed to drink in the light. Something about that one detail, the black instead of chrome, made me uneasy, made my stomach clench for the second time that night.
Around the car, the landscape changed in bits and pieces, as though sets were being rolled on and off an enormous stage. Copses of trees came and went with small ponds and lakes, rivers and creeks. Grass was replaced by tall waving stalks of wheat, mountains and rivers in the distance. Here and there, stone benches and homes dotted the fields, and the night slipped to day, the rain tapering off. The sun shone, and the air took on the hazy yellow quality of a high summer afternoon.
Men and women and children walked among the wheat and sat on the low stone benches. They were young and old, dressed in togas and Victorian garb and modern clothes. They spoke and gestured and laughed, and the children played in the sunlight. Idyllic. A soft sigh escaped me, and the woman behind me echoed it.
I checked the rearview, and noticed the sedan still there. It made sense, in a way that nothing else about it did. Elysium wasn’t exactly a dangerous road. They would have nothing to fear here, no reason not to try to catch up, to waylay us. Even as I watched, the car sped up again, and closed ground. Curiosity led me to stay the accelerator, and I let them get closer.
The sedan sped into a car length, and I got a good look. In addition to the tinted windows and the matte replacing the chrome, the car wasn’t a true grey. What I had mistaken for grey was a mottled steel color, blotches of paint spreading across the surface like diseased skin. Its headlights, which the driver hadn’t bothered to shut off since coming out of the rain, were a pale yellow, and its tires seemed to bulge and ripple, as though they were living things.
The sun shone through the windshield, piercing the tint for a moment, and I caught a glimpse of the driver. A wide figure swathed in the interior shadows of the car, its head resembled that of a bat. Pointed ears stuck up on either side of a face marked by small black eyes and a pug nose. Then, we passed a copse of trees, and shadows filled the tinted glass again. I turned back to the road and tried not to think too hard about what I’d seen. Things like that only showed up on the deep trips, the ones where men and women with black souls went to burn.
I thought about the gun under the seat. I didn’t keep it for the dead. It wasn’t like a bullet was going to worsen their condition. I wondered how it would affect the Neverborn, and hoped I wouldn’t need it. I pressed the pedal down, and the cab leapt forward again. Another thought entered my mind, and I wondered how long the engine would keep up. The gas gauge still lay at three-quarters, and the tires still whispered against the asphalt with hardly a bump.
I looked around. Elysium had always been my favorite destination, what I imagined true Paradise to look like. The thing behind me didn’t belong here, and I had the feeling if I gave it the chance, it would stop, and wreak as much havoc as possible. There were places it did belong, however, and I briefly weighed the safety of my passenger against the danger. In the end, I decided the only safe route was through that danger.
Ahead, the road forked again, and I took it.
The road down is always quicker than the road up, though no easier. We drove, and the blacktop began to show wear and cracks, small potholes and ridges in the asphalt. The shimmer above the road took on a sinister reddish tint, and black clouds slipped over the sun. Whoever designed the afterlife had a flair for theatrics.
As we drove, wheat and fields of grass and trees gave way to sere earth, cracks spreading through the dried sod. Rivers and ponds became black and brown and brackish, and rocks and boulders replaced the smaller bushes and clusters of flowers. Each feature of the landscape rolled in and out again, changing the face of the land as we drove, becoming more alien with distance. Eventually, the cab rolled into a landscape dominated by grey spires of rock standing sentinel over black earth, the cracks glowing with a sullen red light. Asphalt gave way to red rock, worn smooth over millenia.
The sedan behind us had begun to change as well, becoming a sleek grey thing, resembling a long spider with black legs and eyes, its driver a huge man-bat strapped to its back. It scuttled and moved faster than its size indicated. Even in the cab, I could hear the scuttle on the rock of the hooked bones that served as its feet.
I pushed the cab faster still, and she leapt forward one more time, though with a shuddering protest. I knew any harder would kill her, and that would be the end. Still, it wasn’t enough, and the scuttling of bone on rock became louder, the spider’s legs echoing in the landscape. It reached one of its considerable legs up, throwing a shadow on the hood, and I juked the cab.
We zigged to the left, though not fast enough, and the leg came down. Bone squealed against metal, making my eyes water. It ripped a hole in the roof, and I tugged the wheel right, tearing free with another screech that set my teeth on edge. Again it came, and again another hole was punched into the cab before I was able to shake free. Through the opening above, I could hear the driver making wet grunting sounds in anticipation of the kill.
Ahead, the land dropped off, and the road narrowed. I felt my pulse double as I realized the glow coming from below was fire – not lava, but true hellfire, and I realized where I had driven us. Even as the cab approached the bridge, something huge and dark rose from the hellfire, wormlike, and slammed itself into the stone. It turned toward us, its lower half disappearing into the depths, and its mouth opened, a nightmare of impossible angles and razor teeth.
A shadow fell across the hood again, and I did the only thing I could think of, a thing I had seen in Top Gun once. I grabbed the emergency brake, while spinning the wheel. The car slugged to a hard stop and began to spin. I felt a weight slam into the seat behind me, and I prayed I hadn’t broken the woman’s nose. I felt there was a very strong possibility that had she not been asleep, she would definitely be unconscious now.
When the cab hit a full one-eighty, I released the brake, and stomped the gas. For a moment, it seemed the car was going to ignore my request and simply give up the ghost, and then the engine roared, and we shot in the other direction, and under the spider.
In the rearview, the spider had reached the bridge, but it was too late for the bat and the bug. The thing on the bridge opened its mouth, and tentacles sprayed forward, wrapping around both, and pulling them in. I drove on, with the screams of the damned echoing in my ears.
When the land had returned to trees and fields and lakes, I stopped the cab, and check on my passenger. Still asleep, though a little askew in her seat. I decided I didn’t want to wake her up quite yet, and started the engine. We were almost there.
Country gave way to city, and city gave way to residential. I pulled up to 42nd and Broadway, and cut the engine. The rain had stopped, and I could see the stars through the holes in the roof. Behind me, I heard a yawn, and looked in the rearview.
She stretched, and smiled back at me. “Thank you so much for the ride. How much do I owe you?”
She pulled out a wad of cash, and I waved it away. “Don’t worry about it. I ended up going a bit out of the way. I’d hate to charge you for it.”
She smiled, shrugged, and put the money away. A part of me was cursing over that. The roof was going to cost an arm and a leg to repair.
She opened the door, and the wind caught her scent and swept it out of the cab. It spread her hair, and moved her dress. She walked to my window, and leaned in. I could smell her – clean and sweet. I wondered why they had wanted her, and consoled myself with the fact that you don’t always get answers out of life, poor consolation that it was.
She kissed me on the cheek, and walked to the entrance of her apartment, fishing the keys out of her purse. When she had the door open, she turned one last time, and waved. I returned it, and pulled out of the drive.
On Broadway, I took a right, back downtown, and toward an accident, and a middle-aged man in khaki.
After all, I drive the dead.