Her War Heart

She had seven hearts, each in a velvet lined box of hardwood stained the color of clotted blood. She walked among them, fingers tracing the carved lids, and wondered which she would need today. She thought of the witch in the woods, the gnarled crone she had met when she was a little girl, and her sharp knife and promises.

“You will be different. You will be strong. The men will not dare lay their hands on your flesh, or speak promises only to be broken as soon as they are soft.”

The knife glittered in the dark, then slipped between her ribs, opening her like a puzzle box, bone sliding aside, breastbone opening as a lock under a key. Curiously, it did not hurt, and she only watched in dispassion as the old woman took her first heart – her true heart – and lifted it, glistening in the firelight. She placed it in a sack and told Agnes to bury it in the thick peat between the roots of a cypress tree, and when she was finished, to guard its secret well. After, she was to return once a year, for the old woman to give her a new heart, each a distillation of those things that made life worth living.

Seven years, seven hearts, and this year she returned. She never asked the old witch what she wanted in return. Agnes knew already. When she would visit, she would tidy the cabin, brush the old woman’s long hair, still shining a deep gold, and rub the calluses on her feet. She would prepare dinner, and they would sup together, and when they were finished, the old witch – Greta – would disappear into her bedroom while crepuscular light crept in through the windows. She would rummage around for a bit, and when she returned, a new box would be in her hands, the wood stained and polished to a shine.

Now, it was nearly another year, and she had laid out her dress, a light thing printed with flowers, and tall boots, for Greta lived in the forest past the fields, and the mud could creep up your ankles and into your shoes, and if it had been a wet spring, sometimes it climbed to your knees, sucking at your legs like a drunk sucks at a bone, trying to pull the meat and marrow from you.

Agnes wondered which heart to wear – joy, for the laughter she shared with the witch, or stoicism to accept that time was passing, and soon enough even Greta’s time would come to an end. It was something Agnes hadn’t considered when she was younger. The witch of the woods had always seemed immortal, especially when Agnes had been young, Great had still been very old. But the fact was that time crept on, and even the very old and powerful weren’t immune to its ravages.

Maybe sorrow, then? She shook her head. Too much. Too painful. Outside, someone was ringing the warning bell in the square, drawing her from her thoughts. A rabble of voices drifted on the wind, and Agnes peeked her head from a shutter to see what the stir was about. The sky had turned the orange red of a summer storm, and the wind had the tang of ozone. In the square below, someone had gathered a large crowd, and Agnes squinted to see who it was.

Gunter, the town constable, was standing on the platform usually used for mayoral announcements, his bald pate shining in the still sunny day, wisps from the salt and pepper fringe blowing around his scalp. His face was red – redder than the normal flush from drink – and he clutched a burlap sack in one gloved hand. Most of the town was gathered around, summer dress fluttering in the warm zephyr, men with shirts unlaced and hats in hand, some still holding pitchforks and hoes. Agnes frowned. This must have been called in a hurry.

Gunter raised his voice to a stentorian bellow. “There is an abomination in our midst!”

The crowd muttered and shuffled their feet. They’d heard this before, two summers ago when Gunter had been appointed constable, and he was eager to hunt out evil in a town of less than a hundred people. He’d insisted there was a witch in the woods, and that she lured in unsuspecting children, then devoured them whole. Agnes had laughed at the pronouncement, as had most of the village, though her reasons were different. The thought of Greta, a woman who subsisted on bread and roots, eating a lamb shank, let alone a child, was ridiculous.

Gunter had turned a deep red at the scoffing, throwing an accusatory finger in their faces. “You’ll see! When your crops wither and your children grow wan, you’ll see!”

He’d stomped off in a blind fury, and Agnes had crept away that night to tell Greta of his speech. The old woman worked a spell that summer, with sea salt and bread, with bone and earth, that strengthened the crops and made the children hale. When the village saw the opposite of what Gunter claimed, they mocked him in the street, calling him ‘Old Man Wind’, a reference to the storms he would blow but never break.

Now he stood in the town square, and the burlap sack in his hand writhed, and a pit of dread sat in Agnes’s stomach, because she could see the mud on his boots and the scratches on his arms. He glared around at the muttering and reached into the bag, and her stomach clenched even tighter. With a triumphant sound, he pulled his prize free, the crimson muscle still beating in the sunlight. Agnes gasped, echoing the townspeople.

“A witch, I told you! A heartless witch, and if she is bold enough to walk among us with no heart, what must she be planning for your children? Hannah? Your Ruth, is she well? Martin, your Jon, has he not been ill? Look among you!”

They began to glance at one another.

“Who among you is missing? Who among you would not deign to show her face for the good of the village?”

All eyes turned to Agnes’ home, and she blanched, pulling her head back into the room and slamming the shutter closed. Too late though – she knew they had seen her, and now she wondered what was to be next. Outside, the muttering had risen to a clamor, and she bolted downstairs with a jolt of fear, managing to slam the bar across her door as the first stone hit it.

They came in a flurry, a rainstorm of stones slamming into her door, breaking slats from the shutters and rattling against the roof and cupboard. There were shouts for her to come out, for her to make their children well, for her to end her life. She ran upstairs and threw her tiny closet open, looking at each heart in turn. Which could she use? Innocence? They’d never believe it. Joy? She’d appear a lunatic. Sorrow? They’d think her being contrite a false face, and after all, what did she have to be contrite about? Living? She’d never brought them harm.

Smoke trickled between the floorboards, and panic seized her limbs. Leaving the hearts behind, Agnes barreled down the stairs, seeing that the front door had been lit, the walls now smoking too as the townspeople piled brush and lumber against them. She banged on the door and shouted.

“You know me! Harold – I taught your children! Jane – who nursed your little ones when you had the pox?”

No response came, and she tried to kick the door down, to flee, but they had nailed it tight. The fire was under the house now, and the floorboards smoked and spat as the flames took them. She fled up the stairs, thinking to jump from a window, but when she threw the shutter, saw that the townsfolk had surrounded her house, some with their bows, and watched as it burned.

Weeping, she sat on the floor and curled up into a ball. Surely they would relent. Surely they would spare her. This was just a lesson. She had harmed no one. She had done nothi-

The floor collapsed, spilling her into the fire.

*

She had been in the forest. She couldn’t remember why. Her mother had died? Her father? They were both gone now, gone and away, and she was alone, and there was no one to tell her not to play there, so she did. When she found the path, neat and winding between the boles of ancient oaks and maples, she took it, feet crunching on leaves shed the season before. Past another turn, the third in the path, she saw a tidy cottage, small and cozy, smoke rising from the chimney. Being neither warned nor afraid of such things, she knocked. The woman who answered the door was dressed in black, her hair gold, her hands wizened. She smiled, and let the girl in.

“Do I know you?” The woman asked.

Agnes shook her head.

“Would I like to?” The woman asked.

Agnes nodded.

“What is your name, little one?”

“Agnes, but my mother always called me Aggie.”

“Well, then Aggie, come in and sit with an old woman. I am Greta.”

“What will we do?”

“Sup, and talk, and in the end, if you’re very good, I’ll show you a bit of magic.”

Agnes thought she would like that very much, and stepped into the cottage, the door closing behind her.

*

Somehow, she survived. Though, she was burned badly, her skin scorched down to muscle – that didn’t hurt as much – cold numbed those parts of her. In others, great blisters had risen, and her hair had been burned down to stubble. She wept a little when she woke. Part from the pain, part from the loss. She had lost her home, her friends, her hearts. When she was done, she crawled through the rubble until she could see the field behind her house, and beyond that, the forest. She listened, though it was a rest day, and no one toiled in the fields, or walked the streets, and she breathed a sigh of relief. When night fell, she crawled further, into the mud of the field, into the long grasses and stinging insects which stung a little less in comparison to the great ache in her body, and over hard stone, each movement causing her to gasp and writhe. Finally, she made it to the forest, and collapsed under the shade of a massive oak, its branches spread wide.

She lay there, cool leaves and earth pressing into her back, and stared at the stars between the boughs. She wondered if their fire was as hot as the one that had burned her, and found she was glad they were distant. A shadow moved into her line of sight, blocking them, and after a moment, cawed gently at her. She stared at it until it cawed again, fluttered its wings, and hopped to a nearby tree, another soft caw escaping it. I hopped from one foot to another and looked at her expectantly.

With a sigh and a painful heave, Agnes rolled over and crawled along the ground, not trusting her legs yet. She made way in slow movements that drug her skin across broken twigs and raspy leaves until she was under the tree. The bird moved on, waiting. She followed. They did this for some time, night passing into dawn as Agnes moved inch by agonizing inch along the forest floor. Finally, the sun broke the horizon, and she found herself clutching the bottom of Greta’s door. With what strength she had left, she scratched at the wood, hoping the old woman would hear. Then, she went to sleep, satisfied she had come as far as she could, and the night would bear out the rest.

*

When she woke, she was ensconced in Greta’s soft goose down bed, the mattress like a cloud. She looked around the room and saw that it was much like her own. A bed, dresser, nightstand, and a small closet. She wondered at the contents, considered asking now that she was in the woman’s room, but then Greta came in bearing a steaming bowl, and she let it drop. The other woman propped her head up and spooned broth between her lips. It was good, filling, and left a trickle of warmth that grew into a comfortable blanket when she was finished. Her eyelids grew heavy.

“I should have seen this coming,” Greta was saying.

Agnes shook her head weakly. “Not their fault.”

Greta waved that away. “Bah. People are dumb and panicky, and cruel when they believe lies. Sleep now, for a little longer. I have a gift for you.”

Agnes let the lassitude wash over her.

*

When she woke, it was alone. She felt stronger, enough to sit up and look around. In the bed was a box, the top carved with a flame. A note sat beside it.

“This is your war heart,” it read. “It is time you took your own back.”

Agnes opened the box, and inside was a heart the color of fire. It glowed gently, not a peaceful white like joy, or blue like sorrow, but a deep angry red, and when she held it in her hands, it was hot to the touch. It frightened her a little. Still, she opened her chest and placed it within, and when it began to beat, she felt strength flood her limbs, her pain dissipating. She threw off her covers, and opened Greta’s closet. Inside was a cloak and a blade, and she took both. The cloak was black and felt light as shadow, the blade white and bright as the moon. She stalked out of the hut and into the night.

*

She stood at the edge of the village and cried out for Gunter. He came on the third try, his face red, his hair disheveled. In one hand, he held his cutlass. In the other, the burlap sack. He stared at her, recognition not lighting his face. A crowd had begun to gather behind him, and when she swept the hood of the cloak back, they gasped. He stepped back and raised his sword, leaving the heart in the dirt.

“My heart, please.” Moonlight glimmered on her blade.

“Witch!” He spat.

Gunter lunged, his face alight with fanaticism, a fever that refused to break. She stepped out of the way and the war heart surged. Her limbs moved like clockwork, and she swept his head from his shoulders. His corpse tumbled to the ground.

“My heart, please.” She repeated it. A bold farmer, thick with ropy muscle, tried what the older man couldn’t, taking up his blade. Agnes ended him as well, and someone cried out.

“My heart. Please!” It was no longer a request, but a command, and yet no one moved to obey the woman cloaked in shadow.

“My heart!” Rage surged through her. The war heart whispered to her. She was born to kill. She was born to end. She would burn the world. She raised the blade and took a single step forward. The crowd shrank back, and she silently cursed them for cowards.

A voice, small and curious cracked the surface of her rage. “This heart?”

A child, no older than she had been when she’d met Greta held out her heart. Agnes nodded and knelt. From somewhere in the crowd, the girl’s mother wept, but Agnes had no time for her. She took her heart and stood, then leaned in, speaking in the girl’s ear.

“If you need, find me in the woods.”

With that, she stood and left the village in somber silence. Behind her, a choked sob escaped, or a muttered curse, but none reached her ears. She traveled light, and when she entered the tree line, disappeared altogether.

*

In the cabin, she placed her war heart in a chest, and sat beside the old woman who had given it to her, her body still cooling in her chair. She brushed her hair and rubbed her feet, then wrapped her in linens and buried her between the roots of the cypress trees. When she returned to the cabin, she put her old heart in her chest, and her new in the tiny closet, and waited. In time, she would have enough joy and sorrow, love and hate, and all the other things that make life worth living, and she would give them to a young woman to learn their lessons.

Via Dolorosa

Pain can blot out the world, make the details go missing like a cataract occluding vision. Right then, Maria was missing the smell of trash stacked almost waist-high in the alley, the taint of sewage clinging to a brick wall where the grates had belched up steam, and the ripple-rustle sound of rats scurrying through black plastic, their claws opening holes in the bags and spilling milk rings and coffee grounds, apple rinds and eggshells. Instead, she winced and braced herself against a wall that was clear of trash but tagged with paint that had dripped and run, layer on layer marking and demarking ownership, like a map redrawn by a mad cartographer.

There was something wrong with her, something in her guts writhing and drawing her life, feeding on joy and normalcy the way children suckle on mother’s milk. It wasn’t the C-word. Cancer. That’s how she thought of it every time it came up, every time it intruded on memory, a guest waving a cleaver at a tea party. The C-word had taken her mother. It had touched her father near the end, when he had finally decided to give up the cigarillos and the rotgut. Every now and then, she would smell those things – smoke and whiskey – drifting by on a breeze, and she’d think no. No. He was gone, and the specter of the thing that had taken him wouldn’t haunt her for longer than it took to walk away from the scent and think of happier things.

And still the specter lurked. So she had gone to the doctor, with the C-word on her lips, and suffered with patience the seemingly-infinite pinpricks and bone punctures and machines that irradiated you in hopes of finding what it was that was killing you. And it wasn’t. It wasn’t the C-word, and the doctors said it wasn’t killing her, but of course it was. Of course it was. Inch by inch, in tightening bands in her stomach and back that crawled under her skin like a python in her guts. Of course it was.

They’d told her she had other options. They sent her to a pain specialist, and there were pills and electro therapy and physical therapy. But it didn’t matter. The pain ignored it, laughed at it the way you laugh at the blows of an angry child. She had tried homeopathy and naturopathy and acupuncture. Chiropractic therapy and massage. She had seen brujas and witches, Romani women with high cheekbones and dark eyes, Wiccans and Christian Scientists. In the end, the pain remained, and her money didn’t.

She moved from her house to an apartment, and then from the apartment to a rental motel, her belongings piled to the sides of the single room and in the back of her beat-up car like the trash in the alley. She had sold the things she could, and bartered what she couldn’t, and soon even those would be gone as the money went from scarce to extinct, the last wheeze of a desperate life. Work was hard to come by – no one wanted a broken woman who could only make it five, six hours before the pain settled in and took control, forcing her to a halt as she huddled in her threadbare chair and made fists that left her palms sore. She scavenged, finding things in cast-offs from far wealthier homes, and in back alleys like this one, and chuckled when the words Reduce, Reuse, Recycle flitted through her head.

And then she’d found it. Scribbled on the wall of a restroom in a Denny’s. Two words. Brother Pain. She’d sat the toilet, her eyes trying to unfocus with the ache in her guts, and stared. Brother Pain. It seemed like a taunt. Like a promise. She found a pen in her purse, and scribbled beside it Who, then went home and sat in front of the small TV the motel provided, and watched Seinfeld reruns until her eyes grew heavy and her breathing steady.

*

  She found five dollars in her purse the next morning. Enough for a coffee, and she drove to Denny’s, her stomach in turns aching and shivering. She ordered the coffee and sat until the waitress stared, then left the cup and went to the stalls. She opened the door and held her breath, anticipation like a wire under her flesh. She looked. There, beneath Who, were the words the alleys. Disappointment flashed through her, then curiosity. What alleys? Where? She left the stall, and sat in her car for a time. Florence + The Machine played a dirge on the radio. She started the car and drove.

*

That first week was like a scavenger hunt. She would find traces of him on brownstone walls hidden from the sun, on dumpsters scummed over with grease and worse, slicker things. Always but a word or two, always just a glimpse.

NOT HERE

CLOSER

GO BACK

This last scribbled on a rest stop mirror in lipstick once red, now the color of clotted blood. In a stall beneath flickering lights someone shuffled, and she heard the sound of steel on steel. She’d fled into the night and looked elsewhere.

Maria had stumbled through alleys choked with refuse, both garbage and human. Some shouted at her, some groped, gnarled hands digging into flesh, bruising her private self, leaving her skin crawling hours afterward. She dodged a man wielding a broken bottle, an emaciated pitbull at his side. The dog looked at her with sad eyes, as if to say This is where pain ends, this is where pain leads, and she looked away, moving from the man’s small hovel of scrap pressed against the side of a building that looked as if the cost of the fixtures alone could have fed a small army.

And now here, it was the last. It was the last she would – could – check, the pain having moved, grown, staking its claim like a rogue nation annexing its neighbors. It was in her knees, in her shoulders. It stabbed her with unseen claws just below the breastbone. She was ravaged, emaciated. She was cold and aching, and her thoughts flitted from one thing to the next, as though landing on any one topic would give the pain purchase. She gasped, taking her breath back for a moment, and pulled her hand away from the wall. Over all the layers of paint and grime, one word had been scrawled, the hand hard, frantic.

HERE

Her heart skipped a beat, and she held still, fearful that this was the last step. She would find her Brother Pain, and drop at his feet. She swayed, then steadied, and with a gentle sigh, stepped further into the dark.

*

The alley became a chapel. Not in the literal sense. Maria felt the atmosphere clear, a bucolic summer day in winter. The trash that had sculpted the walls of the space into a defile of decay thinned, and then disappeared. Here, men and women still slept or leaned against cool walls, but they seemed content. They nodded as she passed, raised a hand in greeting. And there, at the end, a simple shack built between the buildings, corrugated tin propped against one another into standing walls and a roof, the opening between them draped with a bedsheet that had been printed in crimson and gold paisley. A man stood before it, hands clasped before him.

“A supplicant approaches!” he echoed across the brick, and Maria cringed. The people in the alley echoed. “Be she worthy!”

The man before the door swept the curtain to the side, indicating she was to enter. Maria paused while the pain intensified, as though it knew this place was the last stop, the last terminal on the Underground. A whimper escaped her lips. No one moved to help. This was a test, she knew. Could she meet Brother Pain on her own two feet? Would she be worthy? The pain passed, and she crept toward the door, the man beside it smiling. Gray whiskers lined his cheeks, wiry in the light. He smiled, brown teeth a testament to his vice. She wondered if it had been the C-word for him. What the Brother had done for his grizzled guts. He nodded, and she stepped into the chapel.

Darkness engulfed her for a moment as her eyes adjusted. It crept back in stages – here, a small wooden table, a Coleman lamp sputtering out light. There, a chair draped with a comforter. Here, a bedroll made neat, a ratty pillow at its head. There, a man, sitting, his skin the color of wet earth. He was wrapped in an old army jacket over a gray hooded sweatshirt. He gestured at the chair covered by the comforter, and she sat. He smiled, his eyes rheumy, and reached a hand out, placing it on hers. His skin was nearly feverish, though his touch was dry.

“And at last, you have come. What do you offer?”

Her mind skirled in panic. She stammered. “I- I have nothing.”

He shook his head. “All things in balance, and all things true. You have more than you know.”

She forced her mind to settle, forced herself to take steady, even breaths until the pain dulled to a low roar. She had given her money. She had given her time. She had given her home and her things. She seized upon something.

“I have a car.”

He shook his head.

“I have-“ she rummaged in her purse, came up with ten dollars and a pin her father had given her for her sixteenth birthday. It was a gold hummingbird, tiny rubies for the eyes. They glinted in the light, and she remembered how small it looked in his hands as he held it out for a gift. The last thing he had given her before his blood turned thick, before his eyes yellowed and his breath came in ragged gasps. Tears blurred her vision for a moment. “I have this.”

He shook his head again, and frustration rose in Maria. Of all the things she had given, that was her most precious. Even when she had been forced to wait beside restaurant dumpsters for cast-off food, she hadn’t entertained the idea of parting with it. She opened her mouth to ask him what he wanted, anger making her tongue bitter. He stopped her by touching her stomach, once.

“What can you trade?”

Realization lit her thoughts. “My pain.”

He nodded, and pressed his hand against her stomach. It swirled and growled, and the pain rose, rose, rose to a crescendo, the crashing of a tsunami against her soul. Maria cried out, and her vision doubled, trebled. Brother Pain was saying something, but she just wanted it to end. She wanted it out. She took the pin in her hand and opened it, intending for a single thrust. She raised her hand, and-

It was done.

She lowered the pin, and took a breath. No pain lanced her. No ache tormented her. She looked across at the man in the chair, his eyes closed. A smile trickled across his lips. After a moment, he raised a hand.

“This is a good trade.”

She stood, and made her way from the shack on legs unsteady from newfound relief. She stood in the half-light outside, the men and women in the alley smiling at her. The man beside the door raised a hand.

“Via dolorosa!” he shouted.

“Via dolorosa!” they replied.

Maria found herself repeating it. She stood for another minute, until they brought her a bedroll and a hunk of bread and water. She bedded down as close to the chapel as she could get. The light faded from the day, and she sat alone in the dark for a while. She had given all she could, but would give a little more. She had earned her reprieve, but felt the balance uneven. When she finally drifted to sleep, sweet untroubled sleep, it was with his words on her lips.

“This is a good trade.”

Ferryman

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.

Ferryman

 

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.

 

“Where to?”

 

“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.