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Passing Through (A Short Horror Story by P.J. Blakey-Novis)

8th October 2019
(Short Story)

It was a routine trip. I had travelled those roads every weekend, making the fifty-minute journey after work on a Friday evening and returning on a Sunday afternoon. My weekends were filled with fun, two glorious days spent with Jenny before the repetitive routine of office work kicked back in. I had made it safely to her flat on the Friday and, as the weather had been appalling, we had spent the entire weekend in bed, watching television, eating junk food, and making love. Sunday arrived with its usual feelings of sadness; I didn’t want to leave, and Jenny did not want me to either, yet neither of us had the courage to suggest we get a place together. If only I’d taken that step earlier, then things could have been very different.

The icy gusts and almost apocalyptic rain had not let up when it came time for me to depart and, after hugging and kissing Jenny goodbye, I dashed out to my car. I was wet through before I even took my seat, frantically getting the heating on and attempting to clear the windows of condensation. I flicked the headlights on, turned the wipers to max, and cautiously edged out of the parking area. I took the drive slow, I’m not an idiot, so I’m quite sure that what happened was not my fault.

Around twenty minutes into the drive home, along a dual carriageway, there is a tunnel to pass through. I remember thinking that the weather must have knocked out the power as the strip-lighting along the roof of the tunnel was off. This had worried me a little, causing me to slow as I entered the tunnel’s blackened mouth. Then it happened, and it’s difficult to describe exactly as the memory is rather hazy.

I recall entering the tunnel. I don’t remember seeing any other cars on the road at that point. There was a flash of light, so brilliant that I was certain I’d lose control of the car and plough into the concrete walls of the tunnel. My eyes opened and I was, miraculously, still on the road, maintaining my course. Only everything had changed.

I sped through the end of the tunnel, not into torrential rain and inky darkness, but into the bright sunlight of a summer’s afternoon. My wipers were scraping against the dry windscreen noisily, the light on the dash confirming that my headlights were still switched on. There were no other cars around, but there was also nowhere to safely stop so I continued on my way, increasing my speed in desperation to find a rest stop.

Nothing made sense. My initial thought, as ludicrous as it sounds, was that there had simply been a break in the weather. That in those few seconds I had spent underground, the wind had dropped, and the rain had cleared. Unlikely, but not impossible. Darkness turning to light, however, made no sense. Winter afternoons at this time of year were gloomy enough to have the streetlights coming on; clear skies and sunlight were out of the question. I glanced at the clock on my dashboard, briefly wondering if I had left Jenny at an earlier time than I had realised but saw that it was still late afternoon. Feeling uncomfortable, I pulled into the slip lane and came to a stop at the services car park.

Shutting off the engine, I realised the strangeness of the empty car park. I had only stopped here once or twice, usually for fuel, but had never seen it completely empty before. I exited the car, approaching the fuel station, only to find the door locked and nobody inside despite the ‘Open 24/7’ sign on the window. The only other amenities were a car wash, also seemingly abandoned, and a coffee shop. I surmised that no cars in the car park meant there would be no customers in the coffee shop and feared that it would also be closed. A wave of relief swept over me as the automatic door slid open on my approach.

My logic was proved correct as I stared at the empty tables; no customers. However, unlike the fuel station, I saw a staff member, his back to me as he cleaned the coffee machine. As I took steps towards the counter, my shoes clicking on the laminate flooring, he spun around and greeted me with a broad grin. 

“Hey there!” he declared in a European accent I couldn’t quite place. “What can I get you?”

“A flat white,” I replied without thinking. “Where is everybody?”

“Just you today,” I was told over the sound of the coffee machine. “It’s a quiet one, thankfully.”

“Just me?” I queried. “All day?” I glanced at the man’s name badge as he handed me my coffee. Charon. Sounds like Sharon, I thought to myself, grateful that I did not have a feminine sounding name.

“Just you. Can I get you anything else?” Charon asked.

“No,” I said slowly.

“Are you okay?”

“Sorry,” I mumbled. “It’s been a really odd day.” I felt an urge to explain everything to this man but knew I would sound insane so turned to take a seat by the window.

“I’m sure it has,” he replied as I walked away.

Once I had made myself comfortable by the window, gazing out into what looked like a summer’s afternoon, I pulled my phone from my pocket. I needed to call Jenny, to talk to someone about where I was, to at least find out if the rain had stopped where she was. No signal. ****! I called out to Charon who was half-heartedly wiping down the tables which had not even been used.

“Do you have a pay phone here? I’ve got no signal.” Charon just laughed before walking away, shaking his head. I muttered a few obscenities under my breath and chose to finish my coffee before searching for a phone myself. I thanked Charon and left the coffee shop, making my way past the fuel station and finding a pay phone in the corner of the car park. Fumbling for some change, I lifted the receiver only to find that the line was dead. I slammed it back down and marched towards the coffee shop. I’d use Charon’s own phone if it came to it.

“Found the pay phone but it’s dead,” I announced as I re-entered the shop.

“Well, of course it is,” Charon replied.

“Can I use the shop phone? Or yours, maybe? I can pay for the call.”

“I don’t own a phone,” he replied. “And the shop doesn’t have one either, I’m afraid.” Still he managed to keep that wide grin in place.

“I don’t believe you,” I retorted, “but fine. I’ll wait until I’m home then.” I stormed out of the shop and headed to my car. Or, more accurately, where my car had been. Now the car park was truly empty. The keys were still in my pocket and I had seen nobody around aside from Charon. Almost walking into the automatic door as I misjudged the speed at which it opened, I returned to Charon and found myself close to angry tears. “My car’s been stolen!” I shouted, looking around as if the answer to my problems could be found.

“I’m sorry to hear that, sir,” Charon said, that grin beginning to put me on edge.

“Well, what do I do?” I pleaded. “No car, no phones anywhere. No people aside from you. Am I going to have to walk to the nearest town to get help?”

“Don’t be so silly,” Charon told me. “I need to close up, and then I can give you a ride to wherever you need to go.” This offer of generosity made me a little uncomfortable, but I had little choice but to accept.

“I didn’t see any other cars,” I told him. “Are you parked around the back?”

“Something like that,” he told me, confusing me further. I waited by the door until Charon had finished with the closing procedure and we left the coffee shop. He led me around the back of the building, to what looked like a garage. Upon opening the large, barn-like doors, I could see sacks of coffee beans, piles of napkins, and disposable cups, all spread around the edges of the building. In the centre was a brand-new, shiny black Mustang.

“This is yours?” I asked, genuinely shocked that an assistant at a coffee shop could afford something like this. Charon nodded with pride as he unlocked the car.

“Jump in,” he ordered, and I did as I was told. “Now, before we leave, I’ll need you to give me a few coins for the journey.” I took this as a request for some fuel money which had been worded strangely due to English not being his native tongue, and I passed him a note from my wallet. He shook his head. “Coins, please.” I was about to reason that the few coins I had in my pocket would not cover much fuel in a car like this but went along with his request. He took three coins from my hand, winked at me, and started the engine.

“I live about half an hour from here,” I began, as we left the car park and pulled on to the eerily empty main road. Charon kept his gaze fixed on the road ahead, ignoring me, pushing the car to go faster. I glanced at the speedometer as it crept past eighty miles per hour. “You need to take the next right,” I said but the car maintained its course. Panic began to set it. I was in a car with a stranger heading in the wrong direction. I yelled at him to stop but he gave no response. The car edged over ninety and I was too afraid to grab at Charon, fearing we would crash. “Where are we going?” I shouted.

Suddenly Charon hit the brakes, turning the wheel quickly to take a corner that had appeared out of nowhere. The tyres screeched as the rear of the car skidded into the turn. I managed to read the signpost as we turned: River Styx 1 Mile. My mind raced to place that name, certain that I had heard it before, but I never knew it was nearby. The Mustang lurched forward as it straightened out, travelling at breakneck speed towards the riverbank.

“We’re going to crash!” I shouted, certain of the impending doom. The river became closer with each second until we were upon it, Charon showing no sign of slowing the vehicle. I closed my eyes without thinking, ready for the inevitable splash of water. In fact, I heard a series of splashes as I felt my stomach lurch. Not the sound of a car hitting water at high speed and sinking, but the sound of wheels almost skimming across the water’s surface like a stone. When I opened my eyes, we were back on the road, the speedometer creeping back up to ridiculous speeds. The road tuned to track, throwing up dust and gravel, before changing again. I felt the repeated thud-thud-thud of wooden planks underneath the car as we made our way across a rickety bridge. A bridge over a river that the signage called ‘River Acheron’.

By this point I was convinced that Charon and I would be killed in a smash very soon, and if not then he must have sinister intentions for kidnapping me in this way. I was therefore not prepared when the Mustang came to a sudden stop on the far side of the River Acheron.

“What on earth are you doing?” I yelled, unclipping my seatbelt. “You could have killed us! And where are we? I don’t know this place at all. I’m done with this. I’ll find my own way.” I opened the passenger door and stepped out of the car. Charon stayed where he was. I looked around, trying to ascertain which direction to begin walking in. Ahead of me a storm appeared to be forming; threatening black clouds filled the sky and the rumbles of thunder could just about be made out. I turned around, opting for heading back the way we had come, only to find the bridge over the Acheron now completely destroyed. I opened the door to the Mustang, feeling helpless and afraid.

“Charon,” I began. “Where do I go?”

“There is only one way for you to go, my friend,” he told me, and for the first time he was not wearing that grin. “This is as far as I can take you.”

“I don’t understand,” I replied, resuming my position in the car. 

“Oh, but I think you do. You just need to remember.” 

“Remember what?” I asked, frustrated that I could not make sense of my situation, or fully understand why the words were so familiar.

“I’m the Ferryman,” Charon told me. There was a moment of total silence before it hit me, everything melding together and bringing bile to my mouth. My name is Charon…give me a few coins for the journey…cross the rivers Styx and Acheron.

“I’m dead,” I whispered. “And you’re taking me to Hades?”

“That’s right, my friend.”

“How?” I asked, fighting back tears at the thought of not seeing Jenny again.

“The tunnel. You hit the wall. You remember a flash of light?” I nodded. “That wasn’t the ‘light guiding you to heaven’ or any of that nonsense. That was the high beams of a truck behind you which rammed you off the road.”

“I was murdered?” This news shocked me almost as much as discovering I was dead. “Do you know who by?”

“I do. But you won’t like it,” Charon told me.

“I don’t think I could stand not knowing,” I replied, all the while praying that it was not Jenny. 

“His name is Nathan. He’s Jenny’s husband.” My mind reeled, at first convinced it was a lie, or at least a mistake. The more I thought about it, however, the more plausible it seemed. I could only visit on weekends, Jenny would never answer her phone on weekdays, we either stayed indoors or went a few towns over for dates, and that tan mark! That damn white line around her ring finger; the most obvious clue in the world, and I’d never paid it much attention. 

“What happens now?” I asked, feeling a bubbling rage rising within me. 

“You go on to Hades. Nathan will get there in a few years, and then you can do what you like with him.” 

“And Jenny?”

“She won’t be too far behind.”

“Good,” I nodded, accepting my fate. I shook the hand of the Ferryman and began my final walk into the storm.

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P.J. Blakey-Novis
P.J. Blakey-Novis
(United Kingdom)

Author, independently published with a second novel on the way.

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