As part of my regularly scheduled posting, Friday is Stuff I’ve Written Day. It’ll be a chance to post something I’m working, something I’ve written a while ago, something I’m thinking about writing, something I just scribbled out on a quiet day. Writing is a strange process, so some of these pieces might be complete stories and others might just be fragments I found interesting enough to share.
This is possibly the beginning of a novella, possibly just something I wrote for my own amusement. Regardless, I hope you enjoy it.
“It’s pronounced Charr-On,” said Charon as she handed the homeowners her card.
The husband, a tall, lanky fellow with a long chin and a short forehead, glanced at the card. “It’s about time one of you showed up. Where have you been? He died six months ago, and he’s been nothing but trouble since.”
Charon shrugged. “Don’t ask me. I’m just filling in for the regular guy.”
The wife, short, stocky, with a flat face, said, “Harry, don’t get mad. She’s here now.”
“You’ll have to forgive him,” said the wife, though Charon didn’t have to and elected not to. “He and my father never got along. My father’s restless spirit hasn’t forgotten that. Always howling in the middle of the night about how Harry is a good-for-nothing failure. Making the walls bleed. Ruining the TV reception.”
“You don’t have to tell her all our business, Gloria,” said Harry.
“You don’t,” agreed Charon. “I’m just here to collect him. I don’t need the details.” She stepped inside without being asked.
The words Harry is a dipshit were burned into the entryway carpet.
“I suppose you run into a lot of angry spirits in your job,” said Gloria.
Charon said, “I’m just filling in. Part time.”
“Just as long as you get rid of the old bastard,” said Harry.
“Oh, Harry,” said Gloria.
“What’s it going to take?” he asked. “Some kind of ritual? Do we need to leave the house? Is it dangerous? Will there be property damage? Will the city reimburse us?”
Charon cut him off by holding up her hand. She sniffed the air. The dead always smelled weird. This one stank of turpentine and gravy.
“Okay, Grandpa, fun’s over. Time to move on.”
A gray shade stepped out from behind the couch. If not for his lack of color and some of his skin peeling away, he might easily be mistaken for a flesh-and-blood human being.
Gloria said, “Dad, have you been hiding behind the couch the whole time?”
Charon didn’t bother explaining. The shade wasn’t anywhere until she called upon him. It was only the call of a ferryman that could materialize a soul.
“C’mon, Gramps. Let’s go.”
Grandpa frowned. “Yeah, all right. I’m going. I’m going.”
“Don’t let the door hit you on the ass, Dad,” said Harry.
“Fuck you, Harry.” Grandpa flipped Harry off one last time. The screen on Harry’s prized 80 inch high definition television cracked in two.
“Something to remember me by, you worthless shit.”
“Wait for me in the car,” said Charon.
“Yeah, yeah.” Grandpa shuffled out the front door.
While Harry inspected his television, Gloria caught Charon by the arm.
“What’s going to happen to him?” asked Gloria. “What do you do to him?”
“I don’t do anything,” said Charon. “I just drive them to the other side.”
“And what happens there?”
It wasn’t the first time Charon had heard the question. It wouldn’t be the last. It was tempting to simply lie. People didn’t want the answer, even if she had it. But she had no special insight, no inside information.
“I just drive.”
Gloria’s face fell. “Oh.”
It might have been concern for her father that disappointed her. It might have been fear over her own eventual fate. Everybody died. It might have been nice to know what to expect when they did. If the mysteries of death were more open maybe there’d be no call for ferryman to drag the reluctant dead on their way.
That was assuming those mysteries weren’t utterly terrifying. Maybe the truth would only cause the dead to huddle in the shadows of the living world, pissing their pants, begging not to be sent to realms more horrific than mortal minds could comprehend.
Like most ferrymen, Charon had learned not to think about it. It’d just drive you crazy.
Gloria thanked Charon for stopping by, and Charon didn’t say that she was just doing her job. It might help Gloria if she thought of it as calling. Like a priest. Although there were probably times even the holiest of priests got sick of listening to people’s shit.
Charon got in her car and checked this house off her list. “You need to get in back, Grandpa.”
Grandpa, sitting in the passenger seat, said, “What? With them?”
The three other restless shades wiggled in their cramped quarters.
“There’s no more room back here,” said the fat shade.
“Make room,” she said. “The front is for the living.”
Grandpa and the other shades complained, but they had no choice but to do as she said. Stronger souls might resist, but in the end, they’d always follow orders.
“I don’t have a seatbelt,” he said.
The shade of a young woman said, “He can’t have mine. I died in a car accident. I’m not letting it happen again.”
“You can only die once,” said Charon.
“It’s awfully uncomfortable,” said Grandpa as he tried to squeeze between the fat guy and the thin guy, like the undead version of Laurel and Hardy. The fat guy even had the mustache.
“Deal with it. We’re almost to the river.”
She turned on the radio and Grand Funk Railroad filled the interior.
“Oh, not this hippie music,” said Grandpa. “Am I in hell?”
“Don’t ask her to change it,” said Laurel.
“The radio is for the living,” added Hardy.
Charon smiled. “Damned straight.”
A ferryman’s job wasn’t very difficult. It required almost no training. It was more of a knack than anything. Both Charon’s mother and father had been full time ferrymen, but Charon and her brother only did it part time. It was an easy way to earn a little extra cash, like pizza delivery but with pizzas that wouldn’t stop complaining.
All that was required was that a lost soul pass over a river by a ferryman. Nobody knew why it worked, but it worked. While most people had the good sense to die and pass on without having to be escorted, some folks were too stubborn or stupid or possibly just missed by the claw machine that plucked the souls of the deceased. Ferrymen were a cosmic backup plan to keep the restless dead from piling up in the world of the living.
“How much farther?” asked the woman.
“Not much,” replied Charon.
“Will it hurt?”
There was no point in worrying them. Her passengers could be annoying, but they were having a hard time of it. Nobody was happy to be dead. Nobody who stuck around anyway.
“I’m scared,” said the young woman.
This was why Charon went out of her way to not learn their names.
“Nothing to be scared of,” said Charon. “Whatever is waiting, we all have to face it sooner or later.”
“What do you think it is?”
Charon sighed. “I don’t think about it.”
“How can you not think about it? It’s all you do all day.”
“I’m part time,” said Charon.
“Still, you have to think about it sometime.”
It was a lie, but none of the souls in her backseat wanted to know her conclusions. It didn’t matter. The answers were already waiting for them.
The bridge came into view. Just a short, bumpy drive over a tributary. There often was barely enough water to fill the drainage. But as long as there was some, it worked well enough.
“It’ll be fine.” She sounded sincere. She’d gotten good at faking that.
Her car drove over the bridge. She didn’t always watch them go, but she made eye contact with the woman and nodded to her.
They were gone as soon as the car reached the other side. Four more souls delivered to the other side on this street in this quiet neighborhood, a gateway to the netherworld beside a 7-11 and a grocery store.
She pulled over, rolled down the windows to get the smell of the dead out, and went inside for a Slurpee. There was something about the company of the dead that allowed her to enjoy the pleasures of the living more enthusiastically. She didn’t know if they had cherry Slurpees on the other side, but on the good chance they didn’t, she’d grab one here whenever she could.
When she got back to her car, there was a shade sitting in the backseat. The pale spectral figure with white eyes and white hair and a gray button up shirt stared straight ahead.
She leaned through the backseat window. “Where the hell did you come from?”
He turned his head at her and blinked. Slowly. His lips moved as if to talk, but no sound came out.
“Speak up, buddy,” she said.
The unfamiliar shade howled with such force she was thrown back as every bit of glass in her car shattered. Her ears ringing, she sat up, putting her hand in the cold, sticky ruins of her Slurpee.
“Son of a bitch.”
The shade jumped out of her car and ran to her side. “Oh, Jesus. Are you okay? I don’t know what came over me.”
He offered her his hand. His touch was colder than the frozen beverage. She managed to salvage the half that was still in the cup.
He noticed his colorless skin. “Oh, shit. What happened to me?”
“You’re dead,” she said.
Charon sucked on her straw and appraised her car. All the mirrors had cracked as well.
“I can’t be dead,” he said.
“Everybody can be dead. Eventually. Why the hell did you do that?”
“It was an accident. Wait. So I’m dead? I don’t feel dead.”
“Trust me. I know.”
She started the car. The engine sputtered a bit, and there was an unfamiliar knocking.
“I’ll pay for the damage,” he said.
“How? Even ferrymen don’t take checks from the underworld. And where the hell did you even come from? I certainly didn’t pick you up.”
He looked around as if expecting to find the answer behind him or written in the clouds.
“I don’t know.”
“Forget it,” she said. “Just get in. I’ll drive you over.”
“Just get in. I don’t normally do this for free, but in your case, I’ll make an exception.”
He complied, like a good little shade.
“Backseat,” she said.
They drove over the bridge.
He didn’t disappear.
She turned around and did it again.
“Are you lost?” he asked.
She contemplated the mysterious stranger who broke the rules of everything she thought she understood. Faced with mysteries she couldn’t unwrap, she did the only thing she could.
“Are you sure I’m dead?” he asked from the curb.
“I’m sure,” she said. “Good luck.”
She drove away, watching the shade disappear in the broken cracks of her rearview mirror.