I have a major announcement to make, as Victoria Chase might put it. My third short stories collection, Honest Fibs, was just will be published in a few days – and I now have the draft cover in my hands!
Looks good, right? The stories are told by two fishermen, hence the fishing boat scene. And the mermaid… well, you’ll see.
You’re in for a Ride
To celebrate, I will share here my latest short story. It hasn’t made it into Honest Fibs, as I only wrote it last week, but it makes for a nice promise: that there will be a fourth collection some day.
I’m also sharing it because I need your help with something: the ending. Read on, and you’ll understand what I mean.
A man’s gotta make a living, so I cruise through the rain, even though I doubt anyone will be crazy enough to be out and about in a night like this. Which is why I almost miss the middle-aged blonde in the red coat, slumbering under the bus stop. She flags me down with both hands, flailing her arms up and down.
I stop a few yards down the road, and she hurries into the cab. The wind pushes a few stray raindrops into the cab, but I don’t mind. I’m just happy to get a customer.
She squishes into the warm seat. “Thanks.”
I nod a half-greeting, half-question. “Where to?”
She gives me an address in the better part of the city and I repeat it into the cab’s autopilot. The car turns left onto an empty street. Neon lights reflect on my windshield as we drive away from the city center. I make myself comfortable. There’s really no need for me to be behind the wheel. Just waiting for legislation to catch up with technology. Maybe in a year’s time, more likely in a decade or two, cabbies will be obsolete. I’ll be obsolete. What happens next is anyone’s guess. I suppose some drivers will prefer having a real human being in the car with them. Who knows—our presence, once not required, may become a luxury only the rich can afford. At least, that’s what we cabbies tell ourselves.
I shake my head to chase away chilling thoughts, and glance at the mirror. She pushes her lipstick against her lips, then shoves it back into her bag and smacks cherry lips together. Her mouth looks ready to break into an easy smile. I like that. Then I notice her jittery gaze darting around the empty, showery streets.
My brow furrows. “Everything all right?”
She lets out a nervous chuckle. “Yes, it’s just…” There’s that easy smile. A bit on the nervous side, but cute on her. “With everything’s been going on…”
She doesn’t finish her sentence. Doesn’t need to. We’ve all heard the news. They’d found another one of the Phantom’s victims last night. “What’s that, twelve?”
She shakes her head. “Thirteen. Assuming they’ve found them all.”
Thirteen dead in as many months. The police, clueless. Each victim, mummified. Drained of life. It only took the Phantom a few minutes, the coroner had said. How, no one knows.
Comedy clubs roar with laughter as comedians joke about the return of the Mummy. At night’s end, though, when the doors open and I pick up tipsy patrons, fear hangs over them like a putrid overcoat.
“Looks like he only strikes once a month,” I console her. “We should be safe until next month.”
Her lips tug upwards again. “I guess.”
I like her smile. Half bitter, half joyful. Would love to promise her she’ll be safe. But how can I?
“I saw a professor in the news,” she says. “He claims it’s an ancient species. One that hibernates for hundreds of year. They were once worshiped as gods, he said. They’ll eat their fill, then return to their slumber.”
I let out a nervous laugh. “Does he know why?”
Her smile evaporates. “He speculates they need our life force—chi, he called it—to survive.”
“Some imagination he has.”
“I don’t know.” She purses her lips. “He sounded pretty convincing. Said he’s already unearthed enough evidence to go public. He’s close to getting final proof.”
“Sounds like a nutjob to me,” I mutter.
We spend the rest of the short ride in awkward silence. That professor and his theories have soured my mood, and the empty streets unnerve me. Not even joyriders—the suicidal idiots who find driving thrilling and race the streets at night with disengaged autopilots. Even they have stayed inside on a night like this.
When the cab pulls over at the curb, she opens her purse and pulls out her cell. It blips as she makes a quick pass over the dongle. I check the transaction. It includes a healthy tip. I beam her my warmest smile. “Have a lovely night, Ma’am.”
“You too,” she says and walks into the rain and out of my life.
My head slumps against my headrest. I watch her through the mirror pull her collar over her head and rush towards a well-kept house. The kind with the manicured lawn. She probably has a family waiting for her. Husband and three-point-five kids. And a flamingo in the backyard.
I swallow a yawn, then remember there’s no one around and let it out in the open, not even bothering to cover my mouth. A quick glance at the dashboard tells me it’s been sixteen hours now. Way too long a shift, even if I’ve spent most of it sitting comfortably. I instruct the cab to drive itself to the nearest train station. Maybe I can catch one last fare before calling it a day.
The sound of the rain drumming against the car and the swish of the wipers lull me to sleep. I do my best to keep my eyes open as the car drives through the vacant streets, but as soon as the cab comes to a gently stop next to the train station sign, I stretch my hands and put them behind my head. Then, I shut my eyes. Just for a moment.
I have no idea how much time has passed, when a man opens the door, waking me up. Long shadows cover his face. A suede fedora covers the top of his head, thick raindrops dripping along its edge. A long, beige trench coat, straight out of a last century movie, completes the outfit. It leaves wide wet stains on the seat and floor. It’s the eyes that grab my attention, though. Straight out of hell. Yellow, with an orange flame dancing within. Demonic.
I shudder and fight the instinct to flee. “Where to, Mister?”
He gives me an address at one of the city’s derelict warehouse area. His voice, a snake crawling over gravel. It sends the small hairs on my back to stand up in attention. I swallow to wet my dry throat, then punch in the address. As the cab gently swerves into the street and takes off, I keep stealing glances in the mirror. The flames in the man’s eyes grow with each passing moment. The storm outside is picking up. I can feel its chill in my bones and turn up the heating. When a lightning flashes, I practically jump out of my skin.
The ride feels endless. I almost let out a sigh of relief when we pull over. Derelict buildings litter the unlit street. We stop before a rundown colonial house, strangely out of place among the shattered-windowed warehouses and abandoned tenement halls. It might have been pretty a couple of centuries ago, but has turned into a creepy shell of its former self by now.
“Wait here.” He lifts his collar and steps out in the stormy night, ignoring the gusts of wind that whip him with dark water.
I stare at the empty cabin for a moment, savoring his absence. Then, my bowels growl and a rumbling, sharp pain instructs me to look for the closest toilet. That’s one thing they still haven’t been to fit into a modern-day cab, and I curse silently its designers.
A neon light flashes in the distance. I can’t make it out, but it has to be a bar, or an all-day convenience store. I chew my lip for a while, then a second pang in my guts makes me jump out of the cab and hurry down the street.
As I approach, I can see the name of the place: The Phantom. My mouth twitches, but my legs keep walking towards the entrance. The windows are frosted but lit. I can’t see inside, but can hear people chattering and glasses clinking. After a moment’s hesitation, my hand reaches for the handle. As soon as I touch it, it disintegrates into a pile of rust, swept away by a sudden gust of chilly wind.
All sounds cease. No tipsy patrons, no laughter, no drunken toasts. No crying babies from the adjacent buildings, no fighting couples, no TV. The windows are as dark as the rest of the street. I almost empty my bowels right there and then. Instead, I whirl around and rush back to the safety of the cab. Screw this, I’m out of here.
Behind me, I hear footsteps. Without turning my head, I know who it is. I shove my hands into my pockets and walk faster. Instead of closing the distance, the cab looks farther away. Soon, I am panting, fast walking turning into running. My heart is pounding against my chest. Yet, I can hear the footsteps closing in.
I turn a sharp left into the colonial house, hoping to shake him off. Darkness covers the entrance. Cobwebs jiggle in the wind. I push them aside and bolt down a derelict stairway. I have to escape his foul presence.
The stairway ends on a metal door. Rusted hinges keep it close. A naked lamp illuminates the cramped space, its pale yellow light struggling to exorcise the surrounding black.
His footsteps echo behind me, closer and closer. I take a step back and throw myself at the door with all my might. It groans, but refuses to budge. My shoulder burns. I ignore it and shove the metal once again. And again. His footsteps are almost upon me when the door finally gives way and I lose my balance. I tumble down half a dozen steps and land on all fours on muddy soil. In what little light creeps into the room from the busted door, I make out bodies lying all around me. I touch one, and it crumbles under my trembling fingers. Mummified. The word rings in my head, drowning out all thought.
I lift my head to see the man’s silhouette against the open frame. An all-consuming fire is now twirling in his eyes. I shuffle my body backwards, but before I can blink he’s upon me. He grabs my head with his hands. Spiked tendrils shoot out from his palms, digging into my flesh. I struggle to free myself, but am unable to move. He licks his lips, parting them into a hungry smile. Fiery pain fills my head. I open my mouth to scream, but no sound comes out. After an eternity of agony, he pushes his thumb into my mouth and something shoots into my stomach. A seed.
An overpowering weakness consumes me. I close my eyes and welcome the darkness that swallows me.
I wake up with a jolt. I’m back in my cab, waiting at the train station. Damn you, woman, and your crazy stories. I rub the sleep off my eyes. Despite the cold, I’m covered in thick beads of sweat. I debate taking a few steps outside, but it’s still pouring. I press a button and the misted window rolls down. Raindrops whip my face, my hands, my legs. They land on the dashboard and smudge the displays. With a muffled curse, I roll the window back up.
My breathing has barely returned to normal when the last train pulls in. A moment later, it spits out drowsy passengers. They march out in long lines before vanishing into the darkness, unsteady steps turning into hurried ones.
A man opens the door and steps into the cab. Long shadows cover his face. A suede fedora covers the top of his head, thick raindrops dripping along its edge. A long, beige trench coat, straight out of a last century movie, completes the outfit. It leaves wide wet stains on the seat and floor. It’s the eyes that grab my attention, though. I swear, they’re yellow, with an orange flame dancing within.
My eyes widen in recognition. I struggle to keep my voice calm. “Where to?”
He gives me an address and my blood turns to ice. The address is at one of the city’s derelict warehouse area.
As the cab gently swerves into the street and takes off, I keep stealing glances in the mirror. The flames in the man’s eyes grow with each passing moment. The storm outside is picking up. I can feel its chill in my bones and turn up the heating. When a lightning flashes, I practically jump out of my skin.
The ride feels endless. I almost let out a sigh of relief when we pull over. Derelict buildings litter the unlit street. We stop before a familiar colonial house that’s seen better days.
“Wait here.” He lifts his collar and steps out in the stormy night, ignoring the gusts of wind that whip him with dark water.
He disappears into the house, confirming my worst fears. I fidget on my seat. My fingers drum against the dashboard. My foot taps the floor. Then, I can’t wait any longer. I must stop him if it’s the last thing I do.
I burst out of the cab and follow him inside. I push cobwebs out of my face as I step through the dark entrance. I hurry down the stairs. A naked lamp illuminates a broken door, hanging from rusted hinges.
My hands can’t stop shaking as I step through the gaping opening and stagger down half a dozen creaking steps. Bodies litter the muddy floor. Only the drip drip drip of rain can be heard.
The man is slumping over one of the corpses. He spins around to face me, his eyes burning with excitement. “I’ve found it,” he says, his voice cracking the gloomy silence.
“What is this place?” I ask as I take a careful step towards him, making sure to stay between him and the door.
“It’s the Phantom’s lair. The final piece of proof. They thought me crazy. Now I’ll show them. We can finally rid the world of this creature.” He motions around. “There’s at least two dozen bodies in here. We should call the cops.”
The cops? I hesitate for a moment, then take another step. It brings me almost next to him. He leans to the ground and pulls at a hand sticking out of the mud. It detaches from the arm and he lands on his back, splashing muddy waters everywhere. “Give me a hand, will you?” he groans as he tries to unstuck himself from the soil. His gaze jumps to the severed limb and he chuckles. “A hand, get it?”
I hurry by his side and grab his head. Spiked tendrils shoot out from my palms, digging into his flesh. He struggles to free himself, but the poison works fast and he’s unable to move. I lick my lips, parting them into a hungry smile. With him, I have enough bodies for my babies. He opens his mouth to scream, but no sound comes out. I collect his life force at my fingertip and fill a seed with it, then shove my thumb into the open orifice. The now pregnant seed shoots from under my fingernail and into his body. Within a few decades, it will grow into a healthy baby.
A moment later, he closes his eyes and his body turns limp in my hands.
Still buzzing with the remainders of his life force cruising through my veins, I gently lay his dead body down on the ground and watch the mud open up to swallow him. “Don’t worry. You’ll rise again.” I stay on all fours for a while, waiting for the room to stop spinning. My eyes turn to the still body. “After all, even gods need someone to worship them.”
The impregnation euphoria is slowly wearing off. As I wait for the buzzing in my ears to end, darker thoughts fill my head. I have to be more careful. Had my dream not warned me, I would have been doomed. My gaze darts around the cavernous basement. I count twenty-seven bodies. Twenty-seven possible offspring. That means two, maybe three survivors—if I’m lucky. Not nearly enough.
I pinch the bridge of my nose, the weight of my responsibilities weighing heavily upon me. First, I must get rid of the cab. At least, the building is mine. Has been for centuries. I need to renovate it, to make sure that no one disturbs us for the next decades.
Then, the professor. He knew too much. I must track down whoever gave him the information. Make sure to silence them. Them and anyone who’s seen his research. Only then can I go back to sleep.
Even worse, I’ve only located forty-eight possible hosts this time. Twenty-one had proven incompatible. Twenty-one! I hid their bodies away, but the police have already unearthed thirteen of them. How long before they finally catch up with me? Even if they don’t, how long before there are no compatible hosts left? They used to beg us to become our hosts. Now they chase us, call us monsters.
How long before mankind discards the last of its forgotten gods?
I hope you enjoyed the story. And now for the question: does it need the bit in blue? The story has more oomph without it, but I can’t help but feel that the antagonist should be allowed to explain their reasoning for what they’re doing. Make him more sympathetic to the reader, as it were.
See, I initially wrote that last bit for me, to help me understand his motivation. Then, I wondered whether I should leave that in or not.
So, what would you do?
Leave it or bin it?