There are four souls going to hell on the schedule and nowhere to fit them in this damn cab. Supervisors won’t listen no matter how many complaints you leave them. One soul is already enough to cramp my style. Ruins the scenery. Ruins the ambiance. Ruins the music.
The first don’t even look like he knows he’s dead. Got a square jaw and short hair drenched in gel. Mid-forties, no smile lines round his narrow eyes. Keeps pressing on his cell phone, then banishing it back into his pocket. Surprised me to see it though. Takes a lot of attachment for something physical to cross over with you. Some of the really old folk with Alzheimer’s or what have you don’t even show up with clothes on.
He takes a step back when the cab pulls up and glares through the passenger seat window.
“Hey, Mr. Wayne.”
“Blackshrike,” he corrects me. Blackshrike, Klondike, whatever, idiot doesn’t even get the joke. “Are you with the insurance company?”
“Sure.” Easier to play along with them. Gets them in and keeps them calm until we reach the end. “You mind getting in the back? Gotta pick up a few more for the road.”
Mr. Blackshrike wants to protest. You can see it in the way he opens his mouth, the way his teeth bare and flash. Then he looks at his phone again and swings open the back door. He slams it so hard it’s a miracle it don’t break.
“I’d appreciate it if you were quick. I’ve got my own business to get back to.”
Yeah, he does. Saw it written on the reservation. Mr. Blackshrike’s got all sorts of business going on back home. But no more. All the girls, all the drugs, all the money, it’ll all get torn apart and gobbled up by the rest of the sharks.
He don’t get in the way of my music, at least. He’s still tickling that damn phone. Doesn’t know he’ll never send out another text, take another call. It’s hard not to laugh out-loud. Gotta look out the window instead. The road is black. The sky is a deep, royal blue.
Drive doesn’t take long but you would never know it with the way His Majesty Blackshrike keeps tapping the seatbelt buckle. No clue that he’s riding in a marvel of a cab, the very paragon. He’ll understand soon enough.
This time it’s two girls in their early twenties looking ready to tear each other’s throats out. They’re meatless, blanched, got all their femininity drawn on their faces with liner and shadow. Wouldn’t have been keen on them before. Ain’t keen on them now. When the window rolls down, they just keep shrilling at one another.
Blackshrike gives me a look. Even a stuffed peacock like him knows the only good solution for women like these is to steer clear of ‘em.
One of the girls finally looks over. “What is this? Is this who you called?”
“I dunno who I called, it’s a phone, you can’t hear faces!”
“Hey ladies. In the back, if you please.”
The more huffy of the two girls looks at her friend. Lavender lips puff out in a hiss: “Gross.” Well, don’t worry about being overheard, sweetheart. Besides, nothing that ain’t already been said. Anyway, don’t you think it’s fitting that sinners get me? Wouldn’t be right to be sent off with dimples and long lashes, pearly teeth and smooth skin.
Even though they’re about as wide as a pair of Twizzlers, the girls settle in sniffing and whining about being cramped, jabbing those sharp elbows into one another. Once we get going, though, they catch whiff of Mr. Blackshrike. A sneaky look like two cats scheming to spill and split a fish from a bowl passes between them.
“You going to town too?” the louder one asks, dipping her voice in honey.
Mr. Blackshrike looks disgusted. Gives a slow nod.
“You interested in some company?”
“Yeah,” adds the one that don’t talk much. She leans over her friend and they’re suddenly one again, two heads on the same hydra.
The talker takes over again. “How ‘bout it? Package deal.”
Mr. Blackshrike only holds up that useless phone of his and starts tapping on it. The girls must think he’s playing shy because they just smile at each other. Thick as thieves.
Murdered one another. Not sure who stabbed first. My money’s on the quiet one.
The last passenger comes as a shock. It’s a girl. Got a big ratty gray nightgown on. Ends of her hair all wet. Gripping her wrists. It don’t take long to understand.
“Get in. Here in the front.”
She obeys, doesn’t even pay any attention to the other passengers. The twins are too busy preening and trying to look good for Blackshrike.
“You like music?”
The girl nods. A bead of water drips off her chin. “I did.”
“Maybe you’ll like this.”
The violin, the white moon, the stars! They’re all falling into place, floating up in the sky like a shining mosaic. There’s time to hear two, three tracks, before we arrive.
In the middle of the field there’s a bright red door. That’s what you’d see if you were me, at least. Blackshrike, the girls, they see what they want–and that’s why they always go, in the end. They get out, forgetting about me, forgetting about my fare. Fine, fine. Ain’t Charon of the River Styx after all.
The girl raises her arm towards the door.
“No, sweetheart. That’s not for you. You got somewhere else to be.”
She seems relieved. Puts her arm down quick. We drive away.
Now my music can play loud. My cab can soar. It’s almost like being alone, being free, until she opens her mouth.
“I killed myself.”
“Yep.” A sigh whistles through my nose. Time to turn the music off. Was a good part of the song too. “You did.”
“Where are you taking me?”
“Somewhere people like you go to wait. Limbo.”
“Limbo?” Her dark eyes narrow. “But I killed myself. I should be going to hell.”
“If you were going to hell, you’d have gotten out with Klondike and the Doublemint twins. You had an innocent life. Then you went and killed yourself. So now you’re going to limbo.”
She hesitates. “What’s it like?”
“Empty. Not as many souls as you would think. More than you’d like. Lots of water, like the ocean, it just keeps lapping and lapping against the shore. No music.” Give my muted track a meaningful look.
The girl stares at me hard. “And why do you know that?”
Don’t got nothing to say to that. Catches me by surprise. Done a real good job, all these years, of not talking about myself, but this girl got me careless, with her blank face and her sad, ugly robe.
When we reach the shore of limbo, the tide is coming in. Wish music was drowning it out. The girl starts to get emotional, red roses blooming in her pale cheeks.
She glares at me. “Is this all that’s left?”
“…in there, you’re gonna have to eventually make a decision. You threw away your life, so you threw away your death too. But if you stay there long enough, you’re gonna meet someone. And maybe they’ll give you something new to do.”
“Who did you meet?”
She’s grasping for time. For moments she won’t have to spend alone. But there’s nothing more to be said. When she steps out of the cab, she stumbles and holds the sides of her old nightgown tight.
Driving away, the answer to her question gets loose in my mind. You see, the thing about the devil, the thing you never hear in any songs or stories, is that he feels like your oldest friend when you finally meet him. The devil dried my tears and the devil praised my cowardice. The devil rewarded my apathy with freedom. With the violin and the night sky.
There’s time to keep driving down the winding black tar road now. No one’s waiting for me and no one’s beside me. Drunken on starlight, I got no intention of turning back now.
Author Bio: Noel Wallace is a writer, poet, and interpreter of the Japanese language. Her English poetry and prose have been published in Mirror Dance Fantasy, the Avalon Literary Review, and Hello Horror, amongst others. Keep updated on new publications at www.noelwallace.com