The young man’s gait was a little unsteady. As if he were sleepwalking, he was only vaguely aware of the fact that his body was no longer in his control. He had no idea where he was going or how long he’d walked, but he did know it had been many hours judging by how far the sun had traversed across the sky. The rough, and rocky ground cut into the already raw soles of his feet with every step, coating them in blood and dust. Each breath grated along the sandpaper of his throat. In his fugue state, he longed for water.
Even then, he couldn’t stop whispering to himself, willing his body to stop, to let him rest. But his feet just continued, stepping one in front of the other. As he longed for unconsciousness to take a firmer hold, for the relief of the darkness, of death, his body stopped. Before he could pin down his gratitude and relief, he was forced to his knees. His yowl of pain sounded raw and primal to his own ears, but the rock cutting into his knees was the least of his concerns. His hands moved on their own, sweeping away the sand and dirt in front of him. Then his fingers dug beneath the surface of the hard terrain, clawing at the rock and the packed earth, and he was completely powerless. The sharp stones cut his hands, his fingernails snapped and ripped from their beds, and his silent screams echoed only within his own mind.
Jonah Sands stepped out of the bustling Brisbane airport. He turned his face towards the fierce Australian sun and smiled, relieved to be home. As he joined the taxi queue, he glanced at his watch and realised he hadn’t changed the time after leaving Greece. He moved to the next available taxi and greeted the driver politely, helping to load his bags into the trunk.
“Are you visiting or returning home?” the driver asked.
“Returning,” Jonah replied, running his hand through his shaggy blond hair. He wiped his sunglasses on his shirt before putting them on.
“Where are you returning from?” They both got into the car.
“I was over in Greece for a few weeks for work.”
“What do you do?”
Jonah pulled his phone from his satchel and turned it on. “I’m a photojournalist.”
“Nice. Plenty to photograph over there, I’m sure. So, where are we headed?”
Jonah gave the driver his address, then his phone rang—his best friend Tristan calling. “Excuse me. I need to get this,” Jonah said.
The driver nodded, navigating his way through the traffic.
“Happy birthday, mate! Glad you finally decided to join me in the thirties.”
Jonah chuckled. “It’s my birthday today? I was hoping I’d skipped it somehow with the time difference. Are we still on for dinner at your folks’ tonight?”
“You know it. No one can escape the family birthday dinner. Not even you. Hey, what was with the cryptic emails while you were away?” Tristan asked.
Jonah sighed. “I don’t know how to explain it without sounding paranoid. It just felt like someone was watching me from the minute I got there.”
“What’s the saying?” Tristan asked. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean no one’s after you?”
“Thanks, mate. That’s helpful.” Jonah stared out the window.
“Well, did you see anyone who looked suspicious? Or any sign someone was watching or following you?” Tristan asked.
“No, I didn’t,” Jonah admitted. “It was more like a feeling I couldn’t shake. It didn’t stop until I left the country.”
“That’s weird, dude. Are you sure you didn’t unlock some kind of mummy’s curse while you were there?”
Jonah laughed. “Not likely, considering I was in Greece and not Egypt.”
“You know what I mean,” Tristan countered. “What if you triggered a curse or something? You were on an expedition.”
“I know, but I don’t believe in curses. And I only take the photographs. It’s not like I touched anything.”
“If you say so. At least you’re back now. Anyways, I have to get back to work, so happy birthday. I’ll pick you up at six.”
Jonah ended the call and smiled.
“Couldn’t help but overhear it’s your birthday,” the driver said, meeting Jonah’s gaze in the rear-view mirror.
“Yeah, mate. The big three-oh.”
“Ah… well, it’s been a while since I was that age, so enjoy it.”
“Thanks. Will do,” Jonah replied and finally settled into his seat. The fatigue from his journey swept over him, and he wound the window down halfway to keep himself awake.
The driver chuckled.
“What’s so funny?” Jonah leaned forward.
“There’s a birthday song for you on the radio, though you may be too young to know it,” the driver declared as he turned up the volume. Jonah couldn’t help but laugh as the sounds of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” filled the car. The driver turned around. “Happy birthday.”
Jonah’s attention moved in horror from the driver to the windscreen. A woman stood facing them in the middle of the road, and they were headed right for her. “Look out!” he yelled.
The driver’s head swivelled around in surprise.
Jonah braced himself as the driver swerved sharply to avoid hitting the woman, then swerved again to dodge the oncoming traffic before losing control and ploughing into a parked car. Jonah felt his belt snap. He gripped the seat in front of him, his breath catching in his throat as the car flipped in the air.
Jonah moaned when the pain pulled him back to consciousness. He opened his eyes and looked around. It took me a moment to realise he was lying on the side of the road and could see the crumpled, smoking taxi up ahead. The buckled door was forced open, and a bloodied, injured driver eased himself out. Jonah tried to call out to him, horrified to find himself mute. He wanted to raise his arm but couldn’t move. Panic seized him when he wondered if he’d been paralysed in the accident.
The driver’s face contorted in pain, blood dripping from a gash in his forehead as he slumped to the ground beside his car. Despite the fact that they’d been driving in heavy traffic only moments ago, now there was only the flipped taxi on the other side of the road. Jonah tried to move his head, to look for anyone who could help.
What the hell is going on?
Beyond the driver, he caught movement at the edge of his vision. With slow yet purposeful steps, the woman who’d caused the accident approached him. Jonah tried again to call out, but still, his body would not respond. Any fear he’d held for his own well-being disappeared beneath the sudden dread he felt now for the taxi driver.
Something about the woman made him wish he could run and hide.
Why is she moving so goddamn slow? It infuriated and terrified him all at once. The taxi driver managed to prop himself up to a seated position against the car. When he noticed the woman approaching, he called out to her for help, his voice cracked and gasping. The woman continued toward him in silence, without reaction or emotion, and the man stared at her in helpless confusion.
She stopped in front of him and stared down at his bloody face. Flaming red hair starkly contrasted her ivory skin, illuminated against the flowing black dress she wore. She slowly raised her arm, clutching in her hand a strange, glowing cord, which seemed to resonate with its own internal life force.
The driver’s confusion bloomed into panic the longer the woman stared at him, unblinking. Without diverting her intense gaze, she raised a gleaming pair of silver scissors in her other hand. In one sweeping motion, she severed the cord between the scissor blades, and Jonah swallowed hard when the driver’s head fell back against the car, his dead, blank stare aimed upward into nothingness.
The woman then turned her gaze to Jonah. With slow, languid steps, she made her way toward him, as though she knew full well he could not flee. Immobilised, he heard his own heart pounding in fierce protest.
She stopped, tilted her head, and stared straight into his eyes. He held his breath. Her mouth twisted upwards in a sneer before she turned and walked away, red hair billowing behind her by a wind Jonah could not feel.
Then she was gone.
He could barely move to look around, wondering where the hell she’d gone and how she’d disappeared. Whatever paralysis had gripped him abruptly ceased, engulfing him in even more pain, and all thoughts of the woman vanished. He finally called out for help as the world blurred before him.
Right before he lost consciousness, he heard the radio in the taxi still playing in the now-silent street.
“Come on, baby. Don’t fear the Reaper…”
Laughter erupted, shattering the silence of the hospital ward. Jonah had just finished telling Tristan about the redheaded woman. “How is any of this funny?” Jonah asked.
Tristan stood and tried to look serious. “Look, man. I’m sorry I laughed. I am. It’s just… you tell me you’re fine except for your broken arm and some bruised ribs. Then you tell me about a freaky hot chick wielding a pair of big-arse scissors.”
“I never said she was hot.”
“It was implied.” Tristan raised a hand to silence Jonah’s protests. “A woman you believe caused the car accident before killing the driver with a piece of string.”
“Not with the string. She cut the string.”
“Right. Well, mate, you must have a concussion, because you’re talking shit.”
Jonah stared at his best mate. Tristan had an almost identical mop of hair, only jet-black instead of Jonah’s fair blond. He also shared the prominent shadow of unshaven facial hair, and he actually managed to make it look good. On Jonah, it only gave him a dishevelled appearance.
As Tristan marched about the room with his casual air, Jonah couldn’t help but smile at what he referred to as Tristan’s uniform—jeans, scuffed where they dragged on the floor around one of his numerous pairs of Chucks, paired with a t-shirt depicting whichever band or musician Tristan favoured most that day.
Jonah tried to get comfortable on the hospital bed but grimaced at the pain pulsing through his bruised and battered body.
Tristan saw that grimace and approached the bed. “Jonah, you know I’m your best mate, but you understand how it sounds, right? Can you at least consider the possibility that what you saw was just a result of the accident? I mean, you came to on the side of the road. You have no idea how hard you hit your head. Mate, you’re lucky to be alive.”
Jonah gazed out the window as he thought about those words. “Wait…” He sat upright with the sudden realisation. More pain took his breath away, and he waited for it to dull. “It couldn’t have been my imagination. I saw the woman before the accident, remember? She was standing in the middle of the road.”
Tristan said nothing. He paced beside the bed, trying to come up with an alternative explanation. “Okay, so maybe you saw the real woman standing in the middle of the road. But what if the second time you saw her was a hallucination? Your way of coming to terms with witnessing someone die?”
“Shit, Tristan, you sound like your sister.”
“Speaking of which, I’d better call her. Ava’s going to have my neck for not calling her sooner.”
“No, don’t! You pretending to be a shrink is bad enough. I can do without a real one here.” Tristan didn’t look convinced. “There’s no point in worrying her, mate. I just need to get my head straight first, okay?”
Tristan shrugged. “Okay, but only if you admit what I said is plausible.”
“Okay, I admit, it’s plausible. But if that’s what happened—and I’m not saying it is—where did she go?”
“Beats me.” Tristan flopped into the chair beside the bed and propped his feet on the edge of the thin mattress beside Jonah’s legs. “Maybe she just bolted when she saw the damage she caused. People can be arseholes like that.”
“It seemed real to me.”
“Look, mate, I know this is the last place on earth you want to spend your thirtieth birthday. If I could change things for you, I would. But I think you need to follow the doctor’s orders on this one. We can celebrate all you want when they give you the all-clear, okay? My shout.”
“You? Shout me drinks?”
“What? It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“You never shout.”
“Well, I’m shouting, all right? No arguing.”
“Must have hit my head harder than I thought,” Jonah said and grinned.
Tristan made his way to the ferry dock. It had been a long day, made longer by the fact that his car had refused to start in the hospital car park. He resigned himself to leaving the car overnight and tackling that issue in the morning, too worried about Jonah to think about much else.
He glanced down at his Batman wristwatch, which he always said served as a reminder not to take life too seriously. It failed to ease his worries today, but he was relieved to see he still had plenty of time.
It surprised him to find the ferry already docked. Despite being early, it was already boarding passengers, and Tristan broke into a jog, amazed by his turn of good fortune. He greeted the captain, moved down the aisle, and took up a window seat. Gazing out at the city lit up along the waterfront was his favourite part of travelling on the ferry at night. As it pulled out onto the dark, murky river, the water’s surface looked to Tristan like a black mirror, reflecting the sparkling lights of Brisbane back at him. Mesmerised, he let his thoughts drift back to Jonah.
He felt like he’d somehow let his mate down by not taking him at his word. As much as Tristan wanted to believe him, there was no way Jonah’s account of what he’d seen before and after his accident could be true. The more he thought about it, the more he convinced himself that the woman was a hallucination. Things like that just didn’t happen. It occurred to him that Jonah was likely to come to this same realisation once the concussion wore off.
He leaned back in his chair, relieved by and confident in the fact that he hadn’t broken any vital code of mateship. Just as he was finally relaxing, the ferry gave a long, loud groan just before the engine cut out. The lights flickered, then left the cabin in darkness, the only light coming from the buildings lining the riverbank. Tristan looked around in confusion while the other passengers voiced their concerns in increasing volume.
Someone shouted from the front of the ferry. “Attention, passengers!” Tristan struggled to make out the captain standing illuminated by the lights outside. “I am sorry for the inconvenience, but we seem to be having some technical difficulties.”
“What kind of technical difficulties?” a passenger in the front asked.
There was a pause. “Please rest assured, we will have one of the other ferries join us soon. We’ll transfer you all over if we haven’t fixed the problem by then.”
Protests rose all around, and Tristan sighed in disgust. He leaned his head against the cool glass of the window, closing his eyes and trying to ignore the racket of disgruntled passengers. When he opened his eyes again, he saw another ferry approaching them across the water. The mood around him shifted from annoyance to relief, but Tristan found himself fighting off fierce stabs of dread at the sight.
“All right, everyone. If I could just have your attention, please. I’m going to head up and speak to the driver, and then we can start moving you across.”
Tristan’s apprehension only intensified when he stared back at his own concerned expression in the window. He had never been superstitious and didn’t believe in the paranormal, but if there was such a thing as a sixth sense, his own was going crazy. The whole situation creeped him out, and he couldn’t figure out why. He watched the two ferry captains bring their boats together so the passengers could easily step from one to the other. As the men stood talking, it seemed to Tristan that their rescuers had appeared all too quickly. Not to mention the fact that this new ferry was empty.
In the middle of peak hour.
He gave himself a mental slap. Stop it! It’s just a bloody boat, for crying out loud. Jonah’s story must have unnerved him more than he thought.
The driver of the second boat stepped inside the stranded ferry, and Tristan took an instant dislike to the man when a tingling up his spine told him to stay away. The new driver made his skin crawl, and he scrunched down into his seat.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. If you can please make your way forward in single file, we’ll have you back on land in no time.” The man’s cordial tone sounded forced and fake, only cementing Tristan’s desire to steer clear of him. He stayed in his seat and watched the other passengers move out, then ducked his head into the aisle for a better look. The man stood at the entrance and greeted each passenger with a friendly pat on the shoulder as they exited. For all intents and purposes, the new captain seemed pleasant enough, and Tristan could find no reason for the unexplained warning telling him not to follow the others. He only knew that he wanted to get off the boat, and he wanted to avoid contact with the captain.
Most of the passengers formed a line down the aisle closest to the exit. Tristan walked down the outer aisle and moved around to the front of the cabin. He squeezed past as the captain greeted a passenger, forcing himself between the passenger and the wall. He ignored the shouts of protest and flying insults as he stepped out into the fresh night air and climbed onto the next boat before he allowed himself to turn around.
He immediately wished he hadn’t.
The driver stood at the entrance of the ferry, his head turned toward Tristan with a cold glare that sent a chill down his spine.
Yep. My spidey senses are tingling.
He turned and kept walking, choosing not to sit in the cabin but to stay outside on the deck. He’d hoped the feeling of dread would ease once he was on the next ferry. It only intensified.
Finally, all the passengers had boarded, and Tristan found himself the only one sitting outside. A nervous flutter filled his stomach as the ferry pulled away and headed across the river. He fished his phone out of his pocket in the hopes that some music would distract him. “Don’t Pay the Ferryman” blasted into his ears, and he ripped out his headphones in disgust. Then he shoved the phone back into his pocket, leaned against the rail, and cupped his face in his hands, wondering what the hell was wrong with him. He reassured himself that in under an hour, he’d be in the comfort of his own home, enjoying a beer and laughing at what a sook he’d been. But for now, fear sat like a lead weight in his stomach, and his mouth was as dry as dust. Tristan forced himself to take three deep breaths to calm down.
He opened his eyes and exhaled, his heart skipping quickly at what he saw. The city lights faded away along the riverfront, hidden by the thick, ominous fog creeping towards them across the river.
Ice crystallised his veins as the boat transformed before his eyes. He stepped back from the rails when they slid out from under him. The deck narrowed on either side while stretching out in length. The exterior of the boat morphed from fiberglass and chrome to an aged and brittle-looking wood. Tristan forced himself to turn around. A moan escaped him when he saw the rest of the boat changing too. He gripped his forehead, watching the cabin disappear completely. The passengers, still in their seats, moved and merged until they sat two abreast.
It stupefied him that no one else acknowledged what was happening. A woman knitted where she sat, silently counting stitches; a businessman clattered away on his laptop, brow furrowed in concentration; a teenager scribbled hearts and initials in a notebook as she silently sang along to her phone. In disbelief, he stared as one by one a handprint illuminated across each passenger’s right shoulder blade.
I’m losing my bloody mind!
The ferry had now completely transformed into a gig-like boat minus the oars. Tristan peered down the vessel’s great length, trying to locate the captain.
Then he found the man standing at the bow.
The ferryman’s uniform faded away, starting at his feet and moving upwards and replaced by a black cloak. Tristan almost lost sight of him as the cloak rose up over the captain’s head to form a hood. In his hands, the man now suddenly held a single wooden staff. When he used it to pierce the water’s dark surface, the staff illuminated like a lantern to guide them forward.
Tristan lurched backwards in fear, only to trip and clatter against the stern.
The hooded figure turned his head to look back at him, but Tristan could see nothing but darkness under that hood. Silver eyes flashed, and in a deafening voice, the ferryman commanded, “Get… off… my… boat.”
With a vibrating boom, Tristan was flung off the back of the boat, flying high into the air before landing a hundred metres away. He sank into the cold, dark river, the silver eyes still on him even as he lost consciousness.