The bad weather was not a passing squall. Fifteen minutes later it had only increased in intensity.
“Funny thing is”, said Karla, addressing the air, “today was meant to be mild. According to the forecast.”
“Really?” asked Helen. “I heard that it was going to be stormy.”
“Hang on” said Karla, reaching into her pocket and taking out her mobile phone. It was a rather snazzy-looking smartphone, that looked as though it might be able to do everything short of instantly translating your conversation into Japanese. She swiped her thumb along its screen, but a look of frustration passed across her face.
“Dammit” she said. “I can’t get a signal. How about you?”
Helen produced a rather smaller and less advanced phone from inside her jacket. A little bit of prodding provoked much the same expression as Karla's. “Nothing. Must be the storm, I guess.”
Karla looked at Laurence. “You?”
“I don’t have a mobile telephone” said Laurence. “I hate them.”
Karla rolled her eyes a little. “One of those guys.”
“And who would those guys be?”
Karla didn’t answer. She looked out the window. “I don’t imagine we’ll have much touring if this doesn’t clear up.”
“I’m surprised how fast we’re going” said Helen. The bus seemed to be moving almost as fast as it would be moving in good weather, and in light traffic.
“Maybe we’re on a quiet road”, said Laurence.
With that, the intercom crackled. A bubbling sound and a slow, steady drum-beat filled the air of the bus. Laurence thought he recognised it from somewhere.
“That’s ‘The Monster Mash’ “ said Karla, with one of her sudden, dizzy smiles.
Over the intercom, Skull Face began to sing along with the first words of the song. He did a perfect Borris Karloff impression. He had a fine singing voice, too.
Karla and Helen laughed out loud. Karla’s laugh was no silvery tinkle, but loud and deep. Her shoulders shook as she laughed.
“Join in”, urged Skull Face, when he reached the end of the verse.
Karla and Laurence took up his suggestion straight away. They both knew the words off by heart. Helen obviously didn’t, but waited and then joined in the chorus eagerly enough. All the time, the hail and the rain battered on the sides of the bus, and the wind howled furiously.
Suddenly, Laurence felt happy. Ridiculously happy. Was it just because he was sitting opposite Karla, who seemed more desirable to him every moment? Was it the storm outside? (He could never remember a time when he didn’t love storms.) Was it the song, which had always been one of his favourites? Or the sudden, conspiratorial sense of companionship that seemed to have sprung up inside the bus?
All of these things, doubtless. Less than an hour ago I was planning to kill myself, he thought. Not for the first time in his life, Laurence was struck by the sheer randomness of human existence.
The song came to an end, and Skull Face asked: “How about another blast of that?”
“Yes!” Karla shouted at the top of her voice. It echoed through the bus, despite the noise of the storm outside.
Laurence and Helen laughed, and a few moments later the sound of the bubbling cauldron came over the intercom again.
That’s when Laurence saw it.
He had turned to glance out the window, and an electric shock passed through him. The sky had turned green.
It was a livid, glowing green, utterly unnatural looking.The rain looked as though it was green sparks thrown off by a green fire.
And, suddenly, despite the water streaming down the window, he caught a glimpse of something outside—a human figure, some twenty or thirty feet away from the bus. A figure in a hooded cloak, walking very slowly towards them.
And then it was gone. Not only the figure, but the colour of the sky. It was the same charcoal grey it had been a few moments before.
But there was more to the experience than what Laurence saw. It was what he felt, too. The sight filled him with a sense of horror, but it was a very particular sort of horror. It wasn’t the sort of horror he’d felt the time he was convinced he had cancer, or when he was being bullied at school. It was...
Well, it was exactly like the horror he’d felt when he’d discovered scary movies, as a very young boy. It reminded him of that cardboard cut-out advertisement in the video shop window, all those years ago. The one showing a gnarled hand rising from a freshly-dug grave. The one that he couldn’t stop going to look at it even though it made his heart pound and his whole body feel chilly. It had the same flavour.
It was a horror that went much deeper than the fear of danger...and one that, somehow, called to him.
He turned. Helen was watching him, keenly.
“Nothing” he said.
“You look like you…saw something” said Helen. “You jumped.”
For a moment Laurence thought of telling her the truth. But only for a moment.
“Nothing to see out there”, he said, with a smile.
Now Karla was watching him, too, curiously. She had stopped singing along with the Monster Mash. But Skull Face’s voice still came over the intercom, singing with gusto.
“What's this guy’s name, anyway?” asked Laurence, eager to change the subject. “He never told me.”
“I did ask him” said Helen. She gave a rather quizzical smile. “Mr. Ferryman. That’s what he said.”
“Oh, please” said Karla. “That is so lame."
“It’s what he said.”
Laurence was barely listening to them. His heart was thumping, and his skin was goosepimpled all over.
He remembered a story he had read when he was thirteen or fourteen, one that had always stuck with him. It was called ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ and it was written by Ambrose Bierce, a veteran of the American Civil War who’d written a dictionary full of cynical definitions, and who eventually disappeared in Mexico.
The story was about a soldier of the American Civil War who was caught by the other side and escaped just as he was about to be hanged. For the entire story he was on the run from his would-be executioners, and towards the end it looked like he was going to get away...then came that sickening twist, where it turned out he had been hanged after all, and the whole story had been a hallucination running through his mind in its last moments, as the noose squeezed the oxygen from his brain. (Not long afterwards, Laurence had seen the film Jacob’s Ladder, which had used pretty much the same twist...but which still managed to trick him.)
The memory of the story gave him a heavy feeling in his stomach, like he’d swallowed a bowl of ball-bearings. What if he had gone ahead with his decision from earlier, after all? What if he was hanging by his neck from the rod in his wardrobe now? What if all this was the last pyrotechnics of his dying imagination?
He looked at Karla, who was still talking to Helen. He noticed her high forehead, her ever-so-slightly frazzled hair, her rather strong jaw-line. And, of course, her full figure, which was rather fuller than would be deemed ideal in many, if not most, eyes. It was almost ridiculous— Karla was his dream girl from head to toe. Was it because he was actually dreaming her, along with all of this?
His eyes turned to Helen. He wondered why he would dream a middle-aged academic.
But he only wondered for a moment. The motherly way she had looked at him, a moment before—what was it, except the fantasy of a young man who had never really had a mother? Whose own mother had tried to murder him before she murdered herself, when he was only a baby?
All this cameraderie, this storm, the bus that had pulled up just at the right moment—wasn’t it all too good to be true?
And with that, they came to a halt. Laurence, pulled out of his reverie, realised that the wind had gone from a howl to a sigh, and the rain and hail had stopped pounding against the bus.
Skull Face-— Mr. Ferryman, that was—- came through the door of the driver’s compartment, and once again clapped his hands-— a little more gently, this time.
“First stop, ladies and gentleman. The rest of your life begins now, if you dare to step outside.”
Jabbing the door that opened the bus’s door—for the first time, Laurence noticed that it had the Evil Eye painted on it—he descended the steps with a boy’s eagerness, and jumped onto the ground outside. Laurence could hear the soft thump as his feet landed.
The three passengers rose from their seats, rather warily. Laurence gave a small bow, smirked, and waved his hand with exaggerated chivalry.
“Thank you kindly, sir” said Helen, with a smile. Karla said nothing as she stepped past.
He followed the two ladies down the steps, curiosity driving his speculations out of his head—or out of the forefront of his mind, anyway.
It was cold. Not bitterly cold, but several degrees colder than it had been before he’d boarded the bus. A gentle drizzle was still falling.
They were standing in the middle of a broad country road, hedged in by trees on either side. Lights were scattered none-too-plentifully along the horizon in front of them. Laurence could hardly imagine a place that had more of a middle-of-nowhere look about it.
“Where are we?” asked Karla.
“Now, now, now” said Mr. Ferryman, clapping her lightly on the shoulder. “What kind of mystery tour would it be if I told you where you were? After the happy accident of that storm, too.”
Karla smiled at him, and Laurence felt a twinge of jealousy. She hadn’t smiled so sweetly at him.
“What are you going to show us?” she asked, folding her arms, and shivering a little. “A haunted pot-hole?”
Ferryman laughed, and so did Helen. “No”, he said. “I have something better than that. Follow me.”
He turned, and began to stride forward, at a surprisingly rapid pace.
“Where’s the fire?” whispered Helen, as they started to follow him. They had to trot to make up his head-start.
Karla took her mobile phone from her pocket, and swiped her thumb across its screen. She cursed under her breath.
“Still nothing. What the heck? Helen?”
“Oh, come on” said Laurence. “Don’t those things ruin the mystery? Wouldn’t it be more fun just to switch them off?”
“Hey, screw you!”, said Karla, smiling and flipping him the finger. “Helen?”
“No” said the older woman, tapping at her own device. “Nada. Maybe there’s no coverage out here. Maybe it really is the back of beyond.”
“Maybe Mr. Ferryman here has some kind of jamming device” said Laurence. “Ever think of that?”
“Hmmm” said Karla, looking towards the tour guide, who was still striding some distance ahead of them. “Could be. But would it work so far from the bus? Hey, Ferryman!”
Her last two words were shouted, and sent echoes all through the lane. Ferryman turned to look over his shoulder at her, but kept walking. He didn’t even slow his pace.
“What’s the deal with our phones?” Karla called to him, lifting her own phone in the air. “Why won’t they work? Is this something you’re doing?”
“I know nothing about phones” said Ferryman, shrugging, and turning away again. “They aren’t a part of my world.”
“Oh, great” said Karla, looking at Laurence. “A kindred spirit for you.”
Laurence smiled. “I wish all the portable telephones in the world would stop working.”
“Do you, now?” asked Karla, sliding her own back into her pocket. “How very...different of you! You must be a very interesting and special person. I bet you don’t watch TV, either. And...do you sleep in a teepee, by any chance?”
“I have TV in my teepee” said Laurence. That made Karla laugh, rather reluctantly. “You must come and have a look, some time.”
“Totally, dude”, said Karla. “Aha!” she cried, lifting her arm and pointing past their guide. “I think I see our first port of call.”
There was a church visible against the darkening skyline. It was a small church, with a broken cross above it—one of the arms of the cross was missing.
“If anybody does have any orthodox religious tendencies”, called Ferryman, looking back over his shoulder again, “especially of the Judaeo-Christian variety, this might be a time to brace yourself.”
“Hey!” said Karla, pointing above them now. “Look! Bats!”
Laurence looked up, just in time to see a small flutter of bats scurrying over them.
“I love bats” he said, truthfully.
“Me too” said Karla.
“Me too” said Helen.
All three of them laughed, and for a moment Laurence felt just as absurdly happy he had felt at the beginning of their sing-along.
Silence fell between them-- a comfortable, companionable silence-- and a few minutes later they had reached the church. The evening had grown very dark, but Ferryman produced an electric torch and shone its beam upon the building.
It was a small, stone, disused church, square and Romanesque. The windows and entrance had been boarded up with rusted metal sheets. Weeds and moss grew between the stones of its façade.
It was completely covered in graffiti. And not just ordinary grafitti, but the most obscene and frenzied graffti Laurence had ever seen in his life. There were crude, cartoonish pictures, as well as words—all of them breathtakingly crude and vicious.
“Oh my goodness” said Helen, in a whisper.
“Behold how gods die”, said Ferryman. His tone was both solemn and full of relish.
“Oh, please” said Karla. “God isn’t dead because some vandals write some dirty words on an old church. Is this what you brought us here to see? Because, if it is, colour me unimpressed.”
“Oh, this is nothing” said Ferryman, lowering the torch. “Our first stop is next door. In the cemetery.”
And, with that— as soon as he had spoken the last word— a woman started screaming, at the top of her voice, in the middle distance.