Don’t cut through the canyon at night; go over the bridge instead. It’s not just because the old asphalt road carves up your headlights and spits them into jumping shadows.
No, don’t go that way because of her.
I first saw her at that little stretch where Highway 48 becomes River Route, in the Westbound lane, just before Shady Creek: a little girl, maybe ten-years-old, stone still in the middle of the road, eyes down, black hair dank and straight. I jerked my cab to the right and splashed into some bushes. When I quit wailing I cut the engine and stepped out into desolation. “Hello!” I shouted. There was no reply. Only wet footprints on the asphalt remained, but even those began to fade into night.
On our second encounter, a few weeks later, I plowed straight through her.
I expected blood, bone, shrieks, a splatter across the windshield — but there was nothing. Plane meets cloud. I checked the rearview, though, and my heart stopped. She was in the backseat.
I tried to scream but my voice shrank where my tongue connects to my throat; I let off the gas and pumped the brakes but the car wouldn’t slow. The road curved and my tires squealed as we skidded across the center-lane before I righted us with a sharp twist of the steering wheel — were there oncoming traffic, we surely would have collided.
As the turn straightened into a short trestle at the bottom of a gully, I glanced back. Her face was stitched with scars. Her hair was tangled yarn, and her yellow dress was dirty with leaves. Worse were her eyes — they were gone. In their place lay two gold coins, round, and with a dull, watery glisten.
I clenched my stomach, built my voice up to a murmur. “Hi there,” I think I said.
“Take me home.” She was barely audible herself.
“Okay, sure. Just tell me where — ”
“Take me home!” Her piercing shriek pitched a crack into the windshield. My ears rang and I caught a heavy waft of her petrichor scent and rotting fish breath.
“Alright, okay, I’m going.” — I don’t know if I thought that or mumbled it, but either way it was with my eyes averted down near the dash. I returned my attention to the road just in time to keep my tire from catching the edge. I overcorrected and we were lucky to glance off of a guardrail. I winced at the ricochet but another bend followed, then another — a series of switchbacks as we climbed the canyon. I glued my eyes to the asphalt and steered on instinct; my arms twitched left and right; trees and signs and telephone poles flashed by.
I’d driven this route dozens of times — a hellish shortcut between Westlake resorts and Elsinore airport, and worth some extra bucks in tourist season — but we were going at least 20 MPH faster than even my fastest daylight runs and, worse, I knew we were nearing the plateau at the top. I could either switch to the Eastbound side and ride around the rock face, blind against traffic for hundreds of yards in a rolling curve — or I could risk taking the Westbound hairpin too hard and flip us into the ravine.
I tried the brakes again, cursed, and glanced back.
Her wicked face spilt into a black, empty grin.
I changed lanes.
The car sped up even though I’d taken my foot off the pedal. I held the steering wheel tight. The Eastbound bend was gentler, but we were hitting it way too fast. I felt our tires clutch for traction; they wouldn’t hold their grip for long. She giggled, high and pearly, like tiny, tight bubbles lilted underwater. I screamed, frantic and glottal.
Instead of a tree, ditch, or another car, though, we struck only the air and came through to the straight, spacious convergence which marked the return of Highway 48. I breathed out a massive sigh, allowed myself a grin, but when I tried the brakes again they were still useless. I clutched the steering wheel in one hand and pounded the dash with the other. “What do you want?” I hollered.
In an instant, she dissipated into milky fog and swam up to the front seat. I shrieked and instinctively slapped at her, but I only struck the headrest. She stared at me with heavy gold discs; her oil slick grin had wavered to a thin line.
“Home,” she said again, gravelly this time.
The steady road provided me time to think. Home. Rotting fish. “The lake?”
She didn’t move, didn’t speak, but her yellow eyes glowed sunnier in the dim lit cab.
I ran reds, honked at pedestrians, drove over (thankfully) empty train tracks, and all the while the cab brightened. I knew exactly where to go.
The taxi’s engine cut out on its own at Restful Shores on the Westlake Reservoir, and we cruised to a stop at the cemetery gates. She didn’t leave; I had to get the door for her. As I did, she looked up at me. Expecting blazing radiance, I found an abyss. The coins were gone. Instead there lurked deep shadows, the hulked darkness beyond shattered windows of an abandoned home. I shivered as she passed through me in her muddied, wet dress. Water droplets beaded on my skin. She faded into puddled footprints again and they, too, evaporated beneath the moon.
I closed the door and collected her fare from the front seat.
Come morning, my boss was so angry about the beat up cab his eye twitched, but a gold coin goes a long way. Enough to keep a job, but not enough to quit one. That’s why I still cut through the canyon. Another dozen phantom fares or so and I’m going to trade in this ghastly business for the precious metals market. While I’m stocking up, though, do us both a favor: keep away from the canyon at night.
Trust me, it’s not for you.
John Lander hopes you enjoyed reading this story. He also hopes you enjoy the next one you read here or elsewhere.