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Out of Room

She stood on the wooden dock staring out at the wide river before her. A thick fog had rolled over the surface of the water. The land on either side was no longer visible, hidden behind the veil. There was a chill in the air, but Helen did not seem to mind. Instead, she watched the current slip from beneath the dock and disappear into the fog.

Helen couldn’t remember how she got here. It seemed the only memory in her mind was this dock. There was no fear at this notion. Only peace. She felt a sense of calm. The dock and the river weren’t scary places. They felt like home.

An overwhelming urge to sit on the dock and dip her feet in the water overcame Helen. Without hesitation, she did just that. Removing her boots, Helen sat down at the edge of the dock and slipped her feet beneath the glassy surface.

The water was cold. Far colder than she had anticipated. Still, she did not mind. Helen let the current run past her feet. A cool massage. Something brushed the underside of her foot and she let out a soft laugh. She imagined a lone fish nibbling at her soles. There was no thought in her mind to pull her feet from the water. This place was tranquil and happy like a painting. No harm could come to her here.

Another brush to the underside of her feet made her leg twitch with laughter. A ripple emanated from her foot and traveled down the river. It disappeared into the fog. Somewhere down the river, a sound caught her attention. It sounded like water lapping against the hull of a small boat. Helen climbed to her feet and peered through the fog, trying to see.

The unmistakable sound of a paddle caressing the soft water echoed from somewhere inside the cloud. Something was rowing towards the dock. Helen waited with bated breath, wondering who else was here with her. She had not expected to see anyone else in this lovely place. But she was eager to see who it might be.

From in the fog came a wooden boat. The bow curled up towards the sky into a dagger-like point. A single lantern hung from the end, slicing through the fog. At the stern stood a large figure cloaked in black. He moved a large wooden paddle under the surface, propelling the craft forward.

As it came to rest at the end of the dock, the cloaked figure turned towards Helen. It did not speak and it did not beckon her. It merely waited. She could see no defining features of the figure. His body seemed to be made of the burlap cloak he was wrapped in. Still, Helen did not fear this figure or the place she was in.

“Am I dead?” she asked. There was no response.

In her heart, she already knew the truth. And yet, this did not frighten her. The sense of calm she had felt still clung to her like wet clothing. Water slapped the side of the boat in a rhythmic beat as the ferryman waited. Helen wanted nothing more than to climb aboard and sail down the river to whatever afterlife awaited.

As she stepped forward, ready to place a foot in the boat, the ferryman stretched out a single arm. There was no hand protruding from the sleeve and yet somehow she knew what it was signaling. She was not to step inside the vessel. The cloaked figure held out an invisible hand as if waiting for something to be placed there.

Helen was unsure what it wanted. An offering of some kind. A memory or a story she had once heard fluttered in the back of her mind. The ferryman who escorted spirits from one world to the next. He required something to complete his task. An offering. But what?

She patted her pockets and heard a soft jingle. There was something in them. Dipping her hand into her right pocket, Helen produced two silver coins she had not been aware of before. They were unlike any coins she had ever seen. Two silver circles with unfamiliar markings rested in her palm. Helen outstretched her hand, offering them to the ferryman. His cloaked sleeve reached out. The fabric engulfed her hand and up to her forearm. When it withdrew, the coins had vanished. It now beckoned her to climb aboard.

A tingle of excitement surged through her body now. In life, the notion of death was not a happy one. Here with the ferryman, everything seemed right. It was natural. It was no more fearful than being born. Merely a next step in the journey of the mortal soul.

As the boat glided across the smooth river still shrouded in fog, Helen glanced down at the water. She could see a reflection of stars and galaxies inside the river. She craned her neck to look up at the sky, but it was cloaked in fog. Looking back down, she realized these were not reflections. This was the cosmos.

“It’s like the river of time!” she exclaimed in wonder.

Everything that ever was or will be was in the river. Time, space, life, and death all resided here. Helen could not help but wonder if the answers to all of life’s questions rested at the end of the river. She couldn’t wait to learn what the afterlife was like. Which religion had been right? Her hands shook with excitement.

The stars and the galaxies began to fade from view. Now the river was black. There was no reflection on the water. It was a river of eternal abyss. Helen couldn’t help but wonder where they were. She could see nothing around them still. The once beautiful fog now felt like walls closing in around them. The feeling of happiness and wonder melted away. A fear began to rise in her throat. An inexplicable change had occurred. One that she could not explain.

“Ferryman, where are we going?” she croaked. He did not answer. She pulled on his robe, hoping to gain his attention. He did not speak, nor did he move. “Please, answer me,” she pleaded, reaching for the oar. Her only hope was to take the paddle away and keep them from reaching their destination. Perhaps she could paddle the boat back to the dock and return to her life.

But the oar would not budge. The ferryman continued on without so much as a second glance at Helen. It seemed he did not even notice her presence. The overwhelming feeling of dread continued to rise in Helen. The urge to jump overboard and swim back to safety almost overtook her. Before she could act on her feelings, she tried to reassure herself it was alright. She had nothing to fear.

And what had she to fear? The ferryman had not told her where they were going, nor did she have reason to believe it was somewhere bad. It had been the stars and the galaxies. Losing their light had sent her into a panic. There was no reason to believe it was an ill omen. Instead, she told herself they had moved beyond time and space now. They were somewhere else.

The fog began to dissipate. She could see again. Except, there was nothing around to see. The shoreline was nowhere to be found. It seemed they were no longer on a river but instead had found their way into a calm sea.

The ferryman stopped rowing and stood still. The boat coasted to a stop against the laws of physics. Even without an anchor, it no longer moved. They did not bob on the current as she would have expected. Instead, they sat completely still.

“Ferryman, where are we?” Helen asked, peering overboard once more.

She saw screaming and bloated faces in the water now. Their arms outstretched towards the surface, begging to break through. A sea of fingers wiggled below the surface. She remembered placing her feet in the cold water earlier that night and thinking a fish had nibbled at her. Now, she knew better.

Helen could hear gurgled cries for help as the people below the water struggled for freedom. Despite the water rushing into their lungs as they inhaled, not one had passed out. It seemed they had become immortal in their time of agony.

“Ferryman, I-” Helen said, turning towards the cloaked figure. Before she could finish her sentence, the ferryman tipped the boat enough to throw off her balance. He seemed unaffected by the lateral change, but Helen slipped over the side and into the water. Before she could struggle to swim back to the surface, hundreds of hands wrapped around her and pulled down.

She was now even with the faces of the drowned and immortal victims. Many tried to use Helen to clamber towards the surface. None could get closer no matter how hard they struggled. The ferryman peered over the side of his boat, looking into Helen’s face. She let out a muffled scream and reached for the cloaked figure. Water rushed into her lungs, burning like daggers. Still, she survived. Mouthful after mouthful, Helen choked on water as she continued to breathe. Each time the water entered her lungs, she felt a white-hot pain. Her lungs burned for fresh air, but she could give it none. Within a few seconds, Helen had become like those around her. Screaming and struggling to get to the surface.

The ferryman pulled away from the water and stood still for a moment. A ripple broke out across the surface. Another soul had arrived for it to ferry. And like the others, the ferryman would have no choice but to abandon this soul in the water. The afterlife had run out of room, but the souls kept coming.

Recommended4 Simily SnapsPublished in All Stories, Fiction, Flash Fiction, Horror

Responses

  1. Just read this and very much enjoyed it! Kept me hanging on along with Helen trying to figure out what was really going on. Loved the descriptions of the souls in the water, fighting to get to the top. Well done.

  2. This was a most excellent story. One of the two main things I liked about it was the mystery of where they were going and the descriptions of this tale. At one time, I was thinking that she was being whisked off to a “good place” in the afterlife, but it took a horrible–in the best way–turn for the worst. Well done, Evan. Loved it.

    1. Thank you! That’s exactly what I was hoping to capture with this story. And it’s obviously all based on the Greek mythology of the ferryman, Charon, who would ferry souls over the river Styx.