Night’s Journey

Prompt Day #334: Drive a phantom vehicle

This story is dedicated to a special friend of mine. She’ll know who she is when she reads this. I think we’ve all felt like we are living in the in-between at least once in our lives.

Night’s Journey

                For quite some time, I’ve lived in an ambiguous emotional state between wishing I was dead and fearing death entirely. The proof is in the number of parallel scars ticking off my suicide attempts. Line after line of shallow, shaking cuts that never did anything but stain my sleeve and leave a faint trace of itself as a reminder of my inability to deal with life. It’s a terrible paradox to feel as if you are already dead but at the same time have a phobia that you will someday die. Trapped in the in-between, I lived a lonely existence.

Two weeks ago things changed. I don’t sleep well so it isn’t unusual for me to be wandering about my house in the wee hours of the morning. That night it was almost one in the morning when the full moon and the foggy air of early spring drew me outside to sit on the porch. Through the mist on the front yard, I could see what appeared to be a carriage. The kind that should be attached to a couple horses. I saw no signs of life. I approached it slowly. There was a driver seated on the elevated platform. His hands in fingerless gloves held the reins that floated out in front of him as if attached to some unseen equine specters. His suit was shabby and moth eaten; a worn, grey riding shawl draped over his slumped and tired looking shoulders. His face was shadowed by the rumpled top hat he wore on his drooping head. He did not look at me, but seemed to be waiting for something.

I walked past him to the carriage itself. Its black frame supported glass walls and was shorter than would be comfortable for seated adults. Curtains bearing frayed tassels hung motionless from inside the glass case and I was perplexed to find no obvious entry point. The moon’s light lit the empty interior. There were no passengers this night, at least not yet. Perhaps he was waiting for me to get in, but I couldn’t see how exactly. There weren’t any benches or seats inside either, just a long, flat platform.

The driver still sat, head down like a sleeping bird. Without moving any other part of his body, he lifted his right hand and curled his fingers in a “come” gesture. Perhaps it was the dream-like quality of the whole scene that made me climb up beside him without hesitation, but as soon as I was situated, he shook the reins and the phantom escorts pulled us away from my home.

Familiar scenery rolled by faster and faster until it was nothing but a blur. The night wrapped around us and I saw nothing but the glow of the lantern outlining my silent companion. The carriage came to an abrupt stop and we found ourselves standing at the bedside of an old man. His hitched, irregular breathing clawed at the smothering silence. The old man opened his eyes. There was no question whether or not he saw us. He looked right at my host and lifted his hands, like a toddler asking to be held. The driver took off his hat. In the dim light of the old man’s room, I saw the wispy white hair seeming to float around rather than erupt from the thin skin covering a cadaveric skull. He leaned down, pursing his dry parchment like lips onto the old man’s forehead. The kiss was gentle, like a parent’s and long like a lover’s. The old man’s eyes closed with it and his haggard breathing ceased.

“Who are you?” I whispered to him. He held up a hand as if to say stop. I shut my mouth, asking no further questions.

That night, we visited two more rooms and I witnessed two more kisses before the driver and his invisible pull team took me home. For two days after that I slept like the dead. I hadn’t slept that well in years. I awoke sometime in the night of the third day. I saw the carriage waiting for me out front and again I accompanied my quiet companion on his evening rounds. Four more nights we would meet like this, visiting the old, the sick, the hurting and I would watch him kiss their pain away.

Each time I rode with him, I noticed that my driver appeared thinner, less solid. Even the color of his clothes dimmed and faded over the week we spent together. On the seventh visit, I was surprised to find him sitting on my side of the bench. The reins lay in wait on the side where I’d come to expect him to sit. I stopped, unsure what this meant. He gestured to me again, so I rounded the front of the carriage, giving wide birth to the invisible creatures that pulled us each night. I took the driver’s seat and held the reins. Suddenly, there appeared before me two black mares. Boney ribs and hips pushed out from their skin that seemed to be draped over them like the riding shawl my ancient driver wore. The stomped their feet impatiently so I gave a shake of the harness and we were off.

The remainder of the night held no further changes in responsibilities. I stood with patient reverence as the deadly kisses were bestowed.

When we arrived back at my home after an unusually busy night, my consort got down from his mount as well. I assumed he was going to walk around to take his rightful seat but instead he stood facing me. For the first time, he lifted his head from its usual deeply flexed positon. Although I should not have been surprised, I gasped. His face was gaunt and grey, only a thin translucent skin covered his skull. His lips pulled back from an almost infinite number of teeth so much that I found myself wondering how he brought them together for the kisses he gave so readily. What was most unsettling, however, were his eyes or lack thereof. Where one would normally expect to see eyes, my nighttime accomplice, had deep black sockets that seemed to go back into his skull forever. A void lit only by faint, dying embers of a once brilliant fire, I could not look away from it. My heart thumped a fearful beat for the thing which I had come to look upon as a mentor of sorts. To watch his own light fading twisted my heart painfully.

He took off his well-worn shawl and wrapped it around my shoulders. He stood meager and shivering in the cool night air covered now in only a gauzy robe. I couldn’t recall when he’d changed out of his suit and hat and into this death shroud, but it was all gone except, as I said, for the shawl which now warmed my own frigid bones. I felt a tear rolling down my cheek and he lifted a skeletal hand to brush it away. He leaned in to me then, and kissed my forehead too, just as he had the others. Did he linger just a bit longer with me? It seemed as though he had, but then death is an eternity, so perhaps it was just a misconception.

The following night, when I awoke, the horses were waiting with their carriage to escort me on my nightly routine. The driver’s bench sat empty. The previous attendant was nowhere to be seen. I climbed up into the driver’s seat and took the reins. I pulled the shawl tighter around me and gave the go command. There are many miles ahead of me and many kisses to give before I sleep again.