This story was originally released as an 18 mini-part serial. Here it is, in its entirety.
“It looks like the ferry is down to one barge. Something about the water being too high, that’s why it’s taking so long.” Kathy sighed as she slipped behind the wheel of their hatchback. Andre opened his eyes a crack, grunting an acknowledgment. “It’s hotter than they called for. I’m going to put on the a/c.”
“What? Why not?”
“Car needs to be moving… I think.”
Kathy turned the knob. It didn’t take long for the cold air to blow. Andre, or Dre as Kathy called him, he called her Kat, was thankful for the closed windows blocking out the raucous van full of 20-somethings behind them.
“Do you remember being like that? Young and horny, full of life.”
“Yeah, but I was never that irritating.” As if to emphasize his point, one of the young men threw trash into the ditch.
Kathy laughed in response. “I’m sure. Oh, hey, we’re moving.” The line of cars in front of them started rolling their engines over in a domino of sound. At last, they rounded the last bend and could see the cars being directed onto the decrepit-looking ferry. “You sure that’s not the broken-down ferry?” Andre tried to make his voice sound light and affable, but his apprehension and fear of water made itself known.
“Don’t worry, baby, it’s completely safe. You gotta think, with all the water splashing against it all day, it is bound to look a little rough. I’m sure it’s fine.” By the time she stopped speaking, she was no longer certain if she was reassuring Dre or herself, as the large ship creaked ominously. There was a discernible chill about the place. At first, she believed it to be the proximity to the water. Now she was not so sure. She turned the car off as they waited for the last time, but not before opening the windows again. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think it would take so long. At least we know it’s only 20 minutes longer. I’m going to go to the bathroom.”
“Alright, I’ll wait here.” He watched her walk away before closing his eyes, listening to the surrounding songbirds. A gentle breeze floated through the car from off the lake, making him feel drowsy. He was about to drift into a light nap when he heard a faint female voice whisper, “help me.” He sat bolt upright in his seat and looked around, but nothing was to be seen. The vociferous van behind them was still carrying on without missing a beat. A couple standing by the rail on the other side of the road were unmoved as well. He poked his head out of the window to see if it was Kat playing a trick on him, but she hadn’t yet returned; besides, it sounded nothing like her.
He sat back in his seat and made himself comfortable again, thinking it must have been his sleepy mind playing tricks on him. He would have closed his eyes, but he was no longer tired. Instead, he stared out over the lake, seeing nothing but the horizon, where the sky met the water. The shades of blue were stunning, with diamond sparkles of sunlight dancing on the waves. Somewhere a flock of ducks was making a noisy arrival to raft upon the water, and Dre felt at peace. Kathy was right. This was a good idea. They both needed to get out of the city.
The sound of footsteps drew his attention back to the line of cars, a smile breaking across his face when he saw it was Kathy. “How are the washrooms?”
“Surprisingly clean, actually, but you should see the crew of the ferry. They look like characters from a low budget horror film.”
“Just trust me, you’ll see. What about you? Anything interesting while I was gone?”
Dre’s mind flirted with the idea of telling her about the strange call for help, but decided it was best not to add any more stress to this odd ferry crossing. “Nope, just more noise from our environmentally conscious friends behind us, and birds.”
They sat in silence for the next few minutes, enjoying the sounds of nature surrounding them, until the domino of car engines started once again, as the ferry made its way back to the dock. When their time came, they rolled up to a man directing cars onto the ship. His greasy grey hair hung in tendrils along his too-thin face, framing his sunken eyes and yellowed, gap-toothed grin. He didn’t look at the car, instead just motioning it off to the left side of the barge. Dre said nothing. He didn’t need to. His glance at Kat conveyed his agreed assessment of the ferry staff.
Another ferry hand was on deck, directing cars, ensuring they were parked as close as possible. As she passed their car, she made a confusing gesture with her hand, at once telling them to move up and stay still. Confused, Kathy looked at Dre. He shook his head, equally unsure, so Kathy killed the engine. She watched as the attendant continued moving down the line of cars without complaint, then looked at Dre.
“You wanna get out?”
He looked around. “Are we allowed? No one else is.”
“It’s about a 10-minute trip. They don’t mind if you get out and stretch your legs,” she said, pointing to others beginning to move about the ferry. “Come on, let’s go.” They got out of the car and looked over the edge at the water sliding past. Kathy stretched her arms out to the side with a sigh, enjoying the breeze blowing her hair around. Dre smiled at her, then looked nervously at the sheltered, empty section of parking beside their car. He tried to focus his attention on the water, yet the dark space kept calling for it. Feeling torn between his discomfort at being on the water and the chill emanating from the space, he wasn’t sure where to look.
He slipped his arm around Kathy and kissed the top of her head. She smiled and pressed against him. It should have been a lovely moment, but the chill coming from the darkened area began to lightly tease his lower back, sending goose bumps racing over his body and across Kathy’s. She rubbed her arms and looked up at him. “Wow, I’m chilly just standing here. Do you want to walk around a bit?”
“Sure. Should we lock up the car?”
“We’re on a boat. Who is going to take anything? Besides, if they did, it’s not like they can go anywhere.”
Dre laughed, the sound coming out more strangled than he’d like. Kathy pretended not to notice and walked towards the bow of the ferry. No one made eye contact or tried to strike up a conversation; each car full of people caught up in their own worlds. The water gently bounced off the side of the craft, creating a rhythmic, calming sound. Dre felt at ease and wondered why something so peaceful could make him so nervous. It’s not like he had any particularly terrible memories of water. He just didn’t enjoy knowing that things, creatures, were moving and living, unseen, in the depths just below his feet; metal sheets and framing the only things in-between. He could feel his chest tighten in fear, so he tried to calm himself by focusing on the lapping sound of the waves, “ssshhh-pshhh, sssshhhh-ppshhh, help me-”
He leapt from the rail, bumping into a tray of tools, sending them clattering to the deck. Kathy jumped with a scream, turning in the air, landing to face him. “What the hell was that?”
“Uhhh, sorry, baby, it’s nothing. I–uh–thought I saw a fish. Can we–uh–can we go back to the car?”
“Alright. You sure you’re ok?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” He tried to avoid eye contact, turning to head back to the car. They rounded the corner to find one of the barge staff with her head stuck in the rear passenger window. Dre picked up his pace. “Hey! What are you doing? Get out of my car!” He could hear Kathy running up behind him. “Who do you think you are?” she demanded, striding up to the woman.
The woman said nothing. She just continued to rummage in the back seat like a raccoon in a compost bin. Dre felt a firm hand on his shoulder. He looked back to see a large man standing behind him, looking menacing and a few bricks short of a load. “Come with me, this yours.” Dre’s eyes found the jar where he kept his marijuana in the man’s hand.
“Yeah, but I have a license. I’m allo - ow! Dammit, take it easy.” The large man’s grip tightened on his shoulder. The female staff member was now backing out of the window. They hadn’t seen either of them when they got on the ferry, but they were dressed as staff. Her company shirt was ill-fitting, with old and new sweat stains creating a hillbilly camouflage effect. She smiled with a laugh, which sounded like a cackle, and pointed to Kathy, “Move car! Move car!”
Her voice was almost sing-song, but the look in her eyes left no room for negotiation. Kathy walked to the driver’s side of the car. “Hold on baby, we’ll figure this out.” She moved the car in the previously empty, dark spot, which had unnerved Dre earlier. She looked around at the other people on the ferry, but no one acted like anything odd was happening. As usual, so long as it didn’t involve them directly, no one wanted to get involved beyond watching out of the corner of their eye, hoping not to make eye contact.
She got out of the car, feeling colour and heat rise in her cheeks. The woman, whose sour body odour still permeated the car, grinned at her like a cat eyeing a mouse. “Youse gotta see the Ferryman! He don’t like drugs!” Kathy tried to explain, as did Dre, that it was medicinal and that he had a licence, but it was no use, the pair just roughly shoved them towards the Captain’s Cabin, past the darkened zone where Kathy had parked the car. She hoped it was all a misunderstanding, but the growing lump of ice in her belly told her otherwise.
They were pushed towards the small, rusted-out set of stairs, which led to the small upper deck. Dre began walking towards the stairs and was shoved away from them with a grunt from the big man. They walked around the stairs to find a darkened hallway with another set of stairs heading below deck, the eerie chill growing stronger. Kathy stopped. “Where are you taking us? You said we were going to see the Captain!”
The woman pushed her forward. “No, you go see Ferryman.” Kathy stumbled into Dre, making him fall into the wall, striking his head. The big man dragged him to his feet, a trickle of blood making its way down Dre’s face. Kathy began to apologize to him, but he just waved her off. “I’m fine. Let’s just get this over with.” He started to walk down the hall, feeling like he had to force each step. They began descending the stairs, and the boat gave a violent lurch, sending the couple to land in a heap at the bottom. As they tried to climb to their feet, a scratching noise came from beneath the boat. It almost sounded as though they went over a log, its branches scraping the bottom of the boat like skeletal fingers. They locked eyes, the silent message of, ‘what’s happening,’ flashing between them before they were jabbed to move forward again.
The chill they had felt was emanating from the room at the end of the musty hall, the “Ferryman’s” room. The closed-door at the end had frost along its edges. Dre looked to Kathy, mouthing the words, ‘what the hell’ and saw his breath puff in the air. His attention snapped back to the door as it swung open to reveal darkness. The couple stood frozen in fear as the woman squeezed past them to waddle into the room.
The darkness seemed to swallow her a few feet in, and Dre tried to see what was happening, a morbid joke popping into his mind. ‘I guess we have to pay the ferryman.’ He opened his mouth to add some levity and thought the better. Some ideas should not have life breathed into them. Once more, he felt the big man’s powerful hand on his shoulder. He noticed the man’s other hand was now on Kathy’s wrist. Pain could clearly be seen on her face and he felt himself snap. He abruptly pulled from the man’s grasp, turning in rage. “Who in the bloody hell do you think you are? You have no right to trea–oooufff.”
In a shockingly fast and agile manoeuvre, the big man covered Kathy’s mouth with one hand, while driving a fist into Dre’s stomach. He slumped against the wall, gasping for breath, while Kathy’s shocked scream came out muffled. Stars started at the edge of his vision, then they were all he could see, making it almost impossible to stand. He was still gasping when the big man grabbed him by the back of the shirt and dragged them into the darkness.
Kathy’s eyes adjusted quickly, having been in the darkened hall. It turned out the darkness was not magical after all. The odd woman had turned a quick corner, causing her disappearing act—the same corner they were now being dragged around. Kathy’s mind became fascinated with two thoughts, the first being shock at the big man’s strength, the second, how was no one on the ferry hearing or seeing this? These thoughts were a brief flight of fancy as her mind went blank upon seeing the man sitting behind an old wooden desk.
The Ferryman had a sunken face and eyes. His teeth, aged and cracked, his face framed with stringy white hair hanging to his shoulders. Dressed in what must have been once a well-tailored suit, it hung tattered and threadbare on his gaunt frame. If its age truly matched its style, the suit must have been at least 130 years old. It was the eyes, however, which made her mind go blank. They were filled with madness, yet also shone with a doe-like affection. Her mind remembered how to scream as a broad grin broke across his face.
“Come in, come in. We’ve been waiting for you.” At the word ‘we,’ a strange wail echoed through the room and the ferry lurched once again with long scratching noises underneath. The couple fell to their knees, the big man planting a knee on Dre’s back. An odour of marijuana filled the cabin, causing them both to look up. The jar of marijuana Dre had brought, that the Ferryman was just holding, now lay empty, as the Ferryman puffed on a beautifully rolled blunt. He inhaled sharply, “Wow, this is some top-shelf herb! It’s been a long time since I had a smoke this good.”
As he spoke, he knocked the ash off the blunt, where it hovered, then disappeared, the missing length reappearing on the blunt. Dre looked at the man. “What the hell? Your goons brought us in here because ‘the Ferryman don’t like drugs’ and now you're smoking?”
The Ferryman laughed, exhaling a large plume of smoke into the air. “No, no, my dear boy, I LOVE drugs, just not when others do them. That means less for me.” As he spoke, the female guard struck Dre in the back of the head, knocking him back to his hands and knees. “Don’t spoke til speekn ta!” Kathy let out a scream and reached for him, helping him back to his knees. The woman moved in to strike again, her hand freezing mid-air. “That’s enough Achra, you know we need them alive.”
The foul-smelling woman flinched back as though someone had struck her, then slinked over to where the big man stood. Kathy watched Dre, concern growing in her eyes. The Ferryman let out a tsk-tsk sound, “No need to be concerned, my dear, you will both die–or should I say–pass over, together.”
A long wailing moan bellowed through the room, filling their veins with ice. Kathy’s teeth chattered as she managed to stutter, “Why are you doing this? Who are you?” Achra made a move towards her, but stopped when the big man placed a hand on her shoulder. The Ferryman smiled, “Finally, you get it, or at least one of you does! Thank you Deezel, that’s right, stay at the back of the room.”
Deezel grunted like a happy gorilla and nodded his head vigorously. The Ferryman looked back to Kathy, his smile slipping as another moan began, this one louder, stronger. His eyes grew brighter at the sound. “Yes, yes, my love! I know you grow impatient. Fret not, it’s almost time.” His eyes tore small strips from Kathy’s soul as he stared at her, smoke swirling about his head.
“So many questions. Let me make things clear to you.” With a subtle flick of his wrist, he threw the pair into the air, where they hung paralyzed. An ear-splitting screech filled the room as the metal floor beneath them first tore up, then scrunched back, exposing water below. With another motion, he threw the couple across the room to land on the crumpled metal, which gave like a beanbag chair, then solidified, locking them in place.
Looking into the water, they could see a large white shape flit past the opening in the floor. They could not make out what it was, but it seemed quite agitated. The waters grew increasingly disturbed until they appeared to be boiling, yet none splashed over the edge. The Ferryman grinned and put his feet on the desk, “It’s story time!” This caused the gruesome pair at the back of the room began to hoot and clap, before being silenced with a look. His grin grew wider, and his laugh seemed to echo as though in a grand orchestral hall.
He took a long pull from the blunt and held it for an impossibly long time, then extended his right hand, palm up. With a wink, he let out a puff of smoke, the blue-grey mist swirling, then forming into a small smoke figure standing on his palm. The rest of the smoke, he released in a cloud that carried the figure down to float over the surface of the water, as the Ferryman settled back like a satisfied cat.
The smoky figure looked confused, then squealed in agony, before exploding to cover the water in a mist. This all happened so fast, Dre and Kathy were too stunned to react. The fog formed into a vignette of the Ferryman as a young man. He looked happy and bore the same love lost look he wore today. The scene seemed to fast-forward, and the object of his affection became apparent, a young woman. His hands trembled as he doffed his stovepipe hat and bent to one knee. The young woman nodded excitedly, and the scene sped forward again.
They now stood in a church, vowing before God, until death do them part. The scene took a sickening lurch and became the Ferryman in bed, blood speckling his bedclothes and mouth, while a concerned-looking doctor hovered above. As another wail filled the room, the scene seemed to shiver and grow darker. The ferry lurched again. When everything settled, a weakened Ferryman stood on the shore of the lake, despondent, when a small reptilian imp leapt to shore beside him. The little creature held out a contract promising life. Desperate, the Ferryman signed without reading the contract, believing it to be a joke. A final still frame displayed the ferry on which they were now being held.
The scene ended, and the Ferryman leaned forward. “As you can tell, being a love-struck youth, I signed a terrible bargain so that I may stay with my love. I won’t call it a mistake. If I had to do it over, I would, a thousand times again, just to be with her. Yet we are close to being free. We almost fulfilled the contract, isn’t that right, Abacus?”
Dre screamed as a small, winged creature moved out of the shadows beside him. How long had it been there? A grunt echoed as the creature lumbered over to the desk to flap-jump on top. “All right, let’s see.” Its voice sounded like rocks tumbling down a well. As they watched, the creature dug its filthy, long claws deep into its own chest and pulled. A moist, ripping sound reverberated as the creature’s ribcage butterflied open. A thick, stagnant stench filled the air as it counted human ears impaled on broken ribs. Dre stared unmoving at the scene while Kathy tried to keep it together, but she vomited at the squelching sound of the creature’s purple heart.
“That’s right, Romeo the master only needs 6 more pairs of love-struck idiots.” Growing disinterested, it plopped down, broke the tip off of a rib, and began picking its teeth while idly flapping its wings.
A grimace of disgust flashed over the Ferryman’s face, “180 years and I still can’t get used to you. I don’t think I ever will.” He slid aside slightly. “In short, the little prick by the water took advantage of our vows. I can’t die, and neither can my loving bride. We are bound until death do us part. His price is 33 pairs of love-stuck couples to torture eternally, manipulating their bonds the same way. Once my price is paid, my bride will no longer be forced to courier couples to his dark fortress, deep within the lake.”
Abacus shifted with a smile, his exposed organs making a belching sound, “Tell’em the best part, Sparkles!”
Pain haunted his face as he remembered the cost if he is late. He would be bound, paralyzed, forced to watch his bride be tortured, watch her writhe in agony for hours, days on end. “Enough,” he stood up, slamming the chair against the wall. “I have my due! What more do you want?”
Achra and Deezel both cringed against the wall in the face of his rage. The smoky scene flickered, then settled over the water, forcing it mirror-smooth. The surface glowed a marshy green colour, and the smoke coalesced into the small figurine once more. It looked distraught before shrieking like a boiled kettle as it was sucked into the water. A small portal formed, then grew, nightmarish sounds echoing from within. The Ferryman’s eyes grew wide with love and seemed to sparkle as he fixated on the hole.
Dre’s trance broke. He screamed so hard, blood-flecked from his throat. The Ferryman’s wife climbed through the hole to float above the glowing surface, her yellowed skin sagging with the bloat of 180 years submerged. She ignored the couple to reach for her beloved. Her hand stretched out to him, her grotesque head tilted to stare at him adoringly. He raised his own hand, motioning for her to stop. “You must wait, my love. Remember the pain when you cross the barrier.” His eyes reflected a deep ache as she wailed in despair. Her mouth began working, mouthing the words ‘my love,’ yet all that emerged was a gurgling wail. The love-locked pair stared at each other, both lost in a trance.
Kathy noticed a warm sensation on her neck, beginning to run beneath the collar of her shirt. Looking down, it confused her to see it was blood. Her mind tried to piece it all together, to make sense of it. When she did, her scream joined Dre’s. While they sat transfixed by the nightmare unfolding in front of them, Deezel had come behind her and sliced off her ear. This she knew, because she could see it, grandma’s antique earring and all, in his hand, as he approached Dre to do the same. The blade made a quick whistle, then his ear landed in the big man’s waiting palm.
Deezel lumbered over to Abacus and handed him the severed body parts. Abacus inhaled deeply as he held them to his nose and giggled in glee. Eyeing his splayed ribcage, he found the perfect spot and forced their ears onto the broken bone. At the sound, the Ferryman broke out of his trance, “Alright, my love, we must continue, lest you be late. Fear not, your torment is almost through.”
She spun away from him, covering her eyes, and wept bitterly. When she looked up again, her eyes held a determined conviction. She drifted over the water, gaze locked on Kathy, and reached for her leg. Dre kicked and thrashed as hard as he could, but the metal held fast. She looked at him and stretched for his leg with the other hand. She writhed in agony as she reached through the barrier, her bloated skin bunching like old stockings at its edge, only her skeletal hands pushing through to grab their ankles.
Kathy could feel her blood freeze, ice crystals puncturing cells, while white fire scorched the flesh. In one of her thrashes, she could see Dre was experiencing the same fate. Without warning, the metal softened, releasing the couple to her grip. They slid beneath the surface of the water as she dragged them to their torment. The rectangle of light fading, then beginning to close over as the metal straightened. The last thing the pair saw was Abacus furtively snacking on a few of the older ears, as the Ferryman wept into his hands.