The Passenger

In October, The Nopebook ran its first ever Flash Fiction competition. We challenged writers to write a 2,000 spooky story for Halloween. Entries were shortlisted by The Nopebook’s Editorial team, and the winner was selected by  bestselling novelist Syd Moore. This is the winning entry, written by Barry Derbyshire

The bus driver swore softly but happily to himself as he peered into the tunnel of light his bus was throwing out ahead. Another late shift in out of season Cornwall. Another waste of time. Another run without a single passenger on board. Not that he cared. Passengers were an occupational hazard. He could live without them, particularly the old and infirm. He hated waiting while they dragged themselves onto the bus and fumbled for passes and change. He amused himself by waiting until they were almost sat, then starting off with a jolt and helping them into their seats. Twirleys, the drivers called them, because every morning they would present their passes and say: “Am I too early?” He had other names for them.  

The truth was, he could live without people altogether. He drove buses because, apart from the inconvenience of taking money and handing out tickets, he could keep his own counsel. For a few hours a day he would be busy; the rest of the time he would sometimes drive for miles completely alone. Then he was at his happiest. 

He lived alone in a shabby bedsit, because he had no ambition to live anywhere better, nor any friends to entertain there. There were other people living in the house but he never spoke to them, and they had given up trying to speak to him. When he got home he would lock his door and slip the key into his pocket. Then he would put something in the microwave for his supper. That and a can of cold, cheap lager. He dined alone, drank alone and smiled alone at private pleasures.  

Driving an empty bus at fifty miles an hour down winding country lanes at midnight held its pleasures too. Truro was still three quarters of an hour away. Now he was contained in his own speeding, swaying, rattling, hissing, illuminated world without the need to worry about the safety and comfort of any one but himself. Even the road signs immersed him deeper in this magical world. Cubert, Holywell, Perranzabuloe – the names spoke of ancient Celtic mysteries hidden in the impenetrable darkness beyond the glowing Cornish hedges. 

He knew, of course, that these weren’t hedges at all. These tall grassy or leafy barriers which streamed past, plunging back into darkness, were actually dry-stone walls, overgrown with time, deceptive and treacherous, ready to tear the side out of any vehicle which dared to venture too close. But they held no fears for him. He had travelled this route so many times its twists and hills and hairpin bends had become conquered enemies who shrank back as he sped past, inches from disaster. He imagined how his bus must seem to any poor soul standing waiting in the cold: a noisy, glowing, welcome haven of warmth and comfort. He hoped if there was anyone out there they would neglect to put their hands out so he could justifiably race past and leave them to their fate. 

He glanced up at the empty seats reflected in the interior mirror.  

What was that?  

He instinctively looked back at the road, steadying himself, then back at the mirror. No, the bus was definitely empty. Yet for a moment there, just for a second, he had thought he had seen a man sitting at the back.  

He shrugged and swore again. He must be getting tired. It had been a long day – too long – at the end of a long week, and now he was on the last leg. That was it. A reflection which his mind had shaped into a passenger. He stared again into the lit road ahead. Where was he? Had he missed that last turn? Ah, no. There it was! He smiled at his own stupidity and started to hum tunelessly, pushing away the vague sense of unease which had crept into his thoughts. Still that bright tunnel snaked before him. 

Fancy his mind playing a trick like that! But that was tiredness and the night for you. It was like a sailor seeing monsters in the great black desert of the sea. He smiled at the analogy. He was a landlocked sailor, riding tarmac swells and spying serpents in the foaming hedges. 

He glanced up at the mirror again, and slammed the brakes on so hard he almost lost control. The bus shuddered and stalled. For a few moments he sat trembling in the eerie silence, his eyes screwed shut. He had seen him again. A dark figure right at the back of the bus, head bowed, black collar pulled up. 

He opened his eyes again and slowly turned around. The bus was empty. 

“Mile upon mile, roaring like a fabled creature breathing fire into the dark, the bus continued its winding, mad flight into the unknown.”

He got up, knees trembling, and opened the low door which separated him from the passengers. With his heart beating so hard he could feel it through his jacket he walked to the back of the bus, half expecting someone to leap out from behind a seat. But there wasn’t a soul there. He searched twice just to make sure, then went back to the front, still shaking, and started the bus. 

He sat without moving, trying to make up his mind what to do. The bus throbbed around him, occasionally releasing a hiss of air which sounded exactly like feet being dragged across the floor towards him. But there was nobody there. His search had told him that, and the mirror confirmed it. Nobody. He could either sit here and watch the mirror until his hands stopped trembling, or he could carry on through the lonely, empty dark until he reached the orange street lights of civilisation. He moved off. The sooner he finished tonight, the better. 

He fought against glancing up or back, keeping his eyes firmly on the road. His driving was suffering, he knew. Everything had become unreal, as if he had fallen asleep at the wheel and was dreaming these lanes and walls. He blinked rapidly and slapped himself hard around his face. The stinging pain told him he was awake, but he still needed to keep telling himself these high granite hedges were real, and that any mistake could easily be fatal. He gripped the wheel tightly, leaning forward, staring into the dream. The road straightened for a while and he was able to relax a little. Immediately, against his will, his eyes shot up to the mirror.  

The passenger was still there. But this time he had moved forward one seat. The driver turned and looked back. The bus was empty. Yet there he was in the mirror, head bowed, black and silent. 

The driver was gripped by terror. Though the autumn night was cold, sweat trickled into his eyes. He was holding the wheel so tight his knuckles were turning white. Now he daren’t stop. Now he daren’t look anywhere but at the road.  

And which road was it? He tried to remember where he had turned last. Nothing looked right. The road was twisting in a way he couldn’t recall. Was he lost? Surely not! Surely not that as well! Not lost! He carried relentlessly on, hoping he would come to a landmark or a sign which would tell him where he was. But there was nothing. Just the endless road, the roaring bubble of light which sped blindly down it, and the dark passenger in the mirror. 

He looked up again, and the passenger had moved another seat forward. He felt the last of the blood drain from his face as he pressed his foot down hard on the accelerator, willing the bus to go faster, to get him back to street lights and people. 

His heart was battering against his ribs. His mouth was so dry he couldn’t have spoken if he had wanted to. But there was nothing he wanted to say to this… this spook sitting in a pool of his own shadow, two rows from the back of the bus. 

No, not two rows. Three now. He had moved again. Slowly but surely he was moving closer. What did he want? Who was he? What was he doing on a bus of all things? Ghosts glide through walls and drift through graveyards. They don’t ride on buses. 

They passed through a tiny village – a bleak, empty place of lichen-blotched granite, with a gaunt old church and a shuttered pub, where dead leaves scuttled across the road like hungry spiders. He didn’t see a name anywhere. He was completely lost. So much so that he didn’t even know which direction he was going. All he could do now was keep going until he found a main road and a helpful sign.  

He couldn’t bear to look in the mirror again, but neither could he bear not to. The passenger was getting closer. He could feel him. A cold, lonely, malevolence, oozing like steam from the black coat. When he could no longer resist, he glanced up again. Sure enough, the passenger was closer, head still lowered, obscuring his face. Yet when he looked away he could feel dead eyes watching him. 

They careered on along strange lanes, the sides of the bus scraping occasionally against walls when he misjudged the road, low branches banging and scraping the roof, air brakes still hissing like someone shuffling towards him.  

He looked again. Another seat forward. Slowly, stealthily, the creature was moving closer. Now he could see the mottled greenish scalp through the thin hair, and bony black-nailed hands crossed over the chest. He could also smell something damp and mouldering.  

Another village loomed up out of its enveloping darkness. Another unnamed huddle of granite cottages; another black, haunted pile of a church, waiting like a sleeping animal behind its crumbling wall and shattered lych-gate. 

Then it was gone. Everything now was light and shadow and fear. Nothing else existed for him but the bus, the night, the road and the passenger. 

Mile upon mile, roaring like a fabled creature breathing fire into the dark, the bus continued its winding, mad flight into the unknown. All the driver could do was to try desperately to keep it on the road. All he could feel was horror, bubbling through him as if his flesh was melting into his seat.  

The bell rang.

“He recognised the cold emptiness of that gaze, the deep lines on that forehead, the immeasurable isolation of that long-dead heart.”

He slammed his foot on the brake, far too hard, almost losing control. The bus shuddered and squealed to a halt, rumbling in protest. He looked through the doors. They had stopped outside the grey silent mist-girt walls of a cemetery. In the thin light from the bus he could make out a pair of rusting gates hanging from tall decaying pillars. Beyond them rows of headstones rose from the vapour and the rank yellowing grass like spectres, waiting for their own. Unable to turn his head, he pressed the button to open the door. It hesitated for a long moment, as if it was stuck, then it opened with a crash. 

The seat directly behind him creaked as someone stood. The smell of mould grew stronger. He waited, white with horror. The passenger moved awkwardly to the step, scraping his feet, as if they were twisted. Under his black, stained jacket his bones seemed to jut and swivel unnaturally. Nothing about him was straight. The floor was wet where he had walked. He turned and looked directly into the driver’s face. Even though the yellowing opaque eyes were sunken in their sockets and the top lip had begun to curl back, exposing blackening gums, the driver recognised him. He recognised the cold emptiness of that gaze, the deep lines on that forehead, the immeasurable isolation of that long-dead heart. Then the passenger sighed deeply, stepped off the bus and walked towards the gates, where slowly he disappeared. The driver shut the doors and stamped his foot down hard. 

The last thing he knew, as he tore around a blind bend into the undipped headlights of an oncoming lorry, was that he had seen his own corpse leave the bus. 

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