Discover more from A Flash in the Pan
Driving home late one night, Carl discovered he had unfinished business to deal with.
Issue #14, Sunday 28 August 2022
Bright lights in his rear-view mirror. Too bright. The driver behind hadn’t bothered to drop his high beams. Carl cursed a little, and flipped the switch on the mirror to dim the reflection.
He was weary, bone-weary, and there was a long way to go before he reached the city again. And he didn’t much like driving on this particular road. It was along here somewhere that Marie had died, and he hated having to think about that. It hadn’t seemed so bad, having to come this way, when had driven up to the wedding during the bright daylight. But now, driving down the long black tunnel of the night, it was giving him the creeps.
The headlights behind him were quickly coming closer, still annoyingly undimmed. Well, they would probably go around him soon enough. They were traveling fast. He was keeping pretty close to the speed limit himself: he’d been picked up speeding a couple of times recently, and couldn’t afford to lose his license. That’s why he’d been cautious about how much he drank at the wedding, too. And there was plenty of room. This country ‘highway’ had only one lane in each direction, and at this late hour, there were few other vehicles.
Closer came the lights, and closer, until the following car was right on his tail.
“Come on,” he said irritably, “go around me.”
But instead the car behind him edged closer and closer, until it was so close that its headlights started to drop out of sight behind the rear of his own car. Carl swore. Dickheads! Some teenagers trying to get a rise out of him, most likely. Only one approach would work. He took his foot off the gas pedal and allowed his car to start slowing down. He couldn’t actually brake, the vehicle behind him was so close that they would rear-end him in a flash.
As he slowed, Carl expected the driver behind him to get annoyed and swerve around him. Instead, they slowed in pace with him, dropping back a little more so that he could see their headlights clearly again. Carl tried putting on a sudden burst of speed, but that was a predictable game: the vehicle behind just sped up to match his own speed. He went back to gradually slowing down, becoming more and more angry. If it came to an argument with these kids, he thought he could handle himself, provided there weren’t too many of them. He was a big enough guy, pretty fit. He just wished that he didn’t feel so tired.
Together, the cars drew to a halt. The edge of the road here was pretty rough, so Carl didn’t pull over much, but remained on the asphalted road surface.
It was only as they came to a complete stop that Carl started to think something was odd, but he couldn’t place it at first. Then he had it. The headlights behind him were very bright, glaring, in the mirror, but didn’t seem to be lighting up the inside of Carl’s car. Perhaps they were tilted down at the road? Dismissing this puzzle, and shaking his head in annoyance, he opened the door and got out, ready to give the kids behind him a tongue-lashing they wouldn’t forget in a hurry.
There was no car there. The road was empty in both directions.
Astonished, Carl looked around. Had the other car gone off on some side road he hadn’t seen? Surely not. Dropped back at the last minute and turned off their headlights? But, though the skies were cloudy the moon was peeping out and gave more than enough light for him to have seen the other car if they had been anywhere near.
Baffled, he stood there for a long minute until finally he shrugged and climbed back into his car and started off again. Could he have dreamed it? He really needed a coffee, then. There would be a town somewhere up ahead with a gas station or two. He’d stop as soon as he saw one.
The wedding he’d attended had gone on far too long, too many damn speeches. And he’d been disappointed. There had been a good looking girl he’d been chatting up nicely, but she’d ended up dancing with a much younger guy and had vanished before he caught up with her again. Maybe he was getting past it? But he was still only in his thirties. Was that over the hill these days? There had been a time… but that started him thinking about his wife Marie again. He shook his head, gripped the wheel tightly, and forced himself to concentrate on driving.
A few minutes later he saw headlights behind him again. The same car as before? No way to tell. But again, the car behind him was coming up fast, too fast. This time, though, it didn’t sit behind him, but without indicating it moved smoothly into the other lane and started to overtake him. Started. But instead of passing him, it drew level, closely matching his speed, just edging a little forward from time to time, then dropping back again.
Really alarmed now, Carl looked quickly across at the other car. The driver was the only person in it. He couldn’t quite make out the driver’s features without taking his eyes off the road for too long a time. But it looked to be a woman, not some young teenage lout. A woman? Carl frowned, his pulse quickening. What was going on here? He put his foot on the brake and quickly pulled to a halt. As he did so, the car alongside matched him, keeping freakishly level, moment by moment, until they both came to a standstill, side by side in the road.
The moon came out from behind a cloud, and for a moment Carl was able to see the other car more clearly. A powder-blue Toyota sedan. What felt like an electric shock ran unpleasantly through him. It was familiar. Too familiar. Marie had driven a car like that. Hands shaking, he pressed the button to wind down the window so that he could call out to the other driver.
As the window slid down, the image of the other car simply slide away down with it, like some magic trick. Beyond the open window was nothing but the night air.
He sat at the wheel trembling, trying to rationalize what was happening. That wedding… it had been pretty wild. Maybe someone had slipped him something, something which caused hallucinations? Possible. Very possible.
Whatever it was must be working on his memories, bringing to the surface things that he had long tried to forget. Marie had died in a crash somewhere along this road. He’d never visited the exact spot, though he knew that some of her friends had. He hadn’t been able to bring himself to do that, hadn’t wanted to re-kindle the pain. The drug he’d been given must be bringing those feelings of regret and guilt to the surface, that was all.
He should stop driving, pull over somewhere and sleep it off. It was too dangerous to keep going. But he couldn’t just leave his car just sitting on the road here. He had to find somewhere safe to pull off. Reluctantly, he started up the car again and moved off slowly, looking for a spot.
Lights in his mirror again. His stomach clenched. That car again? No. The headlights were different. In a few moments he could see that it was a massive freight truck, lit up like a Christmas tree. It raced up behind him and then swerved around, its deep horn blaring in fury at his slow speed. If he hadn’t started driving again, if he’d still been at a halt, it would probably have smashed into him, and they would be picking up the pieces for a month. He found that his hands were shaking on the wheel with the thought of it. But at least it hadn’t been that car, that power-blue Toyota.
Finally, there was a slight bend in the road and an open, level spot where he could pull the car off the asphalt. He got out, taking long deep breaths of the cold night air.
The moon came out again from behind the clouds, and as it did he noticed something pale hanging half-way up the trunk of one of the trees. He hesitated for a moment, but then walked closer. It was a bunch of flowers, tied around the tree. He reached up. Plastic flowers. And a card with something written on it in large but faded black letters.
“R.I.P. Marie. We love you.”
He gave a little cry of shock. Right here, then. It must have been right here where she’d crashed, two years ago, on the way back from visiting her parents. Now he could make out the scar on the bole of the tree, the bark only partly healed. He felt dizzy. What were the odds that he would stop right here? It was crazy.
He turned back to his car, intending to put down the seat and sleep until time and daylight could blow away this madness.
His car was gone.
It wasn’t there any more. In its place stood the powder-blue Toyota, dripping with condensation as though it had just emerged from a cold fog, emitting the faint pinging sounds that engines make as they cool down.
He stood silent, staring, unbelieving.
It was too dark to see inside the car, but after a long pause, the passenger door clicked and swung open a fraction. The interior light came on.
Marie, his dead wife Marie, was sitting in the driver’s seat.
One step, two steps. Almost against his will, he found himself stepping closer to the car, to this mirage. Marie didn’t move, didn’t look at him, just stared forward into the night, her hands on the wheel.
Another step, another. Half-expecting the blue car to vanish again, step by step Carl came close enough to touch it. He reached out tentatively to put his hand on the roof, expecting his hand to pass right through it. But instead it met his hand solidly. Solid and wet and cold. Very cold.
Hardly daring to do it, conscious of his heart racing, he slowly bent down to look at Marie. She still sat unmoving, her gaze distant, not looking at him.
Surely this was some kind of mistake? Surely it was the drugs which were making him imagine his wife instead of the woman actually driving this car? But then she did turn to look at him, or at least, in his direction, though her gaze somehow still did not connect with his. It was Marie, there was no doubt about it. She looked exactly as she had done the last time he had ever seen her. She reached out and pushed the passenger door further open, a clear invitation.
Bewildered, he opened the door fully and got in beside this impossible woman. “Marie…” he said, but she turned away to gaze forward again. The car started with a sudden jerk, throwing him back in the seat with a gasp. The open door slammed shut at his side. Gravel spun beneath the wheels.
Fumbling, he strapped on his seat belt as the car swerved onto the roadway and started forwards. “Marie…” he said again, but she did not speak or look at him.
The car sped up, and in the dim moonlight he could see trees and fences flashing by.
“Marie…” he cried out, “What’s going on? Tell me what you want!” But she was silent. As silent as the grave.
Then, as the silence stretched on for long moments, something even crazier happened. There was a beep and a vibration from his phone, stashed in his pocket. Not sure whether he dared take his eyes off the road, off Marie, he managed to pull the phone out from his pocket and glance down. A text message.
im on the road
It had been sent from his wife’s phone number. A phone which had been destroyed in the crash. Carl had never removed her number from his own phone’s contacts, feeling that to do so would be a final betrayal.
He looked up at her. She still gazed fixedly at the road ahead.
There was another beep and a shake.
wanted to let u know i found yr phone last week
He gave a little gasp. These were the very same text messages she had sent him two years ago. The messages he hadn’t let the police know about. The corner had concluded that Marie had simply fallen asleep at the wheel. But if they had known about the series of texts…
u should b more careful
The car veered suddenly, and he gave a yell of terror. Then it straightened back onto the road. Was that a faint smile on Marie’s lips?
u should clear out yr texts more often
He put out his hand and touched her arm. Cold, so cold. As cold as the car had felt. As cold as death.
seems u have a little friend called tania
“Marie,” he said, “I’m so sorry. I always wanted you to know that I was sorry.” But the texts were relentless, and Marie did not take her eyes away from the road.
i dont hav to ask if shes pretty cause she sent u her pic. nice boobs!
The car was speeding up, the trees were flashing by even faster. He began to be very afraid.
she wasnt the first tho. i know about the others too
Had Marie been texting these one-handed as she drove? She must have. He looked desperately out of the car. Could he open the door and jump out? Why had he ever climbed in?
but ive had enough carl, had too much. cant bear it any more
He didn’t really need to look down at the phone. He knew that string of texts off by heart, had many times replayed them in his mind, feeling the regret.
so now im going to make an end
“No, Marie, please!” He clasped again at her arm, trying to reach her, trying to make her stop. But her arm was cold, cold; like steel, unmoving, relentless.
letting go now
She looked at him then, directly in the eye, and this time her gaze connected. He sat frozen as she took both her hands off the steering wheel and pumped hard on the gas pedal.
There was a bend in the road up ahead, but the car did not take it.
© Copyright David R. Grigg. All rights reserved
About this story
It was originally conceived for submission to an anthology of ghost stories, I think, but ended up being published in eFiction magazine for November 2012. I liked the idea of text messages being sent from a ghost.
Thanks for reading. Please feel free to comment and to share this story.