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‘The Passenger’ by Michael Whitehouse

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A friend recently alerted me to a terrifying incident that took place in an urban area of Boston. Being a bus driver, he had heard many of the usual tall stories exchanged around his local depot - muggings, broken windows, the occasional couple attempting drunken sex; but some of the drivers had far more sinister and puzzling tales to tell. A few spoke of ghostly passengers who would pay their fare, take a seat on the upper deck, and then vanish without a trace.

Those latter stories were of a kind that my friend enjoyed hearing but never took seriously, considering them cheap entertainment shared amongst his co-workers, alleviating the tediousness of an empty depot at night. That was until a fellow driver told him about Ruby. When the story was relayed to me, I was so intrigued by the account that I took the time to contact all involved, piecing together what occurred as best I could.

*

Ruby was a pleasant woman, even though she had reason not to be. In her early forties, life was much harder than it should have been; each day a struggle. Mired in poverty since childhood, she was compelled to spend most of her time scrimping and saving via two endless jobs. She found neither well paid or enjoyable, but her current financial situation dictated the need. During the day, she worked as many hours as possible at a supermarket stocking shelves and bagging groceries at the checkout for customers. At night, she attended her second job as a cleaner at a factory that manufactured, of all things, cleaning products; the irony was not lost on her and neither was the tediousness of each scrub and polish.

At the end of every drawn-out, tiresome day, Ruby would return home at night via a long and vapid bus journey, with just enough time to kiss her 13-year-old daughter, Angela, on the head, whispering ‘sweet dreams’ to her as she slept, before herself turning in. This short, private moment of affection was what carried Ruby through her day. It was for her daughter that she struggled. Angela’s father had abandoned her when she was just two years old, and with no other family to speak of - at least none who could be relied upon - Ruby was left to work her fingers to the bone each day, clothing and feeding her daughter while paying for a series of crippling medical bills brought about by her child’s severe asthma. She, of course, did not grudge the situation, for her daughter’s condition had improved markedly and that sentiment meant more to her than any amount of work or hardship ever could.

One night, Ruby was asked to work a few extra hours at the factory. While she was perpetually exhausted and yearned even for the most meagre of rests, she accepted the offer gratefully as more hours meant less debt; she simply could not afford to decline the opportunity. After the end of that shift, she stood at the nearest bus stop at around twenty to midnight, illuminated by an overhead street lamp in the darkness. There, she waited with heavy eyelids for the last bus of the night to arrive. Thankfully, the wait was not long and soon the elongated vehicle cumbersomely inched up the road towards her. On seeing the solitary figure of Ruby, the driver pulled in to the kerb before stopping. With a push of a button, the bus sneered, opening its hydraulic doors with a hiss and welcoming her into its embrace.

The driver, a balding and irritable man who appeared equally as tired as she did, grumbled for Ruby to pay her fare. This she did after rifling through her handbag for what seemed an age, finally producing the desired amount of loose change, much to the driver’s annoyance. In a dazed lethargy, she wandered down the aisle, taking a seat next to a window at the back. As she prepared herself for the long, tedious route home, the vehicle shuddered back into life. The doors sealed shut before the bus pulled away from the pavement with all the enthusiasm of a drunk at last call. The wheels tumbled and stumbled with unsure progress on the last leg of their journey for the night.

The engine growled, the vibrations climbing up the metal frame, rattling the windows slightly and causing the seat, which Ruby now slumped in, to quiver in response. The vehicle had seen better days and was clearly reaching the end of its life; the grime on the windows and floor a congealed reminder of the countless thousands who had sat in each seat weary and thinking of home, along with discarded gum crushed into the bus floor by tired shoes and the murmured grievances of passengers vented daily - yet at night the enclosed frame of rusting and neglected metal seemed almost serene in its apparent emptiness.

With each turn of a corner the bus juddered from side to side. While the bright fluorescent lights, which beamed down from sterile fittings in the ceiling above, were enough to keep anyone awake, Ruby found that sleep still lay at the forefront of her mind. But for the driver, the vehicle lay empty - as best she could tell without climbing the coiled stairs to the obscured upper deck. As is quite common with exhausted commuters, Ruby lay her head against the vibrating window to her right hand side and persuaded herself that it would be fine to rest her eyes for a few minutes. Just enough time to find temporary relief from the tiredness that forever haunted her. As the bus turned yet another corner, the soothing, shaking movements rocked its lonely passenger, slowly, gently, and finally to sleep.

How long her eyes had been closed, Ruby did not know, but as her conscious mind came back sharply into focus from its slumber, the concern of having missed her stop presented itself. She detested leaving her daughter alone at home in the first place, never mind for any longer than was necessary. This worry, however, was soon replaced by something else. An uncomfortable sensation of personal boundaries and social conventions being broken; of the air displaced by the form of something close. For as Ruby’s eyes adjusted to the jagged fluorescent lighting once more, and the bus itself shook and grunted along the darkened concrete below, she stared at her reflection in the window: A mirror image now altered from what it had been before. A chill crept up her spine as she viewed the appearance of her own overworked, sleep-deprived and worried features, alongside the strange impression of the person now sitting in the seat next to her.

As the city lights flashed by from outside, Ruby stared at the window momentarily. Then, nonchalantly, turned her head to look around, deliberately avoiding staring at the individual beside her, before returning to the cold reflections in the window. This only added to the sense of unease. Other than for herself, the driver, and the passenger, there was no one else present. This was not unusual. Public transport was never that busy at night except during the weekends - the city quite happily asleep or readying itself for bed - but what concerned Ruby was why someone would choose to sit next to a perfect stranger on an empty bus at night, especially when they were surrounded by vacant seats.

Not wishing to be rude, she continued to gaze at the reflection. The passenger’s appearance captivated her attention being unusual somehow, the head bowed as if staring at the ground, and the features obscured by the hood of a dark green jacket. This also added to the peculiarity of the individual. It was a summer’s night and yet they were clothed as if for winter.
For a little while, they sat in silence, but as the bus continued on its journey, Ruby felt increasingly agitated, partly by the proximity of her unwelcome companion but more-so by an unknown factor. She could not truly identify why she was so anxious, but a nervousness had begun to overcome her. The vocal silence, which was the only buffer between them, poked and prodded at that sense of discomfort, pulling away at it like a scab.

As seats rattled and the floor vibrated with each uneven depression of the road, Ruby peered out of the window once more, attempting to allay her unquestionable, yet unexplained, trepidation. The street they were currently on was familiar to her, and, with a welcome sigh, Ruby realised that she had not slept long enough to miss her stop. The sense of relief was enough to momentarily overcome her apprehension. While caught in that more positive frame of mind, she began to consider simply talking to her unexpected travelling companion to break the uncomfortable silence of one sitting so close.

Slowly, she turned to the passenger. Laying her eyes upon the figure, its appearance was far removed from the distance and unreality of their mirror image. Immediately, Ruby felt frightened, as if staring at someone who should not be. The dark green jacket was dirtied and scuffed in places, accompanied by a musty smell. A blackened material swam around the rim of the hood where once a lighter colour had lived. It occurred to Ruby that she had not seen anything like it for many years; made, as it was, from waxed canvas, a raincoat in style yet seemingly untouched by water for some time. The passenger’s gender was a mystery also, as what could be made out of his or her features implied neither, yet both. With head still bowed staring down at the ground, the tip of a nose could be seen and the impression of a chin given, yet nothing more.

The silence became unbearable to Ruby, and with neither thought nor conviction, words simply jumped from her mouth. ‘It’s getting a little cold in here’, she said - half statement, the rest a question. She was surprised that the words had leapt out, but the peculiarity of the situation urged her to break the ice; for conversation is the melody of the mundane and the safe.
Yet the passenger did not answer, remaining focused on the floor beneath their feet. The bus shuddered once more as it negotiated the city streets, which were almost completely devoid of life. A few minutes passed. Anxious at the lack of a reply, Ruby spoke once more, remarking that the driver had seemed a little grumpier than usual, concluding the observation with a nervous, gentle laugh. Yet again, the passenger said nothing.

Watching the world pass by outside, she decided that two attempts at conversation were quite enough. She would leave him or her alone and hope that the rest of the journey did not drag too much. Still, the desire to be far away from the strange person sitting beside her grew.

Then, a sound.

An unnerving noise, one which crawled under the skin; of nail upon wood. Turning slowly to face her unwelcome companion once more, she found the person staring down at the ground as they had always been. Yet the sound was coming from their seat. Scratching, tearing. The passenger’s hands were now poking through the gap between his or her own legs, dragging unkempt nails up and down against the wooden underneath that supported the cushioned material on which they sat. And doing so in a horrible, stuttering, jagged motion.

The scratching sound pierced air and eardrums alike, increasing in volume until Ruby, tired and now irritable, could no longer endure it.

‘Could you stop that please?’, she asked.

Yet it continued.

‘Please stop that!’ Ruby demanded, this time in a forceful tone sharpened by exhaustion.

The passenger ceased and yet did not move or face her, not even to acknowledge her presence. Agitated yet relieved, in a sense, Ruby gazed out of the window once more, trying to extinguish the growing sense of annoyance that was now building inside. She took a deep breath and calmed herself with the knowledge that she would soon be home. Rummaging through her handbag, she found a half-eaten packet of mints and began to unravel them before popping one into her mouth. Looking up, what she now saw froze her to the core. The passenger’s face peered out from behind her head; eyes deep and blackened; mouth deformed and skewed gaping wide; all captured hideously in the glass reflection.

Ruby screamed at the sight of it. Shock turned to fear and fear leapt to panic as she yelled and pleaded for the driver to help. The reflection leaned in as a rasp of cold breath climbed down the back of her neck, her body quivering in revulsion as the passenger placed a shrivelled hand on her shoulder; two of the fingers long since removed at the knuckle. The touch was cold, and it awoke a sense of fear Ruby had never known. Clawing for survival, she shrieked as the distorted hand pulled her close. With effort fuelled by terror, she tore away from the abhorrent grip then leapt into the seat in front, scrambling over the aisle and falling to the ground, bashing her cheek against the floor.

The bus rattled, hissed, and groaned as the passenger rose slowly to its feet, head now bowed, shrouded by the dark-green and tattered hood.

‘Someone help, please! Help me!’, Ruby screamed, pulling herself along the floor by her fingertips, her nails clawing away at the grime.

The passenger followed intently, stepping out into the aisle, proceeding slowly towards her. Scrambling and terrified, Ruby pulled herself to her feet, but as she did so the bus veered wildly and untamed across the road. She stumbled against the momentum, but the hooded figure remained rooted and firm. The engine now roared and growled as the bus tore down the wrong side of a main road then swerved around a corner onto a side street.

Yet the passenger stepped assuredly ever forward.

As the vehicle raged onward, Ruby screamed for the driver to stop, but then it occurred to her that the bus had long since left its planned route. It screeched across concrete before hurtling down a lane barely wide enough for a car. Then, just as suddenly, the driver slammed on the brakes and the vehicle lurched to the side before coming to an abrupt halt. Thrown by the force, Ruby grasped at a seat to brace her fall, twisting her wrist painfully through a safety-handle in the process.

The engine roar diminished to a weak whimper as the passenger stepped closer once more. Bruised and shaken, Ruby stumbled to the front of the bus, bashing her hands frantically against the closed sliding doors, desperate for escape. No matter how loud she yelled; no matter how many times she struck with the sides of her fists against the metal and glass, it would not yield. She was trapped. Turning to plead with the driver to open the door to his cabin and shield her from the monstrosity bearing down upon her, she saw that it was too late. There he lay, draped across the wheel unconscious or dead, his body entombed in the glass cubicle, the release button for the bus door goading her from the dashboard on the other side. Escape was inches away, yet denied by a panel of safety glass that she did not have the strength to break.

A hush then fell as the figure continued towards its prey.

‘Please, leave me alone’, Ruby begged, fighting back tears.

Yet the passenger did not answer. The head remained bowed as each footstep scuffed and scraped along the floor one after the other. Closer. Nearer.

‘What do you want from me!?’

But again, no answer, for a thing that should not be, needs no justification. Tears flowed down Ruby’s face as terror spread like a cancer, clouding her thoughts and stemming her actions. Yet the passenger drew closer still, unmoved by her pleas.

In a fit of utter desperation, Ruby turned to the driver once more.

‘Wake up! Please. God-dammit, wake up!’, she cried.

The driver remained motionless; however, the passenger did not. It was upon her, its icy breath infesting the air. It stood only inches away, the muddied green raincoat no doubt sheltering a grotesquely withered being inside. The figure raised its shrivelled, deformed, and incomplete hand above its head. Ruby cowered in reply, but as the thing came violently at her, a moment of utter instinct took over. She ducked out of the way at the very last second. Countless shards of glass rained over her as the passenger’s half-fist impacted against the driver’s cabin with brute force, shattering the protective shell.

Thrust by opportunity, Ruby poked her hand into the cabin and battered the release button next to the driver’s head. The doors seethed open, and just as the passenger raised its hand once more, Ruby escaped into the night.

**

The police were called and quickly attended the scene only to find the driver covered in glass, dazed, but alive and well. He remembered very little of what had taken place, as the last thing he recalled was Ruby paying her fare before he then passed out. There was no memory of driving the bus on the final leg of its journey, nor did he possess any knowledge of the hooded passenger who had smashed the driver’s cabin.

With no small amount of digging on my part, I was able to contact Ruby who, after a little persuasion, spoke to me in detail about that night. The entire ordeal had taken its toll on her, but she was not thankless for the experience. For despite not being on its route, the bus had mysteriously stopped outside her home. Stricken with terror, she had instinctively entered her tiny apartment and locked the door behind, but before phoning the police, she quickly called for an ambulance. Her daughter, Angela, had suffered a terrible asthma attack and lay moments from death on the floor. Thankfully, the paramedics arrived in time to save her.

The police found no evidence of the passenger; no CCTV footage or eye-witnesses. It was as if the hooded figure had never existed; all but for one chilling reminder that it had indeed been there. For at the seat where it had sat was a message, clawed into the wood underneath. Two words which simply read: ‘Not Yet’.
In Ruby’s mind, those words have haunted her more than any hooded figure ever could. For if ‘Not Yet’, when?

Published inShort Stories

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