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A horror short story by Phoenix Roberts
“Thank you for choosing Rooted,” said the cashier, tucking a receipt into Perpetua’s tote bag, “and may God have mercy on your soul.” The hard metal toes of her boots glinted in the fluorescent lights as she walked. Someone stopped her at the door, running past the checkout line to catch her by the wrist. By the smooth, noseless skin of their face, she recognized them as Aya, a twenty-two year old member of a house neighboring Perpetua’s. Shortly after moving out of their parents’ place and into a communal house, Aya promised a ghost the charm on their nose ring in exchange for directions to the nearest bar. They got to the bar that night, and danced so hard the charm fell and cracked beneath their feet. They got home without a nose.
“You took the last block of tofu,” they pleaded.
“I earned the last block of tofu,” she replied, and shook her arm hard enough to make them stumble. “Try being faster next time.” She didn’t look back.
Timi, one of Perpetua’s housemates, texted to ask if she’d remembered the yams. She had. She brought the receipt out of her tote bag to double check that she’d stayed within budget, and found that it was written on paper enchanted to wipe itself clean, preventing proof of purchase in pursuit of refund.
She sighed and returned the receipt to the wilderness of the tote bag, then got back to crossing the parking lot. There were only two bikes on the rack. When she got to hers, she paused and did a slow spin in place, examining every crack in the pavement, every empty parking spot. The rusty basket atop her handlebars creaked in the breeze, the folded corners of the grocery list there fluttering against the bars. She knelt to free her bike from the rack.
A thick haze rolled over the sky. Frost climbed up the U-lock. The basket groaned under a new weight. Perpetua caught sight of frills and rotting skin from between the bars. The limbs there trembled as a shrill hum bounced around in Perpetua’s mind. The sound grew louder and higher until the force of it sent a head tumbling from the basket to the ground. Two bloodshot eyes peered up at Perpetua, the upside-down smile still humming beneath a bloody stump of a neck.
“Nope.” Perpetua said.
The air grew hot again. The storm dissipated. The head rolled up the bike until it reconnected with a pair of shoulders holding up a pale yellow dress marred in all directions by incongruent lace like circus tent poles. The shoulders tapered into arms, sprawled all over in sharpie ink. Beneath these spread long fingers tipped with hot pink nail polish.
Oh come on, dude, said the dead woman telepathically, her flesh regaining collagen, I’m, like, totally behind. I got squashed 29 years ago. I really need a ride to the purgatory Ferry.
Perpetua set her jaw firm to keep a shudder at bay. Hearing the undead speak without seeing them move their mouths gave her a primal wiggins she didn’t much care to display.
“Best of luck terrorizing someone else into giving it to you. Cheap performance art doesn’t impress me, and I don’t change routes.”
The woman’s jaw swung wide open. A tangle of writhing limbs emerged at the corner of her mouth and then came whole spiders, hideous and hairy and climbing down her face. Almost as soon as it started, it stopped, and they turned to yarn which floated harmlessly to the ground.
Sorry, that part wasn’t on purpose. It just happens when I get a premonition of purgatory, and listen - there’s an in-ground pool. The largest body of swimmable water I’ve ever seen. ‘Course, it’s only open for an hour every day, because it’s Purgatory, but still. Serious FOMO, here. How about just a ride to the exit? No route change required.
“Nope.” Perpetua repeated. She unlocked her bike and rolled it towards the road. Before she mounted it, she cast one last glance over her shoulder.
“Quit staring at me.”
What you don’t know can’t hurt you, the ghost replied, and the image of her melted into empty air. This didn’t make any sense to Perpetua. It didn’t interest her either. There was a house full of single, hungry twenty-somethings in the midst of a supernatural post-apocalypse waiting for her to bring back dinner. As soon as she got home, lugged the tote bag up four flights of stairs, and dumped it on the kitchen counter, a debt opened five years prior would be repaid in full, and she’d bring her tank tops and sheets from the storage closet to the corner room with the south-facing windows and the private bathroom. Much better to wonder about that than the mysteries of the undead.
Timi gazed up at the hard line of her jaw from her phone where it lay on the GPS mount, blinking in the window of a face-chat she hadn’t noticed open. When he called, he only meant to double check about the yams. Reaching Perpetua mid-conversation with a ghost was an opportunity, though. He hadn’t heard what was asked of his roommate, so he didn’t know for sure what he’d said “Yes” to on her behalf. He did know that it wouldn’t go well for her. Deals with the dead never did. He hung up before she noticed he was there.
These were the items in Perpetua’s tote bag: extra firm tofu plus poultry-less poultry seasoning, brussels sprout, yams, pecans, marshmallows, mac, non-dairy cheese, pie crust, kale, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and a baseball bat lined with nails in case of trouble more significant than a little bit of sassy roadkill.
Timi texted her a motivational picture of those windows glimmering sweetly, walls so far apart that glancing down at them made her feel like she was swimming in the sky instead of biking home from Rooted. She practically salivated on her handlebars. Under normal circumstances, she’d have gotten a year in the room a long time ago, along with a year each in the still-okay-but-not-great rooms, needing to spend only one year in the storage closet. This was how communal houses operated, with everyone shouldering in equal parts both the damp, ill-lit corners of life and the hardwood floors.
Or this was how most communal houses operated. Perpetua’s house was different, because she’d once done something very, very stupid.
In her reverie, she missed her chance for good luck. This was a shame, as good luck was very badly needed. A sign rose up in front of her, then just as readily sank behind a cloud of dust:
COMMUTERS BE WARNED TRUCKS BEYOND THIS POINT.
On every prior year, she’d reached out her right fist and grazed it with her knuckles for fortune and prosperity, or at least for safety. This was a sacred ritual, passed down from dyke on bike to dyke on bike, generation to generation.
She passed a hill, and then another, and then a questionably sentient monster truck barreled over the horizon, straight towards her. It was black with lime green flames and hyper-realistic skulls on its sides, its headlights narrowed like vicious, grinning eyes. It was too far away for Perpetua to see the tiny streak of pink nail polish interrupting the paint job on its hood.
She crossed her arm and drew the bat from her tote bag. She’d long known this moment would come, and she was ready for it. At least, she was until she heard a bell ringing behind her. Like a shot Aya was at her side, keeping perfect pace with her, and they grinned and stuck out an arm.
“Don’t—” Perpetua pleaded, but she could see from the wide circles of Aya’s eyes that whatever machinations began by the tofu loss were much too far along for stopping. Aya gripped the bat by the wide side, sneaking their fingers in between the nails, and pulled. Jesus, did they pull.
“Try being stronger next time!” they shouted, whacking her front wheel so it popped, sticking her right where she was before speeding away from her. She closed her eyes and willed the truck to set its sights on Aya’s receding form. The truck did not bend to her will, it being a monster and she, merely mortal. She guessed that if she had to die, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
The passenger she didn’t know about wouldn’t have it any way at all. I know how to shake it, a familiar voice rang in her mind, Get me all the way to the Ferry and I’ll get it out of your hair.
“What—how—” Perpetua sputtered aloud.
I got a yes for a ride part way. I’ll take one more for the whole shebang. The truck was less than a football stadium away, the glare from its headlights sticking in Perpetua’s eyelashes.
“Okay, fine, yes.”
Clouds thickly clotted. The sweat under her palms got icy and glued her to the handlebars. The truck stopped. Its headlights dimmed. A mass of yellow lace flickered into sight in her basket, and inflated with roadkill.
Quickly, Fel tumbled out of her perch and skipped to the side of the truck. She glanced down at her arm, and with one daintily outstretched fingernail finished a word begun on its hood long ago.
The truck disintegrated like an old sheet of paper in the wind, crumbling to bits. The debris congealed into a ray of light flowing into Fel’s hand and dancing there compliantly. Fel stood triumphantly under the illusory storm of her own making, cutting an impressive image right up until her head fell off.
Undeterred, she swooped it up in the crook of her elbow and skipped back to Perpetua’s side, humming as she went. The storm abated little by little with each footfall until the sky was once more oppressively blue.
Fel extended her hand, and the ray of light glided away from her. The magicks which once breathed life into a daymare of the roads wrapped themselves around Perpetua’s injured wheel and made it whole again.
Fel climbed back into the basket and relaxed, kicking her legs like she was doing the backstroke. With only a little eye-rolling, Perpetua got them moving.
Wee! I’m a special delivery.
“You’re a con-artist and a nuisance.”
I’m a very special delivery.
It would be a few minutes, at least, until they reached the exit for the Purgatory Ferry. Perpetua wanted Fel nice and distracted by the time they got there.
“Tell me how you knew the truck’s true name.”
I collected them, a long time ago. Fel stretched out her sharpie-stained arm. She drew a vertical line down her left arm with her right hand. I took all these buddies out in ‘21. ‘Course, Stuart ran me over before I could finish the job.
“You mean to tell me that you could stick around and clear the rest of the roads, and instead you’re going to Purgatory?”
I put in my time making the world a better place when I was alive. Now I want to swim.
Reluctantly, Perpetua noticed a distinctly heartstring-shaped stirring in her chest. She did her best to smother what guilt she felt. She answered to one house, she reminded herself. Before them, a second sign loomed:
EXIT 40 FOR THE PURGATORY FERRY.
Fel’s head turned a full three hundred and sixty degrees, blood dripping from her ears. Perpetua recognized a vision of Purgatory when she saw it. With Fel under the influence of otherworldly interference, her captain of transportation slammed hands to brakes and jumped off the seat. She gathered Fel up in her arms and laid her gently on the ground. While Fel burped a live slug, which she wiped away with the back of her wrist, Perpetua found a heavy rock and dropped it on the hem of Fel’s dress.
Sorry, another premonition. Someone just did a cannonball into the pool! I love doing cannonballs. Hey, where am I?
“Sorry,” Perpetua said, and she even meant it. “I can’t go the way you need to go. I just can’t. Someone else will come along, and you can bargain with them instead.” Something wet and hot crawled down her face as she rode away, and over a tide of disgust she dimly recognized it as her own salty tear.
The headlights of a second truck glared over the top of a hill, pointed at the space behind Perpetua, where Fel was trapped in material form.
Perpetua’s bike stopped, but not of her own will. She’d hit a shard of glass in the road and her front wheel gave again. Almost the same second a rush of air whirred out, Fel’s spell got to work, sparks of golden glow floating from the inside of the tire to fill in the gap. A stream of curses fell from Perpetua’s lips. There were only so many times a girl could handle getting her ass saved before she had to cave, and cave Perpetua did. She turned to the direction from whence she came and moved as fast as her legs could take her. She changed the route. She promised herself it was only temporary.
I knew you wouldn’t just walk out on me like that for real! Fel babbled when she saw her. Now I don’t have to turn your legs into bike whee- oh. She saw the truck just as Perpetua hopped off her bike and removed the rock. Her pocket buzzed.
Timi wanted to know if she’d remembered the Pumpkin puree. Her blood ran cold. She hadn’t. She hadn’t remembered the Pumpkin puree.
Which meant the whole trip, and all five years before it, were a wash. A wordless scream ripped out of her mouth, shrill and sharp in her throat.
Apparently assuming she’d screamed about the truck, Fel stood and dusted herself off, then cracked her neck, accidentally sending her head rolling. She got on her knees to collect it.
“Don’t bother.” Perpetua said. “Disappear and save yourself. I’m as good as dead already. I forgot the pumpkin puree.”
Talk faster, please.
“Five years ago, I went to Rooted to get Thanksgiving dinner for the house. They warned me ahead of time not to take the shortcut by the Purgatory Ferry, but I did, and the whole bag of groceries fell into the whirlpool of drowning souls. We held a meeting as a household and collectively agreed that the best way to repair my harms was for me to accept all of the house’s less fun responsibilities—living in the worst room, doing the grocery shopping, and so on—for five years. This year was the last. And they gave me the grocery list and I FORGOT something and now everything is RUINED.”
Hang on. Where’s this list you speak of? It’s not in the tote bag, is it? ‘Cause the only thing here—Fel stuck her hand in the bag, and when she drew it back up white paper crinkled like delicate bones in her hands—is blank paper. She shook it out for Perpetua to see, and indeed not a single line of text stained that neat college rule. Dread rose up in her stomach.
Timi wrote the list on paper enchanted to wipe itself clean. Pumpkin puree was likely never included to begin with. Timi didn’t want her to pay off her debt.
Perpetua thought she’d cry again, but instead she laughed. She laughed so hard she thought she might vomit. Fel backed away respectfully. There was still a truck to deal with. She got close enough to scratch one letter on its side. It wobbled violently, knocking her head off and splattering it on the ground. She got another letter in. The truck sped away from her, right towards Perpetua.
Perpetua heard a sickening crunch, and she felt pain in her legs. Her vision gave out. She collapsed.
When she came to, she saw an empty neck socket and a sharpie-stained arm casting the last glimmer of defeated-truck-magicks about her lower half. Her pain lessened. She drew her knee to her chest to test it out. It worked just the way she’d expect an uncrushed leg to work.
“You didn’t even remake them as bike wheels.” She murmured, then tacked on “Thank you. Should have used it to fix your head, though.”
I’m thinking there’ll be more. I’ll fix it with the next one. There’s been a change of plans. I had another vision while you were out. Someone peed in the pool. I was thinking I could stick around for a while, and maybe you and I could, I don’t know. Keep hanging out. Doing this.
Fel gestured to the basket on Perpetua’s bike.
Perpetua didn’t have any place else worth going. Making the world a better place for everybody, and not just one person who happened to live in a specific house sounded a lot nicer, actually, than her previous five years. She nodded.
Sorry, I need . . .
Phoenix is most likely human. Her work has previously appeared in Luna Station Quarterly and The Dead Unleashed: Volume 3.
Copyright © 2022 by Phoenix Roberts
Published by Orion's Beau
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