The best thing about being dead is no longer needing to breathe. The worst thing about being dead is, well, being dead.
The gondola—the one you dove from before you knew, really knew that you’d died—passes overhead, and you are not drowning. Staying down on the seabed is as easy as existing. At first. In the Ocean Between, the weeds stretch up like the fingers of the dead and pick at your clothes. They tug and pull and scrape at your skin. Every moment you linger, your limbs grow heavier. You have to move.
The Ferrymen are hunting you now. You have broken the rules.
Rule one: Everything dies, no exceptions.
Rule two: Pay the Ferryman.
Rule three: When you cross the Ocean Between, keep your extremities in the boat at all times. Do not—repeat, do not—leave the gondola.
Rule four: No one goes back.
A searchlight arcs overhead, and you sink lower, shift beneath the gondola’s hull so the light doesn’t catch you. You’ve seen what happens when a runaway steps into that light. Only when darkness inks back across the water do you rise, ripping the weeds up from the seabed.
The Ocean Between is near-endless by design. You will have time, they said, to consider your life. How you lived and how you died, how you will be received when you reach the port, and how you will pass through the Last Lock beyond—what’ll happen after. And you did consider it.
Then, you considered that you might not want to be dead.
Now, you’re scanning the water for a boat-stop. As you sailed with the Ferryman, you saw them dotted hither and thither, little platforms with gondolas tethered to them—not as sleek and black as the one you leapt from but serviceable enough, despite the peeling paint.
Ah, there. Closer than you thought. The searchlight swings across it—five gondolas bob in the waves. You swim for it, heavy limbs thrashing against the current. Loud, too loud. Something grazes your foot, and you try not to look down. Whatever’s beneath you now is just as dead as you are, you tell yourself. Besides, surely, you can’t die twice.
The searchlight jerks again, and you shudder. Its beam illuminates a cavalcade of Ferrymen, their long oars moving with regimental precision.
“Shit,” you hiss, pounding your arms and legs through the salt. Your limbs are so heavy now, like you are wading through thick clay. The Ocean Between wants to keep you, or at least cage you until the Ferrymen come. By the time you reach the boat-stop, the Ferrymen have fanned out, cast themselves wide like a net and when they catch you… No, they’re not going to catch you. You’re going to go home. You’re going to live again.
There’s no time to pick and choose, the first gondola you touch is the one you flop into. You cannot rest, either. They are coming. But when you stand, when you take up the giant oar, you will be exposed. They will see you and when they see you, if they are not close enough to catch you, the searchlight will shine and then—
You stretch your lightening limbs, and your sea-wrinkled hand finds something soft.
A cloak. A Ferryman’s cloak.
The searchlight roars over the gondola, and you flinch. Lying in the bottom of the boat, you are safe here, but only just. If you lift your head, it’s over. The beam hovers—could they have spotted you already? No, no.
“Breathe,” you whisper, and your gaze lands on the cloak again. “I wonder.”
You wrap the thick, black material around your hand. Breathe in—one, two—and out. Without allowing yourself too much time to think, to chicken out, you shove your hand up into the beam.
It is hot, as if you’ve stuck your hand in an oven, but when you lower your arm, and tentatively pull the material away, you find your skin unharmed, your hand still whole.
Flinging the cloak across your shoulders, you pull the hood down so you can barely see above the horizon. The chain securing the gondola to the boat-stop is old and breaks easily—loudly. A shout comes from somewhere behind you.
“Wait,” you whisper as the gondola begins to drift. “The oar. Where’s the oar?”
The brackets it should sit in lie empty.
You crane over your shoulder—the net is closing in.
“Shit. Shit. Shit.”
But there—two gondolas over. You don’t think, you just jump.
Your chin smashes against the middle-most gondola, and your teeth sink into your tongue. The sound that comes out of you then is a howl. You might be dead but you can still hurt—bad.
It’s the pain that gets you across, gets you breaking another rusty chain, gets you pushing the gondola from the boat-stop, wielding the oar with a heavy hand—shoving it so hard down toward the seabed you worry it might break.
You can see the shore you came from; it wasn’t long before you ran, a league or two at most. You can do this.
The searchlight hits your back and it burns. You cry out, and your ruined tongue lolls between your lips. You row and you pray the cloak holds. You row and you sob. You row and you hear the Ferrymen snarl closer.
You row and you scream.
Up ahead, the great bright door to the Before rises up from the beach, cool light shafting between door and frame—so close you can almost touch it.
As the door rises, so too does the scent of smoke. The cloak can only do so much.
The searchlight knows you are a liar.
A Ferryman grabs your oar and you pitch forward, tumbling over the front of the gondola and into the surf. The beach.
A laugh bubbles in your throat, and you run.
You run, feet sinking into the sand.
You run and you burn.
And at last, the light.
Elou Carroll is a graphic designer and freelance photographer who writes. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Hexagon SF Magazine, Haven Speculative Fiction, Luna Station Quarterly, Kaleidotrope, In Somnio: A Collection of Modern Gothic Horror (Tenebrous Press), Spirit Machine (Air and Nothingness Press), Ghostlore (Alternative Stories Podcast) and others. When she’s not whispering with ghosts, she can be found editing Crow & Cross Keys, publishing all things dark and lovely, and spending far too much time on Twitter (@keychild). She keeps a catalogue of her weird little wordcreatures on www.eloucarroll.com.