This story was originally published in Dark Fuse Magazine.

The Ride

“I know,” said Death. “You were expecting someone more skeletal.”

Ian looked at the young man in the sharp black suit, then glanced back at his body lying on the road in front of the green SUV. “To be honest, I wasn’t really expecting anyone.”

“Well, them’s the breaks. Come on, get in.”

Death was sitting in a battered old roller coaster car, the black paint chipped and worn. There was no sign of the rest of the roller coaster. Ian opened the rusting door and climbed aboard. Instinctively, he looked for some sort of harness.

“Too old,” said Death. “No safety regulations back when they built this.”

The car lurched and trundled forward, rattling and shuddering, then tipped back and climbed steadily toward a light so bright Ian had to shade his eyes from the glare. When the car stopped climbing, it gave a little shake and plunged downward, its metal frame creaking and groaning.

By the time the car leveled off again, the world was gone, replaced by a thick gray fog and the curving, looping tracks of a roller coaster. Ian’s stomach was still back at the top of the drop. In the distance, he could hear the faint sound of a siren, wailing mournfully through the fog.

“I guess you’re taking me to Heaven?”

“That’s not my call, I’m afraid. You’ve made your bed, and now you need to lie in it, as they say. Oh, and I wouldn’t recommend trying to escape by jumping out of the car. I had a guy do that once… not pleasant.”

Ian peered over the side of the car. Black, serpentine shapes writhed through the fog beneath the track, snapping and lunging at each other. He shuddered.

“There must be something I can do. Can’t I sell you my soul?”

“Wrong guy, and I wouldn’t recommend that either.” Death hesitated. “But… there is one way, and since you’ve asked, I’m contractually obliged to tell you what it is. But you won’t like it. You get three choices, three people. One of them takes your place in Heaven or Hell or wherever it is you’re destined to end up.”

Ian ran his fingers through his hair, considering the offer. It seemed a fair trade. After all, he was about to become a doctor. It might cost someone their life, but in the long run he’d save a lot more. The car swung to the left and wound downward, gathering speed. Death tapped the back of his wrist.

“Okay,” said Ian. “I’ll do it.”

“There’s no going back. You have to choose one of them.”

Ian nodded.

“Okay,” said Death, “hold tight.”

Metal ground against metal, and the car bucked to the right. Ian screamed, clutching at the front of the car as it rolled off the rails and dropped vertically downward. The snakelike creatures swarmed around, waiting for him to lose his grip. The car twisted to the right, then there was a tortured screech and a burst of sparks as its wheels hit metal, and it settled on another track.

As they rolled forward, the air around them filled with a thick, medicinal tang that made Ian’s eyes water. Then the fog parted, and the car was traveling through a hospital ward. It slowed as it passed one of the beds, and Ian recognized his family. His mother was holding a baby while his dad and sister beamed happily at it.

Ian’s sister frowned and reached toward her throat. She coughed, and her eyes grew wide. Her face turned crimson as she struggled to breathe, fighting to drag air into her lungs as Ian’s father called out for a nurse. Ian watched his sister slip to the floor beside the bed as the car rattled onward.

“Don’t I get to choose who the people are?” asked Ian.

“Sorry, kid. Dealer’s choice.”

“My sister? No way, it has to be someone else. Someone that isn’t important.”

Death shrugged. “You don’t need to choose yet.”

The fog enveloped them again, and the track curved to the right then dipped downward. Ian braced himself for another vertical descent, but instead the car straightened out onto the familiar streets of his hometown.

He recognized the woman immediately. It was Lisa, his fiancé. She was standing beside the road, looking for someone. He realized what was going to happen seconds before it did. Lisa spotted a friend across the street, waved, and stepped into the path of a yellow cab. There was a sickening crunch, and Ian looked away.

“No. Not Lisa, I love her.”

Ian stared at the front of the car until the fog wrapped itself around them once more.

“One more, then you have to choose,” said Death.

The car swept left, tilting sideways as it clattered around the bend. When it straightened up again, they were traveling past a tiny playground, just a patch of concrete with a set of swings and a roundabout. A man pushed a small boy on the swings. The boy giggled and squirmed every time the swing reached the top of its arc, then urged the man to push harder as it swept back down.

As the car circled around the playground, Ian looked at the man. He was older, thinner, and there were patches of gray in his stubble, but he still recognized himself.

Ian looked at Death, his eyes narrowing. “What if I don’t have any kids? This will never happen.”

Death shook his head. “Doesn’t work like that. You would have a son, one way or another. You’d raise him, love him. Until one day …”

The car lurched forward, bursting through a wall of fog and back into the gray world of the roller coaster. The track here was flat and straight, but a few hundred feet ahead it split into three before rolling and twisting away into the fog.

“Ride’s nearly over, kid,” said Death. “It’s time to decide.”

(c) Copyright Philip Harris 2024 All Rights Reserved