Ashlee had drunk so much coffee that she couldn’t even feel the effects of the caffeine anymore. She had reached that point in the night where everything blurred together and felt like a waking dream. Her mind wandered as she maneuvered her car through the streets of downtown Austin, waiting for a ping on her phone, a call for assistance from a total stranger. When it reached two in the morning, she drove more like a zombie or a ghost moving through familiar haunting grounds, than like a responsible driver who cared about the safety of herself or her passengers. These issues never bothered Ashlee anyway. She knew these streets like the back of her own hand. Not that she would, but if she wanted to, Ashlee could have blindfolded herself for the entire night and never once would she get into a crash.
Ashlee had never been much of a fan of driving before she’d started driving for rideshare and delivery apps. Back in her high school days, she only drove if she needed to, like if she wanted to go to the movies and no one else wanted to see the obscure art-house flick she was interested in, or if her friends had had too much to drink at a party and she was the only sober one in the group. This last situation seemed to happen more than anything else did.
There was just something inherent about driving that terrified Ashlee that caused her to grip the wheel tightly and grind her teeth the entire time. She chalked it up to her distrust of the other drivers around her, barreling by in speeding, metal, death machines. She knew what she was doing, but had no idea what was going through the minds of anyone else sharing the road with her. It was even worse when she moved to Austin for school. Austin was a city full of people who had moved there from somewhere else. It was a city made up of thousands of different philosophies of how to drive a car, and none of them was particularly smart or well thought out. Ashlee had plenty of friends who wanted to blame the bad traffic on Texas drivers, but she resented that. She grew up in Texas. Texans knew how to drive.
Her fear of driving had made her initially hesitant to sign up for jobs where that was her sole objective, but after applying to every service job she possibly could around town and not even getting so much as a call back from any of them, she had no choice but to consider them. She had a couple of other friends who drove rideshares on weekends and they seemed to really enjoy doing it, but they also liked driving, so what did they know?
It wasn’t good money. In fact, it was pretty bad money if it was your only source of income. Her friends who drove on weekends had plenty of money coming in from their families. They mostly just used the extra money to buy booze and weed. Ashlee actually needed the money. Her family had never been rich but they had been mildly well off before she went to college. After her dad died, money got a lot tighter. She almost considered not going to school, but her mother wouldn’t accept that.
“You have to go, Ashlee. It’s been your dream for years. I won’t let you give that up. Don’t worry about the money at all. We’ll figure it out, I promise.”
Ashlee was thankful for her mother’s positive outlook on the situation, but there was no way they’d get by on her paycheck alone. Ashlee had to start pitching in as well. She drove every night. She was too busy to drive during the day. She usually started driving around 9:00, which meant most of her clients who were on their way to some kind of fun event that involved heavy drinking. The first few hours of driving weren’t so bad. It was when midnight started to roll around that the job started getting underneath her skin. After midnight, the rowdy, obnoxious nature of each client was inevitable. Ashlee may have had experience with driving drunk partiers home, but she was still a quiet, meek person who mostly kept to herself. She was the kind of driver who said hello to her clients but didn’t say much else unless they asked. When loud, unruly clients entered her car, she counted down the seconds until she reached her destination, and they could finally get out of her car. Once 3:00 AM rolled around though, she logged out, went straight home, and collapsed into bed.
She had been working the contract job for a few months now, and the experience had changed her outlook on driving. She didn’t mind it so much anymore. She actually found it kind of relaxing, especially on slow nights when she didn’t pick up many clients. It wasn’t good for her bank account, but she loved driving aimlessly around the city, waiting for a job to come in, especially in the late hours of the night and the early morning hours.
A light rain had started to trickle down onto the city in the last hour of the night. Her dashboard clock read 2:00 AM now. The green LED light was starting to blend together with the golden lights of street lamps. Likewise, the red stop lights were mixing with all those colors as they refracted through the water, smeared across her windshield by the old wipers, desperately in need of replacing. Her head felt woozy and her eyelids kept trying to close without her permission. The coffee sitting in her driver-side cup holder was only helping so much. She would probably have to call it a night soon. She had an exam tomorrow afternoon, and she needed to wake up with enough time for her to cram in a few extra hours of studying. She was about to log out of the app when her phone dinged and the screen lit up.
“You have a new ride request!” the screen exclaimed. She opened up her phone to find the details. Bradley H. was requesting a ride from downtown up to a Hyde Park neighborhood. There was a small profile picture in the center of the screen. Bradley had an intensely square jaw and wrap-around sunglasses that hid his eyes. Ashlee hated to judge from just one profile picture, but Bradley seemed like the kind of person she tried to avoid generally. His picture screamed “Trust fund kid with too much disposable income”. The ride seemed relatively short though, and — even more appealing — the drop off address was close to her apartment. She shrugged her shoulders, pressed “Accept” in the app and headed in the direction her GPS told her to go.
Bradley was standing on a street corner with a woman in a slinky white dress, that clashed against her pitch black hair that fell down to her waist when Ashlee pulled up to the curb. He wasn’t wearing the sunglasses from his profile picture, but she recognized the jawline and the short blonde hair. Her suspicions about his personality were solidified once she saw him in person.
The woman was taller than him by a whole head. Her long, stick-like arms were draped around Bradley’s shoulders. He gazed up at her as a child would to a mother while she looked down with a warm, matriarchal smile. Her spidery hand reached over to brush the short, yellow hair on the top of his head. They were so entranced with each other that they hardly noticed the increasing rain pouring down on them, or Ashlee rolling down her window and calling out Bradley’s name. After the third attempt, she finally broke their concentration enough to get their attention. Without a word, they climbed into the passenger seat of the car, the strange woman’s arms still wrapped around Bradley H.’s waist.
Most clients liked to say hello when they got into the car at least, but not Bradley and his friend. Bradley gave a quick head nod to Ashlee and muttered “let’s hit it” before plopping down on the leather seat, the woman lightly placing herself beside him. Annoyed, but thankful this was the last trip of the night, Ashlee pulled away from the curb and started heading up to Hyde Park.
As soon as the trip started, the couple in the backseat were all over each other. Ashlee kept her eyes on the road but heard the shifting and the squeaking of the seats coming from behind. At first, she didn’t think anything of it. The material in her seats was loud and even the slightest movement could cause squeaking. It was only after the squeaking continued that she started to grow concerned. In all the months she had been driving, she had never encountered a ride where clients would start to get “handsy” with each other in her own back seat. She had a couple of friends who had encountered this situation, but so far she’d been lucky.
“Tonight’s the night that luck runs out I guess,” she thought to herself as she internally slapped herself for deciding to give Bradley a ride. That asshole and his creepy girlfriend could have walked back to his place for all Ashlee cared. After the squeaking, she heard the sounds of heavy petting. The woman whispered something in Bradley’s ear and he let out a deep, goofy chuckle, then came the sounds of kissing. They were long, deep, and wet. It sounded like they were sticking their tongues all the way down each others’ throats from how it sounded to Ashlee, biting her tongue, and feeling an anxious cold sweat coming on.
Ashlee glanced into the rearview mirror and caught a glimpse of the couple sucking face. She was already bad with confrontation, and this particular incident would involve her having to divide her attention between her rowdy new guests and the road ahead of her. She checked her GPS and comforted herself with the thought that she was only twenty minutes away from her destination. She could probably get them out of the car before anything too messy started. A minute later, Ashlee started hearing:
“Oh god. Shit yes. Oh, fuck, that feels good.”
“You’ve gotta be shitting me,” Ashlee thought to herself. She looked up into her rearview mirror again and saw that the woman had moved on from kissing Bradley’s lips and was now sucking on his neck. Bradley had his head lifted up and arched backward, a silly look of ecstasy plastered across his face. They moved their bodies together like they were in a dance they’d been rehearsing for months. Ashlee broke out in a cold sweat, anger and embarrassment sloshing around in her head and getting all mixed up.
A loud car horn blared from behind and dispersed the angry haze clouding Ashlee’s mind. She had sat through half of a blinking red light and the car behind her had grown impatient. She floored it, slightly disrupting the activity in the back, but not apologizing for it. Not long after they continued the drive, everything started back up again, the kissing noises, Bradley’s grunts of pleasure, and then, something new: a complaint.
“Ow! What the fuck?!” Bradley exclaimed, sounding more surprised than angry. Ashlee looked in the rearview mirror again but couldn’t make out much. Bradley had his hand to his neck. The woman was moving back in and shushing him, bringing a spidery finger to his lips. Ashlee brought her eyes back to the road, just barely making a correct turn that the GPS was instructing her to make. Then came the sound of something tearing. Ashlee heard a loud snap. Another red light. She slammed on the brakes and the car skidded to a halt. She swung around to face the backseat.
“Hey, what the fuck’s going-” Ashlee had started to yell, it was the angriest she’d been in a long time, but she didn’t even get to finish. What she saw took her breath away.
The woman had crawled up onto the seat and was crouched like an animal over Bradley, who was slumped against the seat, his head rolling back against the cushion. His neck was ripped open and there was blood all over his button-up shirt. The woman turned her head, the black hair swinging around her face as she did so, looking like an animal caught in headlights. Her eyes had turned as red as the blood that was all over her mouth and hands. The fingers of the hands had also grown, as well as the nails attached to them, which were now long and sharp, like claws.
“Turn around!” growled the strange woman. The sound of her voice was human, but it was layered over something deep, gravelly, and bone-chilling. The sound of the voice made Ashlee lose any courage she’d previously built up. She obeyed the command of the creature. She sat at the light until it turned green.
“Keep driving,” said the creature, the humanity in its voice completely gone now. Ashlee pressed the gas and kept driving down the road. “Just keep driving” the creature whimpered. Its voice was tired, maybe even a little bit sad, Ashlee thought. The sounds of something being eaten continued from the back seat. Ashlee tried to keep her shaking hands steady as the noises crept into her ears. Crunching, squishing, breaking, chomping all slithered around her mind, and Ashlee could not stop herself from imagining Bradley H. being slowly devoured limb by limb, organ by organ, by the creature in the back seat. They were only five minutes away from the drop-off destination when the sounds finally stopped, replaced by heavy breathing.
“You can pull over here,” said the creature, quietly, gently. The urgency in the voice was gone, but it was still frightening nonetheless. Ashlee glanced over to a parking lot for a community baseball field and recreation center.
“Here?” she asked, not sure if this was what the creature wanted or not.
“Yes” came the short reply from the backseat. Ashlee obeyed and turned into the lot, parking the car underneath a single bright streetlight.
There was silence in the car for what felt like an eternity to Ashlee, trying to regulate her breathing and keep herself from hyperventilating. The edges of her vision were beginning to blur. She wondered if she would faint. She noticed she was wringing her hands against the steering wheel like she was choking it out. Her eyes were drawn to the rearview and she jumped in fright. The only thing she could see in the mirror were those red eyes from whatever it was in her backseat staring back at her.
“Thanks,” said the creature, matter-of-factly as if this was the most normal drive Ashlee had ever taken. Ashlee’s lip quivered. She didn’t respond with words. She just dumbly nodded her head up and down and tore her eyes away from the red pupils, staring out the windshield of the car. A stray cat wandered across the parking lot and into the beam of Ashlee’s headlights. It stopped in its tracks and looked toward the car, hissed, then hopped back into the shadows.
Something shifted in the corner of Ashlee’s eyes. She turned to see the creature’s long, bony arm reaching through the gap between the driver and passenger seat of the car, its hand balled up in a fist, the claws slowly starting to retract, although they were still covered in blood. The fist released itself and two wadded up hundred dollar bills, spattered in blood, fell into the cup holder, and started slowly expanding as they lay there.
“I’m sorry about the mess,” said the creature, “I cleaned it up as best I could.” Ashlee just nodded again. Her eyes were watering, and a tear slid down her cheek. “If it makes you feel any better, that guy was a real prick. I’ll spare you the details, but just know he had it coming.” Another nod from Ashlee in response.
Ashlee could feel the creature linger awkwardly for a moment, then the sound of the back door opening, the creature slinking out, and the door slamming behind her could be heard. Ashlee noticed the creature in her side view mirror. She had returned to her human form but the blood still ran all the way down her ripped white dress that blew gently in the night wind.
Ashlee finally worked up the courage to check the backseat, expecting to see nothing but a picked clean skeleton surrounded in a halo of stained blood all over her seat. There was nothing there, like she had never picked up Bradley or the woman at all. She checked her side view mirror again. The woman was gone. She rubbed her eyes and her head swam. She reached down and grabbed the hundred dollar bills. She almost expected them to disappear, or to wake up before she could touch them, but they were undeniably real.
She grumbled under her breath, logged herself out of the app, put the car back in drive, and slowly drove back to her apartment.
She hardly recognized the small studio anymore. It was a small, cramped space, mostly filled with shelves of books and records. A few posters hung on the wall, a photograph of her with her parents sitting next to the nightstand where her mattress without a bed frame sat in the corner. When she had left the apartment earlier that evening, she had been a completely different person. The moment she had shut her door behind her before she left for her shift seemed like ages ago. She had lived a lifetime. The trials and troubles of her former life were nothing but hollow shells she could dust off her shoulder now. She was no longer a struggling student with mounting debt. She was an accessory to cannibalistic murder, which, if the creature she had given a ride was to be believed, was for the benefit of everyone.
She walked straight to her bed and collapsed onto it, throwing everything from her pockets onto the nightstand. She wrapped herself tightly in the blankets, trying her hardest to disappear into them. She was exhausted, but her brain was swimming at a breakneck speed. She peeked out from the covers and her gaze fell upon the nightstand, where the two bloody bills were lying next to her wallet and keys, the eyes of Benjamin Franklin staring out at her from behind crimson curtains as they continued to unfold from their crumpled mess. She would not get any sleep that night, although she would try her damnedest.