The lights flickered, and the windows rattled in their frames. The patrons went on about their business as if it were nothing out of the ordinary.
“What the fuck is wrong with you people?!” Stein shouted and turned around and around, glancing up at the ceiling as motes of plaster drifted lazily in the air. The woman eating the sandwich paused, her eyes meeting his for the remotest of seconds before diving back into her grotesque meal.
“What is this place?!”
The jukebox yanked the needle across the record sharply and everything just stopped.
The plaster particles hung motionless, the woman froze with sandwich in mouth, teeth clamped viciously around the macabre meat filling. The barista was caught in a blink, like someone snapped a picture with flash.
Outside the window: lights. Pale lights, drifting over the barren landscape, drawing closer. Dancing and entwining, only to split apart. They materialized at the drive to pull in as another one of those goddamn cars. Like the one he came in. Like—
Stein jumped at the abrupt voice behind him. Slowly, he cranked his neck to the side. Licked his lips. Tasted glass. Tiny bits of glass and realized his hands were covered in blood.
“That's right, now you're getting it.”
A man in front of him now. Priest's cassock, buttoned high on his neck. A black thatch of hair above sharp dark eyes. He carried a rosary, but the cross was missing. Stein crunched slivers of glass embedded in his tongue.
“What is this?”
The man smiled, and his teeth were sharp barracuda points. “It has many names, but in your time and place I believe the term is Purgatory.”
“How did I get here?” Stein asked, spitting out blood.
“I can restore the illusion if you like,” the man said. His gaze dropped to Stein's shoes. “You're getting it all over the nice, clean floor that Margaret here worked so hard to clean.”
“You're dead, Stein. Passed. Gone. Wormdirt, although I'd say what's left of you would fit in a matchbox at those speeds.”
“The car? I died in the car?”
“The car brought you here Stein,” he said with a flash in his dark eyes.
“Not hell, Purgatory. Consider it a waiting room for dead souls. Well, many waiting rooms. Places. The Styx leads to all of those.”
“You telling me,” Stein said, choking on the blood before spitting on the floor, “that the Styx is fucking real?”
The man raised an eyebrow and Stein sucked in a breath. The blood disappeared. The diner vanished, and they were standing in the middle of the highway. The one he’d come in on.
“Call me Roger,” the man offered and extended an arm to the darkness surrounding them on all sides. “This is the Styx. Not a river as many have been led to believe, but the conduit to every land beyond.”
Lights glowed on the red-lined horizon as if the sun had just set. They peeped as twin headlights, approaching at a breakneck speed. Roger just stood there with a smile of approval, his hands clasped behind his back. His shoes were absolutely immaculate. Stein swallowed.
“Isobel,” Roger whispered and the car drew closer without signs of slowing.
“It's going to hit us,” Stein said and stepped back but Roger snagged his wrist with a grip hot as a branding iron.
“Relax, Stein. She works for us.”
The car closed the distance between them in a blink of an eye. Five hundred yards. Three hundred, and a slight scuff as the brakes dug into the discs. The black car he'd paid an exorbitant price for sat in front of him, high beams staring him straight in the face.
“Isobel,” Stein said in the same whisper.
“Just one of many, although the odds of seeing more than a handful are extremely rare.”
Stein approached the car, shielding his face from the waves of heat radiating off the hood.
“She does get hot,” Roger said apologetically, his thin lips betraying his amusement. “Something to do with the speed.”
“I paid for this car,” Stein said, as if to convince himself.
“Oh yes. You did. Quite the price tag for a transport.”
“Isobel is of the Styx. And now, she is yours.”
“Cars don't have genders,” Stein said, creeping around to the rear end of the car. “Or minds of their own. This one... Isobel tried to kill me.”
Roger sighed and followed behind Stein, stopping to open the door. Stein flinched as if something was going to leap out of the driver's seat and shred his face off. Nothing came out. He craned his neck to see inside without getting closer.
Inside were the same icy-blue dials. Chrome accents. That smell again. Not unpleasant this time either. Black. The interior was black, and lit from above at the same time.
“What's the smell?” He asked, inching closer.
“Soul residue, or in your case, human skin.”
“What!” Any progress Stein'd made in getting closer was negated as he stumbled backwards.
“From a very, very long time ago, Stein, and you've already been in it. It's been against your own skin, and now it has your blood in it as well.”
A flash of light revealed the aftermath of the accident, with blood dripping off the lip of the driver's seat onto the tidy midnight carpeting. Another flash removed the grisly evidence.
“It's all a matter of perspective here, Stein.”
“Why am I here,” Stein said hoarsely, “Why are you showing me this fucked up shit?”
“You are here because you belong here, and I have a job for you.” Roger said and shoved the door to shut again. “But that is to be determined, since up until now you refuse to believe anything you've seen. I'll take you back to the diner now.”
“No!” Stein dropped to his knees, clutching at the strange man's garments. Something coiled beneath the scratchy wool and he fell back, tears threatening his eyes. “I just want to go home,” he said, his voice breaking like glass.
“I told you Stein. You are home.” Roger said. Stein was shrouded in absolute darkness.