It’s the same old story. Take a chance and pick up a hitchhiker. But only after midnight and only when you need some company. Of course, the hitchhiker will disappear. That’s the way the story goes, right? But this time you are the hitchhiker. And there’s a tunnel up ahead.
You know how the story goes. One night, you pick up a hitchhiker on a country road. A young lady. It’s always a lady. This lady, she’s paler than the moonlight and doesn’t talk a lot. You see, there’s something about her that stops you from making your move, even though you’re single and she’s pretty. Instead you ask if she’s all right.
“No,” she says. “I’m sorry, but I’m not all right at all. Something very bad is going to happen. Something terrible.”
You ask her what and she says she’s cold. So cold. A single drop of blood is dripping from her nose.
You’ve got to admit at this stage you’re wondering what on earth possessed you to pick up a hitchhiker in the dead of night. We all know this is going to end badly for at least one or both parties. Abortion. Divorce. An autopsy. But you don’t want to be a jerk like that. This lady, she might need help, and it’s you she ran into.
You wriggle your coat off—such a gentleman you are. You offer it to her. After she’s put it on she leans in and kisses you on the cheek. It’s a kiss as cursory as it is unexpected, and the immediate impression it leaves is how cold her lips are.
When you look again, she’s gone.
You know how the story goes.
Next day, there’s a strange phone call. They found your coat. The man on the line says he traced you through the membership card for the gym in the inner pocket. And you, you’re just relieved you’re not crazy after all. You’re relieved it was probably just a blackout and the only thing you can’t remember is where or when you let the lady with the nosebleed out. “We both must have forgotten,” you say, after you tell him what happened. “The coat. She really didn’t need to leave it for me. Some folks have a good heart.”
There’s a long silence. Then the guy, you hear him say, “Some hearts are bitch’n black.” The man on the phone is a caretaker at a graveyard. Not far from where you passed last night. This is the third time he’s found a coat, he says. A month ago, it was a scarf.
And he always finds them on the grave of the young lady who was found a year earlier, naked and dead in a ditch along the road. Hooked a ride with a black heart.
This story has been told a million times. The deets differ, but it’s always the same: A nocturnal hitchhiker mysteriously vanishes from a moving vehicle. Often with a piece of clothing taken and later found draped around a gravestone. In another version, the hitchhiker foretells seven years of deficiency before she vanishes. Look it up on Wikipedia. Urban legends, modern myths, they’re always the same.
I don’t believe in urban legends. Definitely not in ghost stories. That’s why I waited so long to tell mine. Tell you the truth, I tried to forget. But I can’t. At night, when I wake up alone, the memory cuts like a razor. And each time I remember, it seems worse, more sinister. I lie wide awake and cannot seem to move. I’m telling myself I won’t be thinking about it anymore in the morning. But the nights are long and pitch black.
Then, last night, the tables turned. There was this story on NewsOnline that told me I cannot way around it any longer. Someone had shared it on Reddit, otherwise I’d probably never have seen it.
So I’m telling it now, and like all urban legends, I’m telling it as a warning.
I can’t say jack about picking up hitchhikers, as I’m not a driver like the person in the story. I don’t even have my license. But wherever you are, do not try and get a ride after midnight.
Stay away from tunnels.
And beware of the Tall Lady.
There’s no good story as to why I ended up hitchhiking that night. Nothing to grant what happened some sort of poetic justice. You’ll have to cut me some slack here. I’d gone out in town, had drunk a shitload of beer, and skipped my ride home because I had my eyes set on this really pretty girl. I’d say smoking hot, but I don’t want to come across as out-and-out superficial.
I’m from Croatia, and the town in question is Opatija, a worn-out party town on the Adriatic Sea. This happened some Saturday night last March, at least two months before the tourist fuckfest. We locals still owned the pubs and nightclubs. All the girls seemed pretty that night, with crystal faces shimmering in the dim light, but my pet project had an irregular quality. An expression of melancholy that provided her with a flawed yet highly attractive beauty.
This girl, her name was Tamara. In Croatian, the rhythm is like Pamela. She came from one of the towns in the hills. I circled her all night, trying to grab her in an eye-lock. Yet her calm self-assurance and the hint of mockery on her lips instantly downsized me to a schoolboy. While I felt the Ožujsko crawling to my head, she was drinking biska, seemingly without getting drunk. I imagined her lips tasted like alcohol and mistletoe. That and her navel piercing when she was dancing and her top crawled up a tat, and I was a million sparkles exploding in my stomach. So by the time my ride home told me he was ready to leave, I took a considered gamble and said I wasn’t planning to sleep in my own bed that night. My face all Romeo bedroom smirk, I deliberately passed on the opportunity to get home.
You probably guessed it from the get-go: I crashed and burned. When we finally left the pub she rose to her toes and kissed me on the cheek. I figured I’d sway my arms around her and press our bodies close. But before I could, Tamara freed herself and lifted the hood of her bright red coat with the tips of two fingers. “I had a wonderful night,” she said, putting it over her head. Covering that hint of mockery around her lips in shadows. “I’ll send you a WhatsApp message.”
She turned around and off she went, her coat fluttering around her ankles like a cloak. And me, there I was. Watching my good luck walk away. Bewildered so much that I remembered we never gave out digits first when she was out of sight.
Smiling, I walked uphill, away from the town center. I didn’t know where I was headed. I had no money for a hostel. I appreciated the fresh air, but after a while it began to feel frigid, not fresh or crisp. My hands were numb and I slid them into my pockets. I watched my breath vaporize in alcohol-scented clouds that should instead have blown a little bit of soul in Tamara’s lungs. Such a waste. Loaded up, I was probably capable of walking all the way home—that is, until I’d sober up at wee a.m. out in the williwags, realizing I had a problem. I’d be trapped. I wasn’t dressed for the occasion and would suffer the consequences. Like, severe hypothermic consequences. Pneumonia. Paradoxical undressing. Now wouldn’t that be ironic. Anyway, it’d be sunrise before I’d make it to Istria. Before me awaited the long traffic tunnel underneath the Učka mountain.
I felt foolish for getting so far away from town. It was quiet. Quieter than expected. A little unsettling. So when I heard a car, I put out my thumb. It was an impulse. It’s a universal gesture and I’d never used it before, and it surprised me a little that it immediately did the trick. The car stopped. I was drunk enough not to hesitate when I got in.
The driver, this guy, he was a student from Jušići who had treated himself to a night out. Just like I had. He gave a low whistle when I told him where I was heading and took me to the Euro Petrol at the A8 turnoff. “It shouldn’t be too hard to hook a ride here,” he said. “A ride underneath Učka.”
I said thanks and raised my hand when he took off. I wondered if he too had hoped for something bigger that night.
The gas station was closed. I climbed up the entry ramp and reached the traffic lights. Here, beneath the halo of a streetlamp (I turned my collar to the cold and damp, right), I figured my odds were best. My phone said it was one-o-seven. Every now and then, a car rushed by in either direction. Pushing my shadow ahead in quarter-circles like a runaway sweep–second hand. Time flies when you’re having zero luck hitching a ride. As it did, there were fewer cars and the stretches in between grew longer. Sometimes the A8 was quiet for minutes at a time. I’d listen to the wind or search for a glow on the horizon. On the ramp, no living soul had passed.
My breathing seemed loud, because it was so quiet. I felt misplaced. Like I didn’t belong here. Like I was a brand-new swing set in the yard of a burned-down farmhouse. It had textbook creepiness written all over it. I wiggled my hands in my pockets, jogged up and down the road divider, couldn’t keep warm. Couldn’t ditch that sense of unease, too. Suddenly I understood why: I wasn’t alone at all. There was somebody close. Across the motorway. Just outside the yellow light of the street lamp. It was a terrible feeling. This had never happened to me before. Something irrational like that. For a second or two it felt as if someone was standing right there on the rocky shoulder. Very close. Watching me. It was very real and very frightening. My heart was pounding. I was sweating heavily, despite the cold.
The sound of a car snapped me out of my dread. It came up the ramp, blinding me with its headlights, and here’s me, forgetting to wave my thumb. Fuckwit. The car rolled past me and stopped in the lane to Istria. The traffic light automatically turned green. Only when the window rolled down and a hand waved languidly did I realize the driver was waiting for me.
Quickly, I ran around the back of the car. A Toyota Prius in Blue Crush Metallic. License plate from Rijeka. That alone, I don’t know why it didn’t flash any alarms in my head. It should have, of course, considering what everybody had read in the papers. Considering the photograph everybody had seen. Maybe it was because the yellow streetlight changes that kind of clear blue. Yellow light has a sickening quality. Ever noticed that? It can tap the life out of a color until nothing remains but an indefinable and unwholesome complexion. The waving hand I had seen had been indefinable in that light as well. Unwholesome. Too late, I realized that its gesture could have meant literally anything. Be welcome, I’ll take you where you need to go. But also: I see you now. You’ll never be fully unseen anymore, even when I’m not there.
I opened the car door and said, “Gee, thanks, I thought I’d never get a ride.”
Only a few seconds elapsed before I bent down to get inside the car, but in those few seconds I saw an image that for some reason is imprinted in my memory. There was a lady behind the wheel. This lady, I couldn’t see her face. It was hidden by the Prius’s roof. I could see everything below her face. Pale hands holding a black leather steering wheel. A coat so thick her body seemed to disappear in its folds. I don’t know why I remember this image so vividly. There was something completely run-of-the-mill about it and yet it seemed wrong in all sorts of ways.
Maybe it’s because I remember so few of her facial features. None, actually. Since the night this happened, my mind has constantly been on overload trying to picture exactly what this lady looked like. Whether she was old or young. The weird thing is that I cannot answer those questions. Weird, as the next thing, I sat down in the shotgun seat and could clearly see her. But no matter how hard I try to recap, the only thing I can say for sure is that she looked drained and bleak, with her breath visibly rising around her face. It was as cold inside the car as outside. The heater wasn’t on. That I noticed right away.
She gave me a quick glance. Didn’t shake hands, though. I wanted to reach out mine, but changed my mind. What’s common when someone offers you a ride? Is there such a thing as hitchhiker’s etiquette? Not to be rude, I repeated, “Thanks, for real. I appreciate you stoppin’.”
“I do not like driving alone at night,” said my driver. The silence she dropped was too long. So long that I felt obliged to fill it in. But then she added, as an afterthought: “Especially when it rains.”
“Well, at least it isn’t raining,” I said. It was a stupid thing to say. I knew that, but I was caught off guard. “I take it there are no streetlights higher up the road. Must get pretty dark out there.”
“Yes, very dark. I can hear the rain before it falls.”
The traffic light had switched back to red. We were waiting for nobody.
“It’s a hearing disorder. I hear a buzzing in my ears. First I thought it was just from earwax, but it’s not. It’s as if there’s a steady rain in the back of my head. It’s not very nice. Not very nice at all.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. And added, because I didn’t know what else to say, “Must be a pain to drive alone with that.”
“I drive alone every night. I was going to see Udur. Where you going?”
“Me? To Vranja.”
I was hearing myself say this. Not having any control over it. Vranja was directly on the other side of the Učka car tunnel, you see. I didn’t want the lady to know I was going all the way to Pazin, more than thirty kilometers beyond. That seemed very important. The less she knew about me, the better off I would be.
“Vranja. That sounds familiar. Udur must’ve been there, I think. I was going to see Udur.”
“Cool,” I said. Trying to keep my voice casual. Not succeeding. “Who’s Udur?”
And another long silence. I didn’t think the lady would answer me. But she did, right as the light switched to green and she piloted the Prius onto the motorway. “Udur,” she said, “Udur is not a good man.”
I didn’t know how to process that information. Or why she had said it to me. It made me feel uncomfortable. Perhaps I could tell her maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to see Udur, if he was a bad man. What kind of name was Udur anyway? But I didn’t. I didn’t feel it was my place to poke my nose in her business. Plus she hadn’t said he was a bad man. She’d said Udur is not a good man. There’s a crucial difference.
The lady was fixated on the road ahead, pale-faced in the dashboard glare. I turned away, rolled my head against the window. Our speed was blurring the outside. The details of the peninsula were black. The Adriatic Sea an empty abyss. A lifeless dark chewing up the world around us. My seat cushion wasn’t comfy at all, giving me that quicksand sense as I sank in it. I moved my legs, but it was too cold to relax. I tried to focus on the glass vibrating against my forehead. It was strangely hypnotic. Like a brain massage.
I shouldn’t be here. At all.
“You really don’t mind the cold, do you?” I said, rubbing my hands to emphasize my words.
“The problem with Udur is that he lets things fall apart,” the lady said. Me, I was weighing the likelihood that she’d deliberately ignored what I’d said. “Udur had a dog. A sheepdog. But not anymore. If you look at him now you’d never think he had a dog.”
We were driving fast.
“What happened to it?”
“In the end it was very old. One eye was all milky from a cataract. We had to put it down.”
“Aww,” I said. “Such a loss when you need to put your dog to sleep.”
The lady didn’t look at me as she was speaking. “They’re a real handful and expensive to keep. Especially a sheepdog. Udur is not a dog man.”
Dog man, is what she said. Not dog person. I should probably have known better, but curiosity got the upper hand. “Did he get sick or somethin’? The dog, I mean.”
“At that time, Udur had the baby. It’s not easy, you see, especially at night. The nights were worst. Sometimes it didn’t stop raining all night, and we could hear the baby cry in the barn. Anyway, Udur hadn’t checked on the dog for a few days. We’d left it on a leash. We used to just toss the meat in the pig trough, but the dog hadn’t touched it for days. When Udur finally went into the barn he said it was just lying there. The barn was old and there was a big hole in the roof. Even though the rain came pouring in and made the dog all muddy and wet, it wouldn’t move. Udur said the dog wasn’t looking well. Not well at all. Said it was staring back at him with one good eye, smelling all sweet and acrid. So he thought he better get it rinsed and inside. It was a big dog, a sheepdog, but still Udur wanted to try and lift it up. I told him, you shouldn’t. But he did anyway. When he turned it around, he found its belly was open and swarming with larvae. They were everywhere, roving the stains in its fur and the wet spots in its flesh and up and down its silly limbs like some flood of living disease. The dog was being eaten alive. From the inside out. And we never would have known if Udur hadn’t gone and checked on it. If it hadn’t been for the baby, crying.”
These words, this lady, that’s exactly what she said.
“I think it got infected with something. Began to rot. Udur tried to suture the hole back together but it didn’t work. In the end he had to hit it in the head with a hammer until it was dead. To put the dog out of its misery, give it peace. It was a most merciful thing to do.”
But I found nothing merciful or peaceful in the image the lady had cooked up. Besides, we’d been picking up speed all along as we were talking. I don’t think the lady realized how fast we were going. This was plain irresponsible on a two-lane road. It was too curvy. Too dark.
I tried to sneak a peek at my driver obliquely, didn’t want to show I was gaping up at her. She was tall. Very tall. Why hadn’t I noticed before? She seemed too tall to fit comfortably behind the wheel, but her posture was straight up. There was nothing sexy or attractive about her length. It unsettled me.
I noticed I was sweating again. Despite the cold. Maybe because of the cold. “It’s cool if you just let me out here, ma’am,” I heard myself say. But my voice sounded frail, the words swirling away from me. I wasn’t sure whether I had actually said them out loud.
“Sometimes, my head is filled with buzzing,” said the lady. “It just doesn’t stop. I’ll never get used to it. It’s like there are voices in the rain. At least that’s what Udur says, but I know it’s not voices. It’s wasps.”
A car was coming. I tried to see the driver, but in the dark it was hard to make out anything. When it swooshed by, the blast of air shook the Prius and we swayed left and right.
“Wasps,” she repeated. “I know because I’ve seen them. There’s a wasp in the center of the universe that’s bigger than all others. It crawls from star to star and when it finds you it stings. Its sting paralyzes you. You’re awake, but you cannot move. Like sleep paralysis, are you familiar with that? You feel it crawling all over you. Sometimes it crawls inside through the holes in your body, and you cannot stop it. It’s very frightening. I can feel it crawling on the inside of my skull right now. It’s laying eggs. In a while, its larvae will feed on me, too.”
Okay, that was it. I needed out. Now. I didn’t care that I’d be out on some shit road in the dark, alone, in the middle of fucked-up nowhere. I’d walk all the way back into town if I had to. As long as I could get away. Away from this lady. Something was terribly wrong. I didn’t want to look at her anymore. But I had to. I couldn’t move. I was paralyzed.
Her fingers groping the steering wheel. Slithering over its black leather cover. I suddenly realized that we’d been on cruise control all along. These fingers. Pushing a button. Again. On the display, digits switching from 102 to 108 and me hearing the motor accelerate. But that was not what was most alarming. There was something wrong with these fingers. They were not longer than before, but still, they looked like they were. Long and curved. Cold-cold blue. Almost dripping. And I noticed the tips had no nails. What had happened to her nails?
For a second, I thought I heard something move behind me. I froze. Suddenly I knew I wasn’t mistaken. It was not in my head. I heard a baby cry. At the sound, it felt like my scalp began to crawl over my skull. With a jolt, I turned to look where it was coming from. It was hard to distinguish anything on the rear bench in the dark, but behind the shotgun seat I could vaguely make out the shape of a strapped-in portable cradle. I hadn’t noticed it before. Something in it was moving. I couldn’t see what.
“Something very bad is going to happen,” whispered the lady. I couldn’t believe how tall she was! I bounced back in my seat, squirmed away, my back against the car door. Terror filled me. Absolute terror. The lady, she was much too tall to fit inside the Prius, and yet she was sitting next to me, like an optical delusion. I think that’s when I knew. There’s something very similar to a living, healthy lady behind the wheel, but altogether different at the same time. It’s the equivalent of every ghost story you’d ever heard. For the first time since I’d entered the car, the lady looked at me again. Blood was dripping from her nose. “And I do feel the cold,” she whispered. “It’s always cold here. So cold.”
“Let me out,” I said, my voice raw and hoarse. “Please, let me out of the car.”
We turned the last curve and in the distance, I saw the mouth of the Učka Tunnel. The motorway suddenly lit. A yellow, sickening glare. The mouth of the tunnel a dark hole in the mountain. Coming closer lightning-fast.
The light. It revealed everything. The dead lady behind the steering wheel. The paralyzed, hollow expression on her face. Her hands, so long that they reached all the way from the back of the driver’s seat to the steering wheel. Arms bent in all-impossible angles from her body. Again, she accelerated. We veered to the left. The lady sent the Prius into the opposite lane.
“I was going to see Udur,” she said. “Now I’m stuck in the dark. You will see Udur too.”
These words, the motor roaring, the baby crying: a top-three of things I’ll never forget.
When I looked again, she was gone.
You know how the story goes.
The driver’s seat was empty. As if the lady had never been there. And the Prius was on a dazzling high-speed collision course with the concrete pillar left of the tunnel mouth.
It was a reflex. This was me. This was my second chance. That I lived to tell the tale was a twist of pure luck. Or maybe it was basic instinct. Fuck if I know. What I do know is it’s not common sense that saves you from certain disaster. It’s something much more primitive taking over. I remember yanking the wheel around. Missing the pillar by an inch. The car swayed into the tunnel, leaving twin smoking tracks of burned rubber. Inside, I was tumbling over the center console and caught by the safety belt, hearing a whiz-bang noise as the air escaped my lungs like a ripping bullet. The first thing I saw as my head popped up was the concrete slab on the right of the two-lane blacktop, dead-on in my headlights. I cranked the wheel back. The car bumping, joggling, onto the curb. Screeching metal. Sparks flaring up the dark like shooting stars. Another jolt, and I had the wheel in both my hands. Midway between catching fire and losing a door, the car bounced back onto the road. But we just kept on going, blazing deeper into the dark with unabated velocity. For a few seconds, there was a twitching, pile-driving sense of claustrophobia. A voice calling in my ears: I was going to see Udur. Now I’m stuck in the dark.
Cruise control. Of course. How did you turn the fucking thing off? This too was a lucky reflex: reaching down, I pulled on the handbrake. Not having my license, I didn’t expect the counterpressure. It startled me, forcing me to let go. Now I understand that my lack of experience probably prevented the Prius from jackknifing or flipping over. Instead, I added pressure bit by bit. The Prius immediately slowed down. With a few jolts, the engine stalled and the car came to a stop.
Almost a minute went by before I could even move. The sudden silence was full of echoes. What had just happened? Incredulously, I realized that there had just been a point-blank assault on my life. The real possibility of a sudden death shocked me more than the vision of the impossible. It was the appalled disbelief of a swimmer being attacked by a bull shark: something like that only happened to others. Not me. This dead person I’d been alone with, she had wanted to drag me into her darkness. Forget subtlety. I had to get out of here. Right now. What if she came back?
The baby! I looked around. There was no cradle. No baby.
But it had been there.
I threw open the door and stumbled out of the car. It was unpleasantly cold inside the Učka Tunnel. It smelled of exhaust and crankcase oil. And something else. Something stale. I couldn’t identify what it was. Skittishly, I wheeled around. Wary of any sound, anything that moved. I took a few quick steps away from the car. The echoes of my footsteps making it seem as if I were being stalked by a regiment of ghosts. Beyond the intermittent puddles of bleak, yellow light I saw the entrance of the tunnel arching in the distance. The Prius had blasted inside for at least three hundred meters before it had come to a halt.
I didn’t move. The image of the blue Toyota Prius on the yellow center line brought home the photograph I should have remembered much, much earlier. The photograph that had dominated all the local papers and news sites. Last November. Suddenly, all the pieces fell into place.
It had been a similar car. Of course it had. A Toyota Prius in Blue Crush Metallic. Only this car, it was a wreck. It was smoking twisted metal with a cutting-edge dynamic tail chassis for athletic look and improved fuel efficiency sticking out. Doing at least one hundred ten, it had crashed into the side pillar of the Učka Tunnel mouth. The driver must have dozed off at exactly the time one didn’t want to. On board, two dead passengers: a student from Rijeka and an unknown baby. That was the first weird thing about the accident. This baby couldn’t be identified. No one was missing one. The gossip was that it was a family-tragedy suicide, the driver being the troubled mother. But that couldn’t be confirmed. That was the second weird thing: the driver’s body hadn’t been found. Only the baby and the student. The crushed remains of the latter had been strapped to the shotgun seat. Forensic investigation had ruled out the option that he could have been driving the car. But who could? And where was the body? Logic says there had to be a body. I’ve seen the photo. Everyone had. A human body cannot survive a blow like that.
Listening to the ticking of the engine, I tried to recall the facts. I remembered a desperate appeal to witnesses to come forward. If any did, they didn’t clear up the mystery. A few days after the accident, the Nova List had reported that the police were still in the dark about the origin of the Prius and the identity of its driver. It had struck me as strange. Why hadn’t the license registration shed any light? How come no CCTV footage from gas stations or highway cams surfaced with video of the blue Prius? There were simply no leads at all. Not even from the student’s mourning family. His being in that ill-fated car seemed a horrible coincidence. The student must have been hitchhiking. Hooked a ride with a black heart.
And here I was, staring at the Prius inside the tunnel, thinking there’s no such thing as a coincidence, and I didn’t have any doubts as to what had happened that night.
I needed to talk to somebody. Somebody alive. And I had to get out of the tunnel. There was something wrong with the air here. It had been standing still for too long. Outside, there’d be fresh air. And there was a long, long walk’s worth of fresh air ahead. It goes without saying I wouldn’t be flagging anybody down to catch a ride once I got out.
And yet I couldn’t put myself in motion. I was staring deeper down the tunnel where it banked away in a slow curve, beyond the reach of the headlights. There was something there. Something singing.
There was a baby crying.
The sound came crawling closer from afar. Echoing. Filling the tunnel. The terrible thing about it was that it had a basic human quality, but absolutely wasn’t.
My eyes were tearing up. I didn’t dare to blink. As if I could trap the thing coming closer in my vision. My feet were smarter than my brain and began to carry me backward. They had a will of their own. They saved my life.
What came closer, from the deep dark of the tunnel, was not human. It was her. The lady from the car. The Tall Lady. If ever there was a name for her, why not start calling her what she was? This lady, she filled the entire tunnel. So tall she was that she had to walk with her head bent forward. She spread her arms. Her no-nail fingers, pale and bare, scraping over the concrete walls on both sides of the motorway. Pulling grotesque shadows. She was singing. No, she was buzzing. Like a wasp.
I was in her dark. And she was still looking for company.
I remember I ran. I had never run so fast before. Jumping from light pool to light pool, chased by a terrible legion of echoes. Crossing the darkness in between as if I were flying. The light pools wouldn’t keep me safe. I had to reach the end of the tunnel before she could reach me.
Then I heard her. Right behind me. Her buzzing was filling my brain. And footsteps. Slow footsteps. When you have legs of such length, you don’t need to walk fast to move quickly.
Once, I looked back. The moment I did, all the synapses inside my cerebral cortex instantly stopped firing. I don’t remember what I saw. For real. This is not some sorry excuse not to talk about it. I feel it’s there, somewhere deep inside, but I can’t reach it. I’m grateful for it. When I try to think back on it, I see my vision is shimmering. I see something yellow crawling nearer over the tunnel’s ceiling. Something arthropodal? It’s probably imagination.
Suddenly I was out in the open. I didn’t stop running. I didn’t even look back. I just kept on going. My terror replaced by a sense of euphoria. Cool, fresh air swirling through my lungs. The very idea that I could run with the forest and mountains in my lungs, and even taste a hint of the sea, sent waves of energy through my body. Only after hundreds and hundreds of meters did I bend over, due to the stings drilling my gut.
The road behind me was empty. The mouth of the tunnel was dark. For a second or two I thought I could still hear a buzzing. A faraway cry from a baby. But it didn’t take long for me to figure it was a mere echo in my mind. It was quiet, underneath Mount Učka.
I would have given anything to sleep in my own crib that night. The next morning, I’d wake up and assume it had all been a bad dream. But then I would have to go back inside the tunnel.
Whether you end up having the money for a hostel is just a matter of priorities.
Five months later, I returned to the Učka Tunnel for the first time. It was on a sunny afternoon in August, but once you’re underground that doesn’t buy you anything. I tasted metal in my mouth as the bus entered the hollowed-out dark. I kept telling myself there was nothing foul inside the tunnel. It was just a motorway. Nothing else. Hundreds of thousands of cars had passed since that night. Avoiding Učka was just me feeding into my own fear. They say when you fall off a horse, you need to climb back on right away. I didn’t.
The morning after the incident I called my dad and he picked me up in Opatija. Told him I had a severe migraine and had spent the night in a hostel. When my dad slowed down for the A8 turnoff, I asked if he could take the mountain road instead. Said I needed the fresh air. The whole way across Učka I wondered if deep down inside the tunnel, the blue Prius was still waiting. Did they drag it away? Or had it simply not been there? Afterwards, I spent the whole spring and summer in Istria. Trying to convince myself it had just conveniently worked out that way. Coming back was a loaded impulse. I think I wanted to see if there was anything there.
There was nothing there. As I had expected.
Still, I don’t sleep well without my prescrip Zinodin since last March. Sometimes I wake up at night seeing that concrete pillar coming right for me, in that yellow, sickening light. Or I hear a voice whisper: Now I’m stuck in the dark. And I admit there have been times I imagined seeing her. The lady from the car. The problem is I can’t always tell for sure if it’s imagination. One time I saw her in the parking lot behind the sound studio where I’m doing swing shifts. It edges onto woodlands. She was standing at the tree line. She didn’t move and was looking my way. Too far for me to see her face. I can never see her face. I mean, I haven’t seen her often. Only a few times. But I hate when it happens. She doesn’t do anything. She’s just standing there. Watching me. Why is she there?
I tried to relate the whole thing in the tunnel to my imagination. What else could I do? There was nothing to verify. Nothing to account for. This isn’t what a therapist will tell you to do, but I started reading obsessively about last November’s accident and, after a while, I started believing I had been doing so even before the incident. I reached a point where I realized how destructive my behavior was. I had to let go. If you can’t grasp a certain something, it’s better to forget. That doesn’t leave room for doubt.
But each time I try, I see the student’s face before me. The student from Rijeka. Igor Rendić was his name. His picture was in the Nova List. He’s a friendly-looking guy. Thin-framed glasses, his black ponytail whipping behind him like some miracle visitation, he wears traces of a smile around his lips. I feel there’s a connection between us. He could have been me. I could have been him.
What did she tell him, during the last moments of his life? Did she put that hand with these pale, nailless fingers on his thigh, right before they crashed into the concrete?
About two weeks ago, I saw the lady again. She was standing at the foot of my bed without saying anything, for what felt like ages. Her bent arms reaching below her knees. When you wake up and cannot move due to sleep paralysis, such abstractions can seem very real.
So that’s my ghost story. You know how these stories go. I’m afraid there’s no such thing as a symbolic implication or satisfactory payoff. It is what it is. Like all urban legends, it counts as a warning. Except this is not an urban legend. It may look like it, but up close things are very different. Like a dog on a leash in a barn can seem perfectly all right at first, but upon close inspection is nothing but a deflating heap of flesh being eaten alive.
I’m going to post this online in a minute. If you’re reading these words, chances are you’re like me. You don’t believe in ghost stories. Chances are also you’re not from Croatia. Even when your subconscious leaves room for doubt—and let’s be honest, it does—you think you’re double safe.
That’s where you’re wrong.
Knowing how these stories go, you’d assume a ghost is loyal to the place she died. The question is: Who says it happened here?
Last night I stumbled upon this story on Reddit. There was a link to an article on NewsOnline, about a deadly car crash that happened the night before at the Weston Hills Tunnel in Hertfordshire. Just north of London. The car had lost a one-on-one with the concrete center column at the entrance. This article, it reported that the driver was catapulted through the windshield and killed instantly. He’d been the only victim. No details were provided about his identity.
I clicked on the photo. Zoomed in. Becoming inconveniently aware of my heartbeat thump-thump-thumping behind my temples. It was impossible there was a connection. And still. The car in the picture was a blue Toyota Prius. Blue Crush Metallic.
I didn’t see it. Not right away, at least. I was too absorbed by my gunfire heartbeat. There was a large, circular hole on the left side of the windshield. It looked like a hole in an ice-covered lake, through which a skater had disappeared. Around it, a spider’s web. And there I am, scrolling down the comments on Reddit. Looking at the picture again.
In Britain, the wheel was on the other side. It would have been physically impossible for the driver to be thrown out the windshield on the left side, and leave a hole like that. Dude must have been sitting in the shotgun seat. That’s what the fuss was about on Reddit.
And that’s not all. I was up all night. Digging. Doing my own private detective shit. I had trouble keeping my hands from trembling. Clicking links, each time half-expecting to see her. A grainy image. A dash-cam pic. But I had to be sure. Collect evidence.
Over the last six months alone, similar fatal accidents have happened in the Belchentunnel in Switzerland, two in the Lefortovo underpass in Moscow, and at the Pontianak Tunnel on the E8 Expressway in Malaysia. What they have in common is that they all happened after midnight. It’s always a blue Toyota Prius. And it’s always unclear who was behind the wheel. The authorities in Malaysia are the only ones admitting the driver’s missing. As are the parents of the baby who happened to be on board, for that matter. In Switzerland and Russia, certain facts seem to have been deliberately withheld, despite public outcry.
None of these cases have been solved. But the victims are always hitchhikers.
That’s why I repeat: Do not hitch a ride after midnight.
Stay away from tunnels.
And beware of the Tall Lady.
You know how the story goes: The dead have highways. The dead travel fast. This lady, she’s always looking for company. She doesn’t like to drive alone at night, you see. She can hear the rain inside her head. It sounds a bit like the buzzing of a wasp.
On such nights, you know where she’s heading.
To Udur. In the dark.
Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Art copyright © 2018 by Samuel Araya