Charlie sat on the old, worn seat of the public bus, staring passively out the window. A steady drizzle of rain fell from a gray, apathetic sky, pattering on the pane of glass.
Just another depressing morning in London, she thought.
She stretched and looked ahead, past the mixture of adult and child passengers lucky enough to share her route to her school today. The early-morning traffic stretched ahead endlessly, like a slowly unraveling ball of yarn. The cars suddenly moved forward, but only by a meter or so.
Her bus rolled forward, too, and Charlie noticed that they’d reached the center of the London Bridge. If she closed her eyes, she could picture the cold, uninviting waters of the Thames River ten meters below.
Her eyelids parted, and she reached into her pocket, retrieving her cell phone. She knew that her friend and classmate, Ross, was in another bus further along the road, maybe still on the bridge. He might know what’s going on with the traffic today.
She selected Ross’s number from her contacts and pressed CALL. The phone rang twice before someone answered. Instead of a voice, however, a strange, garbled noise filled the receiver.
“Ross?” Charlie asked.
She frowned, listening intently. It almost sounded like . . . no, it did sound like water. Water hurriedly filling lungs, surrounded by splashing and a panicked, gurgling scream. Realization struck Charlie: Someone was drowning.
“Ross, are you okay?” Charlie yelled, and the other bus passengers turned to look at her.
Over the phone, glass broke, but the sound was distorted, as if the pane were completely below water. Suddenly, the screaming and struggling stopped, and she heard nothing but muffled silence.
“Charlie . . .”
A new voice, distant and ethereal, as if a faint breeze composed the words.
“Join us . . . join us . . .”
The phone fell silent as the call disconnected.
A middle-aged man wearing a suit and sporting a ponytail leaned over from across the aisle. “Is everything okay, miss?”
Her cell phone slipped from her nerveless fingers and dropped into her lap. “I think my friend is in trouble.”
“What happened–” he began to ask, but a low rumble along the bridge interrupted him.
Charlie looked around. “What was that?”
“I don’t know,” the man answered, frowning. “I’ll check the news.”
He retrieved his smartphone and unlocked it, typing on the screen. His frown deepened, and he turned his back to Charlie, holding his phone up to the window. “How can I have no service in the middle of bloody London?”
Movement behind Charlie caught her eye, and she glanced out the window on her side of the bus. Along the idling cars, apparently unseen by everyone but Charlie, shuffled a thin man in a suit and tie. He kept his head down, and long, black hair tumbled into his face, obscuring Charlie’s view of it. Both the hair and the clothing were disheveled and dark, as if the man had just gone swimming. The sunlight glinted off a smooth, silver wedding band on his finger.
Suddenly, the figure paused, his head turning slightly toward Charlie’s window.
Charlie gasped and pulled away from the glass, feeling the blood drain from her face. “Did you see that?”
The ponytailed man turned away from his phone, looking over his shoulder at her. “See what?”
Charlie’s voice trembled. “There’s someone out on the bridge. He’s looking at us.”
Leaning against his seat, the ponytailed man peered through Charlie’s windows. “Where?”
“Right th–” Charlie turned to point, but the figure on the bridge was gone. “Oh.”
Without saying another word, the ponytailed man turned back toward his own window, muttering profanities at his phone as he tried to connect to the internet.
The bridge rumbled again, louder this time, and concerned murmurs swept along the bus.
Sighing, Charlie looked at her lap, where her phone had dropped. She reached down and lifted it in her palm, preparing to call Ross again. As her gaze lifted upwards once more, though, she saw that the figure from the bridge had reappeared, and was now peering into her window. Through wet strands of hair, Charlie saw nothing but a white skull.
Charlie screamed, scrambling out of her seat and collapsing in the aisle, her phone clattering across the floor. The surrounding passengers, however, seemed unperturbed by her outburst.
And the skeleton man was gone once more.
Hands shaking, Charlie reached for her phone, noting that it now sported a cracked screen. Redialing Ross’s number, Charlie held her breath as she placed the phone to her ear. It rang once, then answered to the eerie, distorted, underwater silence. Every few seconds, she heard a displacement, as if a bubble of air were passing by on the other end.
“Join us, Charlie . . . Join us . . .” the ethereal voice whispered in her ear again. “Join us . . . Below the water!”
Charlie felt moisture against her cheek, and pulled the phone away from her face. Water leaked from the crack in the screen, spraying forcefully onto Charlie’s clothes. She gasped, dropping the device for the third time. This time, the glass shattered completely, and a fountain of water rose from within the phone, covering the floor, seats and windows.
“Help!” Charlie yelled, looking around.
The bus was empty.
Where the passengers once sat, their clothes laid crumpled and wet against the seats.
Behind her, Charlie heard the ponytailed man mumble, and she slowly turned to face him. He was hunched over, his back still to her, his clothes wet and disheveled, his hair now undone.
“S– sir?” Charlie stuttered, putting a hand on his shoulder. Her eyes drifted to his hand, where a smooth, silver wedding band rested.
The man swiveled to face her, a white skull peering through his wet, black hair.
“Join us, Charlie . . .” the skeleton said, its jaw barely moving. “Join . . .”
Water erupted from its mouth, reducing the rest of its words to meaningless gurgles.
The bridge rumbled a third time, and Charlie staggered to her feet, spinning in a circle. She realized the water was filling the bus fast, already sloshing up to her shins. Taking a step toward the exit, then another, she tried to understand her surroundings, to formulate her escape plan.
A thin, bony hand grabbed her leg before she could take a third step, though.
Charlie jumped, glancing over her shoulder to see the skeleton attached to her, the pile of bones rising to its feet and ambulating in her direction. She screamed, kicking at it, and pulled away from its grip, wading through the waters toward the bus’s exit.
“We miss you, Charlie,” the skeleton wheezed, stumbling after her. “Come join us.”
Charlie reached the front of the bus, pulling at the door release. It wouldn’t budge.
“Don’t fight us, Charlie.”
The water rose up to her waist now, and she rushed to the door, pounding on it. “Help!”
Through the fogging glass, she saw a mass of empty cars, water leaking from their windows.
Something bumped against Charlie’s waist, and she squeaked, jumping. Turning around, she realized the ponytailed man’s phone had found its way over to her, managing to stay afloat. Charlie snatched up the device and quickly dialed 999, pressing it to her ear.
“999 operator, what is the nature of your emergency?” a young woman’s voice answered.
“Help!” Charlie cried into the phone. The water was past her shoulders, and she had to hold her breath to float to the top of the bus.
“Where are you?” the operator demanded. “State your position.”
Beneath the water, Charlie saw the skeleton floating closer. Behind him swam three new shapes, each one long, black and serpentine. “I’m–”
The skeleton grabbed her ankle, dragging her below the water’s surface. She lashed out again, the heel of her shoe colliding with the creature’s forehead. Its skull ripped away from its shoulders, floating upwards, while the rest of the bones collapsed, drifting away. Behind the skeleton, the three black shapes swam closer, though Charlie still couldn’t see them clearly.
With a mighty upward push, Charlie’s head broke the surface of the water, and she sputtered into the phone. “OVER THE THAMES! I’M OVER THE THAMES!”
The operator remained silent for a moment before responding, her voice distant and ethereal. “Are you sure about that, Charlie?”
Growling in frustration, Charlie hurled the phone, which plopped into the water halfway across the bus. A flash of red caught her eye, and she glanced up at the emergency escape hatch embedded in the roof of the bus. Reaching up, she grasped the lever, pulling it, and shifted her grip, using her momentum to throw the hatch open.
The three black shapes below the water circled her feet now.
Gripping the edges of the bus roof, Charlie hoisted herself upwards, careful not to let her hands slip on the wet metal. As she lifted out of the water and on top of the vehicle, she heard one of the shapes chase her, snapping in the air like a bear trap closing around its prey. Pressurized air tickled her leg, but she remained unharmed, slamming the hatch closed.
Crawling to her feet, Charlie balanced atop the bus roof, looking across the London Bridge. She saw a sea of cars, but more than that, she saw a literal sea, water pouring from the doors and windows of a hundred empty vehicles. The rain fell harder now, adding to the sea, and even through the bus, Charlie felt the bridge reach a continuous rumble.
She hurried to the front of the bus, sliding down the slanted windshield and landing on the hood. As she wiggled off the vehicle, her feet colliding with asphalt, gravity shifted, and she landed face-first in knee-high water. Fluid filled her nostrils, and she rose on her hands and knees, coughing and sputtering.
Gravity shifted again, and she felt herself being pulled through the water, an invisible force drawing her closer to the edge of the bridge. She cried out, digging her fingers into the road, but she could find no leverage, no traction; her body flowed backwards against her will. Within seconds, she found herself pressed against the metal railing which solely separated her from a ten-meter drop into the Thames River.
On the bridge, the vehicles began to succumb to the gravity shift, skidding sideways across the road in Charlie’s direction. She struggled back to her feet, panic causing her heart to palpitate as she saw the dozen or so cars and buses slowly sliding along a water-lined path to crush her. Looking behind her, she saw nothing between her and the river but empty air.
She had to do it. She had to jump.
Legs shaking, Charlie vaulted over the railing, plummeting downward. The moment she went airborne, a green light flashed around her, and the world went silent for a split-second. When her vision cleared, the London Bridge had been reduced to rubble, chunks of metal and glass and concrete screaming down into the river.
Charlie felt her stomach flip as she soared straight down, trying her best to avoid being struck by the pieces of the bridge or the vehicles which were once perched upon it. The heaviest bits of rubble had already reached the river’s surface, generating tremendous columns of water as they splashed into the abyss. As the wind ripped past her body, watering her eyes and pulling back her hair, she spied three black, serpentine shapes in the Thames, circling the spot she was soon to land.
Taking a long, deep breath, Charlie closed her eyes as she struck the water.
Her body collided with the river with a loud, forceful slap, jolting her so suddenly that she might as well have landed on concrete. Water shoved itself up her nostrils, gagging her, and she coughed, releasing a bubble of air. Dull thuds exploded around her as more of the London Bridge joined her, and she opened her eyes to avoid running into the rubble.
Three black, faceless alligators, hardly an arm’s length away, stared back.
Charlie screamed, expelling more valuable air, and tried to swim away, but the closest alligator darted forward, gently biting down on her leg. She felt pressure, but no pain, as if its carrot-length teeth were made of hard rubber rather than sharp bone. The three alligators turned around, Charlie helplessly in tow, and dragged her further into the Thames, dodging the sinking debris. The filtered sunlight of the depressing London morning gave way to something darker, and Charlie struggled to hold in her breath as the water rushed past her skin.
Within seconds, they’d located the public bus Charlie had just escaped, and the alligator holding her leg pulled her back to the escape hatch, releasing her. She instantly tried to swim back to the surface, but it quickly grabbed her again, jerking her back to the escape hatch. This time, the other two alligators pushed their noses against her, stuffing her through the hole and into the bus. The moment she cleared the hatch, it snapped closed behind her, sealing her in the water-filled vehicle as it continued to sink into inky blackness.
Suddenly, the windows around her flickered, like television screens. Pieces of the London Bridge floating by vanished, replaced with moments that Charlie recognized.
She saw herself as a small baby, giggling and splashing around in a bathtub. Her innocent grin infected her parents, who hovered over her.
Then she was six years old, taking swimming lessons at the public pool. Her nostrils flared as she took a breath, surfacing the chlorinated water.
Then she was nine years old, stepping across the stones of a creek with Ross. Her foot slipped on a mossy rock, and she fell back, soaking her pants and the bottom half of her t-shirt. Both children laughed exaggeratedly, as only little kids do.
Then she was thirteen, kissing her first girlfriend in the rain. Their soaked hair hung down in front of each other’s faces.
See, the ethereal voice returned, echoing around her, the water remembers you. It remembers you, it misses you, and now it wants you back. So, join us . . . join us below the water . . .
The screens flickered one more, this time revealing the bottom of the Thames River. Metal and glass and concrete struck the riverbed around her, but she no longer cared. She knew where she was, when she was: the exact time and place of the end of her life. Something had gone wrong, though, making her late to her own death.
No matter. She’d arrived regardless. So, she drifted back into her chair, leaning her head on the window, allowing herself to be lulled to sleep by the peaceful calm under the Thames.
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