This story is by Kathrin Auzinger-Hotzel and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It was the first night of the new year. Frost hung in the air, heavy with icy crystals and glittering whenever a stray twinkle of moonlight drifted through the trees. Misty-eyed, I inhaled, filling my nostrils with the scent of pine and moss. It was a chilly night, but I didn’t freeze. I never froze, not anymore.
Gravel grumbled under my boots as I wandered along the path near the river. I could hear the water call through the dark, clear and beckoning; see the tendrils of mist creep over the side of the bank and reach for me.
“Not yet,” I whispered as if it could understand me and headed for the main road.
Thick fog covered the ground like a blanket, and I felt as if I were wading into another world. An owl hooted in the distance, the echo rustling through the barren branches. I stopped and listened, my head lifted to the treetops, counting the hoots.
Three hoots and all was quiet once more. Only the crunch and rustle under my feet disturbed the silence which had settled over the forest. I dropped my gaze. The fog had risen to my ankles. My heart pounded, drowning out the creaking and cracking of the branches above. I inhaled deeply, shoved my hands in my pockets, and thrust my shoulders up. Out of instinct, I suppose, because the crisp breeze didn’t bother me.
I pressed ahead through the dark of the night, brushing aside offshoots, weaving between trees, ducking below branches, and skirting around undergrowth. Eventually I made it to the main road and began my journey to the next town.
As I wandered along the brittle edge, just outside the white line where the grass fought its way through the asphalt, I heard the muted hum of an engine. I stopped and turned. Disembodied headlights traveled through the night, their glamour dimmed by thick wisps of fog draped across the country road.
Without forethought or worry, I strode onto the pavement and waved at the driver, hoping he or she would see me and stop. Perhaps it was fate or a stroke of luck, but the driver stopped and rolled down the window.
A male voice cut through the silence. “What are you doing out here?”
I put on a winning smile and leaned over, my hands deep in the pockets of my gray winter coat. “My car broke down and my phone is out of battery.” I slipped my right hand out of my pocket and brushed a strand of hair out of my face. “I’m trying to make it to the next town, to Rhein, to call a mechanic.”
Even though he furrowed his eyebrows in confusion, his eyes betrayed his excitement. “I can give you a ride.”
I tilted my head, pondering the offer. I gazed back to the forest, then down the street. The fog had thickened, risen past my knees.
“Thanks,” I said, lingering at the door for a moment before drifting around the car.
A faint click announced he disengaged the locks. I lifted the handle and opened the door, squinting and blinking as my eyes grappled with the sudden burst of light. I slid into the passenger seat, leather sighing as my weight compressed the cushion.
“I’m Tom, by the way.”
His smile was crooked, and there was something unsettling in his eyes. I smiled nonetheless.
“I’m Fey. Thanks for giving me a ride.”
“No problem. Rhein, you said?”
I would have nodded, but his attention was already elsewhere. I shifted uncomfortably as he sized me up, his eyes wandering along my body, lingering ever too long near the gap between my knees before moving on to the upper edge of my zipper. Perhaps this was a bad idea. I inched closer to the door, avoiding direct eye contact while taking in his features.
Tom had a round face with deep-seated eyes. Gray streaks laced his dark hair, which was neatly cropped and styled. Despite his age, he was handsome with his cleft chin and the edgy cheekbones – and he knew it.
As he put the car into gear, the locks snapped shut. I flinched at the sound and shrank further into the seat, gripping the seatbelt for safety.
“What brings you out here? And on New Year’s eve?”
His voice was even, conversational, but I didn’t feel like talking. With gritted teeth I fixed my gaze out the window, down the road, past the shining tunnel cut into the darkness. Swaths of fog oozed across the road, draped across the landscape, floated through the trees.
“Do you have family around here?”
“Sort of.” I shrugged, my face angled away from him, staring out the passenger window.
Betrayed by the reflection on the glass, I glimpsed him lick his lips. Unhurried, I rotated my head until his profile filled my visual space. “May I tell you a story?”
“Sure, why not?” He released his right hand from the steering wheel – a sideways glance, a conspiratorial wink – and reached for my knee. Again, a crooked smirk tugged at his lips, contorting them into a lewd sneer.
I flinched, despite my best efforts to remain composed.
“Have you ever heard of the Erlkönig?” The smile on my face felt stiff. “It’s a bedtime story my mother told me years ago.”
Tom shrugged. “No.” His fingers slid further across my knee, downward toward the soft part of my thigh.
My skin crawled and the hairs on my arms prickled, but I suppressed the urge to slam my knees together and out of his way. Instead, I swallowed, forcing down the bitter bile I felt lingering at the edge of my esophagus.
“The Erlkönig is a story about a father riding through the dark of night, through thick fog hanging across the countryside, with his sick child in his arms. While the father hurries, the Erlkönig and his daughters assail the child, enticing it, cajoling it to come with them, to live with them. Unaware of what’s happening, the father eventually arrives at his destination, only to find his child dead in his arms, his soul stolen by the Erlkönig.”
I glared at his hand, then at his face. “The Erlkönig collects meandering souls, the old, the frail, the sick, the lost, the corrupt, the broken. He rips them from their life and drags them down under, into the water, where they serve him until they have brought him a hundred souls in exchange.”
Retracting his hand from my knee, Tom said, “That’s a pretty ghastly story.”
A glimmer of hope sparked in my heart as I thought, for a moment, Tom had understood my warning and I imagined this trip ending with me getting out of his car in Rhein. But he shattered it immediately, snuffed out hope the minute he veered off the main road and turned right onto a dirt path.
My gaze flicked from his profile to the window and back. Darkness flooded the path behind us as he steered the car deeper into the forest. I bit my lip, my hand on the doorhandle. Fog poured out between the trees, tendrils lapping at the tire tracks pressed into the soil.
It was not too late yet; he could still turn back.
I smiled grimly. Hope was a fickle thing. Even so, I held on to it until he stopped the car, praying Tom would prove me wrong; hoping it was only my fears conjuring up memories from a distant past.
Then Tom unbuckled his seatbelt. I froze – sat there, wide-eyed with my fingers curled around the doorhandle, watching him until panic swooped in. In a sudden frenzy, I yanked at the handle, only to find the door locked.
“Relax,” he said as he leaned over, his cologne slithering up my nostrils.
I gagged, back away, pushed myself further into the seat. Why, I thought, why did I have to endure this?
Fog seeped through the crevices, circling around my body until it enveloped me. A tear ran down my cheek, cold and salty, and I exhaled. I melted away and into mist, my disembodied fingers reaching inside Tom and ripping out his soul.
A look of surprise passed over his face, followed by a gurgling coming from his throat. His lips formed words never to be heard. Tom collapsed across the center console.
Without wasting another minute, I slid out the car, his soul squirming in my hand, ready to return to the Erlkönig. He would be pleased. Another one for his collection, another one off my debt.