Tonight, he appears in my backseat, asking for a ride to a town that no longer exists…

Chapter One: The Wrong Turn

The night was exceptionally thick with fog as I drove down the narrow highway, the beams of my headlights struggling to slice through the swirling mist. It had been a long day at the office, and the rhythmic sweep of the wipers against the drizzle was lulling me into a daze. I was eager to get home, kick off my shoes, and collapse into bed.

The road was supposed to be familiar—a straight shot back to my small town where everyone knew each other’s middle names. But somehow, everything looked different tonight. Streetlights were few and far between, casting long, wavering shadows that played tricks on my tired eyes. I squinted at the GPS, which flickered and lost signal more often than it guided.

I must have missed my turn, I realized with a sigh. When I saw an old wooden sign pointing towards a detour through «Mercer Bridge,» I figured it might cut through to the main road on the other side of the river. Without much thought, I turned onto the narrow, unpaved path leading up to the bridge.

Mercer Bridge had its fair share of ghost stories, ones I’d always scoffed at. Legends of a hitchhiker who’d appear on foggy nights, asking for a ride to a town that no longer existed. I never believed them. Yet, as the outline of the old suspension bridge loomed through the fog, a chill crept down my spine.

The bridge creaked ominously under the weight of my car. The wooden planks were slick with moisture, and I gripped the steering wheel tighter, my knuckles whitening. Halfway across, a figure suddenly materialized in my rearview mirror, sitting silently in the backseat. I nearly jumped out of my skin, swerving slightly as I caught my breath.

«Sorry to startle you,» the figure spoke, his voice calm and eerily out of place. I glanced in the mirror again. He looked to be in his late twenties, dressed in an old-fashioned pea coat, his pale face partly obscured by a dark fedora.

«Who are you? How did you get in my car?» My voice was more of a demand than a question, my heart racing against the cool cadence of his.

«I just need a ride to Hartley. It’s not far,» he replied, pointing forward as if the road ahead was as clear as day.

«Hartley? Hartley doesn’t exist anymore. It was flooded out years ago when the dam upriver broke.» My words were firm, but confusion and fear knotted in my stomach. How did he even get into my car?

«Yes, that’s where I need to go. To Hartley.» His insistence sent another shiver through me. He spoke as if the town was still there, waiting for him.

«You need to get out. Now.» I was stern, but my voice quivered slightly. This had to be some sort of prank, I told myself.

«Please, I can’t leave until I get to Hartley. I have something important to do there.» His eyes met mine in the mirror, reflecting a sorrow that was almost tangible.

Despite the terror clawing at my mind, a strange curiosity tugged at me. Who was this man, and why was he so desperate to get to a drowned town? The fog outside seemed to press in closer, muffling the world into silence except for our breathing.

«Alright,» I said finally, the word catching in my throat. «I’ll take you to Hartley.»

As we drove off the bridge, the road twisted into shapes I didn’t recognize. The GPS was dead, my phone had no signal, and the only guidance I had was the ghostly passenger in my backseat, directing me towards a town swallowed by the river, on a night cloaked in fog and mystery.

Chapter Two: The Road to Hartley

The road twisted like a serpent through the dense fog, the car’s headlights barely piercing the opaque white. Beside me, my uninvited passenger sat silently, his gaze fixed ahead as if he could see through the impenetrable mist. I tried to keep my nerves steady, focusing on the broken asphalt under the tires, but my mind was racing.

«Are you sure this is the right way?» I asked, breaking the silence. My voice sounded small and uncertain even to my own ears.

«Yes,» he replied simply. «Just keep driving.»

Minutes stretched into what felt like hours. Trees loomed over us like specters from the roadside, their branches scratching against the car as if trying to whisper secrets. I jumped when the radio suddenly crackled to life, static filling the cabin with a low hiss.

«Can you turn that off?» I snapped, more harshly than I intended.

He reached forward and switched off the radio without a word. The silence that followed was suffocating.

As we rounded a sharp bend, headlights flashed suddenly through the fog, heading straight towards us. I swerved, heart hammering, as the other vehicle—a battered old pickup—screeched past, missing us by inches. My breaths came quick and shallow as I fought to regain control of the car.

«Watch out!» he shouted suddenly.

I slammed on the brakes just in time to see a figure dart across the road, disappearing into the trees on the other side. I was panting now, my hands shaking on the wheel.

«Who was that?» I demanded, trying to peer through the darkness beyond the road.

«Keep going,» he urged, his voice tight. «We’re close now.»

I pressed the accelerator reluctantly, my eyes straining in the darkness. The sense of dread was growing, a gnawing feeling in my gut that something was terribly wrong.

Without warning, the fog began to thin, revealing the ghostly outlines of a town emerging from the darkness. Buildings, half-submerged in water, loomed like tombstones. The road turned into a gravel path that snaked through the drowned town, the eerie silence enveloping us completely.

«This is Hartley?» I murmured, more to myself than to him.

«Yes,» he whispered, his voice filled with an unspoken pain.

We stopped in front of what remained of an old church, its steeple tilting dangerously to one side. He opened the car door and stepped out into the ankle-deep water, his figure reflected in the dark surface like a specter.

«Wait!» I called out, scrambling out of the car. «What are you doing?»

He didn’t answer, walking towards the church with determined steps. I followed hesitantly, my shoes soaking through as I stepped into the cold water. The air was thick with the smell of mold and decay.

Inside the church, the pews were overturned, and old hymn books lay scattered across the floor, their pages swollen with moisture. He knelt by a spot near the altar, his hands digging through the wet debris until he pulled out a small, rusted tin box.

«What is that?» I asked, my voice echoing slightly in the hollow space.

«A promise I made,» he said, clutching the box tightly. «A promise to bring it back here.»

Suddenly, the ground shook violently, sending us sprawling. I heard a deep rumbling as water began to rise rapidly around us.

«We need to leave! Now!» I shouted, pulling him up.

We ran back to the car, the ground trembling with each step. As we drove away from Hartley, the rearview mirror showed the town disappearing once again into the fog, swallowed by the river as if it had never existed.

Back on the main road, the fog had cleared, and the night sky was a blanket of stars. He opened the tin box slowly, revealing a faded photograph of a young woman and a small, intricately carved wooden figure.

«Thank you,» he said, his voice barely above a whisper. «I couldn’t rest until she was remembered.»

As he spoke, his form began to fade, like mist in the morning sun, until nothing was left but the photograph and the wooden figure on the seat beside me. The reality of the night hit me like a cold wave. Hartley, the hitchhiker, the promise—all woven into a story that felt as real as the lingering chill in my bones.

Chapter Three: Echoes of Hartley

The remnants of that night clung to me as I drove away from where Hartley once thrived. The wooden figure and the old photograph lay beside me, their presence a constant reminder of the surreal encounter. My mind reeled, struggling to process the events—how could a ghost from a sunken town find rest through me? But there was no time to ponder; the road had more secrets to reveal.

As the first light of dawn tinged the horizon with gray, I noticed another figure standing by the roadside, thumb extended. A hitchhiker, another one, but this time, a young woman with tangled hair and wide, fearful eyes. I slowed down, the memory of last night’s passenger urging caution, yet compelling me to stop.

«You heading into town?» I asked as she climbed into the passenger seat, her clothes damp and her breathing heavy.

«Yes, thank you,» she said, her voice trembling. «I didn’t think anyone would stop.»

Her unease was palpable, setting off a prickling sensation at the back of my neck. «What’s got you out here so early?» I inquired, trying to sound casual.

«I’m running from something,» she whispered, glancing nervously into the rearview mirror as if expecting to see someone following us.

«Running from what?» I pressed, curiosity mingling with a growing sense of unease.

«It’s… it’s hard to explain. It’s like a curse, tied to Hartley,» she said, her voice dropping to a hush. «My grandmother told me stories—about the town, about a figure that wouldn’t rest until it retrieved what was stolen from it.»

The mention of Hartley spiked my adrenaline. «I was just there,» I admitted, watching her reaction closely. Her eyes widened with a mixture of fear and disbelief.

«You’ve been to Hartley? Recently?» She grasped my arm, her grip surprisingly strong. «Did you see him? The hitchhiker?»

«Yes, he left something behind,» I said, nodding towards the photograph and the wooden figure.

She stared at the items, her face draining of color. «We need to go back,» she stated firmly. «We need to put those back in Hartley. It’s the only way to stop the curse.»

I was skeptical. «What curse? What are you talking about?»

She exhaled deeply, her breath fogging the window beside her. «My family… we took something from Hartley long ago. Something important. That figure you have—it needs to be returned to its rightful place to settle the spirits there.»

The road ahead seemed to stretch endlessly, the early morning light casting long shadows that danced across the pavement. The thought of returning to Hartley sent a shiver down my spine, but the urgency in her voice was compelling.

As we approached the turnoff to the old bridge again, the sky darkened ominously, and a thick mist began to roll in from the fields surrounding us. The car headlights flickered momentarily, an echo of last night’s ghostly drive.

«We’re here,» I announced reluctantly as the outline of the bridge materialized through the fog.

We got out of the car, the cold morning air biting at our skin. She took the wooden figure and held it out in front of her as we walked onto the bridge, the planks creaking under our weight.

Suddenly, the air around us chilled further, a whispering wind carrying voices that seemed to murmur from the depths of the river. The water below stirred, swirling into a vortex that seemed to pull at the very air we breathed.

She stepped forward, her voice steady as she spoke into the mist. «We return what was taken. Let the past rest.»

As she placed the figure and the photograph on the center of the bridge, the wind howled louder, the voices crescendoing into a deafening roar. Then, as quickly as it had started, everything stopped. The wind died down, the river calmed, and the fog began to dissipate, revealing the first clear dawn rays.

Breathing heavily, we looked at each other, the weight of generations seemingly lifted in that moment. The curse of Hartley, if that’s what it was, felt broken.

As we walked back to the car, the sun broke fully over the horizon, casting long, golden beams across the road ahead. The journey back to town was quiet, each of us lost in our thoughts, pondering the strange forces of fate and redemption that had brought us together on this haunted road.

Chapter Four: Revelations

The return drive was silent, the early morning sun casting long shadows across the road that seemed to watch us as we passed. The woman—Mara, she had told me—sat quietly, her eyes fixed on the horizon, lost in thoughts that seemed as heavy as the morning mist had been.

We reached the outskirts of my town just as the local diner was opening. The normalcy of the scene, with locals shuffling in for their morning coffee, felt strangely surreal after the night we’d experienced.

“Do you want to stop for breakfast?” I offered, partly because I wasn’t ready to let go of the night’s events just yet, and partly because I sensed Mara wasn’t either.

She nodded, and we slid into a booth at the diner. Over cups of steaming coffee and plates of scrambled eggs, I finally asked the question that had been burning in my mind since we’d left Hartley. “How did you know all this would work?”

Mara sighed, her fingers tracing the rim of her coffee cup. “My grandmother was from Hartley. She was there when the dam broke and always said the town was cursed because something precious was taken. She believed that unless it was returned, the spirits would never rest.”

“But why you? Why are you involved?” I pressed, my curiosity piqued by the personal nature of her story.

She hesitated, then looked up, her eyes meeting mine with a piercing intensity. “Because it was my grandfather who took the figure and the photo from a man he’d met in Hartley, right before the flood. He thought they were valuables, didn’t realize they were sacred.”

I absorbed her words, the pieces of the puzzle slowly fitting together. The hitchhiker, the figure, the photograph—it was all a cycle of return, of correcting past wrongs.

As we finished our breakfast, Mara stood up. “Thank you for helping me do this. I need to go now—there’s more I need to understand about my family’s history.”

I nodded, understanding her need for closure. We walked out of the diner together, the morning light bright and clear. She turned to leave, then paused. “Be careful,” she said quietly. “Sometimes, spirits stir other things awake.”

I watched her go, her words lingering in the air. Shaking off a chill, I drove home, the events of the past twenty-four hours replaying in my mind.

Later that evening, as I sat in my living room trying to return to normalcy, a knock came at my door. It was late, an unusual time for visitors. Cautiously, I opened it to find a man in his seventies, his face lined with age and eyes deep with knowledge.

“May I help you?” I asked, unsure of his intentions.

He looked at me with a seriousness that bordered on urgency. “I believe you were at Hartley recently, with my granddaughter, Mara.”

“Yes,” I replied, my voice cautious. “Is everything okay?”

He nodded slowly. “It’s about the figure and the photograph you returned. You see, they were meant to keep something else at bay, something my wife and I unleashed long ago. Returning them… it might have disturbed it.”

A cold fear gripped me as his words sunk in. “What did you unleash?” I asked, not sure I wanted to hear the answer.

“A guardian,” he said. “It was bound to protect the town and its secrets. Without the figure, it’s no longer bound to the town of Hartley.”

The implications of his words were chilling. “What does that mean?” I managed to ask.

“It means it’s free, and it’s looking for a new home, a new purpose. You might have helped Mara and me, but I fear what we’ve really done is set it loose.”

As he spoke, a shadow passed by the window, too quick to be natural. My heart raced, and the old man’s eyes followed the movement, his expression grim.

“You need to be vigilant,” he warned. “It might seek the one who freed it.”

With that, he turned and left, leaving me staring into the night, wondering if the resolution of one haunted tale had just begun another. The air felt charged, the night no longer just a cover of darkness but a potential hiding place for something far more sinister.

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