When Conner arrived at the gas station, he exited the car with a speed that surprised even him. He took a few quick steps, almost at a run, before turning back towards the car. Under the garish sodium lights of the service station, the little blue sedan was a sickly greenish gray. It looked squat and malign in its stillness. The throbbing headache at the base of his skull seemed to diminish with every step and he began to catch his breath.
He took the phone from his pocket and raised it high into the night sky, waving it from side to side like a semaphore flag. Nothing. The signal meter defied him by remaining empty. Not even a flashing roaming message. Conner scowled at the phone and thrust it back into his pocket.
He glanced around the station, two solitary pumps and a closed convenience market. An isolated island of pale yellow light in the dark of the North Carolina forest. The silhouettes of trees bit into the starry night sky, surrounding him like a ring of teeth. The grating hum of electricity mingled with the crackling of insects from the woods beyond, drifting in the warm summer night air.
Jutting from the side of the shuttered market was a scraped and listing pay phone, its metal stalk visibly bent from some long ago impact. Conner approached it, digging a pair of quarters from his pocket, and gripped the scarred plastic handset. For a moment, nothing happened. The sense of isolation deepened, like the ground being pulled out from under him, and the panic returned. A series of quick clicks bit into his ear and the dial tone chimed. His fingers felt numb as he dialed.
Even at a few hours past midnight, Reynolds answered on the first ring.
“Yes?” Reynolds’ rolling, silky baritone was unmarred by the late hour. “Who is this?”
“S’me. Conner.” He was unable to keep the quaver out of his voice, and he had a sudden urge to look back towards the car, afraid that it might have moved, or left him there all together.
“This isn’t the phone I gave you.” Reynolds’ liquid voice darkened, almost imperceptibly.
“It’s a pay phone. Ain’t got signal out here. Middle of fucking nowhere. Listen Ren, I-”
“Is something the matter, Conner?”
Conner bristled at the mild, calculated condescension in the older man’s tone, and inhaled, measuring his next words with caution.
“Well… Shit. I don’t rightly know, Ren, but I got a real bad feeling about this.”
“Where are you?”
“Service station. Just got off the freeway. Bout to head south through Nantahala.”
“And what is the matter, Conner?”
“Like I said, sir, there’s something fucked up about this one. Didn’t like the guy I picked the car up from, don’t like whatever it is that’s in the fucking trunk. I know this sounds stupid, but it’s giving me a headache. I feel like I can smell it, but I know I can’t. Something just feels rotten about it. I mean rotten, rotten.”
There was a long silence on the other end, and Conner knew that Reynolds was unmoved. Even as Conner said the words, he knew how amateur it sounded.
“Conner,” the old man said at last, “We’ve worked together for a long time. I like you. But you’ve never given a shit about what you deliver. What’s the strangest thing I’ve had you carry?”
“The heart.” Conner answered without hesitation, seeing the white styrofoam cooler steaming with ice, strapped in next to him with a seatbelt, like a child’s car seat.
“Yes. You also once delivered several pounds of heroin. Did you know that at the time?”
“Not ‘till after the fact.”
“Because it’s better that way, isn’t it, Conner,” Reynolds paused, the smooth rhythms of his voice already calming the younger man. “It’s better if you don’t know. The man you picked the car up, in his own way, is as trustworthy and reliable as you are. I understand why you might bristle at him, given his unfortunate looking visage, but he is like you. A trusted contractor, and discreet. I employ you both, for your discretion. Do you understand Conner?”
“Good. I think you understand why I’m offering so much more for this delivery, and why it has to be late at night, and on the backroads. Our client this time has specific instructions, and we’re not getting paid to wonder why. We’re not getting paid to pry.”
“I understand.” It galled Conner, how stupid he’d sounded, how stupid he’d been, panicking, and calling Reynolds late in the night.
“I know you do. And I know this one is odd, son. I do. I hope you believe me when I say that it makes me as uncomfortable as it makes you. I’d do it myself, but no one is as good as you. I’m smart enough to know when to trust the best.”
“Thank you, Ren.”
“No, Conner, thank you. Now, get back on the road. When you drop off the car, the client will have his own men to take care of the package. And then you can sleep, and you won’t have to work for year. All for one night’s drive.”
“Okay. I gotcha.”
“Conner. I trust you wouldn’t, and forgive me if this is insulting, but, don’t open the trunk, alright? It wouldn’t help, the package is locked up anyway. And it needs to stay locked because the client wants it locked.”
“Of course, Ren. Look I’m awful sorry for calling, I guess I just got spooked something fierce.”
“Not at all. That’s what I’m here for. Now, get on the road Conner. And call me when it’s done.”
Reynolds hung up before Conner could reply, and he returned the handset to the cradle.
Keys in hand, Conner returned to the car, driving himself forward even as his newfound confidence waned. The phantom odor, more like a memory of a scent than an actual smell, returned. Something sweet and corrupt. As he turned the key to start the engine, the gentle pain in the back of his head came back, rising slowly. He gritted his teeth, and pulled out of the service station.
The Nantahala National Forest closed around the two lane road, and the darkness swallowed the service station behind him. Conner tried to focus on the destination, the route laid out, the starry sky outside. Anything but the trunk. It worked, for a few minutes.
Conner’s blood coursed with caffeine, and a tiny dose of some high grade speed, just enough to keep him awake, but still, after a half hour on the dark road, his eyes began to flutter. At first, they simply felt dry, and he batted his eyes to wet them. But they began to stay closed longer, seeming to stick at the zenith of each blink. The tires hit the yellow reflectors of the center line, and with a sick jolt of adrenaline, he realized he’d been drifting.
Ahead, the headlights illuminated a hundred yards of road, and picked out reflectors for another hundred. The glowing dots chased out in front of him like tracer bullets, outpacing the lit road, and marking his path into the darkness. They curved upward ahead, signaling a rise in the road before it could be seen.
Conner focused on the reflectors, letting them swim by him like the gentle dripping of water. He watched the phantom line of glowing points dip and rise with the road, and then, with numb disbelief, watched it whip upwards, above his line of sight, twisting skyward. Conner thought absurdly of a sharp upward rise, wondering if the car could take such a steep ascent.
Then the line whipped like a snake, striking across the night sky, and his foot struck the brake with all the force that his terror could muster. The car slid to the right, and he corrected, pulling back onto the road, and jerking to a halt. From the trunk there was a hollow and dull thumping noise, and Conner’s heart surged.
Ahead, the road was perfectly flat, the yellow reflecting lights fixed back in reality. With the car no longer in motion, Conner’s guts sang to him to leave, to flee into the relative safety of the dark woods. His hands clutched the steering wheel, bloodless in their intensity. From the trunk, came another small thud, and Conner’s heart seemed to stop.
He was out of the car before he knew it, the keys rattling in his grip. The fear had become something like a manic curiosity now. If he could simply see the thing in the trunk, he could move on, could start driving, could do another line and stay awake long enough to dump the fucking thing and just sleep.
The trunk opened with greased efficiency. The smell caught him first. It was the phantom smell from before, but now it was cloyingly real, clinging to his nostrils. Putrid meat. Dead dog in the hot summer road, burst belly and cloudy-eyed rot. He gagged, choking on the intensity.
When he blinked the tears from his eyes, he could see what was inside, but could not understand at first. Shiny emergency blankets, silvery on one side and gold on the other, reflecting the trunks meager light, were wrapped loosely around a large, man sized bundle.
Conner’s hands were peeling back the metallic sheets before he had time to think, the drive to know almost painful, even as his mind screamed what he already knew: he was carrying a fucking corpse.
Beneath the first shining layer was an woolen army blanket, sodden in black and oily fluids. The smell was even stronger now. Conner debated, briefly, stopping there, but he reached out, and peeled back the blackened sheet, feeling the wet fluids adhere to his slender fingers.
The corpse was naked to the waist, and horridly disfigured. One arm ended in a shredded stump; an unmistakable bruised and pierced field, a buckshot wound, patterned the grey and sunken chest. The head was cracked open, one hand sized chunk of skull, clotted and matted with thinning gray hair, lying next to it. Black and rotten teeth grimaced through a frozen rictus of pain. One dull, dark eye stared up at him.
Around the neck, was a black leather collar, cinched tight against the mottled grey skin. What looked like metallic wires in delicate filagree curved across the leather, tracing a circuit board like design. At the clasp was a small metal box, where the wires met and joined, encircling a small green LED light that winked rhythmically.
Conner stared at the light, disbelieving for some time. The silent forest surrounded him, and his eyes held fixed on the corpse, the dead hobo with an electric collar in the trunk. He wanted to be angry, he knew he should be terrified, but it simply didn’t make sense, and he could muster no single emotion, despite the hundreds vying for release. The headache pulsed, and it pushed him out of his trance.
He found himself staring off into the woods, a few steps from the car.
He shut the trunk after wrapping up the body and wiping off his hands. He found himself back in the drivers seat, staring ahead at the flat road, his breathing oddly calm. He was tired again, and the nameless dancing fear was far at the periphery.
It was simple now. He had to deliver the car. That was all there was to it.
He sped now, against his own rules and instincts, taking the forested roads with reckless velocity, music cranked loud to hammer him awake. It didn’t work. The drowsy fog seemed to tug harder at him now, and the ticking regularity of tall trees, and the rhythm of the white reflective paint on the road beat out a hypnotic tattoo.
It was a while before he came to realize that the radio was no longer on. There was only the steady lulling white noise of the engine, the hiss of the tires peeling away from the asphalt. And the knocking from the trunk.
A steady beat of impacts. Sharp raps. Fists on metal.
Conner closed his eyes tight, grinding his teeth together. The headache took on a new pitch, a sudden sharpening punctuated by hot white flashes behind his eyes, and a chill spread across his body. He pressed the accelerator as if he could speed himself bodily away from the trunk and its cargo, but he felt it racing with him, pursuing him with a matched intensity.
When he opened his eyes, his heart leapt into his throat. The forest was gone. He was on a four lane highway, but the terrain was foreign to him. He resisted the urge to stop sharp again, tried to quell the hammering in his chest, but he couldn’t settle the panicked animal desperation.
Everything was wrong. Despite the massive road, he was the only driver in either direction. There were no road signs. No mile markers. He’d lost time on long drives before, but he always stayed on course, coming out of the trance precisely where he wanted to be. And he’d never been lost. Conner knew every thoroughfare and backwoods trail for 100 miles in every direction.
But he could not tell where he was. The clock on the dashboard proclaimed that he’d lost mere minutes. He’d been a dozen miles from any road of this size.
It’s not fair, he thought, and then repeated it aloud. His voice was pinched and thin. A child’s protest.
“That’s not possible.”
The unbroken field of blacktop and reflective plastic and paint rolled away beneath him and behind. The trunk was now silent, but still lingered malignant behind him. He grabbed the telephone beside him, and flipped it open. Nothing.
Conner only had one course of action that he could see. Take the first exit, find another service station, reorient, deliver the fucking car. The little thread of hope, woven by as solid a plan as he could muster tugged at him, and he pushed the little blue sedan even harder. Together, driver and passenger hurtled down the road.
He felt a surge of elation, as up ahead, an orange sign broke the monotony of the phantom freeway. It resolved from the gloom as he approached, tall black letters reading ROADWORK AHEAD.
It wasn’t what he’d hoped for, but it was a change, and something to break the impossible blankness of the unknown road.
Ahead, the left lane was blocked off by a sloping line of bright orange traffic cones, pushing Conner one lane over. The line continued, disappearing into the dark. Conner strained to see the lights and hear the sound of construction vehicles, the late night shift adding a fresh layer of tar. Nothing.
The line of cones veered again, blocking of the next lane. Conner merged with it, feeling his hope seep away into the dark. The line moved again, forcing him into the far right lane.
Finally, as he understood it would be before he even saw it, the plastic traffic cones blocked of the last lane, and then the shoulder, one bright orange line, bisecting and blocking any further progress.
Conner slowed, ingrained instincts to obey all rules of the road screaming as they tried to process this logical contradiction. It didn’t take long for him to decide. He knew he didn’t want to be out here, alone, and unmoving, with the thing in the back. The thing that might not be dead. If he was rolling, he was at least getting closer to being done with it all. He gunned the engine, brought the car back up to speed and plowed through the line of cones.
They folded beneath his wheels, tossed high into the air, and illuminated by the red of his rear lights as they bounced off the road into the night.
Everything in Conner’s career had been focused on not drawing attention. He’d not been pulled over since he was caught joyriding at age 11 with a phone book beneath his seat, and a tin can tied to his foot to reach the pedals. He’d made a career of escaping notice, but now he found himself wishing to see flashing blue and reds lights behind him.
He didn’t know how he’d explain driving into a roadwork zone, speeding, or the hideous wreck of flesh in the trunk. He didn’t care. He’d give anything to see another person. If he could just reach Reynolds, hear that calming voice…
Ahead, the four dotted lines of reflective paint vanished. The four lanes evaporated into a featureless plain of smooth black tar. Conner felt empty, beyond shock. Hot tears welled up in his eyes. Without the lines of the road, he suddenly felt he was drifting, veering of the road. Impulsively, he turned sharp to the right. The smooth field of blacktop spread away into the distance of his headlights.
The sound of his own voice shocked him, causing him to leap slightly, and he let his foot of the pedal. The car drifted to a stop. He opened the door, and stepped out onto the black plain. The brittle pain in his head flared as he did, but he knew that if he could just get away from the car, he could think straight.
He picked a direction and began to walk. The night sky was starless, the horizon featureless. He looked behind him, once, seeing the pool of bright light where the car still sat. His head throbbed, and he picked up his pace, jogging now.
The night air was clean and sweet, and although the throbbing in his head still continued, he felt refreshed by the freedom of being on his own two feet.
After what felt like several miles, walking blind across the asphalt field, he began to worry if Reynolds would ever hire him again. A relatively mundane concern, absurd in his current situation, but it hooked him like an anchor.
He was hallucinating, he realized. Although he couldn’t tell where his senses became unreliable, he knew that was the only possible answer. And sooner or later, he would stop. And he’d likely never work as a courier again, would likely have ruined Reynolds’ business with his strange, wealthy client that paid to have the corpses of transients shipped across backwoods roads, but so fucking what? With a dry chuckle he realized that Reynolds would be better off without that sort of client even if the old man didn’t see it that way at first, because who knows what the client would ask of him next? And hell, he’d find work again, even if he had to uproot and find a new backyard to get familiar with, because he was the best goddamn driver there was.
Up ahead, he saw a light, a tiny deviation in the darkness, and he began to run, a smile spreading across his face. As he approached, the skin on the back of his neck seemed prickle, and the icy point of the headache pushed deeper. He knew what he was looking at, but he still couldn’t accept it.
It was the sound that made it real. The engine he heard first, then the other sounds, the chirping ring of his cellphone on the front seat, the bleating of the car’s open door alarm, and then at last, the steady tapping from the trunk.
He didn’t want to look at it, wanted to turn away and run off into the dark forever, rather than confront the car and its evil fucking cargo just a few feet in front of him when it should be miles away.
He picked one errant thought out of the confused and desperate whirlwind of his mind: The phone. It was still ringing. He pressed in closer to the car, feeling its presence like a thick fog, blacker than the darkness around it. It seemed to yield to his incursion, allowing him in to shut off the engine and grab the phone.
He clicked the phone open and pressed it to his ear, trying to ignore the noises from the trunk.
“Hello?” he whispered into receiver.
“Conner.” It was Reynolds’ voice, but something was wrong. The sharp precise diction, the smooth tone, some indefinable quality was gone. “Conner, listen to me.”
“Oh Jesus, Ren, I think I’m in a lot of trouble.”
“Did you unlock the package?”
“Fuck no, sir, but I don’t think that matters.”
“You have to check. As long it’s still locked, nothing else matters.”
“I don’t think I can look in there. I think it’s still alive.”
“Conner. You must.”
Conner felt the heat rising in him again, the paralyzing anger at the absolute bullshit unfairness of it all, and he yowled wordlessly at the sky, before approaching the rear of the car on unsteady legs.
He slid the key in, fingers trembling, and swung the trunk open. The smell hit him, but it had changed, the rot had gave way to some predator musk that put Conner’s hair on end.
The silver blankets were shredded and pushed aside. The thing inside was almost unrecognizable. The shredded arm was now a thin and reedy limb, pink and newborn with too many jointed elbows. The buckshot wound was almost invisible, and Conner watched in horror as one of the remaining holes disgorged a small lead ball before closing up around it.
Both eyes stared out at Conner, one shrunken and glistening, but filled with malevolent light. It grinned, revealing not the black and rotted teeth he’d remembered, but a shark’s razor grin.
Conner found himself on his back, not remembering falling, scuttling feebly away from the car. The headache was suddenly gone, and a confusing flood of stimuli crashed against the beachhead of his senses.
He was still in the woods.
The car was pulled off to the side of the road. In the sudden painless clarity, the broken parts of the last hours fell into place. He remembered opening the trunk that first time seeing the body. He remembered stripping the collar from the corpse, sliding it into his pocket. He remembered wondering why he’d done it even as his fingers closed around it.
He remembered forgetting.
He remembered wondering why he’d found himself staring off into the woods.
He still couldn’t find his footing, could only crawl away from the open trunk. The thing reared upward, silhouetted by the wan light of the trunk’s single bulb. One of the too-long limbs with the impossible joints slid out, a spider emerging from a bathtub drain.
The phone was still in his hand, and he saw, without any real surprise, that it was still searching fruitlessly for a connection. He tossed it away, using his hands to pull himself upright.
It was out now, crouched and waiting. Its dark eyes flickered in the moonlight.
Conner raised himself slowly to unsteady feet. The thing mirrored him, extending to its full and horrid hight, the bloody scraps of pants clinging to its pale frame.
Disgorged of its hideous cargo, the little car now looked like sanctuary, like hope, like freedom. But the thing stood between him and any chance of escape. It leaned in toward him, the shark teeth glistening with spit.
Conner began to laugh, a hopeless and mournful sound, his limbs locking in fear as the thing reached out for him, its spider-legged hands curling around his arms. Its touch was cold, and the knobby fingers felt like the tightening of vices.
The thing laughed with him.
An hour later, he was driving again.
He couldn’t remember getting back in the car, but he could remember the times he tried to stop, to take his foot off the gas. He could remember trying to turn his head, to look into the passenger seat. He remembered the bright popping sound of the pain whenever he tried to do anything it didn’t want him to do. He remembered the warm gush of blood from his nose, from his ears, from his eyes. Blood that still flowed. He could taste it, mingled with his tears.
He stopped trying to resist.
He tried to ignore his peripheral vision, tried not to see the blurry ghost-image of the spidery thing crouched next to him. When it stole his face, melting like hot wax and sliding into a mirrored impression of his features, he looked straight ahead at the road. He winced, failing to shut out the bone-popping sounds as the thing contracted its gracile limbs into stubby approximations of his own.
It started to whisper, its throat constricting and shuddering until it approached the tone and timbre of Conner’s own voice.
It made him talk, reaching into his head with invisible fingers until he spat forth a flood of gibberish syllables. This violation was the worst, the stream of glossolalia making Conner’s innards churn, although he made no attempt to resist. The thing mimicked his voice in sync with him, practicing each vile nonsense phoneme until it was perfect. Then it let him go, and Conner cried in silence.
He drove the same roads he had planned to take, and he had no doubt his end goal was the same. They would deliver the package tonight, and there would be a Conner, of sorts, at the wheel.
He flinched, tried to pull away when hands, his own hands down to the little scars on the knuckles, reached toward him from the passenger seat. The concussive blasts of pain and hot pulses of blood from his ears snapped him back into place.
The electronic collar clicked shut around his neck, sharp metal teeth on the underside biting into his neck, and he heard laughter, his own laughter from two throats. He knew that soon, before they reached their destination, he would stop the car, and they would trade places.
He imagined lying in the trunk, wrapping himself in gore-swaddled blankets, in the musty smell of decay and rot. Imagined the trunk closing, his own face the last thing he’d see.
Alone. In the dark. A prop in someone else’s story.
He wrenched hard, twisting his neck and arms until the cords of muscle stood out like steel cables. The wheel turned, a fraction of a degree – his head turned even less. His passenger hissed, a throaty sound of animal anger that sounded too familiar, and the fireworks behind his eyes started in earnest.
Each shining blast detonated with a gout of blood from his nose. His sodden shirt pressed to his chest, wet red linen clinging to his pallid skin. His mouth filled with a bright-copper tang. His eyes defocused, a film of crimson sliding over his vision.
Still he turned, willing every ounce of his body to twist the wheel and press the pedal. The tires hit the dividing line and a frenetic rhythm shook the car. The passenger’s hiss became a roar, unfamiliar and alien. He turned his head another degree, fighting the force that held him in place. Through a red haze, he saw his own face on the passenger, distorted by a storm of emotions he couldn’t comprehend. But rising to the surface, like fetid oil on seawater, was a froth of pure rage.
Conner drank deep of the anger, and pushed. Stomped on the pedal, twisted the wheel. Harder. Wiggled his toes, fired every neuron, made his face dance a manic jig. Willed his body to fight back. The car slid away from from the dividing line, and into the breakdown lane. Trees slid by the window, hungry black teeth in the night.
A fusillade of crackling starbursts detonated back across the surface of his skull. At some cold remove, he felt the meat in his head rupture, open, and churn. Something popped, audibly, in his sinuses. Blood flooded his mouth and he gagged, choking on ruined flesh. The thing watched him with his own cold eyes.
He spat into his stolen face, exhaling blood and bone fragments in a red geyser, the exertion rending his lungs. The thing in the passenger seat flinched, recoiled. For an instant, the novae of pain ceased, and Conner turned the car as hard as his wreck of a body would allow.
Hands scrabbled at the wheel, two sets of twins, fighting one another, desperate raking grasps for control. Conner’s foot sank to the floor, driving the pedal with it. The car lurched forward, off the road and into the dark mouth of the forest. Twin voices shrieked, one in fury, one in exultation.
The bumper kissed bark. The car folded in on itself, too fast to register a sound. Conner passed through a wall of pain into the cold night air, drifting weightless in a diamond fog of broken glass and sparkling beads of fluid. The passenger, its Conner mask shredded away, tumbled with him.
Conner laughed, his own laugh. Alone.
A churning storm of kinetic violence and fire swallowed the sound.