By Lamont A. Turner
ALDECA studio/ Shutterstock
It might surprise you, but you don’t need a special license to haul corpses, not even a CDL, unless you’re driving something big. There are no courses to take, and there’s no certification to worry about. You just drive to where they send you, load the body into your van, and drop it off wherever they want. I know, it sounds creepy, but there’s a lot of money in it if you’ve got the connections. People will pay you thousands to transport their deceased loved ones from that vacation spot in Orlando back up to Milwaukie, or to bring the guy who had a heart attack on that business trip in Nevada back to New York. When a friend of mine came upon a guy who was selling his business, complete with five refrigerated vans and a long list of clients, he suggested we go in on it together, with him putting up most of the money, and me running the operation. He said the guy claimed he got about four grand for each stiff he hauled across the country, and each van could hold four. Even with things like business insurance and on the road expenses, that sounded like money to me. I was in.
Things went great the first year, even better than I had hoped, but halfway into our second year in business we hit a snag. Our best driver quit, and, no matter how much we offered, we couldn’t seem to find anyone to replace him. I knew somebody would come along eventually, but in the meantime we had a van just sitting there while the business went elsewhere. My partner had other business commitments, so him going out on the road was out of the question. We decided he would take over some of management duties while I made some deliveries.
I’m not squeamish or superstitious, so I didn’t mind the cargo, but I hate driving. Traffic makes me nervous, and even with my new glasses no amount of carrots could help me see much beyond the hood after the sun set. I’m terrible when it comes to deciphering a map, and the GPS on my phone is a puzzle I was never able to fully decipher. There was no way around it, though. I was hitting the road.
For obvious reasons we preferred to travel with a full load, but it didn’t always work out that way. We had a job hauling two cadavers from Shreveport to Bangor, Maine, with nothing in the vicinity to route with it. The funeral parlor that called in the job was a brand new account, and I didn’t want to miss out on future business, so I decided to make the drive myself, full load or not.
The McDougal Funeral Home, where I was to pick up my load, wasn’t your typical sob parlor. For one, it was nestled way back in the woods, far off the main drag where nobody was likely to stumble upon it, and for another, there was no sign identifying it as a funeral parlor. It was just a big, fairly nondescript, if somewhat shabby, farmhouse next to an overgrown cemetery. The proprietor looked more like he should have been a client, with a pasty complexion that would have blistered up on him if he stood by a window too long, and red rimmed eyes set deep in their sockets. He wasn’t particularly friendly either. Seeming to be anxious to be rid of me, he signed the paperwork on the porch, never inviting me inside, and he was more than a little irritated to learn I didn’t carry a fork lift in my pocket to load the coffins onto the van. We ended up using an old tractor to get the boxes on, and then we both shoved and prodded them to the walls on either side and strapped them down. As I was leaving he asked if I would make it to Bangor before sundown, and seemed disappointed when I told him there was no way that was happening unless I traded in my van for a jet. It was the most he had said to me the whole time I was there.
The sun was setting as I made Chattanooga, and I started getting nervous despite my resolve to hold it together. I had taken too long finding McDougal’s, and had lost another hour waiting for McDougal to get the tractor started. Now the majority of my trip would have to be made in the dark. I leaned forward in my seat, squinting at the road ahead, switching on my high beams whenever I could without blinding the other drivers. Thankfully, it was a Sunday, and there was relatively little traffic. My hands were already sweating on the steering wheel when a loud thump nearly drove me from my seat. Thinking I had hit something, I pulled over and jumped out to investigate. The beam of the flashlight quivered over the pavement in my shaking hand, but revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Relieved all four tires were still nice and round, I chalked it up to road debris, a hubcap or a tree branch I had bounced over.
About five miles down the road I heard it again, this time I was sure it was came from the back of the van. Afraid the refrigeration system might be going on the fritz; I pulled over again, swung open the back doors, and stumbled back a few steps as a blast of cold air hit me full in the face. I climbed into check the thermostat and saw it registered a temperature 20 degrees lower than it should have. I exhaled and blew a cloud out of my mouth. The thermostat wasn’t the problem. It really was colder than it should have been. I checked the settings, and found they were just as they were when I had set out, which is to say they were correct. Why the disparity? I still had an eighteen hour drive ahead of me. I had to figure out what was going on before the unit froze up and stopped working altogether.
Back in the cab, I tried to use my phone to get ahold of the company we used in situations like that, but couldn’t get a signal. I would have to drive until I got out of the dead zone. But, just as I shifted into drive, I heard a clang, louder than the sound I had heard before. I put the van back into park and went back to check it out again.
Somehow, the coffin on the driver’s side had become untethered, the straps lying alongside it on the floor. It couldn’t have been jostled lose in the few minutes since I last checked on it; the van hadn’t moved. How could I have missed it? Frost was starting to build up on the walls and floor, and my fingers were actually numb going numb, but I managed to secure the coffin and get back on the road before they turned completely purple. If I didn’t do something soon I would have to chip the coffins out with an ice pick once I got to Bangor.
I drove on, constantly checking my phone for a signal, and constantly being disappointed. I had gone another hundred miles, and still couldn’t get through to anyone. Even worse, I had left the interstate to get some coffee at a little hole-in-the-wall diner that turned out to be closed, and had somehow gotten turned around. I was lost with no GPS and no map. I was on a one lane road, cutting through the mountains, seemingly leading deeper and deeper into the vast woodland. Trying to focus my eyes on the line painted on the edge of the road, I tried to remember when I had last seen another car and couldn’t. With a growing sense of dread, I glanced down at the gas gauge. I had less than a fourth of a tank. As a dense fog rolled in, further obscuring my view, I contemplated pulling over to wait for daylight, but then remembered the freezer condenser was powered off the engine. I had to keep going.
The fog thickened and gobbled up the road, including the lines I was depending on to guide me. I slowed to a crawl and put on my emergency flashers to alert any vehicles that might come up behind me of my presence, though I doubted there would be any. Suddenly, the wheel jerked in my hands as I veered too far to the left and my tires dropped off the shoulder. I knew enough not to jerk the wheel back, and turned into it, spinning so I was nearly facing the direction from which I had come. My heart pounding, I jumped from the van and bent over, trying to catch my breath. After a few minutes I had recovered enough to get my flashlight and give the van a once over. The tires on the driver’s side looked fine, but as I stepped back to examine the tires on the passenger side, my heels left the ground and I felt myself falling backwards. Reaching up with my free hand, I grabbed a tree branch, breaking my fall. I had come to a stop just a few feet from a ravine, and then, blinded by the fog, had almost topped down into it. It took another few minutes for me to get my breath back again.
I climbed back in the van and tried to ease her back to the road, but the tires sank into the soft earth, digging deeper each time I applied the gas. I was just about to give up and toss myself off the side of the mountain when I remembered the boards in the cargo hold that I sometimes used as a ramp when making a pick up. If I could get them under the tires, I might be able to ride out. I headed around back to retrieve them.
As soon as I opened the doors I saw the straps securing the coffin on the passenger side had become unfastened again, the straps strewn across the floor. I was already shivering because of the cold, but what I saw as I bent down to examine the straps sent a shudder through me that very nearly doubled me over. There, in the frost that had accumulated on the floor, was a foot print! Thinking it might be shadow cast from something on the cover of the overhead light, I turned my flashlight on it, and saw there were tracks leading from one coffin to the other and then back again. Was someone hiding in the coffins? Had I unwittingly been transporting some fugitive from justice across state lines? I flashed my beam on the unsecured coffin and found three air holes had been drilled in the lid above where a person’s face would have been. As quietly as I could, I snuck out of the van to retrieve the tire iron from behind the seat in the cab. Then, I climbed back in and crept up to the coffin. I raised the tire iron, ready to strike, as I flung open the lid.
The tire iron clanged to the floor as I stumbled back away from the sight before me. There in the coffin was the nude body of a woman. Her hands had been tied and there was tape over her mouth. There were large chunks torn from her legs and what appeared to be bite marks all over her arms. Thinking there might be a chance she was still alive, I felt for a pulse. There was none, but the body was still warm and pliable. The woman had only recently been alive. I turned to the other coffin, and found no air holes, though the straps, which I had thought were still fastened, had been unlatched and stretched out enough to allow the lid to have opened wide enough to let someone climb out. I started to open it when a sickening notion hit me. What if the woman had been intended as a snack for whatever was in that box? It was a crazy idea, but I had found myself in a crazy situation. I left it as it was, and exited the van, sliding the tire iron under the handles on both doors after I closed them to make sure they stayed closed.
Sitting in the cab, I tried to decide what to do. My first impulse was to abandon the van, and start walking down the road. Sooner or later some car would pick me up, or I would reach a gas station where I could call for help. But what would I say? A woman had been murdered in my vehicle while I was driving it. What if whatever was in that coffin managed to get out, and was gone by the time the police got there to investigate? Who would believe me when I told them some ghoul had killed the woman?
The moonlight seeped down through the trees, illuminating the fog belched up from the ravine. Already thick, it now became an impenetrable curtain of gray, hemming me in. My imagination populated it with monsters, dispelling any notions I had of venturing out into it. I locked the doors, and huddled down in the seat, praying the handles on the back doors held.
No longer concerned about keeping the van cool, I turned the key in the ignition, and switched off the lights. The silence made it worse. The radio only gave me static, so I switched it off and hummed to myself. My fingers tapped out a beat on the steering wheel, as I distracted myself with every song I could remember my mother singing to me when I was a child. After about half an hour, I remembered the pack of cigarettes in the glove compartment I had brought just in case I got a case of the nerves while driving. Taking my hands off the wheel, I reached for the latch and had already found the lighter when I realized someone was still tapping, keeping beat with the tune I was humming. It was coming from the wall behind my seat! The thing was taunting me! I fell silent, and the tapping stopped, soon to be replaced by the nauseating sound of teeth gnawing on bone. I broke three cigarettes before I finally managed to get one lit. Stuffing two of the filters I had broken off into my ears, I curled up on the seat and puffed furiously until the entire pack had been reduced to ash.
As the fog faded from gray to white in the rays of the rising sun, I remembered the funeral home director’s comment about making it to Bangor before nightfall, and recalled that I had only started hearing the noises after dark. I had to hope whatever was back there was dormant during the day. I unplugged my ears and listened. The gnawing had stopped.
It took everything I had to slide the tire iron out from under the handles and open those doors. To my surprise, I found the temperature had not risen, even though the compressor had been off for several hours. The coffin on the right was closed and in the same position as I remembered, but the lid on the other was open. I glanced in just long enough to see the woman’s arms and legs had been picked clean to the bone before lowering the lid and stumbling out of the van to vomit in the grass next to the bumper.
My stomach aching, I pulled the boards down from the shelf above the coffin on the right and placed them at an angle so the tops rested on the edge of the van and the bottoms were just about a foot from the edge of the ravine. Then, grabbing the metal hook we sometimes used to get the coffins into place, I rammed it up under the handle of the coffin containing the remains of the woman and pulled. As I leaned back, using my two hundred pounds to my advantage, the coffin slid from its berth. Once I had it out far enough, I got behind it, put my back against it and pushed. As it scrapped across the floor my eyes were focused on the other coffin, my grip tight on the hook, my only defense against whatever might throw open the lid to lunge at me. The ends of the boards had been sawed at an angle, so the end of the coffin rose up into the air before dropping down with a loud thump and sliding to the edge of the ravine. Another push and it went over; the lid clanging as it tumbled, crashing through the outstretched branches. I waited until the echo faded and peered over the side, but could see nothing beyond the mist seething up from the bowels of the crevasse.
I only paused a moment to gather my nerves before turning my attention to the remaining coffin. I intended to grab the handle with my left hand, leaving my right free to swing the hook if need be, but it was too cold to hold onto. I ended up using the hook anyway. The thing inside didn’t stir as I dragged the coffin out to the center of the van and started pushing it toward the back. It looked as though I would dispose of it as quickly as I had disposed of the first as the front of the coffin hit the boards and rose up. Then it just hung there. It wouldn’t drop. If I climbed up on it and forced it down, I would likely go down into the ravine with it, so I tried slamming my shoulder against the end still in the van. Nothing happened. I hit it again, but the results were the same. I thought of putting the van into drive, and rolling forward, but the tires were still mired in the mud, and the coffin was resting on the boards I would need to extricate them. I decided to try using the hook to pull the coffin down from the side.
Standing next to the coffin, I extended the hook up, and tried to snare one of the side handles, but as the hook scraped against the side, the lid opened just enough to allow a long withered arm to reach out. It bent over the side in a way no human arm could have, and grasped the hook in a clawed hand. I screamed, but retained my grip on the hook, pulling down with all my weight. For a moment I felt myself being lifted off the ground, but then I saw the arm begin to blister as the clouds passed from in front of the sun. As the sunlight beat down upon it, the arm began to smoke, and I was able to yank the hook free and get it under the handle. I tugged, and the coffin dropped. The thing let out a wail as the coffin slid down the boards and disappeared into the mist.
I eventually made it back to Louisiana, where my partner, worried about the legal ramifications of dumping bodies off the side of a mountain, and not fully believing the tale I had told him, insisted on paying a visit to McDougal. He dropped the matter upon finding the house by the cemetery was vacant, and had been for many years, and upon learning there was no McDougal Funeral Home in operation anywhere in the state.
About the author: Lamont A. Turner is a New Orleans area writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online venues including Mystery Magazine, Mystery Tribune, Cosmic Horror Monthly, Dark Dossier and others. His collection of short stories, “Souls In A Blender” is available on Amazon and Godless Horrors. He can be found in Twitter @LamontATurner1.
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