22 Dec There Was a Noise Coming From the Back of the Hearse- CreepyPasta
Even in the glow of neon lights I could tell he was a funeral director. His dapper suit, slicked hair and mannerly tone was in deep contrast to the lushes who frequented Mandy’s Pub every Friday night. When he slid into the booth beside me there was an air of superiority to him. I didn’t mind, of course, as I was on my fourth Ole’ Fashioned and the numbers he’d told me the day before tumbled through my head like shoes in a dryer.
10,000. TEN THOUSAND. One – zero – zero – zero – zero.
Cash is good, I thought. Cash means alimony free. It was enough to finish my year’s rent. Enough to feed me until next Christmas. Enough to replace my closet of old rags and stained jeans with something fashionable enough to attract a lady. Enough for a decent used truck that wouldn’t whine to life like the one parked out back in Mandy’s parking lot.
However, I didn’t think of any of these expenditures when the funeral director told me the payment would be in cash.
Instead, I thought of my 17 year old daughter, Ally. I could gift her the $10,000 by paying for her tuition into State. Maybe the act would change her mind about not attending college. She would go if it were cheaper, I’d told myself. Ally was prudent about finance and had saved up every penny of birthday and Christmas money she had received throughout her life. I’d seen the wad of cash tucked in a jewelry box and was proud. That’s why I envisioned a CPA license in her future. She could do something great with her life, unlike her old man. And unlike that bitch mother of hers.
A mere 20 minute drive could change my life, I thought.
And I was correct.
Back in the bar, I watched across the table of empty whiskey glasses as the man who had offered me the job fumbled for the words to say. He was nervous, out of his element. He was the director of a family-owned funeral home located in our small community and he, if the rumors I’d heard were true, was in a bind.
I was familiar with his business, Westwood Funeral Home. We used them when my grandmother passed away. They’d been in business that long. Over the years, I’d also attended the visitations of a few friends there as well. Nice place, very accommodating.
“Why’d you call me?” I asked across the table.
“I heard you were ex-military.”
“That’s true, but still not an answer.”
“Tour in Iraq, right?”
“Two,” I mumbled and took a sip. “How’d you get my number?”
“We have many Gold Star Families that use our facilities and I, in a roundabout way, was given your cell number. So, can you do it?”
“Why can’t you do it?”
“I’ll be accompanying you. This situation, well, requires a particular person that can handle tension. From what my contact told me, you’re quite level-headed under pressure. Nothing is more pressurized than war, am I right?”
“I don’t talk about my time in the Middle East.”
“Fair enough. Can you do it? Can you be the driver?” The director withdrew a large envelope from his jacket pocket.
“Half now, half after services rendered, correct?”
He nodded and I rolled the ice around in my drink, the clicking overpowering the soft hum of classic rock from the bar speakers.
“I’ll do it,” I said. “But I want you to answer one question first.”
“Is it true everyone at your funeral home quit last week?”
The director’s lips pursed and his eyes studied the table. “Yes. Everyone except me and one new manager. My family wants no part in this.”
“They want no part in what?”
“That question might be better suited for a pastor or priest.”
I then tilted my head back and drained the glass. The director proffered the envelope and I took it. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
As instructed, I arrived at Westwood Funeral Home the following morning before the sun rose. The director was there, waiting under the loading dock, the faint awning light casting his shadow back to the row of pines in the rear of the property. He’d already situated the hearse to the proper position, trunk open, a gurney kissed to the rear bumper of the vehicle.
The gurney was burdened by a casket.
I parked then approached the scene, tossing my spent cigarette into some loose grave and patting my jeans to double check my essentials: phone, wallet, keys. And Bessie.
My approach startled the director, but when he spotted me he immediately called me over.
“Grab the handle here. No, here. Then hoist it into the trunk.”
“Don’t these things weigh a ton?”
“Let’s go, dammit.”
“I’m not pulling a muscle because you’re irritated, ten grand or not. Go get that fella that still works for you to help us. The, uh, the manager.”
He didn’t have to say anything. His expression gave it away. It was then that I noticed how similarly dressed we were. There was no longer a suit or pair of polished oxfords. He donned a t-shirt, dark stains on the front, and some slacks that were probably as old as the hearse. His hair was unkempt and sweat matted his bangs above his brow. Before me was no longer the dapper director from our bar meeting, but an overwrought man on the edge of a breakdown.
“The manager quit too?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said coldly. “His departure changes our agreement.”
“How so?” I asked, letting go of the casket handle.
“I’ll need your assistance after we arrive at the cemetery.” He pointed into the open hearse to a set of shovels.
“I didn’t sign up for that. What kind of scam is-”
“I’ll double it,” he said. “Twenty thousand dollars cash.”
I grabbed the handle again.
The rollers in the back of the hearse made the heavy casket easy to push in place. The director fastened the bier pin plates so the unit wouldn’t budge during transport then he uncinched the window drapes so they fell over the length of the glass. Wouldn’t want anyone spotting what’s inside at a red traffic light. He did this with an uneasy rapidity, like he was in a race or was being timed for our efforts. He grabbed a duffel bag and hefted it into the back near the locked casket.
Oddly, my request to piss in the funeral home’s bathroom was denied so when he dodged inside to “lock up” as he said, I unzipped and went near a small poplar tree. Weird, furtive little man, I thought.
I didn’t care. I was ready for my $20,000.
After the director joined me in the cab, I turned the ignition key and the hearse purred to life. The V8 roared as we sped down Fair Avenue then took the onramp to the highway. The director’s cell phone blared loudly in it’s instructions toward our destination – a cemetery on the opposite side of the county.
“Just follow the GPS instructions,” he told me.
“I know that part of the county pretty well. A lot of back roads.”
“Just follow the instructions.”
I’d lived in the county my whole life – apart from my time in Baghdad, Fallujah and Tikrit – and I’d never known a cemetery to be in the general area the GPS was leading us. Maybe Google knew more about my hometown than I did. Still, the sun started to rise over the hills of pines and the road was clear of any traffic so I gunned it, getting the hearse up to eighty. The director didn’t seem to mind.
Maybe we are being timed for our efforts, I thought.
Of course, the hearse was no workhorse like the humvees we had in the war. Those beasts were of a different breed. A warmongering type, bred to traverse deserts as well as swamps and were often equipped with turret guns and armor. The only weapon the director brought appeared to be a rosary which was curled tightly around his wrist.
The rearview mirror suddenly flashed with light and pulled me from my reverie. The sky was blood-red and growing lighter by the second but the strobing lights from behind dwarfed all illumination from the tree line. The speedometer was pushing ninety when the director noticed and turned around.
“This isn’t good,” he said. “Keep going. Don’t slow down.”
“It’s a cop.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Maybe not to you. Shit, I’m not getting arrested.”
“Don’t,” he said then grabbed the wheel against my tilt onto the road shoulder. The hearse swerved madly.
“What the hell are you doing?” I screamed and pushed him. His rosary looped around my fingers and we were momentarily caught in a holy fingertrap. “I’m pulling over.”
“Keep going. Our mission is more important.” He tried again and I ripped my arm back, releasing the rosary’s snare. Beads scattered on the floorboard and the director grew sullen, upset. The remaining cross, wood-carved and rubbed smooth, was still in my palm so I slung it behind my seat.
I gave him a hostile stare. “Don’t touch the wheel. I won’t get paid if we’re both in jail.”
He tried it again so I pulled from the back of my jeans someone I wanted him to meet. “This is Bessie,” I said and the Colt 1911 gleamed in the early sunlight. “She doesn’t like trouble, understand?”
His expression changed. Once I knew he was back in his seat for good, I returned Bessie and pulled to the road shoulder. The gravel chirped and cracked against the undercarriage until we crawled to a halt.
Luck was on my side that day. The man in uniform who walked up to the window was a friend of mine. We play cards once a month at a mutual friend’s house. Drink whiskey, talk shit about our bosses, all that. Since he was an officer of the law he would always tell the best stories about dumbass criminals. When he sauntered up to the window and noticed the operator of the swerving hearse was a buddy, he took his hand off his pistol holster.
I flashed a sly smile. “Morning, William.”
Officer William gave an incredulous laugh. “I’ll be damned. You in the funeral business now?”
“All those stories you told over cards got me thinking. Since you’re a first responder, I figured I’d join the last responders.”
William propped an elbow on the window ledge and got a good look at my passenger. The director had his head bowed and was whispering a prayer.
William looked at the casket. “Little late for that, reverend, don’tcha think?”
“He’s not a man of the cloth. He’s the director at Westwood Funeral Home. This is his hearse.”
“Okay. Well, keep it under seventy, Chuck. I doubt the guy in the back is in any rush.”
Then something stirred.
It’s a rare moment when three people simultaneously learn something. At that moment, I learned that the passenger next to me was some kind of psycho pervert and had invited me to participate in what could land me in the slammer for life. The director learned that I would never look at him the same way again and, had the officer not been there, I would’ve gladly sent him into a grave myself. Officer William learned that he was no longer speaking to a drinking buddy but – due to the pounding and calls for help coming from inside the casket – had pulled over two full-fledged maniacs about to bury a woman alive.
The elbow that had been casually resting on the window ledge was now hinged forward, aiming a Glock 19 to my head.
“Out,” William shouted. “Out of the vehicle, Chuck.”
William’s urgent command took me back to one particularly hot day in Fallujah. Our team was tasked to set up on the roof of a four-story hotel about a quarter-mile down the road. It was an advantageous spot to gather reconnaissance but the route there had plenty of obstacles. Hidden bombs, armed insurgents in spider holes, and blockades troubled our path but we got there without a casualty. When we arrived at the hotel we were met with a flock of elementary-aged children, who had been using the building as a makeshift sleep quarters during the war fallout. They tossed rocks, shouting foreign obscenities to us soldiers who had invaded their land. We’d read all the propaganda garbage their government had been putting out. How we were evil. How we were nothing but murderous invaders. Us proud servicemen were more annoyed than anything else, having three dozen kids tossing rocks gets old fast after fifteen minutes, so we gathered the little ones together to teach a lesson. We lined them up and made like we were about to participate in a firing squad. Obviously, no weapons fired – it was a scare tactic. We were soldiers, after all, not monsters.
But I’ll never forget their faces. Veils of terror. Fear so absolute that tears were unable to form. Lesson learned.
That’s the type of fear I saw on the director’s face as he dropped beside me, our knees crunching into the gravel beside the highway. From inside the hearse, the woman’s shrieks had intensified in urgency. Although the sound was muted by the casket walls and padding, the voice was clearly female and was overcome with emotion. The casket rattled as the interior beatings became more powerful. Had Officer William not had his gun trained on me, I would have punched the director for inserting me into his own wicked revenge plot.
The woman pleaded, “There’s no oxygen in here. I’m about to pass out.”
William oscillated between me, the director and the closed trunk of the hearse. The shrieks from inside continued to beg between coughs.
“Please, help. My head is going numb. No oxygen. Open.”
William pointed to us. “Don’t move,” he said, then walked to the driver side and unlocked the trunk door. The director and I turned, scooting our knees in the pebbles to get a view of what my now ex-friend was about to uncover. From this angle the director was slightly behind me but I could hear his faint sobs. He’d been caught.
Once the trunk was flapped open William called back to us. “How do you get the casket open?”
“An instrument beside the casket,” the director said. “Yes, right there. It fits into a hole on the side. Yeah, right. Now crank it. It unlocks the lid.”
William hadn’t finished one rotation before I was pushed into the gravel by the director. Something was different when I tried to regain my balance, something about my waistline. It had loosened.
Three ear-shredding reports went out over the highway and the surrounding pastureland. William slumped against the hearse, grabbing for something not there before falling face first to the ground. Amazed at what happened, I grabbed for Bessie, but she was gone. The director pointed my own weapon at my chest and forced me to my feet. The spent casings sparkled beside his feet.
“This is Bessie,” he said. “She doesn’t like trouble, understand?”
The trunk was closed and seat belts were fastened then we were off toward the cemetery to bury a woman alive. The blue lights of William’s cruiser flashed in the side mirror until we crested the next hill. Rosary beads shuffled under my feet.
When my daughter, Ally, was in elementary school she came home one day with a portrait of our family. Our trio was scribbled in crayon and showed us standing beside our house, next to a sprawling green oak tree that our little Picasso had, for whatever reason, decorated with pink stars. Beside the tree was me. I was more of a circle really, with eyebrows arched at a furious angle. Next was my ex-wife who had in her hand a stylized white carrot. Of course, I knew that this “carrot” was Ally’s best effort at drawing her mother’s favorite wine glass. Then there was Ally, squished under the speech balloons that sprang forth from my ex-wife and I’s mouths and filled with X’s and exclamation points.
The image was a catalyst for a parent teacher conference that ended up in a shouting match for my wife to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. She refused.
We divorced the next year.
Ally didn’t deserve the hateful atmosphere she was raised in; she was too good, too pure. I hoped that once I finished the director’s task he’d pay the additional money. It wasn’t greed – no – but quite the opposite. Ally would take a step up in the world after she enrolled in college. For Ally, I’d told myself earlier. Do this for Ally. But how was I to help Ally if I ended up like Officer William?
I kept the hearse to a solid fifty-five miles per hour. Speed slow enough to bide time but fast enough not to alert the gun-wielding maniac to my side who’d not stopped mouthing prayers to himself since our continuation of his “mission”. Miles behind us lay a friend of mine with three bullet wounds in his chest who would undoubtedly be found within minutes by a curious traveler or truck driver. Dash cam footage would be watched and our hearse was not the type of vehicle that blends in with a crowd.
Time was running out for all three people inside the hearse.
“All that money isn’t useful to me if I’m serving life.”
I was ignored.
“Look, you damn psycho, I’ll swerve into a fucking road sign before I let you bury this woman alive. I’m not a monster.”
The director whipped around and howled, “Stop, stop. Please shut up. I demand in the name of God Almighty that you remain silent.”
This didn’t scare me. I’d been around plenty of men that would gut you as easily as shake your hand. People that had ended life and people that had almost gotten their life ended, usually on multiple occasions, without showing the least bit of fear. No, the director saying this didn’t scare me.
What scared me was that after he screamed this demand I realized he wasn’t speaking to me, but behind me.
I peered into the rearview. Yep, still a casket and the woman inside hadn’t said a word since the William incident. That’s when I knew this funeral director had more problems than a vengeful spirit. He was hallucinatory. Schizophrenic.
“Put Bessie down and let me get out. I won’t call the cops, I swear.”
His eyes finally registered me as if he’d forgotten I was there. Sweat had beaded his forehead and soaked the collar of his t-shirt. He was crying.
He mumbled, “Just follow the GPS instructions.”
“I’m not helping you dig when we arrive. I refuse to kill a person.”
“That’s not a person,” he whispered.
His rage had obviously sailed to such an extreme that his wife or girlfriend or whoever was in the box no longer registered to him as human. Just an object. Something to get rid of like trash. “Enough. I won’t kill anyone.”
“Else,” he added, yet his voice was much deeper and seemed to surround the cabin of the vehicle.
“What did you say?”
He stared, incredulously, behind my seat. A grimace overcame his face. “You shut the hell up,” he shouted to the rear. “I was in high school. I didn’t know she was that drunk. You shut the hell up.”
The director faced forward and wept in his cupped hands until his phone told me to turn off the highway onto a thin county road.
By this time I was rattled. In battle there were contingency plans. Even teammates could help force an insurgent response into retreat. But now I was alone, weaponless, unable to understand why this mentally ill man had conned me into a twisted exercise. I thought about slowing the hearse to twenty miles an hour and jumping out, rolling to the best of my ability over the hot abrated asphalt to avoid significant injury then bolting toward the rise where I could lose him amongst the bramble. Or, I envisioned a quick tap of the brakes which may jump start a siege of the director where I wrested Bessie away from him and regained power.
While we rocked back and forth over the uneven road, I steeled myself for what lay ahead and did my best to strategize a plan to save not only my life but the woman trapped in her padded tomb. Nothing materialized.
“Please,” the director whispered to no one, now sobbing uncontrollably. “I just want it to end. I didn’t know how drunk. . . I had a crush on her. Please, stop.”
“I can stop, yes.” I almost smiled at his change of heart. “Let me pull over and-”
“No,” he screamed at me. “Not you. Keep going. Follow the instructions.”
“You’re sick, man. I need to pull over.”
He gave one cursory look to the back then his eyes fell on me. His clammy hand grabbed my forearm and I couldn’t help but return a glance.
“The duffel bag,” he said. “Once you get to the cemetery, look in the duffel bag. I can’t . . . I can’t-”
“We don’t have to do this,” I begged, the shake in my voice now audible. “You don’t have to do this. I don’t know what’s in that head of yours but I do know this: everyone forgives and forgets, ya know?”
“Not everyone,” he whispered, then inserted Bessie into his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Late one evening, in Fallujah, we were riding back to base from a low-intensity conflict zone where we briefly gave suppressive fire then mulled around for the next eight hours bored out of our minds. The descent of the sun gave the plumes of smoke rising from bomb-impacted buildings an eerie glow, like red obelisks that had sprouted in erratic fashion throughout the sand. Burning rubble was the chosen perfume of the day and my team was ready to wash the grit from our bodies. The land was flat and devoid of people at that time. An uneasy calm. We were still on our guard but after so much time in the heat our senses had dulled.
We had just come around the corner of a retaining wall when the humvee in front of us rolled over an IED.
Most took to defensive positions while a few of us checked on the wreckage, me included. The IED had turned the humvee apart in ways that were unimaginable: tires were absent, the turret was lodged in the kitchen of a dwelling, the metal chassis was warped and mangled like taffy. But inside was the true horror. If the explosion did that to a military vehicle it doesn’t take a creative person to understand what it can do to the human body.
The inside of the hearse reminded me of what I saw.
A spear of light penetrated through the bullet’s exit hole in the roof. The director leaned limply against the red-soaked seat. His head lolled sideways when I pulled to the side of the road then, when I applied the brake, swept back to face me. The roof of the hearse was still dripping when I jumped out to compose myself. The morning heat had already risen to a stifling level. Sweat beaded from my body as I opened the back door and began twisting the mechanism to open the casket. Apart from the smell of blood, I picked up a tinge of something burning but couldn’t trace it. I was surrounded by pastureland so perhaps a farmer was burning off some tree brush.
“I’m getting you out, ma’am.”
“Thank you, Chuck, thank you,” the woman called.
“Had I known someone was in here, I would’ve called the police.”
“You’re a saint. A true saint.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m a saint,” I said and began unwinding the lid lock. “I’ve sinned plenty.”
“Nonsense. Soldiers at war can’t be at fault for their actions.”
“Maybe. Sometimes a soldier-”
I stopped turning the crank and backed away.
It took a moment for me to replay the last hour in my mind. “How did you know I served?”
“I heard you talking earlier. Please, let me out.”
The burning smell had grown more fierce. A thin ribbon of smoke drifted through the hearse’s cabin so I followed its source. The wooden cross of the rosary, the one I broke and tossed into the back, had landed on top of the casket. It was smoldering and charred, the smoke still trailing off as if it was on a hot grill. I touched the top of the casket but it was cold.
“Chuck, let me out.”
“The director and I didn’t discuss my service on the ride. How did you know?”
“Let me out,” the woman said in a more harsh tone.
“Do I know you?”
Then there was a sniffle. “Daddy?”
I sprinted to the box and placed my palms on the cold surface. “Ally? Honey, is that you?”
“Daddy, please, get me out of here. That crazy man abducted me.”
“Oh my God, hang on.” I regripped the handle but paused before I turned the crank. It was hard to explain. Every fiber in my body pulled toward the circular motion. Just turn the crank, release your daughter, then call the authorities. So easy. But something in my gut denied the use of my arms. I had to be sure. I walked away from the hearse and fished my phone from my pocket then selected the contact. It rang twice.
“Hey, Daddy. What’s up?”
“Yeah? Can you hear me?”
“Are . . . are you okay?”
“Yeah, just got back from the gym. About to eat some yogurt. Why?”
“Nothing, honey,” I said and stared at the casket that did not contain my daughter. “Just checking up on you. I gotta go but I’ll call you later.”
“Is everything okay?”
“It is now. Have a good day, honey. Bye.”
I was no longer in the mood for conversation. Whoever was in that box knew me. Knew I served. Knew what my daughter’s voice sounded like. This was someone I wanted out of my possession. I made the decision to drive to the sheriff’s office and spill my guts. Tell them everything and let them deal with the one in the box.
After I slammed the back door closed, I hopped into the driver’s seat but my attempt at a u-turn was truncated by a harsh voice from behind.
“Ally is a whore. You know that, right?”
“What the fuck did you just say?”
“So many men. Some as old as you.”
I shoved the shifter in park. “Maybe I’ll let you out of that box so I can put you right back inside it.”
“The men have a nickname for her, “Ally Always”. Ally Always because she always goes down-”
“Shut the fuck up!”
I was outside, ripping open the back door and fumbling with the lever. I was astonished to find I had picked up Bessie.
“I’ll shoot through the box if you don’t-”
“Don’t what? Don’t sympathize with your silly dreams of Always Ally going to college? She got an A in science because she slept with her high school teacher-”
“-the whole basketball team enjoyed that one party-”
“-all the lies she’s told you over and over again-”
“-she’ll be a boozer just like her mother-”
I put finger pressure on the trigger. I braced for recoil. I wanted to empty the magazine into the box. To stop the lies. They were lies, right? They had to be.
But that’s not what happened. A grumbling mechanical noise blasted from behind and over the hill came a man on a John Deere tractor. I refit Bessie into the hem of my jeans and offered a friendly wave in the hopes he would pass. He slowed the equipment down and parked behind me. Shit.
He climbed down from the cab and approached. He was in his seventies, or sixties – a life in the sun had tanned and wrinkled his skin to a breathtaking amount. A baseball cap created a shadow under his green eyes. A wad of tobacco bulged his lower lip.
“Engine trouble?” He asked.
“No, sir, just a little lost. I have kind of an odd situation.” I looked back at the open hearse and the farmer got a peek as well.
“Damn. Dis a funeral procession?”
“Who died? God, hope it’s not anyone I know. Lotta folks die when they get my age.”
My attempt at a laugh was pathetic. “I don’t need any assistance. You can get back into your tractor. There’s no problem.”
The farmer gazed helplessly at the casket. Entranced, really. In a burst of energy that took me by surprise, he sprinted to the back of the hearse and started patting the casket. He placed a cheek to a corner and stroked the box like it was precious heirloom.
“Lizzy,” the farmer screamed. “Sweet Lord, God. Lizzy, I’m coming.”
The man attempted to pry the lid off with his hands but the lock was still engaged. I ran to him before he could figure it out.
“Why the hell do you have my Lizzy in here? What is this, some kind of shakedown?” He lowered into a brawling position and showed his fists. “Open this damn thing. Open it now.”
“That’s not your Lizzy.”
“Like shit it ain’t. I can hear her.”
Only, I couldn’t hear anything. The box was silent. Voiceless. Then everything made sense. I had been asking the wrong question the whole time. It’s not who was in the casket, but what?
Before the farmer could make more of a stir, I took out Bessie. He stopped talking but the rage in his eyes gave away plenty. “Call Lizzy,” I demanded. “You’ll find out that she isn’t in the box. Call her.”
I kept my distance and closed the back door. My aim was trained on the farmer as I reentered the driver’s seat. “Call her. Call Lizzy and you’ll find out the truth.”
I started rolling down the road, toward the GPS instructions. “Why not?” I called out from the window and pulled the gun back inside.
“Lizzy’s been dead ten years.”
Just a few miles then the cemetery. I exceeded what was a cautious speed down the thin county road trying to remember what had come out of the director’s mouth before it was hollowed out. The shovels. The duffel bag. The fucking thing in the box. The phone blared out instructions and soon I made a hard right onto a dirt drive that led into the woods. Undergrowth hid potholes and lumbered my progression. I thought of the money – at least I had five grand. I thought of Ally. My sweet Ally. I thought of-
“Haifa Salbi. Mother of two. Victim of one,” the voice in the back hissed.
“Baghdad, March 29, 2003.”
My throat began to tighten.
“I heard her screams, Chuck. While you were ripping off her chador, I heard her screams.”
“Shut up.” I blinked away tears.
“You don’t speak Arabic, Chuck, but screams are a universal language.” A turbulent yell echoed around the hearse’s cabin. It was a perfect imitation. It was a yell I’d heard before. A yell I had spent years and countless whiskey bottles trying to forget. My tears fogged my view worse than the collapsing foliage that had erased most of the pitted path.
“She housed terrorists,” I mumbled over my quivering lips.
“You don’t believe that. She was a slave to the Iraqi combatants. A pawn. You can’t lie to me, Chuck. I was there. I know the only weapon you wanted to fire was in your pants.” A discordant, hollow laugh followed.
“You were there? Who are you?”
“I am the one who was always there. When you released that tension on Haifa Salbi. When you traumatized those children in Fallujah. When you hit your ex-wife for drinking too much.”
I slammed my fist on the steering wheel. “How the fuck do you know all this?”
“I was also there when you found that wad of cash in Ally’s jewelry box. Poor, stupid, Chuck. Thinking your daughter saved money from the time she could walk? Ally is a good liar. She gets that talent from you.”
Sunlight burst through the windshield. The foliage had opened into a glade. The small opening in the woods had a short, rusted fence that linked into an oval directly in the center. Inside the fence were a sprinkling of headstones, others merely wooden crosses now rotted into spikes.
“Poor, stupid, Chuck. Ally is a good liar but not as good as she is at spreading her legs. Where do you think that wad of money came from? From men. Many men. Some as old as you.”
I turned and slammed my fist on the casket. “Another word and I’ll burn you alive instead of bury you.”
I spun the vehicle around and backed up to the fence until the fender graced the rusted metal. I hopped out and whipped open the back door then began unpacking the duffel bag. Stacks of cash fell out in my hasty fumbling of it. I guess the director was good on his promise. The only other contents of the bag were a cluster of rosaries, one of which I grabbed and slid in the front pocket of my jeans. The director’s rote behavior didn’t seem so insignificant anymore.
Also inside the bag was a handwritten note.
The note said: “It passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there.”
Under that it gave instructions: “At least six feet of earth must separate it from the sky. Bury in an abandoned cemetery to avoid suspicion. Leave the grave unmarked. Do not believe its lies. Do not concentrate on its truths. It is an ancient one. Adroit in the ways of luring madness.”
The thing in the box spoke. It was the voice of my bitch ex-wife. “Chucky?”
I removed one of the shovels and remained silent.
“I forgive you, babe. You didn’t mean to hit me. It was the PTSD. I know I should’ve stopped drinking years ago. You and Ally were right.”
My head felt numb. “Be quiet. You’re not her.”
“I’ve given it up, babe. Honest this time. I’m ready to be the mother I should be. The wife I should be. Just let me out and we can fix this.”
As much as I resented her, I would have given everything I owned to hear my ex-wife say that. And it knew. Whatever was in that fucking box knew.
“No. You’re not getting out.” I tucked the handwritten note in my back pocket.
“I guess that’s expected. Babe, before you go, can I tell you something?”
Was it about to say it? No way. Unfathomable. No way it could know I wanted my ex-wife to truthfully tell me-
“Why I started drinking? I’ll tell you.”
The shovel felt heavy in my hands. I steadied myself against the tail light, eager, yet, uneager to listen.
“Chucky, my sweet, brave soldier. I started drinking because I was anxious.”
“Anxious?” I asked, unable to stop myself.
“Yes. Anxious that you would eventually find out the truth. Ally isn’t yours.”
I slammed the back door shut and regripped the shovel. The rusted fence had bent on one side from a fallen tree and lay flat under a carpet of deadfall. That’s where I gained entrance. I took out the paper and reread it. Six feet. Got it. The soil was fertile and loose, which made digging easier than expected. Still, the process took hours. From the first spade to the last, the thing in the box emitted an eruption of grating laughter, and although it was muffled from the containment of the hearse, it still provoked me into a consideration.
Was it laughing because it lied about Ally? Or because it had told the truth?
A casket is a bitch to move by yourself. Carrying it was out of the question and it wasn’t like I was trying to prevent the damn thing from damage, so I wedged it out of the hearse and it landed with a harsh thud. My legs and back were sore from digging but not too sore to pull the diseased being over the fallen fence and into the cemetery where I propped it precariously against the edge of the hole I’d dug, the depths of which were seven feet, I estimated. One foot more, just to be sure.
To avoid a calamity of the lid breaking open upon impact, I tied some vines, along with my shirt and pants, to the bars across one side. I had to pull the box at a flat angle into the hole so there would be no rotation in it’s venture down. Hoisting the heavy object below was out of the question. Three quick jerks should do it . . . and maybe one quick prayer.
“Don’t Chucky, don’t,” the voice of my ex called out as I wrapped my hands around the cords of cotton threads and vine. “I can give you what you want.”
I gave a good jerk and one corner jutted over the edge.
“Daddy, please,” Ally called. “It’s me. Just open the lid and I can explain everything.”
The acidic voice returned: “Chuck, you rapist sack of shit. Wife beater, wife beater. I’ve seen your future. After this you’ll turn to the bottle worse than your ex-wife, the one who lied to you about Ally. Do you want to know who her true father is? Open and I’ll-”
The obscenities that spewed from the locked casket, as I spent the next few hours covering it with soil, were grotesque to say the least. Promises of pain to not only myself but everyone whom I’m close with. Prognostications of violent ends. Sexual depravities that will behad my sweet Ally unless I open the box. The faster my hands went, the quieter the voice became, until the only sounds were the chirping of a nearby cricket and the soft songs of a sparrow.
The only thing more sore than my body was my mind. In my numb state I could only think to return the vehicle and take my cash. And most certainly inhale a few cigarettes from the pack in my truck back in the funeral home’s parking lot. All legal hassles could wait.
The cabin had a rancid stench because of the director’s body in the passenger seat but I rolled the windows down to diffuse it. The return drive was much shorter than the outgoing one. More peaceful. At least, until I turned into the parking lot of Westwood Funeral Home to find a pair of black Cadillacs parked beside my truck.
Unmarked police cars? FBI?
I didn’t care. My thought process was running on an empty tank and my body was too exhausted to run. Goodbye to the money. Goodbye to freedom. Goodbye to Ally.
What I expected was a miniature army to pounce out of the pine forest, guns drawn, demands shouted. What I got was a handful of sharply dressed men who waved me down after I parked the hearse. One opened the hearse door for me and helped me out. They delivered a perfunctory inspection of the dead director but left his body where it sat. One man jumped into the driver’s seat and drove out of sight. With him went the duffle bag of money. Shit.
Another man took me aside, offered me a cigarette from my own pack, and shook my hand.
“You don’t have to worry about anything, sir.”
“The director shot a cop.”
“It’s all taken care of.”
My brain felt like jelly. “What do you mean?”
“Keep living your life. Talk with friends, enjoy your family, go to work. Think of today as, uh, a dream. A lucid dream. Nothing more than a short, bad memory.”
Another pair of suited men exited the funeral home. They pushed a gurney with a body on it. The sheet draped over was mottled with red.
“The manager?” I asked.
“Afraid so. He was an associate of ours given the responsibility of helping with the mission. He was instructed to guard the casket last night until the director arrived then take control of the situation. However, it got to him like it got to the director.”
“Who are you guys?”
“Let’s say that we are guys who are not normally late but were today. For your troubles, we gave you something. It’s in your truck. I advise you get in your truck and leave all this behind you.”
There was no room for argument in his voice, nor did I have the energy for it. I was good at compartmentalizing, something I would most certainly have to do with my most recent actions. But it was over. Finally over. I left and returned home. Stopped in my driveway, I felt under the seat and found a small canvas sack. Inside was fifty thousand dollars, cash.
50,000. FIFTY THOUSAND. Five – zero – zero – zero – zero.
I entered my home and collapsed on the couch. Twelve hours later I awoke to the sound of a buzzing noise. Ally was calling.
My sniffles gave away my crying fit. “Hey, honey. God, it’s so good to hear your voice. Your real voice.”
“My real voice?”
“Nothing. Sorry, I just woke up from a nap. I’m still groggy.”
“Anyways, I called to tell you the good news. Mom’s in rehab. She’s taking it so serious this time. I’ve been crying all day because I’m so happy.”
I sat up on the couch and felt an odd pinch on my thigh. “Honey, that’s wonderful news.”
“I was thinking, if she completes rehab, that maybe we could all be together for my birthday,” Ally said as I battled my quivering lip. “I know you both don’t see eye to eye but it would be nice to see both of you at the same time.”
Another pinch on my thigh. I crept my hand into my pocket.
“Honey, that sounds like the best idea I’ve heard in a long time. Honestly, I’d be nice to see your mother. Despite the bad, there are a lot of good memories between us. Oh, and I have a great birthday present for you,” I said, looking at the sack of money.
“You better keep it a surprise until then.”
“I will. The three of us together, on your birthday. Who’d have thought?”
She sighed. “I’ve told you a million times, daddy. I’ve been praying about this for years. Sure, there’s plenty of bad in the world but that means there’s plenty of good too. Prayer works.”
“Yeah. Maybe it does,” I said as I pulled a rosary from my front pocket. “Maybe it does.”