The Skeleton Driver

Headlights cut through the darkness of a lonely highway as you watch the yellow lines getting swept under the front of the car. You have an endless stretch of two lane blacktop all to yourself. The only noise passing through your ears is Johnny Cash’s somber voice as he sings about wishing he was stoned on a Sunday morning. The steady repetition can make it easy for someone to wander off into the depths of their subconscious while they let muscle memory take the wheel. Least that’s what was happening to me as I suddenly realized I couldn’t recall the last couple of miles I had driven. I was on my way home from the bar after yet another night out with Johnny Walker, and his wing-man Miller, as they helped me drown the demons that chased my soul every night.

I never considered myself a bad guy; even when a dirty, self-entitled, draft dodging hippy spat in my face as he called me a baby killer. No sir, I was not a bad guy, just a man put in a bad situation. Even with the start of a new year just a month away I felt that 1972 was only going to bring 365 days of liquid dinners and sleepless nights of regret. “I was following orders, I did nothing wrong.” I would tell myself to try and convince me that I was alright. Sitting behind the wheel of my ‘64 Chevy step-side, my body felt numb as the truck rolled along the dark road. My mind began to drift off again into the alcohol fueled anarchy of my imagination, and I could feel goosebumps beginning to form on my arms as ice cold sweat starting running down the back of my neck. My mind was going to take a trip, a trip back to Vietnam, 1970.

First thing I heard before I went back was the sound of my lieutenant yelling at us to clear a village of all hostiles. Feeling the weight of my gear on my back as I we marched into the village. We didn’t have to be stealth, the moonless night and pouring rain gave us plenty of cover to walk in unnoticed. Intelligence had told us that this village was a suspected supply dump for Charlie, and we were ordered to search and destroy. I had heard the stories of Charlie using civilians as suicide bombers to trap unsuspecting GI’s. Hiding a grenade in a baby stroller, or a woman hiding a bomb in her hat as she walked up to a platoon before detonating.

We wandered through the village, using the storm’s lighting strikes to see where we were going. It was the middle of monsoon season and there were times when I couldn’t remember what it felt like to be dry. Paranoia, exhaustion, fear, and impaired senses make for a deadly cocktail as most of the men, including myself, balanced our minds on a tight rope between sanity and suicide. I started to remember the vision of muzzle flashes as one man in our unit begin to open fire at a hut in the village. My ears going deaf and not being able to hear myself think; the high pitched ringing echoing in my head as I opened fire with my M16.

That was as far as my flashback went because I was suddenly thrown back into reality when the interior of my truck was filled with an orange glow from a set of headlights coming up behind me. “Turn off your high beams asshole”, I muttered to myself as I eased the truck to the shoulder to let the car behind me pass. The car wouldn’t pass me though, it just kept inching closer and closer to my rear bumper. Before I could decide on whether or not to brake check this dude I was greeted by a sudden shunt as the car’s front-end kissed the back of my Chevy truck, and then sped up to ram into me. Dropping the column shifter down into second gear, I forced the Chevy to give me every single rev the tired V8 had to give as I stood on the gas pedal.

I was pushing 90 as the Chevy bounded over every imperfection on the road. The car chasing me didn’t lose a beat as it stayed glued to my bumper, ramming into me as if it was hammering in a nail. Adrenaline was pulling me out of my drunken haze, trying to keep the truck from fishtailing as the hits started getting more and more violent. I could feel the truck wanting to let go as every shunt pushed the rear wheels faster than they were turning. Suddenly the car backed off, enough for me to get the truck stable. The orange light even began to dim as if the car was slowing down. The faint sigh of relief lasted only a few seconds before I was completely blinded by the orange light and thrown back in my seat by a metal crushing slam that managed to push the rear-end off the ground long enough to lose traction. Richard Petty couldn’t have done a much better job of preventing the truck from spinning out. All I could do was hang on as the truck began to spin circles down the road before smashing through a guardrail and slide down an embankment. I tired the brakes but the truck skidded on the grass before crashing nose first into a tree. Everything when black at the moment of impact as my face greeted the steering wheel.

Within the darkness, the memories started once again. I had been in the jungle for nearly 6 months and I knew I was never going to be the same again. The smell of death and decay was an invisible fog that never lifted, but instead fell over us like the thick humid air. Even my hands looked different when I stared at them, they were now the hands that had taken life away. I had six confirm kills to my name, and at least a dozen unknown. It had gotten to the point that I no longer saw Charlie as humans but rats that needed to be exterminated with napalm. My morals were slowly being erased by the horrors of war and I could feel the change happening but couldn’t stop it.

After we had cleared the area of Charlie, we had gathered all the supplies into a huge pile. Hundreds and thousands of pounds of ammo and guns being prepped to get blown sky high with explosives. The lieutenant ordered me to check the last hut for stragglers. “Clear it!” He barked. When I stormed into the hut all I find is a family of 6 small children, couldn’t have been more than ten or twelve years old with their eyes wide, stricken with terror. I spotted a couple of AK-47 rifles at their feet and a box of ammo behind one of the kids. “Davis! Clear that hut now!” yells the lieutenant, not knowing what I am staring at. I wanted to turn around and just pretend I didn’t see them, “walk away…” I thought. I lower my M16 and motioned my foot backwards to turn around. I was almost out, just a half second later and I would have been outside in the rain again, but I saw it. I saw a sudden movement out in the corner in my eye and my training took over. After the last full metal jacket casing had finished bouncing off the wooden floor, a lightning strike showed me what the sudden movement had been. It was my own shadow! My own paranoia had made me kill 6 children. I stood frozen in shock as I watched the collecting pool of blood crawl towards the tips of my boots as I felt the last moral in my soul being washed away by cold sweat.

The image of my shadow towering over the corpse of innocents shocked me back into conciseness. Drunken adrenaline kept the pain away but I could feel warm blood running down my face from a gash in my head. I put all my weight up against the door to force it to open as I stumbled out. Standing myself up to try and catch my breath, I looked around to readjust my eyes to see where I was, and what that orange light had been. Took only a moment for me to hear the sound of a souped up engine in the distance, a thumping clank of an engine with a hot camshaft singing through a pair of straight pipe exhaust. I heard the sound before I saw the source, but when I saw it I questioned whether or not I was still dreaming.

The orange light dimmed to show a ‘68 Cadillac hearse. The paint was animated as it bubbled and boiled as if it was under extreme heat. Suddenly the orange headlights turned off as a figure stepped out of the driver side door, and a neon green light beamed from within the interior of the hearse. “Who are you?” I shouted at the man sized figure. The figure stood there for a moment before walking down the embankment up to me. The red glow from my truck’s taillights were enough for me to see who it was and I froze with terror. The driver was dead! His suit was covered in mud and dirt as his skeleton hands adjusted his tie before looking up at me to revile his face. A skull with maggots and worms crawling inside his eye holes. My legs wouldn’t work, all I could do was tremble in fear as every instinct in my head was praying for me to run, but I couldn’t. The skull’s jaw moved as if it was going to say something, “Judgement”, was all it said before it launched itself at me. The last thing I saw before it all went dark was its mouth opening and running towards me in the blink of an eye.

When I opened my eyes all I could see was darkness, and when I tried to move I realized I was in a confined space…a coffin. I could still hear the engine running all around me, it was running at full throttle. “I’m not dead! You can’t do this! I am NOT DEAD!” I shouted into the dark. No answer. I couldn’t tell if it was tears or blood that was running down my cheeks but the panic was starting to set in as I begin to hit, kick, and scratch at the walls around me. Shouting for god and his mercy as my finger nails snapped off my flesh trying to claw away at the wooden box. Suddenly, I was jolted forward to the end of the coffin as the hearse slammed on its brakes to come to a stop. I silenced my screaming to wait and see what happened next.

I felt like a rag dog as the coffin was unloaded and dropped on what I hoped was solid ground. The coffin doors flew open and I was looking up at the night sky again. Not waiting to get trapped I jumped out of the coffin and looked around at where I was. I was still on the same road, the two lane blacktop I always used to get home. It wasn’t until I turned around that I saw emergency vehicles blocking off the road to attend to an accident of some kind. I felt a gust of wind push me forward to investigate what had happened. Paramedics and fire fighters seemed to run past me as if I didn’t exist, scrambling to attend to whoever it was that was injured.

Passing the blockade of police cars I saw three body bags on the ground side by side, one was noticeably shorter than the other two. Beyond that I saw the cause behind all this commotion, it was a head on collision between a station wagon, and a pickup truck…my pickup truck. The front-ends of both cars had vanished as they had both been pushed in like soda cans from the impact leaving nothing but bits of metal and glass scattered across the asphalt. I didn’t understand what was going on. I had just been driven off the road into a tree by a skeleton in a hearse and now here was my truck, completely demolished with three body bags as a result of it. I wanted to run away, run home and fall asleep so I could wake up from this hellish night terror. I wanted to wake up in a pool of my own sweat again just as the nights before, at least then I would take comfort in that this was all just a horrid dream. Why couldn’t I wake up!

I closed my eyes, “Wake up man! You need to wake up! For the love of God, wake the hell up!” I shouted. Then I heard one of the paramedics, he was shouting, “clear!” and I felt an extreme wave of heat fly across my chest. It was enough to knock me down to my knees. I turned to the ambulance to see a crowd had formed around the two paramedics. As I made my way to ambulance I could feel the strength leaving my body. I felt weak and was knocked down by another wave of extreme heat burning through my chest. I carried myself as my legs began to start feeling numb until I reached the crowd of firefighters and policemen who were surrounding the paramedics.

What I saw next threw me into shock. It was me! My legs were gone! They had been completely chopped off in the accident, my face was nearly unrecognizable, just a vague resemblance of bloody flesh. “It’s no good, I’m calling it, 12:01 am November 21, 1971.” Said the paramedic. “I’m dead…” I thought as the fully realization of my fate had become clear to me. That’s when I heard the sound of the engine again and saw the haunted hearse slowly creep up to meet me. The skeleton driver stepped out yet again and pointed at me. “Judgement”, it said in an oily voice that shook me to my core.

“Tragic, this family was traveling back from vacation.” I heard someone say but nobody was around. “How do you know?” said another voice. “I found these Disneyland Mickey Mouse ears on the side of the road, must have belonged to the little girl.” My eyes widen. The little girl, the smaller body bag. I had killed a family, and myself, in a drunk driving accident. I remembered now. Driving on the road, seeing everything go black as I tried to fight the urge to fall sleep just before I saw a set of headlights in the distance. So much innocence taken away by my hand and now it was time to answer for my mistakes. The skeleton driver opened the coffin for me to get in, but I refused to get back in that box. I turned to run away into the night. The driver stood like a statue as he pulled a handheld scythe from behind his back and then set off sprinting holding the scythe over his head.

The skeleton driver wiped the blood off his scythe before placing it carefully back in its engraved silver case. He placed the now loaded coffin in the back of his chariot of hellfire before adjusting his tie one last time and getting behind the wheel of his Cadillac. The orange headlights beamed as the engine cranked over, spitting fire out of the exhaust. The bubbling black paint boiling intensely as the hearse roared away down the two lane blacktop before vanishing into thin air leaving no trace of its presence. All that was left on the road after the accident was a set of military dog tags that had appeared to have been burned.

Happy Halloween Everybody – J.G.

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