Welcome to Route Forty-Four….a lonesome stretch of highway that one might do well to avoid once darkness falls and a hitchhiker of a different sort seeks a ride…
Frightening images can mutate within the passage of time; becoming increasingly horrific as the subconscious slowly creates a tapestry sewn from fear and anxiety; a wholly fictional tapestry that was never a part of the original scene. Regardless, the horrors one truly visualizes and what they think they saw can be equally fatal deep within the recess of a fragile mind.
“Seeing is believing’...indeed.
With that in mind, let us press that pedal to the floor and cruise the still, black night along...ressurection road...
“Get your rear in gear, Dude. You’re already late….for a very important date,” he blurted nervously, attempting in vain to block out the buzzing choir of cricket’s whose incessant rant only seemed to intensify. The car’s hood stood agape, the thin trail of smoke rising from it’s overheated engine barely visible in the foreground of the blackened forest engulfing the highway.
“Brenda ain’t exactly known for her patience and understanding.Woman is libel to tattoo the outline of her knuckles on my forehead if I’m late picking her up again.”
Wiping comically overgrown bangs from his line of vision, Chris began circling the vehicle, purposely avoiding any prolonged eye contact within the narrow back glass.He had worked as a transport driver for Desmond’s Mortuary for just over two weeks, a summer job to assist in paying off his student loan, and had yet to become comfortable in sharing vehicle space with a coffin, much less its recently-deceased contents.Sticking the face of his wristwatch practically flush with his left eye, he noted its dimly lit hands read .
“Great. Barely twenty four minutes ‘til the viewing.Gonna be some seriously pissed off family members.Late for his own viewing…’ he mumbled through a warped grin, ‘..it is to laugh.”
Having just turned twenty, Chris Munson stood six-four and tipped the scales at a hardly robust one-hundred sixty-five pounds.Nicknamed ‘Walking Stick’ by his high school and now college peers, he nonetheless held a starting position on the basketball team as a sophomore.Despite his lanky build, narrow face, pointy chin and stringy, shoulder length hair, Chris was building a solid reputation around campus as quite the ladies man, a label he didn’t at all mind cultivating.
Just as he kneeled down to sit on the hearse’s front bumper, a pair of headlights appeared from the east, piercing the night air like twin lasers negotiating a subterranean cave.
Can’t be the boss man.Coming from the wrong di-rec-tion. With any luck, it’s Mr.Goodwrench himself coming to save the day.
As the vehicle neared, Chris could tell it was visibly slowing. The cell phone hooked to his belt sounded off just as a late model Grand Prix rolled to a stop just a few feet from where he stood.
“Yeah?’ he answered, waiving at the Pontiac’s as yet unseen driver with his free hand, ‘Yeah, radiator’s still bubbling Sir.Pretty safe bet that she’s bone dry.I recall she seemed to be running hot a few times earlier in the week.”
A portly, middle-aged man wearing a worn ‘RED SOX’ cap stood from the Grand Prix’s driver side as Chris posed with the cell phone tucked tightly against his left ear.
“You folks okay?” the man asked dourly, his tone more put-upon than helpful.
“Um...hang on, Mr. Desmond,’ Chris said, temporarily lowering the cell, ‘…just fine.Got someone on the way.Appreciate you stopping, though.”
Did he just say, ‘folks’?
The man nodded briefly, then ducked back into the vehicle and quickly drove away.
What did he mean, ‘folks’? Was he counting the stiff?
Just as he turned his attention back to the cell, he thought he heard a muffled clicking sound, like a car door being eased shut. Twisting about in an impromptu about-face, he scanned the area around the hearse but saw nothing.
“I’m back, sir.Just a good Samaritan.Route four-four ain’t exactly a hub of activity.Yes, sir….see you in a few.”
Securing the tiny device onto his belt, Chris couldn’t help but ponder what the Pontiac’s driver had meant by ‘folks’.Folks; as in plural…as in; more than one.
Dude probably assumed that someone was in the passenger seat. Either that, or the poor guy’s waaaay past due to see his optometrist.
Leaning in just beneath the propped hood, his nostrils assaulted by the smell of boiling anti-freeze, Chris viewed the car’s entrails like an anthropologist attempting to decipher recently discovered hieroglyphics from an ancient stone tablet.Desmond had mentioned something about a ‘thermostat’, or possibly a ‘ruptured hose’.Scratching his head and smiling wryly, Chris stepped away from the hood and stood on the centerline with his bony arms folded across his equally slender chest.
Knew I should have taken a shop class in High School.Only thermostat I know about is on the dayroom wall back in the dorm.
His watch reading , he sighed and sat down lotus style directly at the center of Route Forty-Four. It was rare for a customer to request the deceased be brought to a residence for viewing instead of remaining at the funeral home, but Dean Desmond’s motto had always been and would always remain ‘In times of bereavement, never question a families decision’.Translation: ‘If they’re paying, we’re granting’. Desmond’s Mortuary had been a lucrative business for going on three decades for a reason; give the grieving family what they desire no matter how outwardly outlandish or strange, for a price. Usually a very steep price, at that.
Desmond and his short cuts.Talk about the middle of nowhere.Man could die out here and be picked clean by the buzzards before anyone ever discovered the bones.
A sudden gust of wind struck his face, forcing him to wipe away the long, jagged bangs from his field of vision.
Quit stalling, man.Call the girl and tell her you’ll be at least an hour late.Yeah, she’ll be royally P.O’d, but it’s better than just showing up at her pad with an excuse that just begs to be picked apart.Worse, if she’s downed a few glasses of wine, she’s libel to dump a pot full of boiling spaghetti on your hea..
“Need some help, son?” the voice chimed, seemingly mere inches from Chris’s right ear.
Hopping forward on all fours as if forcefully shoved, Chris attempted to cry out but found insufficient air to do so.Leaping clumsily to his feet, he seriously considered the thumping palpitations at his chest as the first signs of a massive coronary.
“Wh-who…w-whal-?” he managed, his squinting eyes still adjusting to the lone figure standing just a few feet away.
“Sorry to startle ya, son,” the man replied, backing up a step and holding his hands high with the palms out.
He was a rather short, elderly man with thinning, silver hair that was obviouslycombed over to cover his balding dome.He wore a dark brown suit and striped tie that hung the length of his stubby torso. In the dimness of the surrounding night, Chris could tell little of the man’s facial features other than a veritable road map of wrinkles around his eyes and lips.
“Uh…no, I….it’s just that, well…you caught me by surprise…um…mister..uh..”
The man scratched his head for a moment, as if contemplating the correct answer.
“Mills….Dalton Mills Junior.I…uh…was just talking a….walk, I...I reckon…’ the old man finally countered, turning to size up the hearse, ‘...want me to take a look? I was…uh...used to be pretty fair with a wrench.”
Taking a walk in a suit and tie? Poor old dude might just be one brick shy of a load.Tread carefully…
Chris gestured towards the vehicle, forcing a smile.
“Be my guest, Mr. Mills.Old heap overheated.My boss is own his way with a jug of water for the radiator.I’m on….was on my way to a…uh…appointment. I’m already late, so any time I can save is valuable.”
Without responding, the old man walked over and ducked beneath the hood.Keeping a three to four foot distance between them, Chris watched the man reach inside and begin tinkering with both hands, seemingly indifferent to the possibility of coating his suit in oil or grease.
After a full three minutes of silence, the old man leaned out and grunted knowingly.
“Your prognosis, doctor?” Chris asked, instantly regretting his choice of words.
The old man eyed him curiously.
“What’s that, son?”
“Uh, you got it figured out?”
“Ay-yep.Your thermostat’s stickin’, that’s a certainty. Have your boss fill ‘er up, and she’ll get where you need to go for now.I’d have that ‘stat switched first chance ya get, though.”
Stepping forward until he was at arm’s length from the elderly man, Chris felt an inexplicable chill trail up his spine that instantly transformed the short hairs on his neck into spiked quills.He started to reach forward to offer his hand, then recoiled as if snake bitten.
“Well, I sure appreciate you looking at it, Mister Mills.You better finish up your walk before you’re missed.”
“Ay-yep…they just might…at that,” the old man replied flatly, staring at the winding road ahead with slumped shoulders and a slack, lifeless expression.
From want of anything else to do, Chris turned back to the hearse and pretended to inspect the engine, balancing his bony elbows on either side of an octagon shaped ornament at the hood’s center.
“Thanks again, Mister Mills.You take care now,” he said without turning, hoping the old man had already walked away.He had no idea why he felt so uneasy in the man’s presence, but at that moment desired nothing more than to be happily isolated once again.
After a brief moment of silence (cricket overture not withstanding), Chris slowly cocked his head around to check the old man’s whereabouts, as he had yet to hear footsteps indicating departure.
The headlight beams descending from the tip of a nearby grade lit the roadway like runway lighting, allowing Chris a clearly illuminated two to three hundred foot view of the highway and its adjoining shoulders.
“D-Desmond, I presume?” he quipped nervously in a pathetic attempt to divert his rattled senses from the mind-numbing mystery on display.
Okay, don’t pop a vessel, man.The old guy must have got confused and walked into the woods.Yeah, that’s it.Maybe he had to take a leak.I hear old dudes have a hard time holding back the old floodgates.
As the vehicle grew closer, he instantly recognized the shape of Desmond’s Mercury Cougar.Leaning against the hearse’s passenger door, Chris felt his legs weaken as if he’d just completed an uphill sprint.His eyes darted from left to right several times, as if expecting the old man to appear from thin air in the same fashion as he had seemingly vanished.
As the Cougar pulled onto the left shoulder just behind the stalled hearse, Chris felt strangely compelled to kneel down onto all fours and check beneath the car, although the thought of a pair of gnarled, liver-spot ravaged hands shooting out to grip his ankles prevented the actual act.
Obtain a grip, Christopher….mama Munson didn’t raise no cowards. None that she knows about anyhow.
“Has it cooled off?” he heard someone ask from what seemed like a faraway mountaintop.
“Chris? I said, has it cooled off?”
Dean Desmond, bathed in headlights, stood directly in front of him, the man’s pock-marked face the color of a freshly cut rose; his thinning black hair pinned to his forehead by fresh fop sweat.
“Uh…I…I guess so, Sir.You...um...bring a jug or two of water?” he croaked in response while scanning a nearby patch of thick shrubbery for any possible movement.
“In my trunk.Let’s move with a purpose, Chris.The Harrison’s are waiting for their dearly departed as we speak.My cell phone hasn’t stopped ringing in the last half hour.”
Pulling back onto the highway less than five minutes later with Desmond’s vehicle hot on his trail, Chris’ darting eyes examined both sides of the road and the nearby forest, secretly praying he spot the outline of a squatty old man wearing a dark suit somewhere in the vicinity.
It is Dean Desmond who discovers the hearse’s rear door partially agape upon their arrival at the Harrison home some eighteen minutes after departing Route Forty-Four. Following a brief scolding from his always-excitable boss, Chris Munson prepares the mahogany coffin for removal when a framed photo sitting near the coffin’s base catches his soon-to-be twitching eyes.
A framed photo obviously meant to accompany the dearly departed upon viewing by those coming to pay their respects.
Despite a thick head of hair that is dark brown in lieu of silver and a complexion not yet ravaged by the passage of time, the individual featured in the grainy black and white photograph is easily identified.Suddenly feeling as if his scalp were literally lit ablaze, Chris drops the frame to the concrete drive below.Glass fragments scatter like miniature ice crystals in and around his feet, but he is utterly oblivious.As his tremor-racked hands reach ever-so-gingerly for the coffin’s slick, heavily waxed lid, he thinks he hears Dean Desmond bellowing from the home’s front porch.
The lid swings open with little effort on his part.
Cautiously, he leans inside and takes a peek, his breath hot with a sudden fever.
He begins to giggle.The giggle transforms into a muffled guffaw that he covers with his free hand.The muffled guffaw mutates into a wailing howl which, from a distance, one might associate with the shrieking of a caged animal.Upon his abrupt descent onto the glass-coated concrete below, Chris Munson feels something within his subconscious snap, much like an overextended rubber band or a brittle shard of wood beneath a workman’s steel-toed boot.
He never feels the heavy thud that brings forth the darkness.
“Glad you saw fit to ride with us, Mr. Desmond.Sorry to pull you away from the dinner table and all,” the deputy says, passing a rust-engulfed pick-up truck that is leaving a virtual funnel cloud of black smoke in its wake.
“No problem, Deputy.I...seem to be the only one to whom he listens during these...episodes,” Dean Desmond replies from the cruiser’s passenger seat.A nervous habit he has picked up of late, he vigorously wrings his hands as if severely chilled.
From the backseat, a rather large, heavily muscled man wearing a white lab jacket with state insignia leans toward the front and speaks in a calm, reserved tone that belies his rather menacing outward appearance.
“Seems every time they make the decision to move him to minimum security, we’re forced to participate in this little hide and go seek side-show. Again, Mr. Desmond, Doctor Willis wanted to pass on a formal apology from the institute.I’ve been told it most definitely will not happen again.”
Desmond nods as if duly satisfied, his self-induced hand wrestling competition never wavering.
The deputy executes a wide right turn onto an aged two-lane clearly marked ROUTE 44, and all three men visibly tense as the cruiser is swallowed up by the thick foliage lining both sides of the roadway in jagged walls built of neglected grass and overgrown weeds.The sun vanishes behind the wall’s seemingly impenetrable blockade, instantly transforming early afternoon into late evening.
“So the kid still has the crazy notion that he’s a body snatcher? I mean, I’ve only been on the force since June, but everybody in the whole blessed state has heard the legend of Dalton Mills.Don’t mean to stick my nose in where it don’t belong, but what is he being treated for specifically?” the deputy queries, his words growing increasingly timid as he progresses.
“I’m not the treating physician, officer, but even so, I wouldn’t be at liberty to say,” the man replies from the back seat, no longer leaning forward but against the left passenger window, intensely scanning the passing landscape through wide, unblinking eyes.
“Since that night….almost been two years now, that Christopher seemed to somehow...misplace Dalton Mills body, his fractured mind has constructed then subsequently torn down several scenarios that have kept him institutionalized,” Dean Desmond begins, his words released in a stiff, mechanical monotone not unlike an audio recording of one’s study notes.
"The authorities quickly cleared him of wrong doing, but Chris initially blamed himself for....stealing the body and...inexplicably hiding it for no apparent reason.His second theory was supernaturally themed, that being that Mr. Mills was obviously a wandering phantom of some kind, a kinder, gentler version of the living dead, I presume.”
The cruiser slows as it crests a steep, curvy hill, a light colored Jeep Cherokee parked crookedly along the wide, gravelly shoulder.
A young couple stands outside the jeep, the female holding a cell phone tightly against her left ear.As the cruiser nears, the young man waives them on, pointing eastward.
“Must be our witnesses,” the man in the back seat announces somewhat wearily.
Slowing the cruiser to less than twenty miles per hour, the deputy centers the yellow line, flicking on the spotlight that hangs from the driver’s window. The wide oval light hardly dents the forests overgrown perimeter, which resembles a solid wall constructed of leaves, vines, and waist-high sea-grass.
“Gonna be hard to find him in that jungle.State boys are on their way, but it’ll be at least another hour or so,” the deputy says, braking almost to a complete stop.
“I see him, officer,” Desmond blurts excitedly, pointing straight out onto the highway ahead.
All three men depart the vehicle as if extremely pained to do so, the deputy concentrating the spotlight a few dozen feet to their north.
“Got that hypodermic at the ready?” the deputy asks the larger man, who was in the process of pulling a long-needled syringe from a bulky black bag which he had lain on the cruiser’s idling hood.
“Locked and loaded. Let’s hope he goes gently,’ he replies, now eyeing their intended target with a comically curious expression, ‘...my god, what’s he saying?”
Dean Desmond steps past the other two men, his hands held palms up.His smile is kind but obviously manufactured as he nears the young man whose nearly incomprehensible rants pierce the misty night air like a malfunctioning car alarm.
“Just wait…just have to…wait…be patient...that’s all….patience is a virtue, right? Dalton’s here…..I can feel him…can’t you FEEL HIM? He’s been here….RIGHT HERE…all along!” Chris Munson screams, pacing from one side of the shoulder to the other, waiving his spindly arms madly as his pale, nude body shakes and tremors in short, concentrated spasms.His once blonde locks have turned ghost white; his once youthful, unblemished face contorted into a grotesque mask of unimaginable anguish born from the darkest regions of a lunatic’s realm.
“It’s all right, Chris. It’s perfectly all right.I’ll wait with you,’ Dean Desmond says as the boy paces just a few feet away, ‘...we’ll both wait for Dalton, how’s that?”
“We’ll need a car!A car with….with an open hood, YES! THAT’SIT!Dalton won’t appear until he…until he has a purpose….A REASONFOR BEING! Don’t you….don’t they get it? He’s coming back, dammit!! He’s coming back…..and he’ll then…. he’ll...he’ll tell everybody why…why and how he refused….refused to stay dead! Once the mysteries cleared up….cleared up once and for all…..I’ll…I can get…back on track….put my life back…back in order. So….let’s set things up, Dean…set things up for Dalton!That police car there….pull the hood!PULL THE DAMN HOOD!!”
Sprinting towards the cruiser, his skeletal frame horrifically emaciated, Christopher Paul Munson can no longer visualize the landscape he so recklessly treads.He can no longer hear Dean Desmond’s pleading cries.The cruiser, as well as the two uniformed figures standing nearby, vanish in segmented flashes, like puzzled pieces being pulled apart a single section at a time.
As his frenzied dash slows to a lumbering jog, a lone figure steps from the murky fog and halts at the center of Route Forty-Four, its arms spread wide as to receive a long-delayed hug.
Chris smiles in sweet, unbridled relief as he lunges towards the old man’s waiting embrace.
Dalmon Mills’ warm, kind smile matches the younger man’s own.….save the bloodied, slightly hooked fangs that protrude downward like crimson spear-tips.
As he collapses into the old man’s cold, steely grip, Chris finally understands that he has finally come home. Home to a lonesome, isolated stretch of highway on Route Forty-Four that was to become, by default, his own little corner of the world.A rarely driven trail of cracked, worn asphalt that he and his new surrogate father would forever roam, searching in vain for a life they could never again claim.