Haunted Passages Short Story: “How Close Is It?” by Darlene Eliot

Night driving was easy. He knew what to do with a windy mountain pass, a straight shot through cornfields, a detour around streets too narrow for an eighteen-wheeler. He knew what to do when the moon disappeared behind checkpoints and his headlights were the only light on the road. He knew what to do when his eyelids got too heavy and blaring music no longer worked and he had to roll down the window to force himself to blink. Get through it, he thought. Get through it. Get in, get out, get paid. The weeks went by and he lost track of time, of home, his sensations. He didn’t know he had a windburned left ear until he got home and his girlfriend stroked the side of his face. He winced and, surprised by his own reaction, slipped out of bed, saying it was cold in Wyoming. After ten months, he tired of the grind—as he tired of everything. He decided to drive local and come home every night. His girlfriend and the others who thought they knew him were relieved.

Local driving suited him, but he was still restless; switching accounts when he tired of the routine or managers. He didn’t say much when he walked through the truck yard or lowered his head to walk through doorways and get his paperwork. His standoffishness didn’t endear him to the other drivers. When they asked where he was from, how he got so tall, or what his problem was, he walked past them to his assigned truck and said nothing. He only half-listened to the managers, tapping his boot on the tile while he waited for new instructions and wished they would hurry up, so he could get on the road.

One night, after helping his neighbor change a tire, he arrived late and overheard the  managers laugh in a way that reminded him of his fighting days. Something about a driver losing it on the Merriville run. He crossed his arms and waited for them to break it up. One turned around, grinned, pointed a finger, and said, “Looks like you’re up.” The Merriville run was his, along with the weird stories. Stories he’d heard in the break room as drivers nursed their coffee and waited for loaded trailers. Stories about drivers quitting on the spot and managers having to send someone to pick up their trucks. One driver said he got the hell out after something knocked over a pallet when he backed up the forklift. Another said he dropped his flashlight after getting a glimpse of eroded gums. Everyone stopped at that point. Two threw their coffee cups into the trash—coffee splashing onto the plastic cover—and walked out.  A driver about to retire clapped the back of a younger one and said, “Keep your head in the game.” The rest filed out without a word.

He thought about the stories as he did his safety check. He thought about them as he merged onto the freeway and two cars and a pickup with a busted brake light cut him off. He thought about them as he listened to fire updates from Merriville, wondering how long it would take to unload the palettes of canned soup in his trailer. Get in, get out, get paid, he thought.

The fire didn’t worry him. Not with two and a half months of forestry training under his belt. It was easy, until he realized he didn’t want to answer to anyone—especially the captain—and he needed to look for something else. He remembered the important stuff, that’s what counted, and he had lived in California long enough to expect a blaze every year. He also expected power outages in Merriville; a mandatory thing when lightning strikes started fires. He had his smoke mask and a headlamp. Easy, he thought, adjusting his mirror.

His eyes scanned the darkening, four-lane highway. Being alone with his thoughts was the only downside to the job. When things got out of hand, he listened to jazz, Tejano music, metal, his girlfriend’s anthropology podcast or tried to recite his mother’s mantra without getting tongue-tied. Pleasant distractions from the stiffness in his ankle and things he didn’t want to think about, including the drivers’ descriptions of what was in that warehouse. Something tall, hunched, mangy. Something with hooves clacking the concrete. They laughed, like the managers, only not as loud. Then they dispersed, arching their shoulders as if trying to shake something off.

They walked away like his brothers did after punching him in the arm or tackling him too hard when they were kids. Dispersing without a sound, so they wouldn’t be asked about toughening him up. Being the youngest and the tallest was unfortunate. It made his brothers opportunistic, instead of protective—especially when they discovered he could outbox older boys. He didn’t speak to them after a fight that sent him and his sixth-grade opponent to the ER; leaving him with a busted finger and threats from the sixth-grader’s friends. His impulse to scan his surroundings never left after that. Nor did his distrust of his brothers. When they offered to split the proceeds from the fight and help him with his homework, he fixed his eyes on the TV and didn’t move. He watched a man crawl on his belly, look through his binoculars, and heard another man say, ‘How close is it?’ His brothers slinked away. He shot a withering look at the hallway. The same look he gave his opponents later in the ring, his instructor at the trucking school, the managers of each account he left, and the hyena who gave him the Merriville run.

Ash floated in his headlight beams as he reached the city limits. He followed orange cones to the designated turn-off and a Highway Patrol waved him through. The city was dark, as expected, and the ash increased as he drove past pine trees and oaks down the two-lane road to the warehouse. He rumbled over gravel, then pavement, and backed into a battered docking bay. His stomach tightened as he put on his smoke mask and reached for his headlamp. His reaction surprised him. He’d heard every creepy story on long haul and hadn’t felt a thing. Not even when he ran out of hours and had to stop in the middle of nowhere; closing the curtains of the sleeper cab, only to be awakened by strange noises outside. He was used to nowhere. He was all about nowhere. And this run was easy.

He switched on the headlamp and stepped into ash-filled silence. The beam from his forehead swept the surrounding area, illuminating an abandoned Firebird with a trash bag in the window. His stomach tightened again. Another place for some fool to hide, he thought. He adjusted his mask, turned toward the warehouse and walked up the ramp. The light beam shone on the metal door. It was ajar, for no reason. He paused. Then grabbed the handle and opened the door wide. He propped his foot against it, grabbed twine from the railing and looped the slip knot over the door handle. After securing it, he walked into the musty building and scanned the rows of pallets until he spotted a forklift. He inserted his key. A Low Battery message flashed on the control panel. He cursed into his mask, realizing he’d have to unload everything by hand.

The warehouse door slammed shut and he jumped. An unfamiliar chill rushed through his body. He retraced his steps and pushed open the door, attributing the slam to the increased wind. Ash tickled his forehead as he secured the slip knot over the handle. He tensed at the sound of chains on metal, eyeing the roll-up door behind his trailer. He snorted into his mask and went back into the warehouse. Get in, get out, get paid, he thought. Just get goddam paid.

The warehouse door slammed shut again. He dropped the hand grip on a pallet jack and doubled back to the door, pushing it open with both hands. He pivoted to the roll-up door, pulled on the chains, and walked through the new opening. His headlamp flickered as he reentered the building. He removed it, fiddled with the button, and replaced it; tightening the band around his forehead. Chains scraped metal again. He glanced toward the opening, eyes wide, and forced himself to breathe. In and out. Get in, get out. He reached into his pocket, fumbling for the amulet his girlfriend gave him for long haul. He rubbed the smooth stone and put it back in his pocket. He rubbed the back of his neck, trying to reorganize his thoughts, then felt a stinging sensation in his nostrils. Ice formed in his lungs. He heard clacking sounds on the concrete, but couldn’t tell from which direction. He tried to breathe. Override the coldness in his chest. The stiffness of his arms. He forced himself to turn his head and saw a lip receding from a gumline. Patches of fur on a neck. A translucent eyelid, pulling back; assessing what to feed on first. And everything he might have said disappeared in the dust.

Darlene Eliot lives in California. When not writing short fiction, she enjoys time with her sweetheart and hiking anywhere near water or Redwoods. Her work has appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Puerto del Sol, Your Impossible Voice, Lost Balloon, and elsewhere.

Image: tulpaforum.com

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