by T.M. Morgan

Jim Harmon finished his dinner of pork chops and fried potatoes, the last bite of charred fat sliding down his gullet. Before he could grab another beer, his cell rang.

“Jim. Dave Clangmore. Hey, can you do an overnight haul? Just came up last minute.”

Jim did a quick calculation of how much he might make and subtracted out what would likely be a lot of bullshit. Even though that calculation ended in the black, his inclination was to say no.

“Ah, shit, Dave, I’m just back from a week out Midwest. I appreciate the—”

“Ten grand. I need someone I can trust.”

“That sounds like trouble. Where to? Is the load legal?”

“Colbert City,” Dave said. “The trailer stays locked. No questions.”

“Goddamn, man. There could be a bunch of trafficked girls back there.”

“If you don’t do it, someone else will. I don’t have much more info but have been assured it’s nothing illegal. We go back a long time, Jim.”

“Yeah. It’s shady as shit, and we both know it. But I need the money. Where’s the pickup at?”

“Techmo Industrial Park. I’ll text the details.”

Jim cleaned up the dishes and headed out to fire up his Freightliner. Once he’d done a three-sixty check, he strapped in, let the diesel rumble to life, and pulled onto Dillon Bridge Road, spitting dirt behind him.

The trailer sat on jacks behind DiGro Pharmaceuticals with the rear doors locked tight. Jim patted the side as he did his rounds, pausing to listen for any response. None came. Humming as he worked, he eased the tractor back until the trailer’s kingpin slid into the fifth wheel, then worked on connecting the hoses. A kid hustled from the DiGro warehouse looking as if he might puke.

“Hey, uh, Mister Harmon? Mark Kelly. They told me to keep an eye on it until you got here.”

“What’s inside, kid?”

Mark bent over and grabbed his crotch as if his balls had just caught fire. “I—I don’t know. I just work in the warehouse. Please. This has to get to Colbert city ASAP.”

Jim was irritated by the pressure. “Let me finish my hookup and then I’ll make sure the delivery gets there safe and sound. Deal?”

The boy nodded. “Okay. Yes, sir.”

“Hey,” Jim said, “why didn’t they get one of your drivers?”

Mark this time yelped when he bent over, his face twisting in pain. “No one…available.”

“You alright, kid?”

“Fine,” he said and shuffled, bent over at the waist, back into the warehouse. Jim heard the door clack when it locked.

“Fucker,” Jim said.

He fired up the diesel again, eased out of the parking lot and through the shitty part of town, and then turned onto Route 542. Soon enough, he got into a nice cruising speed at sixty-five. The headlights beamed out on an empty highway, save for another rig far ahead, its red lights like demon eyes. Jim reached for his phone and swiped open a Pandora station. The radio blasted an electric guitar so loudly he jerked the truck onto the shoulder.

By the time he veered back and edged the volume down, the truck far ahead had evaporated into the night. He was now the only show on the road.

Jim tapped his finger and sang along to RATT’s “Round and Round.” Six hours to Colbert City, thirty minutes at most for the drop, and head back with a “tide me over” at the exit 81 truck stop: he figured he’d be home by ten the next morning. In the cupholder between the seats, a worn pill bottle held half a dozen Adderall. He popped the bottle open and downed two. Easy as Sunday morning, he thought.

The trailer jostled, enough for Jim to feel a tremor in the cab. His heart rate shot up instantly. After that jolt, a second came, and he saw a ripple cascade along the trailer wall in the side mirror.

Be calm.

The voice echoed in his head like a thousand crows, all chittering atop each other. His hands trembled on the steering wheel. Instinctively, he reached for the stick to downshift and get ready to pull onto the shoulder.

Keep moving.

This time, the voice came with an electric shock to the base of his skull at the nexus of his brain stem and spinal cord. It sprung through his nervous system, hopping to every nerve ending like a wildfire.

You will be fine if you obey.

“Who the hell are you? Where are you?”

There had been times he felt like a prisoner at the wheel: behind schedule or caught in a road trance, or simply too ornery to stop for a piss and lose a minute of time. Always that drive to go, go, go, a thousand miles in a day, the meter tick-tick-ticking. Now, he had an actual voice inside his head, its presence a fist gripping his mind; and it insisted—even without speaking he felt this thing noodling around in his mind—he put the pedal to the metal and blot out everything else.

Stop thinking. Just go. Don’t slow down.

The road blurred. For a split second, he thought he would pass out.

“You’re in the trailer,” he said.

Faster or I will eat your soul.

Jim gassed up to seventy-five but no more; the last thing he needed was to see the reds and blues behind him. With each passing mile, he felt the urge to slam the brakes and run like hell.

At midnight, another rig rolled behind him from an onramp and caught his draft. The CB crackled with the driver’s weary voice.

“Howdy, Freightshaker. I got your back door. Had a clean shot tonight?”

Jim was in no mood for conversation. But as he began to say everything was A-OK, that presence made it clear to get rid of the other driver…or there would be consequences. No words, only images, horrors that could only happen amid fire and brimstone. Jim was sure he must be hauling the devil.

He grabbed the mic. “No bears. Just me and the road. Shoot around me, buddy. I’m pulling in for a quick thirty soon.”

“Castle One Stop is up ahead. We could get some grub together.”

Make him go now. His voice claws at my mind.

“Appreciate the offer,” Jim said, “but I’m in no mood for company.”

There was a moment of silence. “Everything alright up th—”

DAMN HIM!

Jim saw the other cab glow red in his side mirror and heard a split second of the man’s high-pitched scream through the CB. Then his truck spun hard left toward the cement median, slammed into the concrete so hard the front tires exploded, and twisted so that the trailer jackknifed across the road. The haul was a tanker, maybe liquid nitrogen because a cloud of whitish gas mushroomed at the site.

Faster, before I change my mind about this nonsense and consume you. It’s fine with me if you’re my last meal.

 The midnight moon played peekaboo with gathering clouds, making Jim’s headlights the only thing keeping complete darkness at bay, save for the occasional exit sign. He could no longer see the wreckage behind him and was grateful for that.

“Can I call it in? That man may still—”

He’s not.

“What the hell do you want?”

The creature in the trailer shot images so bleak and depraved that Jim wished the thing would melt his brain and end it now. Suffering can go on for a long time before the soul gives up, the thing seemed to be implying.

I have to keep my part of the deal. As for who I am, I have been called many names. None of them matter. I am a devourer of souls. Now, speed up. You are irritating me.

Jim stared at the brass cross hanging from his rearview and conjured up an image of Satan: the red skin, the horns. The thing laughed loudly in his head, its deep, sinister guffaws as sickening as nails on a chalkboard. The longer it laughed, the angrier Jim got. He thought of the dead trucker, some poor schlep who did nothing wrong except to ask about dinner.

“Devourer of souls? Then why are you hiding in this trailer like some punk bitch?”

In response, the thing shot a thunderbolt to his balls and, with tears streaming down his eyes, it was all Jim could do to stay on the road. It felt like magma-hot picks being jabbed into him. With another mind-shattering laugh, the thing released the pain and went quiet. Jim wiped tears from his eyes and thought of the kid back at the DiGro. But the jolt only made him angrier. Jim had never been keen on taking bullshit from anyone.

After fifteen minutes, the high sign for the Castle One truck stop jutted above the trees. A mile past that, the parking lot fluorescents glowed like some alien mothership through the trees. Jim had stopped here a few times before returning from long runs, but the place was so close to home he most often skipped it. Tonight, it shone like a desert oasis, the last place to get water for a thousand miles.

“I need to piss,” he said.

Go ahead. Piss your pants. Ah, it’s a trick. Your curiosity is peaking. You want to break the lock and see me for yourself. I would enjoy watching you sink into madness. By all means, truck driver, pull over and let us meet face to face.

The temptation remained despite the dread that built in the pit of Jim’s stomach. “You’re government technology maybe. A secret project.”

So they hired you to transport me, little man, rather than a military convoy? Tempt your fate then and pull over. But you have seen what I am capable of. I am nothing you can comprehend.

Castle One, with its rows of rigs lined up in the lot, passed on his right. He stared straight ahead and kept his foot on the gas.

At 1:00 AM, a sign said Colbert City was fifty miles to go. The route on Google Maps added another ten miles of intra-city winding around to that. The destination was a two-bit industrial park on the west side of town. So, an hour and twenty-five minutes total. He had felt nothing of the presence since Castle One and began to wonder if it had fallen asleep, or died, or if the whole thing was an Adderall-induced hallucination.

“Fuck you,” he said as a test and got no response.

A series of four-wheelers passed on the other side of the median going the opposite direction, the first one missing a headlight. The last had an interior light on, a minivan it seemed, with a platoon of rugrats crawling over one another in the back, and a movie playing on a drop-down screen. What a miserable life, Jim had always thought: hauling puking monstrosities everywhere you went. Then he remembered his own load, laughed sarcastically, and cursed Dave Clangmore for getting him into this mess.

You’ve slowed down. Faster. I need to get out of this infernal box.

“I thought you were asleep.”

I don’t sleep. You’re simply boring. Faster.

“I’m doing eighty. Any more, and I’ll get pulled over.”

As a reminder of its cantankerous nature, the thing scorched his balls again, and this time paired that with a cacophonous laugh. Jim dutifully kicked it up to ninety. With thirty miles to go, his radar detector blipped. A mile later, he thought he’d made it clear, maybe some smokey taking a nap in the dead of night. Then he caught a burst of reds and blues in his side mirror. The trooper came on fast, high on too much coffee likely. Jim downshifted several times before easing onto the wide shoulder.

What are you doing? Do not stop.

“We hit a bear trap. If I don’t, it will only get worse.”

Bear trap? Humans are pathetic linguists.

“A trooper. I’m going to get a speeding ticket like I said.”

Make it go away.

Jim watched a mama bear stride up, her hair tied in a ponytail, wide face mostly hidden under a light-colored Stetson. She stopped outside his door and made a winding motion with her hand. When the window eased fully down, she looked at him with disgust.

“What the hell are you doing? Step out of the truck.” When he climbed down, she eyed him top to bottom. “Do you know why I pulled you over?”

“Speeding?”

“You were doing a hundred. What are you thinking?”

Make it go away or I will.

Jim thought of the poor bastard driving the nitrogen haul and didn’t want to see up close what had happened in that cab.

“Sorry about that. Tight deadline.”

“License and registration. Where are you headed?”

“Colbert City.”

“Hold on here for a few minutes.”

Make that assemblage of feces go away.

Jim considered slugging the officer and forcing her to arrest him; or running up the embankment and into the woods. The creature sensed these ponderings and once again resorted to testicular torture.

Hours seemed to tick by in his head. He prayed the woman could somehow sense the urgency and hurry the fuck up. When he was to the point of screaming there was a monster in the truck, she stepped from her vehicle and strolled toward him.

“You okay? Jock itch?”

“Long drive. My balls get cinched up.”

They glared long and hard at each other. Jim thought this an old-fashioned staring contest. It took a few seconds for him to recognize deeper distress on her face. Then blood seeped from her nose. Her mouth leaked pink foam, and a deep gurgle sounded in her throat. Her eyes pleaded with him to help. With no warning, her face first imploded, being sucked inward in a symphony of crunching bones, before grinding into a whirlpool of brain and flesh, spinning into a tight cyclone that ended in a dark abyss. Her entire head disappeared into that vortex, and the headless body collapsed to the ground, the jugular still pumping blood into a pool.

Stop gawking. I can make that kind of suffering go on for eternity if you desire. I can put her head back on and do it again.

“What the hell is wrong with you? Why are you in this trailer?”

Go!

Jim scrambled into the truck and had them cruising at eighty. The image of that trooper’s face— like ground meat spewing from a grinder—made him throw up out the window. The mess clung to the trailer in a long streak.

Your world has changed, driver. There are no more secrets, only chatter—constant, infuriating chatter. Everything you do must be validated by others. Like me, love me, heal me, help me. There is no more room for fear; instead, you need only affirmation. Humans are too pathetic to feed upon anymore, like diseased pigs. So I’ve made a deal to sustain myself. I can work with greed. Something in common I have with the rich, the powerful: we both have a distaste for the wretched, and that allows negotiation, a partnership. Does that satisfy you, driver?

“You killed that poor woman and the trucker. They probably had families and—”

The female had two sons and a wife at home. They will spill tears for months, compounded by the excruciating mystery of what happened to her head. It is wonderful. Now, faster.

At the outskirts of Colbert City, he took the offramp for 25th Street and stopped at the first red light. The creature, maybe knowing it would take the time it would take, that he could not run every light and stop sign without potentially more trouble, offered no condemnation or punishment.

Jim never got above the lower three gears as he coasted between lights. Other than a handful of homeless and dead-of-night reprobates, the streets were empty. Manufacturing plants sporting massive, green tanks lined the length of 25th Street. Barbed wire cordoned off one particularly grimy one. Wires ran so thick along poles above the road, they blocked Jim’s view of the sky.

“Ten more minutes. Then I can be done with you.”

I’ll make you a deal, driver. Gaze upon me when we arrive, and I will have them pay you a million dollars. You will never have to work again.

“You’ve been cooped up in your hole too long. A million wouldn’t last me five—”

Ten million. Twenty. Name your price. I want to see your face directly, this man who dares grow agitated with me, this man whose fear of me, despite what he has seen, has dissipated.

“Fifty million then,” Jim said, believing this a ridiculous enough number to end the discussion. “Then I will gaze upon whatever horror you are. Bring it on.”

We have a deal.

Jim wouldn’t dignify the thing with an answer, but his anger festered. Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption” spilled from the speakers nice and loud, so he rolled down the windows for all those wretched to hear: his people. As he neared the address, he allowed himself to fantasize about the money: the good life; a nice, fucking green lawn; not being one of those wretched any longer. But it was likely all bullshit, one more bit of torment for good, old Jim. He turned into the industrial park. It was 3:00 AM and quiet as a tomb. Two men exited the warehouse and walked toward him. One wore a suit that looked so expensive, it likely cost more than Jim’s house. The other sported a white button-up and jeans. Jim finished the backing maneuver and hopped down.

“Mister Hanson, thank you for making good time,” the button-up said.

“I had some motivation.”

The one in the expensive suit nodded. “Ah. Our apologies then. For your discretion in this matter, you’ll find a handsome bonus included—”

The man became distracted, his eyes shooting upward as if having a seizure.

“I see you’ve made a deal with our business partner. If you’ll come this way, we’ll unlock the trailer.”

Jim scoffed. “You’re going to pay me fifty million just to look inside? Bull and shit. I don’t need it, thanks, I’ll pass.”

The man stopped and turned on his heels. “You’ve made a deal, sir. Break your contract and there will be consequences.”

The button-up, now turned ashen-faced, scurried inside.

“Please,” the suit said. “Follow me.”

Jim followed, feeling that presence inside him burst with what might be called joy if joy could be dipped in shit and still called joy. Inside the building, large tanks filled the space. The button-up already stood with the padlock in his hands and the trailer door latch undone. When Jim walked up, the other two men stood to the side and turned their heads.

“Open it,” the suit said.

Jim moved as if programmed: bend, pull open doors, peer inside.

Ah, there you are. Of course, a face befitting the forgotten. Gaze at me, driver, and behold the terrors of the cosmos.

The first thing Jim saw was an enormous butterfly built of dazzling colors. This morphed into a gray moth with concentric circles growing smaller on its wings. Then, it morphed again into a dark purple iris, its petals parting like lips, only to become something writhing, a squid with innumerable tentacles and a gaping maw, a vertical slit lined with razor teeth. As the lips spread open, deep in that slit a light grew, and he was hit with the sensation of an intense orgasm. This was a view of creation, both the birth and death of existence, of the universe. Jim moaned in pain and ecstasy. When he came out of the spasm, the button-up slammed the doors shut and reached a hand to help Jim off the ground.

“Your money will be provided by the end of the day,” the suit said, still facing the other way. “Thank you, Mister Hanson.”

The button-up shut the trailer doors with his eyes closed.

Jim climbed into his rig after disconnecting the trailer. The breeze felt like silk on his skin. Once in place, he turned on the headlights. A homeless woman waddled across the exit to the park, hair matted grotesquely to her head, bundled in five layers of molding clothes, a shopping cart storing her every possession. She gave a three-tooth grin as Jim approached and waved. Every worm squirming in her eye holes was visible, every bit of nastiness that infected her. Jim shifted, stomped the gas, and ran her down before she could move. As each row of tires popped over her body, he grinned broadly and crooned along to Guns ‘N Rose’s “Paradise City,” as happy as he could ever recall.

April 2022

T.M. Morgan has other work published in Vastarien, Lamplight, Penumbric, Mythaxis, and the anthology Tales From Omnipark. He is the current editor of Dread Imaginings. You can read more about him on his website.

∼ Read March’s story, “Shovel” by Antony Paschos ∼