The July Featured Writer is Adrian Ludens
Please feel free to email Adrian at: firstname.lastname@example.org
DEATH GUIDING 350 HORSES
The old man hobbled to within ten feet of Randle’s rumbling white pickup truck and then stopped as if an invisible force field barred his way. Randle knew the truth of the matter; the old man feared getting any closer.
“So here you are,” the lone pedestrian called, sounding both jocular and grave. “I always wondered if this day would come.”
Randle rolled down the window. He said nothing, letting the moment spin out between them. He glanced ahead at New Mexico’s Highway 285. It shimmered in the sun like an unspooling roll of 35 mm film. On either side of the road he found nothing but familiar red sand and scrub brush. A few stunted trees grew near the old roadside house but provided little apparent shelter from the wind and sun. His temples had begun to throb.
The old man didn’t approach the open window, he merely scratched at cinnamon and sugar whiskers with a gnarled hand. “Don’t suppose you could turn around and go the other way,” he called.
Randle shook his head. “No, sir. My path is preordained. Deviation from the Drive is not an option.”
He could see the old man appraising Randle’s rumbling pickup truck. He figured that’s what it resembled to those who looked at it, at any rate. Yet he knew it to be something else, something far beyond his realm of understanding. He watched as the old man’s rheumy blue eyes traced over the smokestacks and along the long box. The fellow shuddered visibly as his gaze contemplated the area behind the truck. Normal now, but in a few moments...
“I’ve got some money saved in the house.” The old man sounded guarded but hopeful. “Don’t suppose that might help change your mind.”
“Don’t need money to make me want to change course, but the truck won’t do anything but travel forward.” Randle wiped his sweating forehead. Why was he proroguing this? The longer he waited—delayed the inevitable—the more his headache increased. He’d learned the hard way that he couldn’t shirk his duty.
The readout on his dash indicated that he’d relocated—or “popped” as he’d come to think of it—to Milan, Italy. Three-storey buildings lined either side of the narrow street. The buildings on Randle’s right were all built of brick and he saw bars on most of the windows. He thought it might be the back of a large factory or a series of businesses. The buildings on his left were uniformly lighter in color. Some entrances and windows had cloth awnings over them. Randle counted three narrow metal-railed balconies on the second floor. These buildings on the left, he guessed, served as residences. Parked bicycles lined up for inspection beneath the awnings and balconies. A few pedestrians and bicyclists idled at the far end of the block, gawking at the white monstrosity filling the narrow street.
Not many, Randle thought. But how many hidden inside the buildings? How many people in the adjacent blocks beyond my view but not beyond the reach of the fog?
He tried to assert himself, to resist the Drive. With each passing second the hurt seemed to multiply. By the time five minutes had ticked away Randle felt white-hot fire burning every molecule within his body. Every synapse of his brain spoke of agony—and only his foot on the accelerator would ease the pain. He screamed out with anguish and remorse, and stomped on the accelerator. He drove forward two hundred yards before popping to a new location.
The digital readout on his dash told him how many lives he’d erased so far: 4,755.
Randle pushed the memory away. His path would erase every living human being within two hundred yards in all four directions, but it wouldn’t erase the memories—or the guilt.
He didn’t relish taking lives.
The old man waved a calloused hand at the ramshackle house and weather-beaten outbuildings. “Did you come here on purpose?”
Randle shook his head again. “No, sir. The truck picks. It drives me, not the other way around. There must be a pattern, but I can’t figure out what it is.”
“Can you get out? Just walk away?”
Randle gazed past the speaker. His eyes seized longingly on the far dark hills on the western horizon. “No. I can’t. The truck is a part of me, and I’m a part of it. I don’t eat, don’t sleep, never even need to use a toilet...”
“Doesn’t it start to drive you crazy?”
Randle’s only response came out as a half-laugh, half-sob.
The old man said, “The truck…how does it work, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I got a navigation screen on the dash that tells me where I am, and another smaller screen below it that tells me how many lives I’ve erased. There’s a number for each new location and a running grand total.” Randle stared at the number for a moment. Even the most ruthless and genocidal leaders in the world’s history couldn’t touch his total.
Randle flushed as he spoke, feeling small. “I always pop to a new location after two hundred yards—it don’t matter how many people die. Don’t matter to the truck, I mean.” Some people still didn’t recognize him or what he brought when he arrived. Most, however, reacted with terror or hatred.
He knew the grizzled man before him simply sought some measure of understanding, maybe even closure. Randle didn’t think he could provide it; he didn’t have all the answers.
Randle drove the truck south toward the Mumbai Central Bus Station. By then, most of the world knew the purpose of the White Death Truck, the citizens of Mumbai, India included. Word traveled fast; Randle saw people and vehicles attempting to flee in every direction as he approached on the highway.
Somehow the lines of communication had gotten crossed, however, like the game of Telephone Randle remembered from his childhood. Someone had apparently spread misinformation about his path; three buses loaded beyond capacity with passengers shot from the bus station—heading his direction. They were confined to their own designated lanes but rapidly approaching. Randle saw them as panicked wildlife running straight into a forest fire instead of away from it.
Each bus shot past him only to be swallowed up by the billowing fog his truck left in its wake.
Randle erased 11,003 lives in Mumbai before popping away to a dirt road that wound through deep green Irish country-side. There he encountered only a herd of sheep and felt thankful for the brief respite.
The old man frowned. “Do you, uh, always make your quotas?”
“Like I said, the truck don’t care. And I just do the steering.”
In truth, a few people on the fringes of his routes did get away if they moved fast enough and fled in the right direction. A digital readout on the dash indicated that he erased 97.5% of his potential targets.
“How does it make you feel?” The old man’s question pulled Randle from his private thoughts. “You ever look in your rearview mirror and think about the lives you’re taking?”
“I tore the rearview mirror off a long time ago. Couldn’t stand the sight of that damned fog the truck leaves behind. I don’t enjoy looking back at what I’ve done.”
“Lots of folks are like that,” the old man murmured. A look of hope brightened his features and he stepped closer. “You ever try going in reverse?”
“But have you tried?” He craned his skinny neck to look past Randle at the gear shifter. “Might save the rest of us a lot of worry and heartbreak.”
“Well, sir, I’d do it in a heartbeat if I could.” Muscle cramps had tightened like vices in both calves and in his lower back. Randle gritted his teeth, trying to ride out the pain, like a bronco-buster on a wild mustang. “But there’s no reverse gear.”
“What if you keep it in park like you’re doing now?”
“The pain in my head builds ‘til I’m in agony. The longest I ever lasted was about four and a half minutes, but it felt like four and a half hours. I think I started convulsin’. My knee hit the gear shifter and as soon as the truck started rolling the pain wasn’t so bad. So I stomped on the gas.” Randle’s cheeks burned with embarrassment. He knew he couldn’t expect any sympathy from the old man.
“So you feel better but the rest of us live in fear until it’s our turn on your route.” The owner of the shack scratched his whiskered cheek again. “How’d you fall into this situation? Any idea?”
Randle felt the color draining from his face. “No, sir.”
“None at all?” The old man eyed him shrewdly.
“I said I don’t know! And if I knew once, I don’t remember now.” Randle considered stomping on the accelerator and running the old man over.
“You’re Death, guiding three hundred and fifty horses,” the speaker nodded in the direction of the engine rumbling under the hood, “and you don’t know what you did to warrant it?”
“I said I don’t know, damn you!” Tears of pain and shame spilled from Randle’s eyes.
“I think it’s you who’s damned,” the old man said. “And nobody feels worse about that than I do.”
Graffiti-colored road signs and staccato gunfire from an overpass met Randle as he navigated Watts Street in Oakland, California.
Bullets deflected off the windshield. Randle rolled through a stop sign and glanced up in time to see a silver sports car crashing through the guardrail. The vehicle fell and landed atop the truck, but flipped away like a magnet repelled by another magnet with the same pole charge.
What Randle remembered most about Watts wasn’t the realization that he and his truck were impervious to attack. Instead, it was the look of relief of the face of a legless man crouched in a cardboard shelter in the shadows of the overpass.
Though he’d become a pariah, reviled by the masses, it seemed a few welcomed his presence.
He regretted erasing 3,201 lives in Oakland that excursion, but took solace in the relief painted on the face of the one.
Suddenly the old man was right outside the truck’s open window. He reached inside and touched Randle’s arm. Startled, Randle pulled away and immediately wished he hadn’t. It was the first physical contact—and first act of kindness—he’d experienced in…How long? Decades?
Randle shuddered. His brain felt like oatmeal bubbling in a microwave but he pressed on. “I remember being mad about something-or-other. Something stupid that shouldn’t have got under my skin but it did. I drove to Roswell and got good and drunk. Everything was spinning when I left the bar but I got behind the wheel anyway.” He palmed droplets of cold sweat from his forehead. “I saw the kids riding their bikes on the edge of town but the brake pedal seemed like it was fifty feet away from my boot. I thought I was gonna hit those kids, but something hit me instead.”
“Yes, sir.” He struggled to maintain the conversation amid the ever-increasing storm of pain. “And now it’s your turn. The truck picks. I don’t, I swear it.”
Though tears blurred his vision, Randle thought he saw a deeper sorrow on the face of the old man standing beside the truck. “I’m so sorry.” With effort, he reached out the window.
The other man grasped Randle’s tremulous hand between both of his. “I am too.”
“Ma inside the house?” The white paint he’d expected had flaked away over the years revealing sun-bleached gray boards and the shingles had been replaced by glaring sheets of steel roofing.
“Yes. She couldn’t come out. Bedridden.” The old man looked first at the house and then at Randle with the sad eyes of a bloodhound. “This is just as well. The constant worry has practically killed her already.”
“Guh!” Pain twisted Randle’s curse into a sob.
“Best get on with it.” His father released his hand.
Every fiber of Randle’s being howled in agony. He felt sure he had set a new personal record.
The wrinkled mouth spoke once more. “I love you, Son.”
“I lo—” Randle’s foot stabbed the accelerator of its own accord and his father disappeared underneath. He’d further reduced the planet’s population; something the creator or creators of whatever craft Randle piloted must have deemed a necessary measure. Technology far beyond his understanding had reshaped a reckless drunk into a supplemental Grim Reaper. As he approached the customary two hundred yard mark, the smaller screen on his dash indicated his total for this excursion: two.
Tears streamed down Randle’s cheeks. He broke his own rule and looked back.
Adrian Ludens is a radio announcer and fiction author from Rapid City, South Dakota. His newest collection, When Bedbugs Bite, is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats. Other recent publication appearances include: Dark Moon Digest #21, Surreal Worlds, Gothic Fantasy Science Fiction Short Stories, and The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper Stories. Adrian is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.
Visit him HERE
"The kind of book Hitchcock's face used to appear on." -- Mort Castle, Bram Stoker winner. See it HERE