An older piece, but a fun write. Re-reading, I see a lot of the flaws that needed working out that I didn’t then. But then we don’t learn from perfect things.
That Thing in Tulsa
They took the dead man wrapped in sheets to the desert.
They huddled in the front seat of the car, the radio blaring something by Creedence, while they did their best not to talk about the man in the trunk. The windows were down, and dust plumed up behind the Monte Carlo, fogging the daylight. It didn’t bother them that they were going to bury a body in the middle of the day. It was the Mojave – no one just wandered by, and if they did, what was one more body for the thirsty sand?
Dean watched the landscape roll by, tan dunes under blue sky, telephone poles dotting the roadside and receding as they passed. It had been the same thing for two hours, and he wondered how long before they got to where they were going. He turned to Carl, and thought about asking, but the man was focused on the road, his eyes unreadable under the dark glasses he wore. Instead, he scratched the day-old growth on his face, and reached for the radio, with the pretense of fiddling with the knobs.
“You got a problem with Creedence?” The question came out of Carl in a half-growl, and Dean’s hand paused halfway to the radio. He let it drop, and shook his head.
“Nah. I was just hoping to adjust the balance a bit. I swear, every time we hit a bump, the shit in the trunk bangs around.”
Karl reached down, and turned a knob, and the sound shifted to the back of the car. “Better?” He asked.
“Yeah, thanks.” Dean breathed a sigh of relief.
He didn’t feel like upsetting a two-hundred-something pound sociopath today. He turned back to the window, and returned to watching the desert roll by. He tried not to think of Tulsa, tried to squelch the thought that if management knew, he’d join the man in the back before his time.
After another half-hour, the car slowed, and Carl eased it off the road, and onto the hardpan that preceded the dunes. They drove another couple of miles, until the ground began to slope downward at the edge of the desert proper, and the sand underneath began to soften. When it seemed like Carl was never going to stop, maybe just drive into the desert until they ended up as mummies entombed in a steel coffin, the car ground to halt, and he shut off the engine.
The radio snapped off, squelching Aerosmith, and they were left with only the sounds of the wind, and the ticking engine as it tried to cool in the morning heat. They got out, the sound of car doors slamming echoing across the sand, and walked to the trunk. They stood over it for a moment, while Carl absently fingered the key ring.
“Hold your breath, man.” He said. “Boy’s gonna be ripe in there.”
Dean hadn’t thought of that. His stomach wanted to turn at the idea. Carl found the right key, and slipped it into the lock, then turned it. It opened with a click, and the trunk popped up, a sliver of dark appearing between the fender and the lid. He slipped his fingers in the gap, and lifted.
A smell, like week-old hot garbage, hit them in the face, and they both staggered back. Dean turned his head to the side, his stomach heaving. He didn’t relish the idea of puking on his shoes and having that little reminder around all day. To his left, he could hear Carl cursing between bouts of gagging. He bent over, and tried to duck his head as close to his knees as possible.
Gradually, the smell dissipated, and he gulped down deep lungfulls of air. When he felt he could breathe again, he stood, and walked to the trunk. Carl joined him. The first thing he noticed was that the smell was still there, though it didn’t seem to have its earlier vice-like grip on his stomach. The second was that he was glad they had made the decision to put the shovels in last. They lay on top of a bundle of white sheets, already beginning to turn brown and red in spreading stains. They each grabbed a shovel and stepped away from the trunk.
Dean made to close the trunk, and Carl just shook his head. “Bad idea. You’ll just get him baking again. Leave it open so it airs out.”
He turned away, and Dean followed. They walked a few yards from the car, where the sand grew even softer, and began to rise in the soft swell of the first dunes. Carl stopped, and stabbed his shovel into the sand.
“This’ll work.” He looked up at the sun, which was still a couple hours away from its zenith. “Let’s get this done before we end up beef jerky.”
They began to dig, a slow process made worse by the constantly shifting sand and the ever-increasing heat in the air. Dean could feel sweat rolling down every inch of his body, and his hands felt burned from the hot wood of the shovel. He shot a glance over at Carl. The man was digging, with no indication that anything was bothering him. His shoulder-length hair was pulled back in a knot, and a cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth. From where he stood, Dean wasn’t even sure the man was sweating.
They dug for an hour, and after the third time of the sides cascading down in a miniature landslide, Carl spat into the hole, and threw his shovel down.
“Break time.” He said. “Grab some water.”
Dean nodded, and dropped his shovel. He wandered back to the car, opening the back door, and digging into the cooler in the back seat. They had packed half a case of water, and he grabbed two bottles, and then closed the lid. When he was done, he shut the car, and started back, then paused.
The smell had nearly disappeared from the air, and he frowned. That didn’t seem right, fresh air or not. He wandered back to the open trunk, and peeked inside. The long bundle with its dark stains was still there, but it seemed smaller, somehow. He thought about getting the shovel, and poking it for good measure. Just to be sure. Carl’s voice, impatient and annoyed, cut those thoughts off.
“Hey, numbnuts! You bringing that water today?”
“Yeah, sorry. Sorry.” Dean hurried over to the hole they had been digging. It was roughly six feet long by three wide, and three deep at this point. Carl was sitting on the edge. He looked like he was contemplating hiding from the sun by crawling inside, a thought that made Dean’s skin crawl. He didn’t really want to spend any time in any grave but his own, and not before his time.
He eased down onto the ledge, and tossed Carl one of the water bottles. Carl caught it neatly, and spun the top off, tipping it up to take three big swallows before taking a breath. Dean sipped at his, not wanting his stomach to cramp up in the heat, and looked around. He saw sand on sand on sand, rolling in gentle waves away from him, as far as he could see, until the dunes became a taupe line that met with the blue above. He looked away, and turned back to Carl.
“What’d this guy do anyway?” He asked, gesturing with his water bottle toward the car.
Carl shrugged. “Dunno. I think he was a magician, or somethin’. One of those guys that works Vegas when they can’t get Copperfield.”
Dean shook his head. “No, I mean, what’d he do?”
Carl spit into the grave again. “Oh, that. Got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.”
“The boss’ wife.” He laughed then, a mean, low sound. He drained his water bottle, and tossed it into the grave, then stood. “C’mon. Let’s get this shit done, and get gone. I got a beer with my name on it back home.”
Dean capped his water and tossed it to the side. He stood, knuckled the small of his back, and picked up his shovel. He glanced once more at the horizon, where heat had begun to rise from the desert in wavy mirage lines, and then began to dig.
They finished the grave after another hour. Carl deemed it good enough after the fifth backslide, and besides, he had said, who was going to find him four and a half feet down after the wind started to blow? They walked back to the car, shovels in hand, and tossed them off to the side, then stood over the trunk, looking in. Neither man seemed in a rush to grab the bundle.
Carl lit a cigarette, and blew the smoke out in a long plume. Dean watched it float away, torn to shreds on the wind. After a minute, Carl seemed to shrug.
“Fuck it. Let’s grab this bastard, and get on.”
They approached the trunk, and ducked in. In the dark under the lid, it was cool, and smelled faintly of must. The smell of the dead man was just a memory in the air. They lifted the bundle, and it came easily. Dean thought it felt lighter than he had imagined a dead man should. The cloth felt damp, and the thing inside moved like a bag of Jell-O. Dean tightened his grip, and choked down his rising gorge. They came back up in the desert heat, and carrying the dead man between them, walked to the grave.
When they reached the hole in the ground, they dumped the body in unceremoniously, letting the bundle hit the ground with a muffled thump and squelch. Carl spat his cigarette to the side.
“Go get the shovels.” He gestured back towards the car.
Dean hurried off to run the errand, returning with them a moment later, one in each hand. When he reached the grave, Carl was standing over it, looking down, his back to Dean. A thought flashed through his head, an image of a shovel splitting the side of the other man’s skull. He pushed it away. Offing your partner was no way to make friends with management.
Carl turned, and Dean’s stomach sank. He was holding a pistol in one hand, its black barrel pointed at Dean’s stomach. The image of the shovel smashing the other man’s head went through his mind again, but he knew it was too late. He dropped the shovels and backed up a step.
“What’s the deal, man?” He asked.
“Cookies and jars, brother. I think you know.”
Somehow, the things he had done in Tulsa had come full circle. Management was writing his pink slip. Carl waved the gun towards the grave as he circled away from Dean.
Dean moved toward the grave, his stomach doing somersaults while knotting. It was an unpleasant sensation. He stepped over the lip, and down, trying not to step on the bundle at the bottom. When he was in, he stood only head and shoulders over the edge. He could see Carl, standing a foot or two away, looking down, the pistol trained on him. He fought to keep control of his bladder.
“Lay down.” Carl said. He pulled the hammer on the pistol back, and it clicked like an audible period to the threat.
“Fuck.” Dean whispered. He crouched, and pushed the bundle to the side. It was lighter than he remembered, drier. He lay next to it. His face was wet, and when he reached a hand up to brush it away, he realized he was weeping.
Carl appeared over the edge, a shovel in hand. The pistol was tucked under his waistband.
“You’re doing a good thing here, man. No begging, no whining, just gonna accept it. Shame you gotta go.”
He hefted the shovel, and pushed a pile of sand into the pit. Dean could feel its weight when it landed on his legs, warm and soft, but unforgiving. Another pile came down, and his shoes were already almost buried. He waited, but another shovelful didn’t come. He lay trembling, when Carl peeked back over the edge.
“Look, not a lot of men would handle this like you are. That’s why I’m gonna give you a choice. Truth is, boss says ‘Bury him, Carl. Bury him and let him bake out there.’, but that seems like a rough way for a guy to go. You ask me, and I’ll put a bullet in you, make it easy.”
Dean didn’t reply. He wasn’t brave, he was frozen. He didn’t want to die out here with the buzzards and the heat and the sand, not under it, and not with a bullet in his head. Carl waited for his answer, and when it didn’t come, the man shrugged, and began to push sand down again. When the first pile came for his face, he held his breath, and let it filter around him.
Shovelful by shovelful, he was buried. Before long, he could feel the oppressive weight and heat from the sand, pressing him down. Inch by inch of it seemed to loosen him up somehow, as though his brain had decided today was not the day to die. He began to blow out small breaths as his face was covered, carefully digging a hollow of air where he could still breathe. After every shovelful, he would shift his arms and legs slightly, just enough to move the sand around him so he wasn’t packed in.
Occasionally, he would pause, his muscles aching from the slow process, his lungs fighting for more air than the scant mouthfuls he was able to draw in. When he did, he imagined he could hear the sand below him moving, as though the man in the sheet was fighting his fate as well, and it sped his heart and sent a shiver up his spine.
He figured he had to be under a foot, maybe a foot-and-a-half of sand, when it stopped coming for a second time. He lay still in his hollow, and waited. Maybe Carl had stopped for water. Hopefully, he’d had a heart attack. He waited another five minutes, or as close as he could figure, and when it still didn’t come, he began to push himself upward, through the sand, trying to get as close to the surface as possible.
He closed his eyes, and turned his head, the sounds of millions of grains of sand shifting against his skin, his ear canals, grating and grinding like the dry rasp of dry skin. He pushed his head to the surface, until his ear broke the sand. He could still feel the grains in it, but the world was alive with a sudden clarity, and he listened.
Overhead, the wind blew past the lip of the grave with a low, hollow sound. He strained to hear more – and engine idling, heavy breathing from exertion, footsteps on the hardpan that lay nearby. He waited like that another five minutes, and when no sound came, he began to pull himself fully from the sand, inch by inch.
He sat up, the sand pooling at his midsection, and then pulled his legs free. He brushed himself off as best as he was able, some of the sand clinging to his face and neck where sweat and tears had made a mud of it. When he was done, he eased himself onto his haunches, and began to rise towards the lip of the grave. As he did so, his muscles tensed and threatened to cramp, both from the effort of the slow rise, and the struggle to listen for the sounds of a voice or gunfire.
He was all too aware as he rose that the top of his head would be exposed before the rest of him as he peeked, but he realized, when you’re in a grave, being buried alive, you tend not to worry about which part of you might be shot off first. His eyes crested the lip, and he peered around.
Aside from the open car, still sitting on the hardpan, he appeared to be alone. He scanned the area for a shadow, for movement, or color, but nothing appeared. Satisfied Carl was either preoccupied, or just up and vanished, he grabbed the edge of the grave, and pulled himself out. When he was done, he lay on the hot sand, and breathed heavily for a minute, and tried not to weep with relief.
He rolled on his side, and felt pressure in his ribs. When he rolled back and sat up, he found he had rolled onto a shovel, left lying alone. He stood, and wandered over to the car. The back door was open, the cooler cracked. He opened it, and grabbed a water bottle out, spinning the cap onto the ground. He splashed the water over his head and his face, and tried to scrub the mud and sand out. When he was done, he dropped the bottle and grabbed another, taking deep swallows of the still-cool liquid.
When he was done, he closed the door, and got in the driver’s seat. The keys were still in the ignition. He tried them once, and the engine turned over, purring to life with a low rumble. He sat in the seat with the door open, and flipped on the air. After the day he’d had, he was past caring about wasting it.
He wondered where Carl had got off to, and realized he didn’t much care, and didn’t feel like waiting around to find out. He closed the door, and put the car in gear. For a moment, he considered gathering up the shovels and the trash, and finishing the grave. When presented with the possibility of Carl returning, and the fact that the wind would move the sand and bury the evidence in only a few hours, he dropped the idea.
The car pulled smoothly off the hardpan and onto the blacktop. The afternoon sun was in full bloom, and baked heat in waves from every inch of the desert and road. Inside, the air conditioning had already begun to slip a chill into the car, and content for the moment, Dean flipped on the radio.
Blue Oyster Cult began belting out Don’t Fear the Reaper, and he turned it. A little too on the nose. He changed the station, and found Otis Redding. He left it there, and settled back in the seat. Ahead, the road curved, and he took it a bit faster than he had intended to. Something in the trunk slid, and thumped against the interior.
His heart skipped a beat, and he glanced in the rearview. Nothing hovered into view. He returned to the road when a thought hit him. Nothing in the rearview. He braked hard, and heard the thing in the trunk slam against the seat backs. He pulled the car to the side of the road, still miles of desert on each side. He knew the excuses for missing the closed trunk, but he still berated himself.
He fished under the seat for a minute, hoping to find a spare weapon – a gun, a knife – he’d settle for a wiffle bat. He came up empty, and sat up. He considered running the car to town and leaving it in an alley, but he knew the thought of the thing in the trunk would dig itself under his skin until he found out what it was.
He took a breath, and steeled himself, then stepped out. Gravel on the shoulder crunched under his shoes as he walked to the trunk. When he reached it, he stood over the lid, and fingered the keys, listening to them chime, hearing the wind blow sand in grating drifts across the road. This wasn’t something he wanted to do, but something compulsion required he do.
“Fuck it.” He muttered, and unlocked the trunk.
The lid sprung with a click, and he stepped back, the smell of hot meat rolling from the dark insides. It wasn’t as bad as the putrid smell he had encountered earlier, but it was enough to make him wait a discrete distance until the odor dissipated.
The air cleared, he stepped forward, and lifted the lid the rest of the way. The interior, previously shaded by the lid, was thrown into full relief by the afternoon sun. Inside, a shape huddled, big, with scraggly hair. Dean reached out, and rolled it onto its back.
The body turned, and he found himself staring into the remains of Carl’s face. Dean found himself wondering where the man’s sunglasses were. He looked at the red, fleshless ruin, and decided he didn’t care. He shut the trunk, his stomach turning. He got back in the car, and started it up. He knew he should ditch the body, probably ditch the car. He also knew getting picked up by state patrol while wandering around would require a lot of explaining.
He closed the door. From the back seat, a voice spoke up.
Dean flicked a glance at the rearview. After the day he’d had, he was officially out of the capacity to be shocked. A man sat in the relative shadows in the back. He was wearing a cheap dusty tux, and his skin looked pale, stretched. Carl’s sunglasses were perched on his nose.
“Hey.” Dean said.
“Feel like a road trip, kid?” The man’s voice was dry, scratchy.
Dean shrugged. After what he’d seen in the trunk, after what had happened in the sand, he knew he should be afraid, but he was past being frightened of the things that came from the desert that day.
“Sure. Where we goin’?”
From the back seat, the man lit a cigarette, and blew a plume of smoke out. He pointed past Dean’s shoulder.