The 1959 Pontiac Hearse skidded to a full stop along the gravely southbound shoulder of State Highway 2A, just south of Reed, Maine. There was a biting chill in the autumn air. Halloween was just around the corner, and it was already getting cold. This was a surefire sign, that Father Winter was not going to play nice this year.
Ansel threw down the butt of his 3/4 smoked menthol. He hated to waste the rest, but most people didn’t like smoking in their cars, these days, and he couldn’t chance it. He really needed to make into Bangor by sunrise tomorrow, and this ride, as creepy as it looked, may be his last and only chance. The sun was already starting to set, and there hadn’t been much traffic along this old overgrown backroad. His parole officer had offered him a “last chance” job interview in the Queen City. If he missed it, he’d be in clear violation, and possibly sent back to do time.
The thick wide-body of the Bonneville “Dead Sled” hung halfway in the road. The meat of its tires took up the entire width of the already narrow shoulder. Its pockmarked rust spots and peeling lacquer confessed that the last ride had spent many a brutal winter under the edge of the Continental United State’s most harshest Atlantic conditions. There were nearly 100 horses under the hood, each one raring to go; The ebb and flow of its growl, however, proved that nearly all 240 cubic inches of her essence, hadn’t gone neglected. The car would have seemed intimidating even under normal circumstances, but now, under these, it might as well have been a golden ticket from the Grim Reaper, Himself, waiting to be punched. Blueish-grey puffs of smoke billowed from it’s chrome dual exhausts. Maybe that cigarette wouldn’t have been a problem after all.
Ansel slowly walked around the car, as if to take an admiring look. He always did this, when hitching a ride, usually to try and get a clearer view of the driver before getting in. Even in heavily tinted windows like these, the driver’s view was traditionally the least obscured. As he cut across the front of the purring vehicle, he had to admit to himself that the sleek beak-like proboscis that culminated at the tip of the hood, made the vehicle seem threatening, even more so than usual. He had probably watched “The Car” or “Christine” one too may times. It had been obligatory that everyone in these parts was a Stephen King fan, after all.
He noticed there was no front plate, as required by Maine State traffic laws, on the afterlife Coach’s menacing front bumper. Something forgivable, by most, but as an ex-con, Ansel picked up on these little clues, often inadvertently left behind by fellow scammers. As his eyes were averted, a triple-tap rev came from within the beast’s innards. RPMs reared, as the tires tried to edge forward off of their broad stance. Like a sleeping bull, the hulk of the car’s body rocked side-to-side, with every powerful piston stroke. Ansel was afraid the driver was getting impatient and he didn’t want to risk what could prove to be his last available ride into town. He would have to forfeit any further investigations. He quickly shouldered his duffel, and made his way over to the passenger side.
Ansel took one last look at the setting sun. He didn’t know how it could be possible, but it seemed to get awfully dark, awfully fast, almost unnaturally so. There was only one finger’s worth left of light between the glowing orange ball and the horizon. As he awkwardly opened the long and cumbersome door, purplish light spilled out onto the road. He could see that the driver, a lanky, emaciated older man, was wearing all black, complete with snakeskin boots and a tattered stetson. From his position, crouching into the vehicle to saddle up, Ansel was unable to see the man’s face, just as of yet.
“Close the door!”. Came a deep gravelly voice. If he hadn’t known better, Ansel would have thought it was Sam Elliott, himself. He quickly obliged the driver, so as to not to upset his most gracious transporter. The man tipped the brim of his hat down, casting a shadow over the upper part of his face. Only the tufts of a haggardly greying beard were visible under a pronounced jawline. The skin around the man’s hand was so taught, that there was an audible leathery sound as he gripped the tattered leather remnants of the steering wheel.
Now that he was inside the car, Ansel’s eyes started to adjust to the darkness. Rich hues of deep purple velour, varying from eggplant to mauve, created trimmed highlights on an otherwise all-black interior. He knew now why the deep tint had been necessary. It would be impossible for a driver’s eyes not to be blinded with a sunlit exterior, and therefore was necessary to cut down on any road glare. The right snakeskin pushed forward, as the automotive steed powerfully belched itself forward. The tires spun a full rotation and a half, before biting into the grip of the hard asphalt beneath it; Not out of showiness, but by mere force of the torque which compelled it forward.
“Ralis’s the name, and lucky for you, I’m headed your way.”, the old man’s voice bit through the seemingly hermetically sealed stillness inside of the traveling coffin-carrier.
“How do you know where I’m headed. I didn’t say”, Ansel questioned. Although he wouldn’t admit it, his nerves were a bit on edge. It wasn’t helped by the fact that as he slowly turned his head, to look in the back, and sure enough, a black gloss Batesville casket, with pearl and pewter lugs, sat comfortably nestled on the other side of the glass. There was something oddly familiar about it. Ansel was hoping it was merely decorative, and tried not to show his surprise. The glass barrier gave him some comfort, although he had no idea how that might protect him from otherworldly advances. It was the same logic people used when covering their dangling feet with blankets, to protect themselves from monsters under the bed.
“Didn’t have to.”, Ralis croaked. “South is the only way down when you’re up here on the tip of the world.” The old man had a point.
Ansel began to let his guard down. He always did have a great imagination, that often edged into the dark side, and sometimes he let it get the best of him. He slumped back into the comfortable plush seats as the high beams of the death-whip cut through the brambles and kudzu outside the car. “Boy, it had gotten dark fast.”, was all he could think as the hypnotizing power of the two-laned road caused him to feel daydreams coming on. The road ahead seemed too narrow, as if with tunnel vision, and his head was getting heavy.
Suddenly his paranoia set in. He knew, from years of grifting, that nothing in this world came free. He had forgotten his customary bargaining, before closing the door to a stranger’s vehicle for a ride, in his hurry to get on the road. The saying “Ass, gas or grass” had been invented for a reason. “Look I don’t have much money, I can’t offer you much for the ride”. He shuttered at the thought of the geriatric asking for sexual favors in exchange for transportation.
“I ain’t ask for nothing. This one’s on the house. Could use the company, that’s all.”, croaked out Ralis from between gritted teeth. “Tell me something about yourself, no one else knows.”
This sounded like something one might be asked on the River Styx, or by a troll under a bridge, in order to cross into the next realm. Ansel didn’t mind, though. He was an introvert, but too, could actually use the company. The old man was probably just a master storyteller, and a great conversationalist, no doubt from his multiple decades of lifelong experiences.
Ansel thought in silence for a moment. He didn’t know why, but something felt correct about the situation. He was nonetheless taciturn, but felt compelled to answer truthfully. Something told him, he was in the right place at the right time, regardless of any apprehensions he might have had about taking a creepy hearse ride from a stranger, on a practically desolate road during nightfall.
“I promised my Dad I would live my life to its fullest, before he died.” The words rushed forward like torrents of water off of high cliffs. They seemed to be spoken, before his mind could even process them. “There were so many things he wasn’t able to achieve in life. So many places he wanted to go, but never could.”
Ralis looked at Ansel for the first time eye to eye. The gauntness of his cheekbones and hollowed eye sockets spoke volumes. Perhaps this was a relatable story. There was a glisten of light, deep within the recesses of his eyes. It might have been the moon, it might have been a tear; either way, it seemed to beckon Ansel to continue his tale.
“I had always been the black sheep of the family.”, he continued. “I was just too much of a smart ass, and a free-spirit to ever play by the rules.” The miles droned on. Out here with no road signage or GPS, it was hard to tell where the destination was, or when it was going to be reached. “One thing led to another, and I couldn’t keep my nose clean. I promised Dad, I would do better, and get out and see things, someday.” Ansel didn’t know how long he had been talking, but it felt like a long time.
“And did you?”, came Ralis’ reply, so soft that Ansel thought he might have imagined it.
“I tried. That’s what this was. The first step out of the nest, sort of speak: A new path in life. A chance at a new beginning, so I could finally make good on my promise.” He was getting emotional now and turned his face into his sleeve. He didn’t want the old man to see the vulnerability on his face. It was almost better that he was a stranger, as Ansel would have no need to ever see him again.
“Bob was a good old dude.”, came the driver’s words. “Did you accomplish your goal?”
“Wait, you knew my father! You knew him?! Why didn’t you say so!” A look of utter disbelief was plastered across Ansel’s face, but soon the logical side of his brain began to out-reason his reactionary one. It wasn’t that strange at all. Up here, in the bumfuckiest parts of rural Maine, most people knew of each other. They were the last of the pioneers, a “live off the land” kind of breed, just like America’s tribes of early Colonial settlers. And although their social skills, were extremely unpolished, due to being so isolated amongst themselves, they viewed all Down Easters as part of the collective Family. Plus, given the age gap between Ansel and Ralis, it wouldn’t have been unheard of that the latter had known his father.
“You di’n’t answer. Youse can’t answer a question with a question.”, Ralis’ accent was getting deeper.
“Well, no. I told you, I’ve just begun.”
“Time has a way of being a cruel mistress”, Ralis said. “She neither waits for no one, nor keeps to your schedule.”
Although it had been unsaid, the old man’s words seem to take a sinister turn. Ansel’s brow became furrowed as a realization started to set in, like the dark cloud of a depressive episode.
Ansel tried to fight himself out of his trance, like a swimmer coming up for air, while being pulled downward, by an unseen force. He tried all his efforts to focus his mind. He slowly turned his head and noticed Ralis’ hands were no longer tightly grasped around the wheel.
“What are you doing?! Steer the car! We’ll crash!”
The old man just leaned back, putting his boney hands behind his head, he looked over at Ansel as a wise-cracking smirk split across his face. The hearse, “Anastasia”, drove on, piloting itself down the increasingly darkened roadway. Ansel’s mind went into full-on hyper-drive mode. He imagined all sorts of figures and faces peering out from the foliage, along the shadows of the tree-line.
“Better luck next time kid! I’ll tell you one thing, if there’s a lesson here, it’s that time is fleeting. Maybe next time you’ll get it right… If there is a next time!”. Ralis’ lips cracked into a devilish smile, showing his dried out tongue, parched lips, and inhuman like incisors. As he leaned into the purple haze spilling out of the dome light, Ansel saw for the first time, his otherworldly features and veiny spider-webbed skin.
A cackle began to build that resounded in the hollows of Ansel’s skull. He instinctively turned, as if in a dream state, to the partitioned glass. The lid of the coffin now open, was basked in a magnolia-stained otherworldly light, and seemed to draw his attention like a moth to flame. The distinct smell of Jasmine accompanied the musty odor of an opened sarcophagus. Inside, his father’s corpse lay still, arms crossed, but eyes wide open, and every bit full of life.
“If there is a next time!”, repeatedly cackled the now demonic voice of the fully transformed Ralis.
“Where’re you taking me?! I need to get to Bangor!”, was the last thing Ansel’s conscious mind remembered saying, although he never actually felt the words physically leave his parted lips, nor the last breath disperse along with it.
“South is the only way down when you’re up here on the tip of the world!”, came the reverbs in his head, like ghastly echoes deep inside a gas chamber.
His father’s corpse sat upright, its head mere inches from the sagging velour of Anastasia’s sagging organs. “Better luck next time kid!”, it seemed to say , almost telepathically.
Ansel felt the heat of a thousand flames.
It’s said, to this very day, that crusty old ’59 Pontiac hearse can still be seen cruising the backroads near Maine State Highway 2A, south of Reed, just as the sun ducks below the horizon, only to set itself upon another world, on another day.