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by Walt Hicks

Howard sat beneath an I-95 overpass to get out of the heat. It would be preferable if he wasn't seen anyway, considering that he was still smoldering, eyes heat-exploded from now-empty sockets awaiting regeneration, clothing that was not burned away melted to his blackened flesh. He rested his chin in his cupped left hand, and annoyingly, skin flaked off and fell to the concrete. He poked his cooked tongue back through the hole in his neck. His nose was gone, but, unfortunately, he could still smell the acrid stench of his own burned flesh.

The authorities would eventually find the Chevy Suburban, a crumpled mass, burned to a shell just off the interstate where Howard had left it. They would be curious why the driver's seat was vacant, but the tragedy of the fiery death of the family of six would override any in-depth investigation into what was surely another "bloody 95" accident. Howard always hid close by, because he enjoyed watching (when his eyeballs came back) the paramedics retrieve corpses from wrecks.

Howard had always been a motor head, working for the wrecker service during the day, tearing down and rebuilding racing engines at night, then running them nearly to the redline at weekend stock car races. Howard had been something of a local driving legend in the small Florida town just off Interstate 95 near Jacksonville. A driving legend -- among other things.

Born with neither conscience nor a sense of compassion, Howard was perfect for his wrecker driving job. He could retrieve broken bodies -- male, female, child -- from the most horrifically twisted wreck, and miss neither a meal nor a moment's sleep. He amazed (and quite frankly, worried) the local paramedics, most of whom could not stomach pulling a dead baby from a crushed vehicle. Although it was predominantly their responsibility, they gladly allowed Howard the grim privilege of recovering the mangled bodies from crashes. It had been rumored (although it was not quite true) that Howard had removed a decapitated prom queen from her flipped Mustang convertible with a Butterfinger candy bar clamped between his teeth. Actually, it had been a Mr. Goodbar.

Howard went quickly through three marriages, never physically or emotionally abusing his wives, he merely frightened them away. "What was I thinking? God, did he ever creep me out," Mildred Connolly, his second would whisper, shivering at the thought. "It was like being touched by a walking, breathing corpse."

Not that Howard cared either way. He had always been a loner and if cornered would have admitted that he preferred the company of those he pulled from wrecks to most living, breathing people. "Least they're quiet," he would allow.

Everything changed one early Sunday morning. Howard had won the Saturday night feature at the local dirt track and was celebrating alone at his dilapidated mobile home near the junkyard, stomping rats to death on his back porch, when the call came in. He wasn't really on duty, but the dispatcher mentioned that it was "a really bad one" out on I-95, and Howard's ears pricked up and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. The nearest emotion to pleasure that Howard knew was going to an accident scene.

He keyed the mike on his base station in the kitchen, acknowledging that he would take the call. Howard jumped into his ancient primer black Ford wrecker and sped toward the mile marker.

Howard arrived at the scene, as usual, before almost anyone else. Deputy Roberta Byrnes sat near the back bumper of her county squad car, having first set up road side flares, blocking off the highway, then upchucking all of her dinner and then some. Howard grunted and Byrnes jerked a thumb over her shoulder toward the wreckage. Grinning, Howard flipped on a penlight and headed for the crash.

At first, he couldn't tell what it had been. The front and rear tires were only a foot or so apart, and the metal was tangled around a bridge abutment in a perverse lover's embrace, where the vehicle had struck at terminal velocity or better. Unstoppable force meets immovable object. The gas tank had exploded with a brief but violent flash, the entire tank of fuel going up in a pluming fire ball that blackened nearly the entire south side of the bridge from top to bottom. The vortex created by the force of the impact had actually put the fire out almost immediately. The front and rear seats had for all practical purposes melded and Howard could see no bodies inside. There was a wide smear of dark blood on the bridge abutment, so Howard surmised  correctly that the unfortunate driver had been ejected through the windshield and had bounced -- hard -- off the concrete. Howard looked at the rear of the wreck and saw "Broadmoor Lincoln" on a broken plastic advertising plate dangling from the trunk lid. "Good. Rich prick." He started searching along the deserted highway for the sure-to-be mangled corpse. He thought he could smell the coppery, sickly-sweet scent of blood on the thick, humid night air.

He followed a swath of blood and tissue on the asphalt nearly a hundred feet long. The body, expected to be where the grim skid mark ended, was not there. Howard had neither the intelligence nor the compassion to be frightened ("No Fear" read one of the many decals on his wrecker, after all), but he was bewildered. His mouth had actually been watering to see what was left of the corpse, but now there was a metallic acid taste on his palate. He didn't realize it, but he had been gnawing his tongue.

From the darkness to his right, someone cleared their throat. It sounded all wrong, as if someone were trying to rid their throat of the annoyance of their own clattering teeth. Howard whirled, shining the penlight in the direction of the sound. A dark form sat on the guard rail beneath the overpass. At first glance, Howard thought the figure's right leg was crossed informally over the left, but further investigation revealed that the legs were actually twisted around one another as if the pelvis had been snapped in half, and the left leg was bent at an impossible angle over the right. He moved the penlight's beam slowly up the bloody, twisted, tattered form until it reached what was formerly a face. Howard's hearing perception was actually quite accurate -- the thing's teeth were lodged in what used to be its throat. One eye was missing, the other dangling from the optic nerve, bobbing merrily on the exposed cheek bone, most of the face having been scraped off onto the highway in a grisly hundred foot slide.

A laugh erupted from the throat and the teeth clacked together. For the first time in his existence, Howard felt the cold rush of fear slash through his spine and grip his heart with icy fingers. Curiously, he found he enjoyed the feeling.

Howard stepped closer.

"Greetings . . ," the thing said. "Thank Christ I finally found you." Howard found himself giggling at the mutilated speech of the thing whose tongue was flapping somewhere between its larynx and esophageal opening.

"How the hell can you possibly be alive?" Howard asked, genuinely fascinated.

"I'm not -- really," it said flatly. "Got a smoke?"

Howard fumbled for the pack of Marlboro's in his shirt pocket. He popped out a smoke and offered it to his newfound acquaintance. It lifted a ragged stump from which shattered bone peeked through shredded flesh. The other arm was twisted around the wrong way at the shoulder, equally useless. Howard shrugged, lit the cigarette himself and after taking a long luxurious drag, poked it into a rasping
hole in the thing's neck. The abnormally shaped chest rose and fell contentedly. Wisps of smoke oozed through numerous holes in the mangled chest as well as through several unnatural openings in the misshapen skull, including an exposed ear canal. Howard couldn't help laughing.

"What in the hell are you, anyway?" Howard inquired, taking the cigarette away, absently jamming it between his lips.

"What do you think, the Grim Reaper presides over every single death? I'm with the DMV. Death by Motor Vehicle. No long lines, no waiting." The thing was gesturing animatedly with the ragged stump, until it fell off at the shoulder hitting the pavement with a greasy splat. "I was a lot like you, Howard. Didn't give a flip for nothing. I managed to kill myself forty years ago driving stone drunk in my 57 Chevy. Also killed a family of five in a DeSoto station wagon. Ended up doing this shit for forty years. It was fun at first, but you know what, it gets old. You do get to drive all kinds of different cars and trucks, though. You can be creative about the way you do your business; you make it as messy as you like and do it to whoever you want as long as you make the quota. There's no rhyme or reason. I always liked that part."

Howard was slack-jawed in wonder; he was also feeling the vague stirrings of an erection and thought for a moment his bowels would let go. He licked his parched lips and stared at several teeth that had clattered to the pavement.

"You cause car wrecks?" Howard mumbled.

"More or less. Not all of them are mine. Most along this stretch of highway. We have our assigned areas. Usually work alone, although did a job with a guy in Jax once. Remember the thirty car pile up in the fog a couple years back?" The thing reached around its body the wrong way with the twisted arm and scratched what was left of its forehead.

Howard's dead shark-eyes lit up. "And the Greyhound bus wreck? That was you?"

The thing almost looked like it smiled. More teeth chattered to the asphalt. "Yeah," he said, humbly, "the two Yugos and the semi, too. That was fun. Although, in the old days, we had alcohol, cigarettes, screaming kids in the back seats and radios to distract drivers. Now cell phones -- it's almost too easy. Most of these assholes can't walk and chew gum at the same time."

Howard's mouth fell open in true admiration. "Goddamn, you are awesome! Like a fuggin' maestro or something."

"Well, I'm not gonna miss it all that much. It's actually quite a hands-on job and not being able to die can be a real pain in the ass. Waited a long time for the right guy to come along. What I'm trying to say, Howard -- " the thing shambled to its feet with great difficulty. It lunged for Howard, slapping its contorted arm across his shoulder, "-- is you're it." The thing slid wetly across Howard's body then to his feet in a blood-soaked, wadded up mess of ruined flesh and protruding, shattered bone.

When the paramedics arrived, they found the DOA and Howard's wrecker, but no Howard. Several days later, the old Ford wrecker vanished from the impound yard as well.

The ominous flat black wrecker has been sighted from time to time along a certain stretch of Interstate 95 just south of Jacksonville, usually around the time of a fatal car crash. The accident fatality rate along that fifteen miles of 95 is -- unaccountably --
nearly twice the state average.

The handful of people familiar with the events occurring the night Howard disappeared faithfully avoid that bloody, eerie length of highway at any and all cost.

They are understandably uneasy in the knowledge that Howard is still on the job.

1999  Walt Hicks

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