Bad Habits

He paid the funeral director in cash, got into the hearse and headed to the agreed upon meeting spot. The funeral director was a quiet man, well versed in discretion and a lot of vices that required a lot of cash. Cash and vices had gotten Clancy into this mess in the first place, and now he was driving through barely illuminated neighborhoods at night, hoping nobody would see him. 

Luckily, the hearse’s windows were darkened, not that he thought anyone in the neighborhood would pay attention. It’s not like he was driving a monster truck with blinking lights. Clancy yawned, trying to pay attention to the road, the lack of sleep finally catching up with him and the dark, comfortable interior easing his frayed nerves. If the cabin was this comfortable to ride in, he wondered how well he’d sleep inside the coffin in the back. As tempting as the idea of a quick nap was, he would be happy if he didn’t actually end up in the coffin with someone else driving his dead body around. 

As he drove out of town, he noticed that Rick’s police cruiser was parked behind the big advertisement for the funeral home he came from. Clancy hoped that Rick was getting some shuteye himself rather than paying attention to the occasional drunk driver. Rick’s sense of duty was at best questionable and despite or because of his occupation, he had a lot of bad habits. One of them was to get some sleep during his time on duty. Now that Clancy thought about it, everyone he knew in town had some sort of bad habit, pastor Johnathan included. Clancy drove slowly past Rick’s parked cruiser, making certain to keep to the speed limit. Once he passed the cruiser, he looked out the rearview mirror, making a silent prayer to whatever deity that would listen, praying that Rick was too drunk himself to do much driving.

Going far enough into the past, drinking too much had gotten Clancy into this mess in the first place, but quitting that particular vice on a night like this would not do him any good and pulled a narrow silver flask out of his suit pocket. He unscrewed the top of the flask, took a deep pull, and let the burning warmth spread through him. As the alcohol loosened him up, he felt more comfortable in the suit he had to borrow from the director as well. Driving to the designated location was only part of it – he had to look the part as well.

As the hearse made its way along the almost empty interstate, Clancy couldn’t help but wonder how much different his life would have turned out if he had listened to his uncle’s advice to become an undertaker himself. Well, for one, he wouldn’t have had to pay an outrageous amount of money to borrow this car and he could have bought that coffin at cost, probably saving him a good amount of change. Nobody had told him what kind of coffin he had to get, so he opted for the cheapest model: A cherry-tone solid poplar casket with cream velvet interior, with matching pillow and throw in a French Fold Design and Swing Bar Handle Hardware. He didn’t care about the specifics. He just wanted the cheapest model, but decades of repetition had conditioned the funeral director to give him a full sales pitch. Clancy had learned more about coffins in those five minutes than he had his entire life. Luckily, the funeral home also had a casket lift. With Clancy’s bad back and the director who looked like he’d be his own customer any day now, they wouldn’t have gotten the coffin off the ground, much less into the back of the hearse. 

Clancy hoped they did not require him to lift the darn thing out himself. His lower back was spasming just at the mere thought of trying to lower the 200 pound monstrosity. But what was he required to do? 

The caller had been extremely vague, just as he had all the few times he had called before, bordering somewhere on the line between riddle and barely helpful instructions. He would have hung up on the caller the moment he heard the modulated voice through the phone, if he hadn’t already known that his daughter was in trouble.

When he had first received a call, he hadn’t heard from his daughter Tammy in over a week. She did not call often and he didn’t blame her, but after two weeks of no calls, Clancy knew something was not quite right and had reached out to her. After two more days of only getting her mailbox and leaving her messages until it was full, he had driven over to her apartment; the address cut out from last year’s Christmas letter. So what if he was embarrassing her? He was worried, and he was still her father. If she wanted him to keep his distance, she should at least pick up the phone.

Tammy’s roommates had at first eyed him funny and then downright not believed him when he told them he was Tammy’s dad. Tammy had told them she would visit him, so him asking for her at her place raised a few eyebrows. Her roommates had any idea who else she might have been visiting or why she would have not told them the truth. While Tammy’s roommates were just as confused as Clancy, they seemed less concerned about her well-being and ultimately were no help to him. They figured she had her reasons and would be back sooner or later.

As he had gotten home, he had finally received a call from Tammy, or at least her phone number. The caller’s voice sounded robotic, stretched and wavering, further distorted by the phone.

“It is important that you listen carefully. We have your daughter.” The caller then ignored next few minutes of Clancy’s questions, threats and pleading in silence. When eventually Clancy quieted down, the voice had simply given him tasks. Small errands, like picking up packages and dropping them off in various places all around the state. The caller had made it clear that if he wanted to ensure his daughter’s safety, he would complete them without fail and without question. Every time he had finished one of these tasks and was contacted again, he had asked for proof of her well-being, fearing the worst. He had barely slept over the past few days, and his stomach was in knots.

Eventually, he had threatened to go to the police, but the voice had convinced him they would be of no help. What could they do? The caller told Clancy, if he did this, he would find his daughter in pieces. Now his current instructions were to bring a hearse with an empty coffin to the abandoned storage lot along I-495 and to wear a suit. He had tried to ask questions, but the caller had a bad habit of leaving many of the logistics to Clancy to figure out.

After about a half-hour drive, he came to the exit and after a few more minutes of navigating in the dark, he arrived at what used to be Pete’s Self-Storage. Abandoned storage lots, either fallen-in or filled with rubble and dirt, were lining a broken up asphalt road. The only light came from the headlights of the hearse. He heard the bars of the coffin bang against the wood as he hit one pothole after the other. After carefully navigating around rubble to the end of the lot, he put the car into park, now idling in the middle of nowhere.

For all he knew, they were going to pull him out of the car or shoot him. But why go through all the trouble with the hearse? Maybe they were just messing with his mind and having some fun with him. He knew he couldn’t possibly understand the motivations of someone who’d kidnap a person and force their family members into compliance. He pulled out the flask from his coat pocket, wondering if whoever was watching him would think he had been pulling out a gun and shoot him. 

There was no shot, and he brought the flask to his mouth and emptied most of the container. He wanted to seem calm, not stressed, but his hands were shaking badly. Who could blame him?

As he put the flask down, a figure appeared from behind one of the dilapidated storage units. The man shielded his eyes against the bright headlights with his hands and strode to the passenger door of the hearse. He had short, well trimmed, black hair and a neatly trimmed full beard. The man reached the hearse and tried to open the passenger door. When the door did not open, he bent his head down, looking at Clancy, and pointed wordlessly towards the car door lock. Clancy hesitated for a moment and then leaned over to unlock the door. The man opened the door and let himself fall into the seat and closed the door, without saying a word or acknowledging Clancy.

Clancy couldn’t help himself and blurted out, “Where is my daughter?”

As if Clancy had said nothing, the men simply said 

“Turn around and take a left out of here.”

His voice was surprisingly high, but calm and collected. No sign of nervousness or agitation, as if getting into people’s cars at night in abandoned lots and them directing them somewhere was like ordering a pizza with extra cheese and pepperoni. Clancy didn’t know what he had expected, but the calm tone was like a slap in the face. They had turned his life upside down and here was this… kid, acting like he had no care in the whole wide world. 

Clancy turned to his passenger, “First I want to know if my daughter is still okay, that’s all I want to know. I’m not going to do anything else unless… Unless I know she’s alive. I need to know!”

The kid sighed and put his hand in his own suit pocket. For a second Clancy feared he would get tazed, or worse, shot. Then to his relief, he saw that the kid was just holding a smartphone in his hand. He swiped across the glass screen and turned the phone towards Clancy. 

A video was playing. It took Clancy a moment to understand what he was looking at. He saw a cluttered space, like a small apartment filled with stacks of boxes and papers. In the middle of the room sat a brown couch. On it, he immediately realized was his daughter, with her hands tied up in front of her and mouth taped over. At the sight, his stomach cramped and he couldn’t suppress a hoarse cry. Then the camera moved closer towards Tammy and Clancy tried to see if she had been injured. She looked shaken and uncomfortable, but she didn’t look hurt. Then the camera quickly panned towards the TV. A news channel was on. He made out today’s date and the time on ehte screen. This video was less than an hour old. Desperation and relief washed over him simultaneously. He balled his hands into fists so hard that the nails dug into his palms. 

Before he could say anything else, the kid spoke up again. This time he looking him straight into Clancy’s eyes. Even in the low light coming from the car’s dashboard, Clancy could see their piercing blue color. His passenger repeated his instructions, this time slowly and clearly enunciating every word:

“Turn around and take a left out of here.” Then he sat back in the seat 

Clancy swallowed, loosened the parking brake and put the hearse in reverse.

Note: This First Draft was part of NaNoWriMo 2021 – 30 First Drafts in 30 Days

📷 Hearse photo by enmanuel m

🎵 Dystopian Memories by Sangam

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