Fiction Vortex 2014 Horror Issue

Horror 2014 3rd Place: The Things We Carry

The Things We Carry by Amanda Crum is a personal and pervasive psychological horror. A dark character sketch of the lonely and numbed, the boy next door. — Johnny Worthen
By Amanda Crum

When the storm rolled through, Jason Krauss was still sitting in the ambulance, safe and dry. The bubble lights threw strobes of red and white across the passing landscape, illuminating the pines in brief flashes. Their shadows were still too deep for the lights to puncture, and so all he got was a momentary glimpse of branches before the night stole them away again.

He was out with Bobby tonight, his least favorite coworker. Brenda was his usual partner but she was out with the flu. Brenda was a nice older lady. She never made Jason uncomfortable, unlike Bobby, who told the most disgusting jokes about having sex with dead bodies. It was disrespectful, Jason felt, and unprofessional. He hadn’t gone to school for as long as he did and gone into debt to pay for it just to listen to an ignorant ass make off-color jokes about the dead. And they weren’t even funny. Somehow that was just as insulting. Jason had a great sense of humor and it really pissed him off when people thought they were funny but weren’t. Also — and Jason tried really hard to overlook this fact, since it was unkind to think such things — Bobby was really overweight and had body odor. Sometimes, when they were working closely together, Jason had to hold his breath to keep from gagging.

The ambulance headlights cut through the darkness, leading them away from town and into more dangerous territory. Here the roads were so curvy that Bobby, who was driving, had to come to an almost complete stop to take the turns. Jason hated to think of the county fire engine trundling through here, taking hairpin curves with its bulk swaying back and forth on the narrow blacktop, but it had done just that only ten minutes earlier. The fire department was always first to respond to car accidents; Jason and his fellow EMT’s mostly picked up the bodies. Knowing what was waiting for them made the night suddenly cold and Jason turned up the heat on the dash.

One would have thought he would be used to the deaths by now. In six months he’d seen his fair share already. Plymouth, Tennessee was by no means a big city — or even a large town — but the winding roads of the countryside claimed their share of the population at all times of the year. Jason had lived there his entire life and was familiar enough with every square inch of the land to know where to take it easy on four wheels, and assumed everyone else did, too. But it was almost as if the roads themselves changed, bending their curves ever so slightly so as to throw off the drivers.

But death wasn’t something a person could ever really get used to, Jason thought. And maybe it wasn’t supposed to be. Maybe once you stopped being affected by it, you started to lose a little of your humanity.

Wind buffeted the ambulance, rocking it slightly as they took one last curve before the accident site. Jason could see the action up ahead. The reflective yellow coats the firefighters wore were blurred in the heavy rain, making it appear as though they were moving much more quickly than they actually were.

There was no need to move quickly. The driver of the little red Toyota Camry sitting on the side of the road could not have survived. It looked…squashed, somehow, as though a giant hand had come down upon the roof and caved it in like a cheap toy.

“Bad one,” Bobby murmured, bringing the ambulance to a stop several feet from the fire truck in order to give it space to maneuver.

“They’re all bad,” Jason said curtly. He flipped up the hood of his rain gear and jumped down from the cab, splashing cold rain water onto the cuffs of his pants.

“Lost control coming around that last curve there,” Joshua Higgins, the Sheriff Deputy, said as Jason approached. He could see the Sheriff’s car now, on the other side of Engine 1. The strobe lights from all three vehicles merged at a particular point in the trees on the side of the road, creating a starburst of red and blue. “Car flipped over about three times, from the looks of the marks on the road. Happened before the rain even started. She must be an out-of-towner. Plates are from Libertyville.”

As if that accounted for anything, Jason thought but didn’t say.

“Just one victim?” he asked gravely. He could see Bobby in his peripheral, chuckling with one of the fire jockeys. It was always this way when they worked together. Jason did the talking, Bobby did the lifting. An unspoken agreement.

“Just the one. She’s over there.”

He pointed vaguely into the pines on their right, where Jason could just make out the county coroner, Lucinda Grey, kneeling over a prone body. The rain pelted down, spattering off the shoulders of his coat and stinging his eyes like sweat.

“Wasn’t wearing a seatbelt,” Josh said. “Damn shame. She might’ve made it.”

Ignoring him, Jason made his way over to Lucinda. She had set up an umbrella, staked to the ground so as to keep the body relatively dry and contamination-free.

“Evening,” she said without looking up. Jason watched as she carefully examined the victim’s hands before making a note on her legal pad.

“Hello, Lucinda.”

Lucinda was pretty in a severe way, Jason thought. Her hair was always pulled tightly back on top of her head and he had never seen her wear any makeup other than a slash of pale lipstick every once in a while. But her eyes were large and pale blue and her skin was the color of milk. He liked that she looked severe. It made her seem more professional. Once he’d asked her to be his date to the company Christmas party and she had looked at him so strangely that he’d gone home later and sat in the dark for a while. Sometimes rejection was easier to take than confusion.

“D.O.A.?” he asked.

“Yes. She hit that tree there in one of the revolutions and was thrown through the windshield. Massive head trauma would be my guess, but of course I can’t be sure until I conduct the autopsy.”

Jason turned to look at the tree. It seemed innocent enough, standing alone on the side of the road away from the cluster of pines. But knowing what it had been responsible for, Jason couldn’t look at it the same way ever again. His mind was funny like that. He had responded to many car accidents on this road — a particularly bad stretch — and he remembered all of them when he was driving his own car and happened to pass a site.

A plastic sheet covered the girl, protecting her from the rain, and added a certain amount of respect. The only part of her Jason could see was her forearm and hand, which Lucinda was still holding. It was placed palm-up. He could see that she had been a nail-biter. Nasty habit.

Something about that hand reminded him of someone else, and it took him a moment to figure out who it was.

“Say, isn’t this near the spot where we found that college student a few months ago? The girl who was hitchhiking?”

Lucinda glanced around briefly. “Yes, I think so.”

He contemplated the trees for a moment, the slickness of the road, the clouds which obscured the moon. Bobby had gone with one of the firefighters to set up reflective cones on the road, although it was probably unnecessary. For as many accidents as it had seen, it wasn’t a very busy thruway at night.

“So many lives lost,” he said softly.

“Sorry?” Lucinda asked. She was still scribbling in her notebook and sounded impatient.

“Nothing,” Jason said. “I’ll leave you to it.”

“It’s okay, I’m done,” she sighed, standing up with a groan. “I need to start bringing a folding chair with me. My back can’t take all this kneeling and stooping.”

Jason frowned at that visual. “You wouldn’t really do that, would you?”

“Jeez, I was joking,” she snapped, flipping her legal pad closed and stalking off. He watched her return to her truck, where the Sheriff was waiting for her. They spoke briefly and he saw Josh crane his neck to look at him around Lucinda. They were talking about him, then. He felt his cheeks burn.

Suddenly he wanted to be at home, in the shower. Sometimes he showered in the dark. It was comforting.

After a moment, Bobby came back and they loaded the dead girl into the back of the wagon.

 ~~~~~

A strange thing happened after Jason and Bobby dropped her off at the morgue.

They were almost to the parking lot of the hospital, ready to end their shift and turn in their keys, when Bobby suddenly noticed something on the floorboard. It was pushed into the shadows on the passenger side, almost invisible until his foot brushed it.

“Crap!” he cried. Jason, who had been daydreaming about relaxing in his favorite chair and watching a horror movie, started and turned to him in alarm.

“What?”

“That girl’s purse! Lucinda put it in here and I forgot to put it with the body.”

Jason rolled his eyes. “How did you sign her in without I.D.?”

“Her driver’s license was in a little change purse on her key ring. I totally forgot about this. Dammit! Pull in here and I’ll take it back. You can go on home.”

And Jason, who felt a strong dislike for Bobby, did a most unusual thing. He did it without thinking. The words just popped right out of his mouth.

“I’ll take it back.”

Bobby looked at him curiously. “You don’t have to do that, man, it was my bad.”

“Yeah, and you’ll owe me one. Go on, you know if you get overtime again Curtis will pissed.”

Bobby considered this. “Yeah, he will. Alright, if you’re sure…”

Jason pulled into the parking lot and left the engine running. “I’m sure. See you tomorrow.”

“Off tomorrow. Won’t be back ‘til Wednesday.”

“Wednesday, then.”

He watched as Bobby jumped down from the cab and ran in the rain to the sliding doors of the Emergency Room, and even then he didn’t know why he had volunteered to do a favor for one of his least favorite people in the world.

But when he looked down at the purse, he remembered.

 ~~~~~

At home, he sat freshly showered at his kitchen table. The horror movie was forgotten.

The purse sat in front of him, a cavern of secrets to be told and held.

His palms were slick and his heart a crazy jackrabbit in his chest. What he was about to do was highly unethical and unprofessional. He knew this in the back of his brain, but something had awakened in him at the thought of going through the dead girl’s things. Part of it was voyeurism, part of it was curiosity, and part of it was the thrill of doing something so wrong that he himself would shun another for doing the same thing.

But it couldn’t be helped.

He took a deep breath and opened the purse.

It was black leather, with lots of chains and zippers. He looked inside for a moment first without touching anything, and then decided he would need to dump everything out to examine it all. He tipped it up and a jumble of papers, coins, makeup, pens, and various detritus tumbled out onto the polished surface of his dining table.

He took his time, sorting everything into piles: paper, writing instruments, and a small black address book went into one pile. Gum and candy went into another. Makeup and Chapstick went into a third. Soon he had seven small piles arranged before him, and he began with the one closest to him.

Her name was Kristin Haverty. She had twenty-seven checks in a plastic checkbook adorned with butterflies. Behind the checks were photos in plastic sleeves: two were of a young blonde girl, one was of a German Shepard, and two were of Kristin herself. Jason recognized her easily enough, even though her face had taken a lot of damage in the accident. These last two photos showed her on the beach with a man. They looked sunburned but happy.

She had been pretty, much prettier than Lucinda Grey. Her eyes were dark but she had blonde hair, an interesting combination. She had a nice smile.

He laid the checkbook aside and read through every scrap of paper. Some were receipts; she had gone shopping at the mall the day before. There was a wadded-up piece of foil that appeared to have held chocolate at one point. There were Post-It notes, filled with cryptic sentences.

D. M. Tuesday. Check? Reports? read one.

The makeup was simple; one tube of red lipstick and a compact filled with pale powder. She’d had fair skin. There was also a tube of Wintergreen Chapstick, which Jason pocketed on impulse. It had been mostly used up, but he didn’t want to use it. The little tube of wax was so personal to her. He didn’t want to throw it out.

He sat for two hours, looking through Kristin’s belongings and reading her handwriting. For a little while, he felt as though he’d known her. It was a nice feeling. He burned the purse and all of Kristin’s belongings — except for the Chapstick — in the fireplace and then went to bed. He slept soundly and without anxiety for the first time in months.

 ~~~~~

Over the next two weeks, Jason was called to three more fatal car accidents. A stroke of luck ensured he didn’t have to work with Bobby again. Bobby had taken ill with the flu, presumably caught from Brenda. Jason was glad for the break. Bobby was a talker and he didn’t want the issue of the purse to come up again.

One of the accidents — the first — involved a man and his elderly mother. The old lady survived, but her son wasn’t so lucky. Jason wasn’t interested in his belongings. He went home that night disappointed and the old anxiety crept back in as he lay awake in bed, looking up at the ceiling.

Four days later, a woman in her thirties tried to outrun an oncoming train and was killed instantly when it slammed into the driver’s side of her BMW. Jason snuck her purse out of the morgue’s Personal Affects locker and took it home, where he took three hours to go through its contents. His heart shook with anticipation as he picked up each item, running his fingers over them as if he could discover secrets they held.

Angela Harvey’s purse was much like Kristin’s: paper, makeup, a checkbook and wallet. Mints instead of gum. But while putting everything back inside, Jason discovered a small zippered compartment. With shaky hands, he opened it to find a black velvet jewelry box. Inside was a silver heart-shaped locket.

It was old and the hinges were rusted, so he was unable to open it. He didn’t care. He held it up to his nose and smelled the ghost of her perfume, something sweet and citrusy. It was too strong for his taste, but not terrible. This would be the thing he kept, he decided, and burned the rest. He slept with the necklace on, beneath his shirt, resting against his bare skin.

 ~~~~~

The next day he was assigned to work with Bobby again. He drove them to Arby’s for lunch and they sat in the cab of the ambulance, eating to the sounds of classic rock.

“County Coroner’s office called Curtis today,” Bobby said suddenly, watching two young girls in short skirts walk by.

Jason swallowed his bite of roast beef with difficulty. “Oh yeah?”

“Said someone stole a victim’s purse out of the lockers at the morgue. Who would do such a thing, ya think?”

“Who knows?” Jason said, frowning. “There’s some sick people out there.”

“Yeah, no shit. Speaking of which, did you get an eyeful of that Harvey chick’s ass? She must have made some lucky man pretty happy.”

Jason glared at him and started the engine, ignoring his comment. Bobby giggled and tossed his trash out the window.

“Don’t be so serious, man,” Bobby said, still chewing the last of his sandwich. “It’s okay to have a sense of humor. Hell, in our line of work it’s a must.”

“When I find anything you say funny, I’ll let you know.”

 ~~~~~

One week later, Jason was starting to get antsy. He hadn’t slept more than three hours a night since Angela and his anxiety was at an all-time high. On his days off he found himself taking three or four showers, all of them in the dark. He’d even taken to wearing Angela’s necklace beneath his shirt at all times, but nothing helped. He went for long drives at night along the back roads, the ones that were so dangerous and which kept him earning a paycheck, and thought about all the people whose lives had been claimed in their cars. He wondered briefly if he would have to stoop to causing an accident just to get a good night’s sleep, but quickly pushed the thought away. He wouldn’t do that.

Then on Saturday, a three-car pileup on the interstate saved him. Eight people were involved, two of which died on impact, another at the hospital.

The two on-site victims were Jennifer Groves and Ashley Mackenzie. College students. Ashley had a purse with her, but Jennifer had a purse and a backpack. Jason could barely concentrate as he and his coworkers did their jobs, tending to the wounded as quickly as they could. His eyes kept straying to the car that held Jennifer and Ashley, his fingers itching to get hold of their belongings. Bobby noticed how distracted Jason was and nudged him as they were bandaging one of the other drivers.

“You okay, man?”

“I’m fine,” Jason said, edging away from him.

“You look a little pale. Could be you’re coming down with that flu that’s been going around. If you need to take a break, I’ve got this—“

“I said I’m fine,” Jason said through his teeth.

He could feel Bobby looking at him, could see it from his periphery. Suddenly he was sure that Bobby knew. He wasn’t the smartest person in the world, but he had somehow figured out that it was Jason who had taken the purse. He had figured it out and he could see, in the way Jason’s eyes were darting back to the car with the dead girls that he meant to do it again.

“I think I will take a break,” he said after a moment. He walked toward the side of the highway, where there was a grassy area. He felt Bobby’s eyes on his back the entire way.

 ~~~~~

Six hours later, Jason was back in the relative comfort of his apartment.

He hadn’t been able to stop himself from taking the purses and Jennifer’s backpack, despite his concern that Bobby knew what was going on. The thought of a good night’s sleep — and of what he might find — was too good to resist.

He placed the purses in their own space on the kitchen table and chose one at random to go through first. It was bright yellow and shiny, like plastic. A look inside the wallet told him it was Ashley’s. She’d been a deeply tanned girl, so tan she was almost orange, and her hair was dyed black. Not Jason’s typical style, but still, she was good looking beneath it all: pretty green eyes, nice mouth, a lovely body.

But the inside of her purse yielded nothing particularly interesting. It was the same as he’d found before: receipts, scraps of paper, change and a bit of paper money, makeup (although she did have more makeup than the others, almost a whole bag full), gum. Nothing personal at all, nothing as good as Angela’s necklace.

He wondered — for the first time — why he was doing this. For the thrill, yes. He understood that part of it. Because he liked to snoop? Was that why he was risking his job and his reputation? His career? Certainly he would never work as an EMT in this town again if he was found out.

He was lonely. So, so lonely. He hadn’t been on a date in over a year, and the last one hadn’t gone well. Girls didn’t seem to get him. His sense of humor was too broad, he supposed. Or perhaps his intelligence put them off. Also, he loved horror movies and most girls weren’t into those.

“What are you looking for?” he whispered.

But he thought he knew the answer to that. His hand found the strap of Jennifer’s purse and he dumped it unceremoniously on the table, among the mess of Ashley’s bag. He had come too far to stop now.

Jennifer’s was much the same as the others. There was no makeup, but otherwise it could have belonged to any of them.

He let out a bellow of rage and slung the purses across the room.

They were all the same. He had done this for nothing. He thought of Lucinda and her steely gaze, her too-tight bun, her cutting words. She was a grade-A bitch, he thought disgustedly. She’d get hers. And Bobby, that fat nosy pig. He might have something coming to him, too.

 ~~~~~

Bobby climbed the steps to Jason’s apartment holding a brown paper bag. He whistled as he climbed the first flight, glad to be off work for the next 24 hours, then took a deep breath as he began the second flight. He was really getting out of shape, and that flu hadn’t helped matters. He still felt like he was breathing through cheesecloth when he laid down at night. He was sure Jason was coming down with it; the poor guy had been positively white on their last run. They might have had their differences, but Jason had done him a favor and covered his ass after he screwed up, so he figured the least he could do was bring him some chicken noodle soup and a six-pack.

He began the last flight of steps, clutching the bag tighter.

 ~~~~~

Jason had just started the fire when someone pounded on his door.

He straightened up so fast his spine cracked audibly and looked at the door, eyes wild, hair standing up in spikes from where he’d run his hands through it in frustration.

“Jason? It’s Bobby.”

Damn! That nosy prick had decided to call him out. He would confront Jason with what he knew and threaten to turn him in. No, he would blackmail him probably. The smelly bastard.

“You in there, man?” Bobby called. His voice was muffled through the thick door.

“I’m in here,” Jason whispered. He picked up the heavy, iron fireplace poker.

“I know what’s been making you act weird lately,” Bobby said. “Let me in.”

Jason put his hand on the doorknob, felt how slick his palm was with sweat, and wiped his hand on his shirt before returning it to the brass knob. He wrapped his hand tighter around the poker and flung open the door.

“Hey man,” Bobby said. “There you are. Wow, you look like hell. I bet you are coming down w—“

He trailed off as he got a view of the apartment over Jason’s shoulder, where there were two familiar bags lying on the carpet amidst a litter of paper.

“Hey,” he said. “What’s that?”

He stepped over the threshold and Jason struck.

 ~~~~~

One hour later, Jason sat on his living room floor, looking confusedly around him. There were things that did not belong: purses, blood, a fireplace poker matted with hair and bits of brain. He vaguely remembered where they had come from, but he didn’t want to think about that. There was something in the bathtub which would require his attention later, and he didn’t want to think about that, either.

Something caught his eye. Something bright pink, beneath the kitchen table.

He had forgotten all about Jennifer’s backpack. He crawled over to it and unzipped it carefully, reverently. Perhaps it held the things he had been missing. Fragile things.

He took out everything carefully and laid each item on the carpet, taking in every detail. Here was a well-worn and much loved copy of The Catcher In The Rye, Jason’s favorite book. An anatomy textbook. She had been smart. Various pens and pencils, some for sketching. Artistically inclined. He liked that. Folders containing her homework, notebooks containing her notes. And in the large front pocket, a small tube of deodorant and a travel-size bottle of perfume. He lifted the cap and inhaled its scent — light and flowery. Perfect. There was also a small leather-bound book.

A journal.

He sat with the book in his hands for perhaps five minutes, simply staring at the cover. Here was the most personal thing he’d found thus far, and it belonged to a girl who seemed to be the one from his dreams. The one he’d never been lucky enough to find on his own.

Finally, he opened the cover. The first page was covered in doodles. Hearts, stars, little moons, a funny man with a mustache. And there, on the inside, was a ticket stub for a midnight movie at the multiplex over on Glendale.

Friday the 13th.

He stood up in one smooth movement, tucking the journal inside his shirt as he did so. He would have to read it at length later.

Right now, he needed to get to the morgue.

~~~~~

~~~~~

Amanda Crum is a writer and artist from Kentucky. She has a love of horror and things that haunt the senses and has been published in Bay Laurel, Dark Eclipse, and SQ Magazine. She currently lives in a small town with her husband, two kids, and their husky, Danzig. 

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