The Dead Drive the Night
~ Eric Del Carlo
“It’s what you do, that’s what you said, eh?”
“It’s all I do. The only good—no, great—thing I’m capable of.”
“Sounds like what an artist would say.”
“Fine. I’m an artist.” What Jez was also was frazzled. This office was furnished in cramped shabby, and that cruddiness was eating into her brain. But this was the last haulage company in the area; and, she felt with fatalistic certainty, it was going to be the last to tell her no.
The man behind the desk in short sleeves and a terrible tie had Jez’s resumé in front of him. It reflected her skill set. She was extraordinary. But she could better prove that at the wheel of her rig. Getting the chance to do so was the seemingly insur-fucking-mountable problem.
She rubbed her right temple with two stiff fingers.
After a long perusal the executive asked, “Why’d you leave your last employment?”
The reason was there on the sheet of deadtree before him. This, then, was her opportunity to put a personal spin on the facts. Maybe she’d say something self-incriminating. Maybe she’d spout off about how they’d never appreciated her at her last company. There were escalating degrees of not getting a job. Jezebel Canha was determined to leave this moldy little office eminently qualified for a position—whether this asshat hired her or not.
“The business went under,” she said.
“It really wasn’t.” Which was the truth. These days everything was in flux. Enterprises could fail for reasons so cryptic you needed goat entrails to determine the why. Human society in general had taken a hefty jolt, and the repercussions were widespread and unforeseeable.
It was why Jez couldn’t find work in the only trade she knew and excelled at.
He laid a thick hand on top of the paper, as if absolving it or gentling it into sleep.
“Any openings we might have, Ms. Canha—well . . .” He pointed his chin over a shoulder, to a metaplastic sign on the too-close wall. “‘Dead Drive Night,’” he quoted, leaving off the articles, either for brevity’s sake or style points.
Jez studied the little plaque a moment. One day it would look as quaint and squirm-inducing as one that read irish need not apply. But for now it was the de facto law of the land.
His hand stayed where it was. He was keeping her resumé. That was something, anyway.
She stood, feeling the pressure of the saggy ceiling above her.
On her way out of the office the man called to her, saying it—just boldly nakedly saying it: “Come back if you’re dead. You seem like you’d be a helluva driver.”
It was dismayingly easy to get the potassium chloride. A cottage industry had sprung up. A guy delivered it. He rang her gate, she buzzed him up, and he fidgeted in her apartment doorway. She’d had to give her weight when she placed the order. The stuff was already in a syringe.
He had blond dreads, a bicyclist’s calves. He fidgeted by taking tiny steps to nowhere in her entryway.
He was, it dawned on Jez, waiting for a tip. He was delivering death, not a pizza, but okay. She dropped a gold circle into his palm, an old commemorative coin, still legal tender. Her father had given it to her in the third grade for some academic achievement. Her father was dead, the old kind of dead.
She didn’t explain this extra layer of meaning to the delivery guy.
Jez walked around her apartment, a nice place. Here she had fended off the creeping crumminess of the world, the dilapidation, the shabbiness. She had good furnishings. Everything was tidy and clean and comfortable.
She had to have a steady income to maintain this place.
She put on music, a favorite song, one that prompted memories from no less than three past love affairs. In the bathroom were alcohol and cotton swabs. A patch of skin gleamed sterilely on her inner forearm as she lay down on her bed and stuck in the needle.
It was a fast death.
It was a different exec in the haulage company office, but it would be. Jez had come back at night. There was paperwork to fill out.
This time the man behind the desk wore long sleeves and no tie, terrible or otherwise. He performed his tasks with an aloof ease. Tonight the office was just as awful, but its dinginess didn’t oppress Jez. She felt at a remove.
She was handing completed forms across the desk at a steady rate. The man took each and arranged them into a file.
“I have my death certificate,” she said, and the statement felt sudden, a little too loud.
The man raised eyebrows toward a graying hairline. “I’ve already noted it.”
They were alike, she and this person. Much could go unsaid. That felt right. It had been a week since she’d shot up the potassium chloride.
Jez signed the final sheet. She felt an excitement, but it was deep-rooted. It didn’t disturb her surfaces. She sat calmly, waiting. She’d done just about everything in a calm manner this past week.
The man looked at her a moment. There was nothing uncomfortable about the silence. Finally he said, “You’re ready to drive.”
Jez’s mouth flickered with the hint of a smile.
The road sang, as it had always sung for her. Her truck was her flesh. In the cab, her hands lay delicately on the big wheel. She didn’t need the truck’s grid system to tell her she was making good—no, great—time. She had a perfect sense of destination, of the journey itself.
She drove the night, and she drove it very goddamn well.
Orange highway lights thumped past with the regularity of a healthy pulse. It hadn’t been a terribly long time since she’d been out at night, but it was a while since she had done anything at night. Here she was participating in the commerce, industry and general societal movements of that half of the day increasingly reserved for those people who had experienced death.
She was as good as she’d ever been. The first few miles had already proven that to her satisfaction. She’d had a week to assess herself, to decide if anything had changed. It was ridiculous, of course. Or nearly ridiculous. Plenty of scientific literature was available to anyone who had experienced the sort of demise Jez had undergone. There should be no loss of skills.
Her memories were all there too.
So, she was driving with the same excellence as before, just as she remembered.
But it didn’t give her the same feeling. That thrill, that joy. She felt a certain pleasure, a quiet gratification, yes, but the old lively excitement wasn’t there anymore. Her bones didn’t quiver. Her nerve endings weren’t crackling with the same fear/sex energy. Before, she rode her rig like a wild lover, savoring every challenge, every opportunity to advance on her time.
Now, perhaps, it wasn’t so much that the truck was her flesh: maybe she was the machine.
She’d read about this beforehand as well. It was less codified in the scientific papers, a more subjective phenomenon.
The night, she had decided, suited her. The new her, the post her. Whatever the current jargon, which now didn’t seem so important to her. At night there were mostly only others like her. That was how the world was rearranging itself. It was why, before her death, she’d been unable to find work, despite her talents. The day had gotten too full.
With the night came a tranquility, an order. She was aware of it even as she tore down the roadway with her payload, wheels thrumming, engine gargling. The haulage company she now worked for served a tri-state area. She completed her first run. The personnel at the depot all exuded a palpable aplomb. They operated without wasted energy. A supervisor glanced up from a datascroll and said to her, “Good time.” Only, she realized minutes later, he hadn’t actually said anything.
She was hungry. She’d seen a diner on the way in. She hopped in her truck and backtracked.
The place was small and greasy and typical. The stools were upholstered in tired red. The long metaplastic counter gleamed under the lights.
Jez sat, feeling a residual buzz of her journey in her limbs. She wasn’t keyed up, though. No bustle in her head, communicating itself as tics, drumming fingers, the urgent need for coffee, then alcohol. She felt as rested and centered as when she’d woken up this afternoon.
The woman who came for her order was young—or what “young” had become for Jez now that she was in her thirties. She wrote nothing down, just nodded at each item Jez recited from the laminated menu, then finished with a soft huhhhn and went off to deliver the order to the cook. Jez looked at the backs of her legs as she leaned forward over the divider that separated the counter area from the kitchen, hiking up her crisp blue uniform skirt slightly. Her thighs were taut, twangy-looking.
The waitress didn’t hurry, didn’t make any errors, and had experienced death. Jez was sure of it.
It made her wonder: how had she died? The question felt taboo, something you just didn’t ask out loud.
Jez ate her burger and onion rings, aioli on the side, and slowly scoped out the other costumers. They all had a professional look, drivers, living off the road. Night shift people, and everything that that now meant. No music played. Nothing streamed on the diner’s monitors. She hadn’t noticed the absence until this moment, hadn’t been made uncomfortable by it.
In the parking lot, on her way out, there was a bit of a snarl. Two vehicles were in each other’s way, trying to jockey around. One was a yellow-on-black truck cab, payload-less, like Jez’s own rig after having dropped her cargo. She paused with a foot on the rung below her open door and watched the scene play out.
The other vehicle was quietly backing off, while the black and yellow yelped and lunged. It was like observing competing schools of parking lot etiquette. Finally it was sorted out.
The arriving driver hopped down lithely, twin gravelly crunches as her boots smacked the ground. She stretched extravagantly in a sweat-stained tank top. Her hair was a study in brunette disarray. She had a growly-looking mouth and red-rimmed eyes.
She was not dead. Had never been dead.
The driver strutted toward the diner, her bones no doubt humming with the pent-up energy of her run.
Jezebel Canha watched and watched her, even after she was inside, through the big front window. Then with a breathless sigh she climbed the rest of the way up to her cab.
It took some time for Jez to admit to herself that she was courting. She accessed public-record data and soon had all the harmless standard information on the yellow-on-black rig and the woman who owned it. She ghosted the woman’s social media output. Vonda Hupy. Jez thought about Vonda. A lot. It was rather schoolgirl-y and crush-y, except that it was happening at an emotional remove, as if she were curating someone else’s feelings.
But her interest persisted, and eventually she started to actively seek this woman.
The cargo company Vonda Hupy drove for was a small shady outfit, one that, nonetheless, Jez had sought employment at. They’d told her what they had all said during those final desperate months of her life. There was only night work available, and the dead drove the night. So how had Vonda gotten the gig?
There was, of course, nothing illegal about a live driver working at night. No law was ever going to go on the books. Instead, it was a cultural understanding, a gentlepersons’ agreement.
When she had watched Vonda through the diner’s window that night, the waitress had taken her order without a hint of distress.
Jez wanted to see her again.
But her job kept her busy. It also paid the rent on her tidy apartment, with all her nice familiar things. She couldn’t just go tearing after this woman. Hell, she couldn’t even bring herself to make contact via social media. Even as a teen she’d found flirtation and seduction easier in person than online.
So Jez kept track of Vonda’s professional movements as well as she could without resorting to sleuth software. After all, she didn’t want to stalk the woman. Or didn’t want to have to call it that.
After a week Jez knew Vonda’s basic patterns. She had also deduced that she was a good driver, at least as far as her haul times reflected. Jez was patient. She was patient with most everything these days. But her patience with Vonda had a singular quality to it. It was the calm of fixation. Vonda Hupy, in her sweaty tank top and disheveled hair, had somehow become a compass point for Jez. When Jez drove, which was often because the work was steady, she knew her route, her destination—and also knew at any given moment about where Vonda was if she was on the road too.
Inevitably they must cross paths a second time.
Turned out that reunion occurred at the same diner. It might as well have been the first time again for the similarity of the scenario. Vonda was jostling her yellowjacket cab against vehicles trying to get out of the lot. Jez, who had dropped her cargo container at the nearby depot, hung back. Vonda was insistent to the point of outright aggression, but also demonstrated pinpoint control of her rig, something every great driver had to possess.
Eventually, when the gravel had settled and Vonda had gone in, Jez walked into the diner.
Vonda already had a mug of coffee in front of her. She was occupying a booth by herself, tearing sugar packets one at a time with elaborate precision and stirring in the contents. She was either grinning or grinding her teeth.
“Mind if I join?” Jez said, dropping onto the opposite seat, upholstered in that same tired red as the stools.
Vonda didn’t look up. “Nope.” Tonight she wore a winter camou T-shirt, irregular stripes of white and light blue and darker blue. It hugged her shoulders, her breasts.
The diner wasn’t crowded enough for them to have to share the booth.
The waitress came halfway toward them, caught Jez’s eye and raised a fine eyebrow. Same as last time? Jez’s chin dipped in a shallow nod.
“How do you do that?” Vonda was blowing steam off the lip of her cup, having finished sugaring her coffee. She looked straight across at Jez.
The question meant Vonda knew what she was. Jez said, “I’m a regular here.”
“Me too. But I have to order every time.”
Jez shrugged. “Try tipping better.”
A vein stood out on the back of Vonda’s left hand. Her nails were dark crescents.
“Looked like you had some trouble getting into the lot.” The big front window was behind Vonda.
“Assholes need to learn how to drive.”
“Is it like that for you out on the road?”
Vonda took a slow sip of coffee. “On the road, I’m an angel in a power dive. You haul too?”
Their meals arrived, and after that it was flirting and coy and ribald comments. The other customers in the diner had paid no attention when Vonda was here alone. Now Jez was aware of an increasing interest, tinged with discomfort. Was this another taboo, something she hadn’t known beforehand? She was, after all, still relatively recently returned from the dead. People whose deaths were not overly traumatic had been spontaneously coming back for close to a year. That was time enough for subcultural rules to form.
Vonda sat back in the booth and pushed off her empty plate in the same movement. Her eyes flickered this way and that, taking in those other customers. Was she too aware of the attention? Probably not. It was very subtle.
“You hear statistics. So many die of heart attacks, such and such many keel over from blot clots. But they get tucked away in a morgue.” Vonda shook her head with a deep dismay. “It’s amazing to think how the sands of the human race just run naturally through the hourglass.”
Jez said nothing. She didn’t know how many here in the diner had expired naturally. Maybe it hadn’t occurred to this woman that were alternate ways to meet one’s death.
Vonda followed her back to her place, which was nearer. Then it was lips and grinding hips and busy fingers and tongues. When Jez had been out of work, she had taken up running to fill the time and had gotten herself back into pre-thirties shape. Vonda was a quivering bowstring, muscular, aggressive. The tension of the road was in her, and she was taking it all out on Jez, which was just fine.
After—and there were several afters, but this was the one where they finally spoke—Vonda asked, “How did you know I was a lesbian?”
Jez laughed, a brief but real guffaw, and she realized she hadn’t laughed like that in . . . a while. Not since.
“I’m trying to remember when I last heard someone use that term.”
In the crook of Jez’s arm, Vonda was trying to decide whether to be angry or not.
“When I was in school,” Jez explained, “mono-sexuals were given a hard time.”
“Oh.” The tension went out of Vonda’s neck as she lay her head back down.
Jez wanted to ask her a question too. And she guessed that Vonda had more, far deeper questions for her as well; but maybe those would wait.
“How’d you get your job?” She named Vonda’s sketchy little haulage company. “I applied there and got turned down flat, back when—” Back when I was alive. Unsaid words. But Vonda hadn’t died, and they didn’t share that unspoken understanding. All they had was the tacit empathy of newfound lovers.
Jez strongly suspected that Vonda wanted to ask her about her death. Jez wasn’t ready to talk about that. She simply hoped Vonda would answer her more innocuous question.
She did. “I went to the office for twenty-eight days straight. My driving record should’ve got me hired, but it didn’t. So I just wore ‘em the fuck down.”
Jez wondered if the same tactic would have worked for her. Probably not. Vonda Hupy had a special quality.
“You got a nice place. Real nice.” Vonda was walking around the apartment now, bare feet on wood, patpatpat. Jez leaned in a doorway and admired the flex of her taut ass. “My place is a sty. I never would’ve guessed you hauled if I’d seen all this.” She gestured at brass fittings, at well-coordinated art on the walls.
Jez went to speak but found herself without enough breath for words. Vonda was staring at her, as if waiting. Finally Jez said, “I want to see you again. I want more than this.”
Vonda maintained that gaze awhile. Then, “I want that too.”
They synchronized their trucks’ grid systems, so that each knew where the other was on the road, without the guesswork or triangulation. Jez visited Vonda’s apartment, and it was a sty pretty much. But it wasn’t the cruddiness of neglect; rather, the result of a mind and body occupied with other priorities.
Vonda liked to draw. Vonda liked charcoal. Black specks swarmed in the air whenever something in her apartment was disturbed. The stuff was permanently under her fingernails. Deadtree sheets were scattered everyplace, and they bore the markings of her art. All of it was crude. All of it was forceful. Vonda worked with harsh lines. Her themes were vibrant, vital. She had something to say and said it insistently.
Jez loved her work.
“You don’t get worked up about much, do you?” A smile played on Vonda’s growly mouth. Her tone was a little bitter.
Jez had been enthusing for forty straight minutes over Vonda’s art as the two of them sat cross-legged on dingy teal carpeting. “I feel like I haven’t shut up about how much I like your work.”
“You say less than you probably think you do.” Vonda tilted toward her, kissed her smartly on the cheek. “It’s okay.”
There were still the other, far larger questions lingering and hovering. Jez could sense them in the charcoal-dusted air. She and this woman had been involved for several weeks now. Perhaps Jez could make the inevitable questioning easier on herself—and on Vonda as well.
“How,” Jez asked softly, “did you know I was . . . dead?” It wasn’t the preferred term. Actually, there was no term for what she was, nothing the world had yet agreed on. “At the diner that night.”
Vonda held her face still a moment, then burst out with a laugh. “Guess the same way you knew I was gay.”
Jez joined in the laughing, and it felt good. Then she stopped, and waited.
After a time Vonda grew quiet, and after a long thoughtful pause she said, “Can you tell me how it was? When . . . when you were— When you weren’t? Shit! I don’t know how to ask this.”
Jez nodded, then thought to say, “It’s okay.” She’d had a while to prepare for this. She was nervous. Less nervous than she would have been before her death. But more nervous here with Vonda than she would have been with anyone else. It was because she cared deeply for the woman.
She’d been sitting on this rug too long. Half her butt was asleep. She shifted.
“It’s being frozen inside a fish bowl, sapphire ice all about. It is a pulse, a newborn’s, very very fast. It’s salt, hot salt, like seawater on an old piling under a blazing summer sun. It’s a memory of melting snow. The hurtling of a comet on a billion year suicide plunge. It’s vertigo. It’s claustrophobia. It is . . .”
Vonda lifted her shoulders, an elaborate shrug. “I guess it really can’t be described, then. You’ve been to the other side. You’ve seen what happens after a person kicks off. And it’s nothing but freshman poetry.”
They kissed, and this time it was Jez releasing excess energy, aggressively, and Vonda accommodated her as they made love on that dismal carpet.
Jez, though, knew Vonda had one last momentous question yet to voice. But perhaps she wouldn’t ask it.
It was a lot of dock to depot runs. Several harbors lay within the tri-state region, and many warehouses awaited that cargo. The night, if anything, improved Jez. Certainly she had by now adjusted to nighttime driving. She was also used to the people she interacted with. She felt at ease among her kind.
However, now and again she grew aware of a mild extra scrutiny, what would have been a stink-eye look from strangers in her old life. Some knew her before she knew them: a reputation, preceding. She had a live girlfriend. Live.
But no one said anything to her, no censures, no condemnations. She was of a category of human being who no longer needed constant explicit words.
A month after she had failed—as every other returnee had similarly failed—to explain the afterlife to her lover, Vonda asked the other question. The one of equal or greater enormity. Certainly the question Jez thought of as the most dangerous.
They were at Jez’s place. One of Vonda’s charcoals, framed and behind glass, hung on the front room’s wall. The brunette woman had brought other objects into the apartment, little lifeline things which reminded Jez of her presence when she wasn’t here.
Vonda asked her question when Jez wasn’t expecting it, at a casual moment without solemn prelude. Vonda was lacing up her boots, getting ready to go out to work.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” Jez said, sitting up in bed, sipping a second glass of wine. Drinking alone. Vonda had to drive; she didn’t.
“How’d you die?” No dramatic lead-in pause, no dire tone.
Jez looked at her. Vonda slowly combed a handful of dark disarrayed hair off her forehead with her fingers.
Half a dozen lies sprang to mind, convincing falsehoods. Jez had rehearsed some of these. There were many ways a person could lose her life and then come back. If the death event wasn’t too physiologically damaging, existence would be automatically restored. So this very strange, paradigm-upending past year had demonstrated to the world.
But instead of one of the lies, Jezebel Canha told her lover the truth. She had intentionally taken her own life.
It wasn’t a long explanation. She laid out her reasons and how she had accomplished her passing. Vonda said nothing, and continued to stare. Jez started to add to her accounting but stopped herself. Despite the wine, her gut had gone cold.
She heard Vonda grinding her teeth a few seconds before she said, “You killed yourself for a fuckin’ job!”
“I had to—”
“You didn’t fucking have to! I got work without resorting to throwing my life away. That’s disgusting, Jez! I can’t believe you would do that.”
Vonda’s jacket lay over a chair in the bedroom. She spun, marched toward it and swung her arm, a boxer’s pile-driving punch, but with an open hand so to claw up her leather jacket before she stalked out of the room, stomped down the apartment’s entryway, and slammed the front door.
It was a primal reaction, something from deep inside the species. Jez knew this. She understood Vonda Hupy’s response. It was why she had been reluctant to share this information. She remembered the dismayed look in Vonda’s eyes as she’d looked around the diner that night, wondering at all the dead people.
Jez couldn’t explain what death was like. Neither could she tell the woman she loved how sensible it had been for her to overdose on potassium chloride. She didn’t regret what she had done.
But it terrified her to think she might have lost Vonda. True terror, the emotion brighter and more vivid than anything she had felt since her return to the living.
She’d had two generous glasses of chardonnay. Her truck wouldn’t let her drive like this. She phoned Vonda, but even her voicemail was off. She snatched up her personal datascroll and accessed the grid. Vonda was heading for the nearest harbor. Jez, looking at the screen and biting her lip, saw how fast she was traveling. She must be burning up the night road. She was an excellent driver, with expert control of her rig.
But Jez remembered her in the diner parking lot, aggressive, keyed up, using her truck to express her volatility.
She was still staring at the datascroll. Several seconds went by.
Vonda’s rig was still on the highway, but it was no longer moving.
She had to take a taxi out there.
Black and yellow wreckage was strewn across two lanes. Another vehicle had been involved in the accident, but the driver was unhurt. One southbound lane of the roadway remained open.
Paramedics were already there, but other emergency services continued to arrive. Jez’s taxi waited, in the breakdown lane.
She had no legal right to inquire about Vonda Hupy’s condition; so a Highway Patrolwoman told her in calm tones. But that officer made no effort to stop her approaching the ambulance, and the medical technicians, equally composed, let her near enough to the gurney to see that this wasn’t a death from which anyone could come back.
The broken scattering of metal and metaplastic reminded Jez of the floors in Vonda’s apartment, disordered with her charcoal’ed sheets of paper.
The night was chilly enough to make cool tracks of the tears on her cheeks. Unaware of them until now, she staggered back from the scene of destruction. None of the civilian traffic passing in the lone clear lane slowed down to gawk. The emergency personnel on hand didn’t look upon her in judgment. Her cabdriver didn’t step out to hurry her along.
They understood. And even if some suspected her relationship with the formerly live woman from the truck, no one reproached her for it. All of them on the scene, every last one, had experienced—however briefly—the unexplainable reality which awaited humans after death, and that experience had given them all a unique forbearance.
Jez wiped her eyes and walked toward the breakdown lane, where the taxi still waited.
Eric Del Carlo’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld and many other publications. He co-wrote the urban fantasy novel The Golden Gate Is Empty with his father, Victor Del Carlo.
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