The Black Engine
You look like you been eatin’ from a bucket of lemons boy,” William drawled, sucking on his cigarette. Ben rolled his eyes but didn’t respond. William must have taken this as permission to continue as he did. “Don’ see why you be so upset, you don’ have ta drive the fuckin’ thing.”
Ben, the larger of the two paramedics, looked askance at William. The older Creole didn’t seem to care that they were waiting for the hand-me-down ambulance that they were slated to drive for the foreseeable future. The fact that it came from a wealthier parish made little difference to Ben.
He didn’t like change, and switching out his tried-and-true Miller-Meteor for the newer model wasn’t something that sat right with him.
“No, I don’t,” Ben replied. “But I gotta stock the thing, and I memorized where everything is in the Boat. Now I must relearn something while on the clock which could lead to someone bleeds out on me.”
The Boat, a 1959 Miller-Meteor was cramped. It always needed a tune-up, and would habitually leak oil.
But it was what Ben had worked with since becoming a paramedic. Losing it felt as if he were losing a parent. The new vehicle, a 1974 Cadillac Miller-Meteor Criterion, would be the one to take its place.
“You win some, you lose some,” William shrugged.
“Your compassion really warms my heart, you know that?”
“What can I say?” William smiled, blowing out a cloud of acrid smoke. “Benn doin’ this fer twelve years boy, got a thick skin. You should too.”
“Day I stop caring is the day I sign up for administration,” Ben smirked.
William let out a deep belly laugh, which devolved into wet coughing. The thick black man patted his chest, smiling. “Tha’ the way to the devil. Though I ‘magine you could do somethin’ bout the idgits who keep harpin’ on me ev’ry other week.”
“Oh, I’d come down on you like a box of hammers Will,” Ben laughed. “Drive you fucking nuts, I would.”
“Bastard,” William quipped. He took a long drag off the last of his cigarette before dropping the smoldering butt to the cement beneath his boots. Crushing it out, he looked up at the sound of an engine approaching. “You hear tha’? Sounds like the Boat ‘bout to go the way of the Dodo.”
“Great,” Ben groused, looking through the entrance to the covered bay.
Coming up the path was a bright red-and-white Criterion, a long vehicle with a high-top tall enough for Ben to stand up straight in. Flashing lights on the front of the cab blinked on and off, dancing off the tinted windows. It was an overcast day, humid and hot, and the shadows that stretched from the cover of the bay engulfed the vehicle as it rolled up.
It came to a grinding halt, skidding on the asphalt by the walkway. Ben raised an eyebrow when the engine was killed and the driver's side door opened to reveal the driver, a wide-eyed young man in a sweat-stained paramedic’s outfit.
His eyes nervously darted between William and Ben. He cleared his throat and slammed the door shut. “You guys the one’s signing off on her?”
Ben looked at William. “Um, no? We’re the paramedics who will be driving this, um, thing. The administrators should be down here soon.”
“You’re early,” William stated, crossing his arms. “Musta been speedin’ to get here this fast.”
“Yeah,” the young man said, chuckling. “Kinda wanted to get this up here, you know?”
“So ya plowed on through the parish like a bat outta hell?” William drawled. “Not wise, boy. Coulda got yerself hurt.”
Ben rolled his eyes. “Oh calm down Will, you drive like a lunatic all the time. Hell, you have like a dozen speeding tickets!”
“But I know the roads, been here all ma, life,” William argued. “Know where it’s safe ta hurry, where it ain’t.”
“Yeah, well… I’m familiar with this old girl, been driving her since we got her,” the young man said. He stuck out his hand. “Names Gerard, by the way.”
“That’s William, and I’m Ben.”
“Nice to meet you folks,” Gerard said, clapping his hands. “I did a tune up before driving her up here, topped off her fluids and changed her oil. She’ll run smooth for you, I guarantee it.”
“You did the work?” William asked, skeptical.
Gerard laughed. “Yeah, I don’t look it but I was a mechanic before I became a paramedic. Spent some time smacking wrench to pumps at an Alaskan oil field. I was the chief mechanic for the Prudhoe company pump stations, before I found my true calling.”
“Ya ditched a high payin’ job to help carry hurt folks?” William asked, incredulous.
Gerard smiled. “Like you must be, I’m dedicated to the job at hand. Helps me stay sane, really.”
Ben laughed. “Yeah, after a two-day shift I feel a little frayed myself.”
“Speaking of that,” Gerard said, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m kind of tired… you guys mind if I kip up somewhere?”
“Sure,” Ben said, thumbing back to the loading bay doors. “Head on in, there’s a staff room two doors down to your right. There’s a bunk room next to it.”
The young man heaved a sigh. He looked tired, stressed and worn. It reminded Ben of how he looked after working a fourteen-hour shift.
Ben walked up to the side of the red high-top, patting the reflective sheen of paintHe jerked back as if stung, earning a bark of laughter from William.
William laughed. “Wha’, ya shock yerself or somethin’?”
“No,” Ben said, puzzled. “It’s… it’s cold!”
“Cold?” William sounded unimpressed. “So what?”
“So what?? Ben asked, pulling on his uniform shirt. “Look at me! I’m sweating like a pig, it’s like a hundred degrees out!”
“Huh,” William said after a moment of silence. “Maybe he left the AC on?”
“Must be one hell of an AC.”
Ben walked around to the back of the ambulance, doing his best not to be impressed.
Despite it being a few years old, the paint job was immaculate, and the coat seemed freshly polished. He leaned down to look at the tires, whistling at there was barely any mud on them. He stood back up and peered through the tinted windows, hands folded around his eyes to ward off the dim sunlight in the vain effort to peer inside.
He could make out a stretcher, and a seat against the far wall which separated the rear cab with the front seats.
The ambulance shook as William’s hefty weight climbed into the driver’s side. A few seconds later, the lights flickered on. The tint left a sheen of darkness over the well-lit interior. Ben could see through it well enough to look around the back.
A wide-open space next to the stretcher which was locked into place flush with the left side of the rear cab. Above the stretcher was a console with several compartments, all closed. On the wall above the stretcher was a thin cabinet covered by the dark glass. The floor had a cheap carpet that was unusually clean for an ambulance.
William appeared from the driver’s seat, climbing into the back to walk to the rear doors. He unlocked with them with a loud click, letting Ben climb into the high-top.
The smell of sterile equipment wafted over him as he stepped up into the ambulance.
He took a deep breath through his nose, sucking in the calming scent of the medical equipment. He spent the next half hour opening cabinets and overhead consoles to find where everything should be stored.
The cabinet on the wall had hooks for IV bags, refrigerated to keep the soon-to-be-stocked medicine cool and dry until they needed it. There were three drawers above the stretcher in the wall separating the front seats with the rear cab. Each had smaller cubbies for the various tools Ben would need and, despite his earlier foul mood, he was seeing how this wouldn’t be as much of a burden as he thought it would be.
“This might not be so bad,” Ben said. He looked up into the rear-view mirror to meet William’s reflected eyes.
“Told ya. This’ll be simple enough, once ya get used ta this tank, you’ll be set.”
“I will bring in the stuff then I’m gonna grab chow. You know when we’re supposed to have this thing ready to go?”
“Richards and Dupont have the Boat for its last run till three, so we got more than enough time. Grab some shut-eye while ya can.”
Ben nodded and reached up to slap William on the shoulder. “Cool, see young a few hours.”
William nodded but remained silent, flipping switches and reading through the owner’s manual.
Ben spent the next two hours loading the Criterion with all his equipment and supplies, taking extra care to use the storage space as efficiently as possible. With every pass, he looked down at the large brown stain; he wondered what it was, and why it hadn’t been cleaned.
He spent his lunch hour eating some more desirable food sold in the cafeteria before crashing in the bunk room for a nap. He found Gerard passed out on a cot, snoring like a jet engine at takeoff. Ben laughed and took a cot across the room, reclining for a few minutes to wait for sleep to come over him.
When he next opened his eyes, the air felt different. What should have been a clean, stale odor accompanied by the warmth of a Louisiana day was instead cold and dank. Ben felt an involuntary shudder ripple down his back as he sat up, the only sound within the crushing darkness being his own labored breathing. He swung his legs over the length of the cot and onto the floor, wincing as he felt cold stone beneath bare feet.
“Huh,” he said, his voice echoing all around him. “What in the… where the hell am I?”
He felt a wave of cold wash over him, sinking into his flesh and settling in his bones. He took a moment to realize he was shaking. He could feel his nerves fraying, his mind reeling. The chill wasn’t from the air, he realized.
It was from something watching him.
Something dark, and foul. The faint scent of gasoline slipped across him. He coughed, fighting down the bile that threatened to rise in his throat from the smell.
A low groan, akin to the sound of an ancient maritime vessel’s hull shifting against the pressure of the oceans, rolled like a peal of thunder over him. He spun in place to look behind himself, eyes widening when twin lights pierced the surrounding veil. Bathed in a halo of warm light, Ben squinted as he tried to determine what was lighting the frigid dark.
Another groan echoed from the distance. A dull thud of something heavy falling shook the stone beneath Ben’s feet. He brought a hand up to block the light from blinding him, wincing as the twin beams grew brighter in intensity.
Ben felt sweat drip down the back of his neck despite the bone-numbing chill permeating his being. Adrenaline surged through his veins when the next thundering slam rocked the ground. Fear, unbidden and unfamiliar, scratched at the edges of his psyche.
“Who’s there?” Ben called out, lips numb. He tried to peer into the light to discern what was shining over him, but he couldn’t figure it out.
Then the lights blinked.
Terror gripped Ben as he dropped back onto his ass, scrabbling to get away from what he realized were massive eyes. His breathing increased, his teeth gnashed in a snarl as he fought to keep control over himself. He knew if he panicked, he might just lose his mind.
The lights ground into the stone with a metallic screech before lifting into the air. A low and keening wail left what Ben could only assume to be a mouth of whatever beast stood before him. He heard something stretch, metal popping and straining high above him. He smelled oil, felt the warm fluid dribble over his frozen arms and face.
He stared up into the blinking eyes of the titan as it crowed in the deep bellow, the silver gleam of something sharp reflecting beneath the lights like teeth from an unholy maw. It rushed down at him, a screech of iron being twisted too quickly.
“Ben!” William shouted in his face, shaking him back and forth.
Ben stopped screaming and blinked his bleary eyes. Looking around, he found himself in the bunk room, empty save for some nurses, and a bewildered Gerard, peering into the darkened room from the hall, worry clear on their faces.
And William looming over him, concern in his eyes.
Ben reached up and rubbed his face, shaking as he felt the cold flesh beneath his chilled fingers.
“Damn boy,” William groused, standing up from to his full height. Ben could see he’d been kneeling over him as he slept. “Musta been some nightmare, you been screamin’ fer ten minutes!”
“… what?” Ben rasped, his throat scratchy and raw. “Water…”
William, an unlit cigarette tucked behind his ear, looked over at one nurse and nodded. “You heard him, get water.”
She nodded and ran from the room, the clicking of her hard-soled shoes clacking. The other nurses dispersed, each casting a concerned look towards Ben before walking away.
“You okay kid?” William asked, pulling his cigarette from his ear. He fished around in his pocket, likely for a lighter.
Ben ran a hand through his hair, still shaking from the dream. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine…”
“Good, because we need to swing by the firehouse to make sure they have fully stocked first aid supplies. Good time as any to test out the Criterion.”
Ben stood up, legs weak. “Lemme hit the can, I’ll be out in a minute.”
William nodded, sparking his cigarette to life. “Take your time, we’re not on call for another two hours.”
Ben waved him off and left the bunk room, walking across the hall to a single stall bathroom. It was large, with a sink and urinal that were perpetually out of order. Ben locked the stall and sat down on the toilet. He rubbed his eyes, shuddering at the memory of the dream.
“What the fuck was that?” He muttered, so soft even he could barely hear it.
His head jerked up when he heard a long and low cry, droning and deep.
Like the one in his dream.
He stood up, rushing from the bathroom and running down the hall towards the sound. Terrified, he needed to know what was making noise. It had to be a simple explanation, something mundane enough for Ben to be assured that his dream was merely that.
Bursting into the loading bay, his eyes went wide when he spied the source of the noise.
The Criterion was screeching, the engine revving as the horn blared. William was leaning against the wall, puffing on his cigarette. He spied Ben and waved him over, Ben rushing to meet him.
“You look terrible man,” William called above the den of noise.
“What’s wrong with the ambulance?”
William shrugged. “Mechanic is runnin’ some prelim checks, just ta make sure it’s safe,” he said. “Shouldn’t take more’n a few minutes.”
William continued speaking, but Ben didn’t hear him. In the dim lighting of the overcast day, his eyes went wide when whatever had invaded his dreams opened its eyes to stare at him, a seemingly uncaring gaze that made Ben’s skin crawl.
The mechanic had turned on the headlights, the light blinding Ben as it had in his nightmare. He could just make out twin slits cutting across the glass of the bulbs, like reptilian pupils.
Ben nearly fainted when the cry of the engine turned into the screeching of metal-on-metal.
He watched as the mechanic killed the engine, plunging the brilliant eyes back into a deep sleep, the roar of the alien cry dying within seconds.
The grease jockey stepped out of the driver’s side. An older man with a mobius mustache the color of loose straw, he wore a ballcap with a short-sleeved shirt. He walked around to the hood, popping it open.
“It good?” William asked, crushing the burning butt of his cigarette beneath his boot.
“Don’t rightly know,” the man replied, a thick accent made even more pronounced by the thick chaw of tobacco he was chewing. “It looks to be in fine working order, though.”
“It sounds messed up,” William replied. “You sure it ain’t gonna break down while we’re on a run?”
The mechanic nodded. “It seems to be in working order, especially for something with as many miles as it has.”
“What’d you mean?” Ben asked.
The mechanic shrugged. “Got over two-hundred thousand miles on it. Seeing as it’s only a few years old, someone went cross country a few dozen times to rack up that number.”
“Huh,” William said, scratching his chin. “Well thanks Leroy. Best be gettin’ so we can skip traffic.”
“You do that,” Leroy laughed, slapping William on the shoulder as he passed. He waved at them, walking away. “Let me know if you need anything!”
“Will do,” William said, turning to look at Ben. “Hop in, let’s get goin’.”
The day got away from them after that, the quick jaunt to the Ferriday Firehouse taking half and hour. Despite his earlier misgivings, Ben had to admit the Criterion was a smooth ride; the roads of the parish were in poor condition, potholes and cracked asphalt on every road. But the new ambulance was able to handle them with ease, William skirting the larger potholes while merely running over the smaller ones.
When their shift began, William took up the radio and checked in with dispatch. Jill, a circuit worker for the hospital as well as the police, greeted them with a yawn and a corny joke. They all had a short laugh over how sad the attempt at humor was, with William ending the call with his customary call-in quip.
“All righ’, ‘nuf horsin’ around,” he’d said, smile cracking half his face. “We’ll see ya soon Jill, you do yer best tonigh’.”
“Will do,” Jill replied.
William had then sped down US 84 towards some of the outlaying farms, knowing that some were home to elderly residents that depended on them to deliver their insulin.
While it wasn’t completely above board, William had a soft spot for the older generation and would go out of his way to help them when he could. When asked, he’d always scoff and blow the question off. Ben had yet to get a clear answer from him, having given up after a year of constant questions and guesswork.
Settling back into the bucket seat opposite of the divide between the cab and the high-top, Ben leaned his head back against the metal divide. He was surprised when he felt leeching cold drawing him in. Leaning forward he turned, looking at the wall with a confused glance. He brought his hand up and, after only a second’s hesitation, laid it flat against the wall.
Huh… Ben thought as his palm sapped of all heat. What in the world?
The radio crackled to life, William grunting as he reached to answer it. “Si’ down back there, we gotta job it sounds like.”
Ben settled back into the deep seat, clicking in the strap over his chest.
The radio blared from Jill, a wreck on 3rd and Broadway. EMS were needed ASAP. William peeled off the highway and took the turnaround, speeding down the access road until he was in Ferriday proper.
The streets were sparse, with only a few cars driving around town. It was still early in the day, and most people had their day jobs keeping them busy. The road to the intersection was free enough that William didn’t even have to stop once. He did flip the warbling siren on when he ran a red light, something that always made Ben’s stomach turn.
Most people understood sirens meant an emergency vehicle, and that you should slow down and stop to let them pass. But the older generations sometimes forgot, and Ben was always nervous about getting hit by an unwary driver.
Turning onto Broadway, William called over the sirens. “I can see the wreck!” He whistled. “Look’s nasty!
Ben winced at the sudden jerk of the brakes, the ambulance skidding over asphalt to a grinding halt. Once the shocks had settled, Ben was out of his seat, throwing the double doors of the high top open. He grabbed his bag and jumped down to the city street, rushing around the vehicle to see what had happened.
It was bad. Two small cars were sandwiched together, a heavy pickup truck caving in the side of the first car. Blood drained onto the street, the humid day keeping the scent of blood heavy in the air. William ran past Ben, his own bag bouncing to and fro. He stopped by the crushed car, an Oldsmobile with a cherry red paint job, and motioned to a few firefighters to help him.
“Get the stretcher Ben,” William called out. “This’n needs to be brought somewhere soon!”
Ben nodded and went to retrieve the stretcher, unlocking it from its position against the wall of the ambulance. He pulled it out, the legs stretching to meet the asphalt, wheels spinning. He pushed it along, snaking around the wrecked vehicle up to William. Two firefighters, heavy set Creoles, had used a jaws-of-life tool to cut away the crushed metal. It came away in a stretching mess of slimy blood and broken bone.
The man inside had a broken hip, that was clear to see. His right arm was split and cut, bone visible through ruined muscle. His shirt, stained red, stuck against the leather of the interior. William lifted the injured man out of the car, a sickening scholp! of wet shirt peeling from the seat.
Ben wheeled the stretcher closer, moving to help William lay the man down. He laid his broken arm flush with his body and took the extra second to feel for a pulse. He smiled, relieved when he felt a steady thrum of life.
“He’s alive,” Ben said.
“How?” One of the firefighters asked, incredulous. “He looks like hell!”
“Doesn’t matter,” William said, pointing back at the ambulance. “Get ‘im in there.”
William turned to the firefighters. “This the only injured?”
“The truck driver has a headache,” one firefighter replied.
William rolled his eyes. “Look ‘im over and send ‘im home.”
Ben stopped listening, instead choosing to strap the man down into the stretcher for ease of movement. He steered the lift around the ambulance, pushing it up into the high top with a grunt.
Ben climbed in behind it and, after locking it into the slot against the wall, pulled won his instruments to begin caring for the man. He took his pulse while setting up an IV drip of a simple opiate. Pain could be as dangerous as blood loss, in the right situation, and Ben didn’t want the man to die of shock when he was getting his cuts bandaged up.
William climbed into the ambulance, the vehicle rocking back and forth. “Got ‘im strapped down?”
“Yeah,” Ben said, closing the rear doors, “gun it!”
The ambulance pulled off, speeding up. The siren began wailing again, William’s driving becoming erratic as he weaved around the sparse traffic.
Ben continued to lean over the man, checking over his injuries. He smiled when he found that his blood pressure was only a little elevated, probably due to the pain. He cut away at the shirt with a knife, checking for any hidden injuries that may cause problems later.
“H… help…” Ben’s head jerked up when he heard the man whisper those words.
Looking down at his face, Ben studied the victim. Young, maybe twenty-five. Blue eyes, pale skin marred only by specks of blood. His hair was cut short, short enough that Ben could see the man in a military uniform.
“I’ve got you, sir,” Ben said, opening the refrigerated cabinet across from him. “We’re on the way to the hospital now, it’ll be just a few minutes.”
“No…” the man hissed, pain cutting into his voice. “H-help me… he, he came out of n-n-nowhere.”
Ben looked down, opening a new package of gauze. “Who did?” He asked. A cardinal rule of being an EMS worker was to keep the injured talking if you could. A talking patient was a living patient.
“T-The Ram,” the man whispered, just as the ambulance was sent careening out of control.
Enjoying the tale? Good news is I'll be posting the second part a week from today, free of charge and available for all to read! Even better news is that this tale, along with several other automobile-themed horror pieces, can be found in the Darkwater Syndicate anthology It Came From the Garage! Follow the aforementioned link to snag yourself a copy! Be sure to leave a review of which story in the anthology was your favorite!