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The Casket In the Cargo
There was nothing in the air but him, the plane, and the stars. The aircraft coasted on the border between the limit of man’s upward gaze and the beginning of inconceivable space - it was here where he felt most at home.
He could see the lights of the war far below him, as sudden bursts of gunfire and grenades pricked the sea of silver clouds. They winked and blinked in pitiful imitation of the stars surrounding him- whoever was fighting down there was ignorant of how small they really were. They reminded him of ants. He had towered over them as a kid, and still felt the same way now as a man- a giant who saw and knew more beyond the bubble of the ants’ conflict, unrestrained by gravity or the concerns of this mad war. Luckily, he had landed a cozy job as a delivery boy. It paid well, he avoided fighting on the ground, and every day his soul grew a little bigger as he ascended into the carefree cradle of air.
He breathed deep.
Just him, the plane, the stars. And the casket in the cargo hold.
Of course his wandering thoughts had led him back to the casket. He didn’t believe in the impracticality of the “supernatural", which could explain anything from the disappearance of a person to the unmanned movement of a supposedly inanimate object. Being up here allowed him entry into the presence of thousands of millennia, each one stamped into the calendar of the sky with a single star. Up here he was amongst something that he knew would never end, even if humanity and its silly interpretations did. And yet, as he tried to revel in this amazing fact, that pesky, scurrying, worrying thought pointed at the casket-
He shuffled his thoughts again, and picked a fresh one - there was an amazing restaurant in Berlin that Santiago had recommended, where the food was always steaming hot, and beer and breasts overflowed like holy blessings of manhood. But Santiago was always one to exaggerate, and wasn’t exactly popular for his compulsive lies and tall tales. The only thing worse than a sober, self-confident Santiago was a drunk, extremely self-confident Santiago. And of course Santiago had been on the high of Spanish wine as he rambled on about Die Heiße Kneipe- The Hot Bar.
“The Krauts couldn't tell a monkey's asshole from their own goddamn Kaiser - that’s why we’re in this mess.” He belched, turned to his friend and squinted through the haze of his drunken stupor. “But they do know how to have a good time, I’ll give ‘em that.”
The concentrated hum of drunken activity inside the Maltese bar had drowned Santiago out a bit, but the pilot was sure he’d heard him right-
“Y’know they even got the waitresses on the menu.”
And then he’d done some awful combination of a burp and a laugh that sounded like the death wail of a sick toad, and the pilot shamelessly wondered what he’d done to deserve his babysitting fate.
“Hey, when you get to the Kneipe, ask for Frau Pam. She’s got a thing for dark hair and Spaniards. How good’s your Spanish?”
“Mal. Mucho mal.”
“Oy.” Santiago cringed, and the pilot wasn’t sure if it was his terrible Spanish or the horrible mixture of alcohol and Spam in Santiago’s stomach, but he got his answer when Santiago suddenly bent and retched on the floor, eliciting gasps of disgust from the local girls and knowing snickers from their dates. The puddle spread, high heels danced, a sour smell penetrated the air. The pilot awkwardly patted Santiago’s shoulder as he knelt at the edge of his mess.
“You should keep a better eye on your girlfriend’s drinking habits, Mr. Mailman,” a drunk soldier called. The pilot ignored him.
“Ugh.” Santiago finished.
“Si.” The pilot agreed.
The pilot was scheduled to take off for Berlin at midnight - it was about ten when poor Santiago had unleashed the details of his Friday celebration for all to see and smell. He handed his friend to some sober new recruits who stood on the antisocial outskirts of the party. They promised to bring Santiago back to his bunk and wished him a good flight.
It was two-forty in the morning now.
As the pilot looked toward the expanse of sky ahead he could have sworn he heard something shifting behind the c***pit door. Off went those instinctual alarms that suspected and feared, but he brushed them to the back of his mind and tried to visualise the full racks of lamb and Pam awaiting him in Berlin. He watched those appetite-teasing images dance and gave his watch the occasional glance to ensure he was making good time. Two fifty-five. Unwillingly he realised he was fast approaching what his grandmother had called the dead of night.
According to her, the undead always returned at three in the morning. Spirits wandered, knocking at the windows and doors of the living, staring inside houses with empty eye sockets and open, rotting jaws, waiting for a sign of life to steal. That was why he had to go to sleep when Grandma said so - they couldn’t do anything to you if you were asleep, and they would return to their graves as soon as the clock struck four. Of course this had terrified the piss out of his six-year-old self, who always went to bed without arguing.
He was fifteen when the dull realisation came to him - once he woke up in the middle of the night. The grandfather clock in the hallway declared it was three-oh-one in the morning. A sharp fear pierced his gut, and he scrambled to get back under the security of his covers as his heart pounded and his mind raced with the awful potential of his soul being swallowed by an eyeless ghoul if he didn’t fall asleep fast enough - there was an awful cackling outside his bedroom door. An awfully familiar cackling.
It was his grandmother, laughing as she slapped down an ace to the chagrin of her blackjack buddies. The only spirits there were the gin and whiskey.
This had helped him make his conclusion about the “supernatural”. There was nothing to fear except the creativity of human imagination. That was why that dreaded hour was “haunted”. That was why there was a war raging beneath him. And that was why he ignored his imagination that pointlessly worried about whoever was inside the casket behind the c***pit door.
The wind. He told himself.
His subconscious insisted, so he glanced at his watch. 3:00. One hour to Berlin, to booze and boobs, to Santiago’s Pam and a sweet reward for his s***ty Spanish and dark hair.
Someone groaned- he heard it clearly now. It was low, but it was there, just barely audible over the whir of the propeller and the roar of the engine.
He felt that spear of fear pierce his belly once again.
“Mughh.” It moaned.
The pilot held his breath, and closed his eyes, reminding himself that the human imagination was a curse that couldn’t do anything but offer him stupid answers for obvious questions. There was a radio back there that might have picked up some static or a snippet of a broadcast-
The unmistakable sound of footsteps shuffling snatched him from his thoughts. An uncertain step, the slow draaaaaaaag of the foot, the wobbly walk they created as they grew louder, approaching the c***pit door.
He tilted the plane.
Whatever stood in the back of the plane crashed against the side of the aircraft and released a groggy yelp. The pilot set the plane upright and the sharp realisation hit him. His mouth went dry as his innards cramped and lurched.
It found its feet again, and stumbled. It gurgled. It approached again.
Fingers scrambled against the door. Fingers belonging to someone who’d woken up at the right time but in the wrong place, someone with no eyes and a falling jaw and a German uniform and no boobs or booze but a grave waiting for him in Berlin and a righteous anger about it. Someone who was polite enough to knock drowsily, and when no answer was given, began to fiddle with the door handle.
It all happened so suddenly- the pilot made a choice. He reached for the release of the cargo hatch, and the back of the plane swung open, offering its entrails to the ground a thousand feet below. The corpse croaked out in shock and rattled the door handle. The pilot ascended, tilting upwards so the plane pierced the sky like a New Year’s bullet en route to good tidings, up and up and up and up as the rear of the plane retched up its boxes and tarps and radio and the casket and the corpse, all of which went down and down and down, the piercing scream lost over the wind.
His breath returned to him. His arms stopped trembling. The cargo hatch closed. The plane descended back down to a thousand feet.
He checked his watch. 3:07. He looked towards the sky before him, and relaxed.
It was a beautiful night, and it was sure to be clear all the way to Berlin.
The new recruits were strong enough to drag the drowsy Spaniard outside of the bar, but were stopped by two soldiers whose grins and guns were c***ed drunkenly. They demanded the Spaniard. The recruits obliged.
In the fog of drunkenness where logic is forgotten, dumb ideas become worthy of Einstein’s consideration. The soldiers knew damn well Santiago had never in his life been to Berlin, the setting of all his bullshit stories. Wouldn’t it be funny if he woke up there, of all places?
At the hangar, the Spaniard’s mail-plane pilot friend was checking in with an official about the inventory of his cargo. The soldiers snuck into the open hatch, dragging Santiago behind them. They stepped around a wooden casket and laid him on top of a tarp. They snickered as they jumped out of the cargo hold and ran off. The pilot boarded, closed the hatch and took off for the three-hour flight to Berlin.
About two hours in, Santiago woke up.