Mike listened to the whoosh behind him and heard the slamming of the door as it closed solidly into its frame. The warm blast of air that had followed him out had already turned into a frigid blast swarming around him. He was again standing out in the cold.
He should hurry, get back into the warmth of his truck where the heat was still blasting.
He couldn’t, though. He was stuck there.
The door opened behind him, and he could feel another blast of warm air gush against his skin. The door closed and the warm air fell away into the cold. The person who had come out hurried around him.
He watched as the short, older man, probably a truck driver for most of his life, was rushing off to get into his own truck. The man had looked like he was wearing a warm coat and had been quick to pull it tight against him as he hurried to his truck.
Mike thought about the man for a while, watching him as he walked quickly but carefully so he wouldn’t slip on the ice. He walked like a man who knew how to stay safe when walking in the winter so he was probably from a northern state. He wasn’t wearing a t-shirt and shorts like some of the dipshits Mike saw out there so he wasn’t from the south or out west. His style was plain and practical so he had either been a long-time truck driver, or had been in a previous profession that had kept him outside. Maybe the man had been a farmer; that would be one reason he didn’t have the trucker’s bulge around his middle. Not that all truckers grew to be fat, some did take care of themselves better than others, but it was easy to add those extra pounds.
Mike looked down at the fat tire forming around his own midsection. He hadn’t been driving long, but he had already noticed the extra pounds that were forming. It wasn’t making him happy.
Add that to another reason why he wanted to get home and stay home.
Home to where his wife was waiting for him, and his son and daughter were wanting him to be so that he could be there each night to tuck them in, or wake up in the morning so that he could help get them off to school.
He just wanted to be there, holding his wife while she slept, watching her chest rise, and pull himself into the curve of her breasts. He would feel her leg as it wrapped around his own, and he could feel her warm within his arms. Her gentle body was a part of his, as they lay there together.
Thinking about her didn’t keep the cold around him from getting in. The chill ran up his arms and sent his body to shivering.
He wasn’t always alone on the road. Last summer, she had been in the truck with him. It had been a good year, and the kids had gone to their grandparents for a couple of weeks so she could join him out on the road.
They had spent the night at a rest area, her holding him close in the small quarters of his bunk. It was tight, barely enough room for the two of them and they had both been tossing and turning for most the night, but he still remembered it as being one of his best nights out there on the road.
Of course it was. Lisa was with him, and that was all he needed.
Home is where your heart is, and she had his. They both knew it. Sometimes he wondered why he ever chose to be out there, especially with how long he sometimes needed to stay out to make sure that all the bills got paid.
Now he always stopped at that rest area when he passed through Pennsylvania and worked his way into West Virginia because he liked to think of the night they spent there.
The little moisture that was hanging on his chin and beard started to freeze, and he could feel the stiffness. His arms were feeling the bite of the cold around him, and he knew he had to get out of this weather. It was just too cold, even for somebody from Wisconsin.
He started across the parking lot, walking carefully over the ice to his idling truck. He took one last look around at the snow covered trees that tried to hide the rising of the mountains behind him. They were beautiful, almost as beautiful as her.
* * * *
He eased his truck back out onto the interstate, not forcing it up to speed as fast as he normally would have. While not as bad as the sidewalk at the rest area, the roads were still hazardous and he didn’t want to take the chance of losing control and sliding into the guardrail. It was a long way down, and he didn’t want to see what was at the bottom.
The sun was just about to start dipping below the mountains in the western horizon. Its glow was blinding, but breathtaking at the same time. Those who weren’t used to it would often get captivated by it, bustle around, and try to find a way to take a picture. Stupid as it was, because they should pay attention to the damned road, he still understood. It was the beauty that many drivers came out there to see. Other than money, the dream of seeing beautiful places was why they got into this job in the first place. They wanted to see this great country they lived in before it all went to shit.
They wanted to see it long before they were washed away in the politics of the job or the financial obsession that would drive them to perhaps run illegal with two log books, one tucked away until they needed it; long before there was the ugliness of learning about all the unfairness, about how many times drivers were screwed over by either the guys sending the freight or the guys receiving it, and the driver had no choice but to take it.
There was also the ugliness of other drivers. Not so much the other truck drivers, but the ones in cars…the four-wheelers, as they were referred to by the truckers. Those were the people who would dart back and forth amongst the trucks, not caring about the eighty thousand pound missile they just cut off who, even if he wanted to, could not stop if the car was to slam on their brakes. They’d become pancakes on the road, and it’d be the truck driver’s fault because that was how the system worked. It was always against the truck driver, always a stacked deck.
Long before the ugliness got them, truck drivers came out there and enjoyed it, saw the sights and enjoyed the beauty. It was good that they did because there was a lot of ugliness, too. The trick always seemed to be to find a way to not let the ugliness and darkness get into you and eat away at your soul.
Elvis Presley’s warm smooth voice started to sing from the radio, and he smiled as he heard the words: “Wise men say, only fools rush in–.”
He didn’t let it finish. He quickly hit the little button that was a part of the headset over his ear, cutting off the music to answer the incoming phone call. That ringtone meant that it could only be one person.
“Hello?” he said as soon as he heard the little beep that let him know the call had connected.
“Hello.” He heard the quiet voice on the other end. He hadn’t heard too much from her that day, but knew she had been coming down sick with what their son had been getting over. It had been bad. He even had to go to the hospital for it. They had been worried that she might get it because of her bad asthma.
It hurt him that he couldn’t be there to help her out and help her get better. The hurt struck at his chest at just the sound of her voice. He had hoped to hear that bright, bubbly voice that often times came from her whenever they talked. That tone of voice that said, “Hey, hun. I love you and I always want to be with you.”
He really couldn’t see his life without her, even if he didn’t spend as much time home as he would have liked.
“Hey, hun. Are you feeling any better?”
“I just got back from the hospital,” came the whisper that barely carried through the wireless connection. He wished he had known she had gone to the hospital. Hearing about it when she got home just made it worse because he was so far away and he hadn’t been there to take her. One of their neighbors must have done it.
This is another time when he should have been home and wasn’t. The moments that he wasn’t home seemed to be growing and he didn’t know how many more of them he could take. Especially lately, when he felt like he was starting to lose some of that connection with them; that he was starting to not be a part of their lives anymore. At what point does it become that he’s no longer a part of them? At what point do they just finally tell him to stay away, to say good-bye?
“What did they say?”
He didn’t know what to say. He had known that she was sick. They had spent most the night talking when she had been up with a fever. Well, it hadn’t really been talking, though he had mentioned that she should be going to the ER if her temp kept going up. He had really wanted her to go. He had really wanted to be there to take her, and he knew that part of the reason she wasn’t going was that she didn’t want to wake any of the neighbors to take her. She didn’t trust driving herself there and he didn’t trust her doing it, either. Not in that condition.
“It’s just the flu. They put me one some kind of Thermaflu or something. It’s just–,” her voice trailed off. She sounded really tired so he didn’t want to press. She probably needed to lie down and get some sleep. He never should have called her…but she had called him.
“Okay, hun. You need to get some rest. Get better, okay?”
“I need to make the kids supper.”
“You need to get some rest. They can throw in some TV dinners for the night. They’ll be fine. You need to get better. Okay?”
He was talking in such a quiet tone, soothing, trying to coax her to his will. He wanted her to lie down. He didn’t know why, but it always seemed like when she needed to rest the most, she tried to be the most active. Sometimes he thought he would need to tie her down to a bed to get her to slow down and rest.
He was looking at his phone, as though talking to it was like looking into her eyes. He knew they could do a video call if they wanted to, but it wasn’t legal or a good idea while driving. Looking at the phone as though it was a video call wasn’t any better, but he truly wanted to see her, to look into her brown eyes and tell her to lie down, to get the rest that she needed. She wouldn’t listen, but he would still tell her over and over again.
“Okay,” she said. She was actually agreeing with him? Something about that troubled him. “I think I’m just going to lie down here on–.”
He didn’t get a chance to hear the rest. A car screeched across in front of him, missing his front bumper by less than an inch, and slammed into the guard rail on his right.
He quickly applied his brakes and coaxed his truck to slow down, keeping an eye on his rearview mirror, trying to look back at the accident. He watched as the tire that had once belonged to the car was still rolling down the interstate.
He wanted to get out and help, but knew it would be better if he didn’t because then he was involved. That meant that while he had nothing to do with it, it wouldn’t take much for someone to say that he caused the accident.
He’d seen it happen to a friend of his. His job and his life had been stolen from him because some asshole had said that he had caused it. All his friend had done was stop to see if he could help. After that, it didn’t matter that the other man was drunk and was served with a DUI. It became the truckers fault.
There were some days that this job really sucked major tits, especially on days like this when his instinct, his desire, was to get out and make sure everyone was okay. However, he was struck with not being able to do so, which made him feel like shit.
“I love you,” he could hear his wife whisper.
“I love you, too, hun. I gotta let you go because I just saw an accident. I need to call 911. Okay?”
“Okay.” He could barely hear her as she seemed to fade out. Then he saw that she disconnected the call. He quickly punched in 911.
* * * *
He was sick to his stomach. It had already been a couple of hours since he had seen the accident, and it was starting to feel like he was eating Tums, Rolaids, or whatever it was, like they were candy. He wasn’t sure what brand it was because his wife always bought all the medication. They were in a big bottle, tasted like cardboard and, on most days, would help calm that feeling that his stomach was trying to eat itself. It burned, and he just wanted it to go away.
He didn’t feel right and it wasn’t just his stomach. His chest hurt, and he had a hard time keeping the moisture out of his eyes. His nose ran, and he kept sniffling. Hell, it felt like he was crying, though he didn’t know why the hell that was. He just knew that he felt like he wanted to cry. He was a grown man, and he wanted to fucking cry like a little baby.
What did he have to cry over? He had a beautiful wife that he knew he could trust and was one hundred percent his partner in life. Half the time he felt like they were soul mates, and that their lives were intertwined with each other. They just had this connection that seemed more than natural, like they were a part of each other.
Then there were their two kids who, while they were holy terrors, were the greatest blessings that were a part of his life.
So why in the hell was he wanting to cry? Why did he feel this weight crushing in on him? It didn’t make sense because he didn’t have a damn thing to cry over.
Yet that voice inside of him told him part of the reason why. He felt like there was more to it, but he felt like it was because he drove away from the accident. He could have stopped and made sure everyone was okay, but he hadn’t. He had put his own life, his truck, his job before someone else. He justified it to himself, but he hadn’t stopped and the voice kept telling him just how bad that truly was.
He wished he could go back there, maybe travel back in time and do it differently.
Would he, though? Would he sacrifice his job and livelihood for someone he hadn’t known? What could he have done? He had no medical training so he had no knowledge on what he should do. He could have gone with his instincts and tried to save a life, only to cripple them or make it worse. How would he live with himself then?
What was the right answer? He didn’t know.
He had another stab of pain in his midsection, like acid eating him away from inside out, and he winced. As he closed his eyes and let the stabbing pain wash over him, he could feel the moisture running down his cheek.
There was something else wrong with him. He didn’t know what it was, but something else was wrong.
Was it an ulcer? Had this job finally done it to him?
He felt his lip tremble, as another tear streamed down his face.
He wanted to call Lisa, to talk to her, hear her voice, and let her calm him down. She would be able to talk some sense into him, but she was sick and needed to get her rest.
His phone rang, breaking him out of his thoughts. He looked at its display from where he had it mounted in its cup holder.
It was a number with his area code, but he didn’t recognize it and no name popped up so it wasn’t someone in his contact list. He guessed it could be a bill collector, but he couldn’t remember any bills they were behind on. He didn’t know who it was.
He looked back at the road, taking a quick survey of the world around him, the cars swarming by. He took a brief glance amongst his mirrors. The traffic was getting busier so he must have been getting near a city.
He tried to think about which one it could be. He didn’t think he was getting that close to Scranton yet, but he guessed it could have been possible.
He reached up to tap the button on his headset to answer the call. As he did, he heard a beep. He glanced back down, taking a quick look at his phone. “Missed Call” showed on the screen.
In the upper left corner, he could barely make out the symbol, but he knew what it meant. He didn’t have to read the little block letters saying “No Service” to know that he was losing reception.
Yeah, the mountains were beautiful, but the damned things played hell with cell reception.
He would probably have to wait. If he was getting closer to Scranton, he would probably be getting a good signal soon.
* * * *
His truck rocketed out of the tunnel, emerging from the elliptical sphere of incandescent orange light into the complete darkness of the moonless sky.
He was never sure if it was his imagination or an actual observation, but it always seemed darker out east. It even felt that way in the cities, like the light bulbs didn’t glow as bright. When he was out of the cities, out in the lesser populated areas, it sometimes felt outright creepy with how dark it got at night.
He had once joked to Lisa about writing a short story about it. She told him he should. He just shook his head, laughing. She knew he wasn’t a writer, he knew he wasn’t a writer. He enjoyed reading, but he definitely wasn’t a writer.
Besides, he was a driver. He was happy, but he was happiest when he was with her. He missed his kids, but Lisa was something more. She completed him. Corny as it was, he really felt like she was his other half. He could feel the moisture coming to his face again, and wiped it away.
He checked the mirror to his left, looking quickly to see if there were any headlights coming up on him. He really hadn’t seen any for almost a half-hour, and the road was beginning to get a little lonely.
Just in case, he checked his driver’s side hood mirror. Just like his two immediate left mirrors, it didn’t show any motion or lights.
He took a quick look at his blind side hood mirror. Nothing.
He turned to look at his passenger’s mirror…Lisa? She was sitting there, in the passenger’s seat. He couldn’t take his eyes off of her, and she was staring right back at him.
She’d always been beautiful even though, over the last few years, she had been adding a few extra pounds. Those were gone now, and she looked like she had the day he first met her. She looked young. Her skin was a little pale, but she had that radiance, that glow about her that had warmed his heart the first time he had laid eyes on her.
Then she smiled, and he remembered that smile taking his heart. How it had captivated him, and had caught the words in his mouth.
Say what you want about how most truck drivers had a way of being obnoxious and flirting with women, but he had never been like that. It had never been his way. He had always been a nervous one, and didn’t like being all that sociable. Yet, here he was, he was picking her up at her front door, those words were escaping him, but that didn’t stop her. She still smiled, and then she had done it. She had been the one to just say those simple little words, the words that started them talking and had allowed him to take a breath.
“Hey, what’s up? You must be–.”
And then they were talking. He didn’t know what it was about her, other than the fact that she was one of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, but there was just that connection. Something told him that he was going to be with her for the rest of his life.
He hadn’t been a putz. He had dated a lot of woman before her. He had been in good and bad relationships. There had been many that he should have ended sooner than he did, and there had been a few that had ended sooner than he would have liked. That was all in the past. There was just something about her. It wasn’t something that he saw or she said, but just something that he felt and it told him that she was the one.
She looked just like that now, sitting there flashing that smile at him.
He could feel that his mouth had dropped open and, for the first time in a long time, he was caught without words.
A roar came from outside, and he looked back to the road just in time to see that the truck had drifted onto the shoulder. The rumble strips that lined the highway were alerting him that he was screwing up.
He quickly worked the truck back over to his lane, straightening it, and making sure he was back between the white and the yellow lines again.
He closed his eyes for a second, took deep breaths, and tried to calm his nerves and work down the sudden rush of adrenaline that had shot through him.
When he opened them back up, he could feel the sting from all the oxygen in his blood and knew that a headache would be coming soon.
Had he taken his blood pressure pills that morning? Damn, he thought he had but, with the rising of the headache, he really had to wonder.
He was still on the interstate. He was okay, everything was fine. Sure, he was having one hell of a night, near accidents and all, but it was going to be fine.
He turned back over to look at his passenger seat. Lisa was no longer there.
“Yeah, and now you’re seeing your wife sitting next to you. That’s not really ‘fine’ now, is it?” he said to the empty cab. He thought about adding, and talking to yourself is not an improvement, but felt it was best to keep that in his own head.
Maybe he was losing it. Maybe he had been out on the road too long. The longer he stayed out each time, the more mistakes started to happen. While he didn’t feel overly tired, and knew that he had functioned with more exhaustion than what he felt now, there was always that exhaustion that he didn’t feel.
He grabbed his phone and flipped open the display, getting ready to call her. He wanted to just say one more time that he loved her, but his phone still had no signal. However, he saw that he had three voice messages, two of them were marked “urgent”. He must have hit a pocket of cell coverage, but now was out of it again.
“Fucking cell phone.”
* * * *
The night just seemed to stretch on forever, and the mountains seemed to just continue to roll on. It didn’t surprise him. It wasn’t his first time on that route, and he had known that it usually meant a long stretch of feeling like he was the only person alive. Especially in the wee hours of morning.
The only sound was the roar of the engine as it tried to pound its way up another long hill. It wasn’t that the hill was all that long, not as bad as the mountains out west, but due to the extreme slow crawling speed that he could hold steady, it made the five-mile stretch feel that much longer. Five miles at fifteen miles per hour made for a long, slow climb.
The radio had been dead for the last hour or so. He occasionally got a little chirp to come in from one station or another, but most of them were the religious stations and usually never stayed tuned in long enough for him to even try to listen to them.
It was just a drive that took forever, no distraction, no relief. All he was allowed to do was think about what those messages were on his phone. Yeah, one message could be his wife giving him an update. Two messages, she needed to really ask him something, maybe need his permission for buying something, maybe she wanted his opinion on if she should go to the hospital which, of course, he would be telling her to hurry up and go. Three messages, two of them from a strange number, and he couldn’t think of any reason that it wasn’t bad news.
She was probably trying to get to the hospital, the car was probably broken down, and she hadn’t charged her cell phone so was using one of the neighbors. Even though he wasn’t there and there was nothing he could really do, she probably still wanted to call, talk to him, yell at him, and blame him.
He knew that it would just be her way to blow off steam. He’d let her yell, get it out of her system and then, in an hour or so, they would both be okay again and wouldn’t say another word about it.
He couldn’t get her out of his mind. He was sure that having no radio wasn’t helping, but she was still there. It was like she was with him. He could feel her warmth in the truck and, every now and then, he would see her on the side of the road, watching him as he passed. Occasionally, when he would check his mirror on his passenger side, he could just see the slight glow of her and smell her favorite scent. She always loved the Victoria Secret fruity body lotions, and he kept getting the occasional whiff of it floating throughout the cab.
The engine roared. He could feel the pressure that he felt as he had been rising up the slope start to ease. The RPMs quickly climbed and, in a moment, he had to quickly upshift. Then a second later, upshift again. He had crested the hill, and was now starting to go back down. Quickly, he had to get up to gear and get the engine brake on before he would have to start using his air brakes. Too much air brake too soon, and he could easily overheat his brakes, causing them to catch on fire. He had to get it caught in time.
He made it to seventh gear, which was close enough. He reached forward and flipped the switch, allowing the engine brake to roar to life in its monstrous drone, loud in the silence of the night.
“Chirp chirp,” he heard from his breast pocket. He could see the light from his little screen glowing through the fabric.
He reached forward to the little nook in his dash where he kept his little Bluetooth headset. It wasn’t that he was worried about the police pulling him over at that time of night, but he was concerned about trying to shift gears and holding the handset to his ear. It was hard enough making it through the hills with both hands free; jostling a phone just made it that much worse.
He grabbed the little headset and fumbled briefly to flip it open. It was dark, his hand twitched and, before he realized it, he felt the headset fly out of his hand. He heard the little soft “phet” of rubber falling onto rubber and knew that his headset had just become lost to the floorboard. There was no way he would find it while he was driving. He would have to stop to look for it.
His phone chirped at him again. He had another voicemail. He wasn’t sure if it was another series of messages, or if he had just missed another call. Something was going on.
He pulled the phone from his pocket and flipped it open. The screen showed that there were now a total of nine voice messages. He closed his eyes for a long breath out. Something bad was happening.
* * * *
He pressed down and held the “1” key, then heard the ringing sound as the phone dialed his voicemail. Within a second, there was the familiar beep and he could hear the connection. “You have nine unread messages. Press ‘1’ to play your messages.”
Damned phone. He had heard those new phones just allowed you to click on the messages. Why the hell does simple have to be so damn complicated? He pulled the phone away from his ear and pressed the “1” again so that the stupid messages would start to play.
He was surprised when he heard his neighbor’s voice coming from the little speaker: “Mike, I found Lisa passed out on the floor. She’s not looking too good. I’m rushing her to the ER now. Call me back on my cell phone.”
There was a beep and then the voicemail clicked into the next message: “Mike, we’re at the ER. They rushed Lisa in. She’s having problems breathing and her blood pressure is low. Call us back.” This time, he could hear his daughter crying in the background. He thought he could hear his son, as well.
At least Tammy, their neighbor, was helping out. It should have been him, though. He should have been the one that was there. He should have been the one taking her to the emergency room and, when his wife was getting looked at, it should have been him in the emergency room keeping his kids cheered up. That was his job, his responsibility. It wasn’t their neighbors. He should be there, holding them, caring for them.
He recognized the guilt that was rumbling through him. He knew it was common amongst many of the other drivers. While there were plenty of those that played the show but truly never cared, there were more out there like him. The ones who truly cared and loved their life at home. He hated how much he had to stay away from them, how he had to leave them for weeks on end and then come home to see that they’re all grown. His children’s lives had been passing him by, like the cars along the highway. He needed to change that.
Yeah, he had told himself that last year, too. That had been when he had missed his daughter’s birthday because he got held up on a delivery, then had lost the next load that would have gotten him home to see his little princess on her special day. Or the previous year, when he had missed his son’s birthday just because they couldn’t afford for him to take the time to come home.
“When the wheel’s ain’t turning, you ain’t earning” was the driver’s credo, and it was the knife that often times stabbed him through his heart.
There was a beep and the phone went onto the third message. No one spoke. All he could hear was crying on the other end. Everyone was just there, crying. Then there was the click, and he heard the message end. What was going on? What was he missing?
The world seemed like it was swirling around him. He hadn’t realized how tight his chest had been seizing as he listened to the messages. The world seemed to be going out of control.
The next message began: “Mike, you need to come home. Lisa…Lisa didn’t make it. They tried. We’ve been trying to get ahold of you. Your kids want to know where there dad is. Where are you? They need you here. They just lost their mother. They need you home, Mike. Mike?”
He could hear the crashing of the world around him. He was in a daze, and it felt like everything was lost. Everything was disappearing.
Then he looked over, and saw her sitting in the passenger seat. He could smell her fragrance. He could feel the warmth of her love as it radiated towards him.
She was looking at him and she was so sad. No, she was crying. Why was she crying? Did she miss him as much as he was already missing her?
She pointed to the window in front of him. He turned, then saw it.
He had lost control of the truck. He had been going down a long hill and, at the bottom, there was a bridge that would climb back up. Somehow, he had hit the side the road and slammed into the guardrail. That had been the crashing of the world around him.
She was pointing ahead of them, and he saw it coming.
They were slamming their way down an embankment, the truck barely managing to stay upright. He was coming down a rocky slope, fast. The truck around him rocked and screamed in protest, as it shook and rattled from being knocked all around.
However, what she was pointing at was up where the slope ended and a river ran wide and deep. He was heading straight for it.
He was going to die. If he turned the wheel and jackknifed, the truck would roll into the river. Keep driving and he would sink and drown.
He was going to die. He didn’t see any way that it wasn’t going to happen, but he didn’t see the tree.
* * * *
He felt himself falling. He didn’t see anything, but he felt air rushing past him. He felt the darkness around him changing, like it was moving. He didn’t know how air could move, but he could feel as it swirled around him.
Was this a dream? Was he dead? If this was that in-between whatever nonsense, shouldn’t he see some kind of tunnel and some white light to walk towards? Well, that was, as long as nobody up there had heard any of his jokes. Like this one…Hey, did you ever hear what the light at the end of the tunnel actually was? A woman’s vagina. Bang, you’ve just been reborn.
Yeah, those jokes.
He regretted them now. Well, of course he did. If he was dead, he sure as hell didn’t want to tick off the man in charge.
He was definitely falling. Was that where he was falling? He wasn’t in a tunnel, and everything around him seemed so distant. Was he falling into the fiery pit of hell? Had he really been that bad in life that hell was what he deserved?
Damn, getting into heaven must have been a lot harder than he would have thought.
* * * *
He felt fire all around him. His skin, his face, his legs all felt like they were on fire. Little fires danced and raced along his outsides, beneath which was the dull pain of agonized muscles. It felt like the fires were trying to burn their way to his muscles, tearing away at his flesh and melting into what was underneath.
He opened his eyes, expecting to see the harsh orange light of the fires burning around him. He must truly have been in hell, maybe that falling sensation was more than just a dream, but the fires were gone. The flames still moved along his flesh with their fiery tickles, but the world around him was dark.
It was the darkness that he thought he’d left.
He was on the ground. Somehow, he was out of his truck and looking around. He saw the bushes that he had crashed through, the needles that must now have been dripping with the blood from the gashes that had been ripped through his skin. The fire he had felt had been all the cuts as he had been falling, rolling through them.
He didn’t see his truck so he tried to turn and get a better look. His body was stiff, and his back didn’t want to respond. He quickly realized that he couldn’t feel any pain below his stomach, and there was only a strange numbness as he tried to move his legs.
He closed his eyes, not wanting to think about what that meant. He could imagine the mangled mess that was whatever was left of his legs, and saw his life on the road disappear.
Driving was his world. He went from coast to coast, living and enjoying his life on the move. He was everywhere, seeing everything. He could enjoy shrimp fresh from the bay one day, and at the end of the week was sitting down for a New York thin crust pie or a Chicago-style stuffed crust pizza. Another pang shot through him and he could feel the hint of wetness at the corner of his eyes. He would probably never make it back down to Nick’s in Arkansas to taste the best barbecue ribs on the planet.
He couldn’t see himself surviving in a world where he didn’t drive a truck. He had always told his wife and kids that he would love to find a job and settle down, something that would allow him to spend more time at home. Now, faced with the possibility, he realized that he didn’t think he could live that way. He’s a driver, it’s his identity. How could he just hang up his keys and be done with it?
Maybe his back was just injured or bruised. Maybe he hadn’t broken it and wasn’t paralyzed. He wouldn’t know for sure until he got out of here and made it to the doctor. He needed to survive, needed to live, needed…
His kids, his wife. Think of them. Images of their smiling faces pushed away the pain. He saw them. He was there with them, and memories flooded him.
It was their first time going to Six Flags. The kids had never been to a large amusement park. Their eyes glowed with wonder, their smiles wide as they ran from one gut wrenching ride to the next. Their giggles and laughter danced around him.
His daughter, all pigtails and freckles, was covered in chocolate syrup and whipped cream from the giant elephant ear. Their not-so-intelligent father, in a moment of genius, had gotten each of them their own, not realizing that just one of the monstrous deserts would have been enough to feed the whole family. He had barely eaten half of his, his wife had just put hers away after a few bites, his son had finished his with no problem, but his daughter…she somehow managed to get most of it on the outside of her mouth.
He laughed, but Lisa hadn’t found the humor. She had stern words for all of them. He, of course, got most the blame for buying so many of the things; thank goodness she never found out how much they had cost. Then she stormed off, taking their youngest to get cleaned up.
The wetness around his eyes was dripping. He could feel the warm tears streaking across his dirt-covered face.
He let his head fall to the dirt, closed his eyes, and gritted his teeth, trying to push away the pain. He had to find a way to survive so he could return back to them. He wasn’t going to die out there. He wouldn’t allow it. He had people he loved and people who loved him back home. He had to make it back.
Lying with his head down, he could tell that the ground around him was getting lighter. It glowed orange through his eyelids. He opened his eyes, and saw that something was glowing. It was almost whiter than white, taking away all the color around him. It was like he was in a featureless room.
He tried to turn away, but the pain from the cuts on his skin reminded him of his surroundings. He could see the grass and the ground beneath him, the light showing brightly over it, but even the ground had lost its color.
Then a shadow was cast over him.
He looked up to see a silhouette standing over him. It was a shape he knew well…Lisa. He couldn’t see her features, but he got a soothing sense in his stomach that released all that tension he had been holding.
“Lisa?” he tried to say to her, but what came out was more of a croak. His throat was extremely dry, and he sounded thirty years older. He could feel little slivers of pain up and down his throat as he said the simple name.
The light behind her faded and he could see more detail, like her heavenly face, the one he had kissed and slept next to for so many nights. Also, those eyes that he had once looked into as they lay down in bed, that tender gaze she would give him as they would sometimes watch each other drift off to sleep.
They lovingly looked at him now. He didn’t have to see any more of her to know that it was her. He could stay there forever, lost of them.
Another round of fire-like pain danced along his cuts, and he was pulled out of his trance. He didn’t want to take his gaze away from her, but the pain was stabbing at him from all sides. He took a deep breath and tried to push it away. It felt like he had to use an immense amount of his will to clear his mind, but he was able to push it back.
He opened his eyes, worried that she wouldn’t be there anymore, but she was. However, her expression had changed, and she looked at him with concern. She was afraid of something.
“Lisa!” he said. His voice was still raspy, but it came through a little better. “Lisa! It’s okay. I’m here. You’re with me. It’ll be okay!”
He could see the confusion on her face, but it made sense. He looked at her closely and saw that she seemed to be fine. She was wearing her wedding dress, which was odd. He didn’t know how she fit in it, or even how she had gotten it back because it had been destroyed in a flood. They had lost nearly all their stuff in the basement, including most of the old photos, especially the ones with the kids being born. It had been sad, and it had bothered them both. The dress had been so covered in slime and garbage that it had been deemed unsalvageable.
She had cried when they had thrown it out. He had told her they could still keep it; it wasn’t like she was ever going to wear again. They could keep it because it was a symbol of them starting a life together. They didn’t need to get rid of it. He had made a joke that it would have to be locked away with a million air fresheners, and that had gotten her to laugh. While she laughed and sobbed into his chest, he had thrown it away. There was no way she could be wearing it now.
She gave him a slight smile, one he knew was reserved only for him, and then she waved for him to come to her. That smile warmed him, and he could feel some of the pain being pushed away; he didn’t have to concentrate so hard on masking it. It just drifted away, as a calming numbness soothed his limbs. It was like warm water slowly trickling along his body, massaging away the stiffness.
He reached forward, the movement slow and sluggish. It seemed like the air was thick and pushing against him. However, it didn’t bother him because she was there, looking deep into his eyes. He brought his hand down, feeling the solid earth, and pulled. His whole body was exhausted so he didn’t have much strength, but he put whatever he had into pulling himself forward.
She smiled at him, and he felt invigorated. He reached out again and pulled himself another few inches. He wasn’t moving much, but he was inching towards her. Because he couldn’t feel his legs, it was slowing him down. He wished he could just chop them off. He just wanted to get to her and be with her. He just had to fight for it.
He put his head down, reached out again, and put in more effort than he thought he had to pull himself even farther. It was still just a few inches away from her.
He looked at her, pleading with his eyes. Why wasn’t she helping him? Couldn’t she see his back was broken? She should be reaching down, taking him in her arms, and helping to pull. She wouldn’t be able to help much, but it wouldn’t take much to move a little bit farther. Then he could be with her that much sooner.
However, she wasn’t helping, and was even farther away from him now. She must have moved back while he hadn’t been looking. “Lisa, help me! Please help me!”
She looked up. He couldn’t see what she was looking at, but a look of concern creased her brow. Something was wrong, but what?
Who cares? Just keep fighting. You have to get to her, hold her in your arms, take her into your chest, let the kids come and give you their big bear hugs.
He watched as she took another step back. She was moving away from him!
She looked up again, then looked back to meet his eyes. Then he remembered his truck. She had been there with him. She had been pointing, and…
There was the phone call; someone had called him. There was something wrong with Lisa, and she hadn’t made it. Lisa was gone.
He looked back into her eyes and saw them for what they were…the eyes of his dead wife. She was in front of the light. Isn’t that what they had always said? Your loved ones would be there to take you into the light, and there she was, guiding him. That must be why the pain faded. He was sure the closer to the light he’d get, the more the pain would weaken. He wondered how far he would have to go before he could walk again. Was that even how it worked? He wasn’t sure, but was it important?
No, it wasn’t. He couldn’t go with her. He had to live because his kids needed him. He had to find a way to survive and be there for them. She was gone, and there was no way he could leave them without parents. Whether or not he had to fight his way through heaven and hell, he wouldn’t leave them. They needed him.
Lisa took another step back, but he was done following her. Instead, he let the tears fall freely as he looked at her, and shook his head. “I can’t,” he said, as he lowered his head onto the dirt. He couldn’t look at her. “Lisa, I can’t.”
He felt his heart tearing apart. It felt like it wanted to burst out of his chest, but there was more to it than that. There was something deep in him that wanted to clamp down and quit. He just wanted to wrap himself up in the emotional pain, lay in the dirt, and let everything just go, but he knew he couldn’t do that. If he wasn’t going with her, he couldn’t give up.
He didn’t know how he was going to make it. He had to force the images of them into his mind. He had to imagine that they were there, smiling and holding him. They were now the ones lifting him back up. He could almost feel their hands on his face, as he lifted his head so that he could look at her again.
“I can’t leave them, Lisa. They need me.”
Lisa looked at him. He could see the pain as she motioned for him to come to her. He could see her lips moving, but he couldn’t understand what she was trying to say. He looked like it was “come” with something else, but there was no sound. She was motioning more aggressively for him to follow, her pained look was growing more frantic. She would occasionally look up. He guessed she was trying to motion to heaven, and he wanted to go with her and be with her. There kids would grow up without parents, but they’d be able to watch them grow from heaven.
However, what kind of life would that be for them? They’d have to deal with the loss of both their parents in one night, and never having them there for all the good times they would share.
“Lisa, don’t. I need to be with them.”
He could see her tears now. They glinted in the light that surrounded him. He didn’t know ghosts could cry.
She looked away from him and looked up but, this time, she didn’t look back down. The light around her started to dim, and he could see more. He was on the ground, but there was debris around him that he recognized. His clipboard was only a few feet away, and his paperwork was strewn across the area. His road atlas was open and badly mangled. More and more of the world around him came into focus.
He looked at her, and then followed her gaze up. He had to shift to one side as the soreness was back in his neck, but he was finally able to look up. What was up there?
Hanging over the side of the bridge and dangling right above him was his truck. It had a shattered windshield that he, and all of his stuff, had been thrown out of. He wasn’t sure how far he had fallen, but he was sure that the trees and the bushes that he had cursed at for cutting him up had been the only thing that had saved his life.
Why was she looking up there? He was down here. He had fallen free of it. He sure had to have been one lucky SOB, he knew that much. He was down here, not up there so what was she looking at?
Then he heard the sound of screeching metal, and noticed that the truck had been moving slightly. It wasn’t stationary, but had been sliding forward. It was about to fall, and he was lying right beneath it.
He heard a scream, and wasn’t sure if it was the metal sliding against the cement barrier, or if it was his own voice. It didn’t matter because it didn’t last long. He heard the sound of release, saw the twin headlights, and the 80,000 pound vehicle that had been above him was now coming down.
He had less than a second to look back to Lisa, and see her sad eyes. She hadn’t been trying to get him to go with her, but had been trying to save him.
The light grew again, this time from the headlights as they quickly came at him. Then it was over and everything was darkness.
* * * *