Saying Goodbye

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.

Corny?

Yes.

True?

Yes.

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.

“Shit.”

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!

“Lisa!”

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.

 

* * * *

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Space Truckin’: Cold Days

Cold Days

(Space Truckin’ Part II)

            Winter had never been a friend. The cold days followed by the colder nights stretched long into eternity. The days filled with a soul-draining gloom of gray skies and colorless dawns. It made the time drag on to the endless song of its own desolation.

And with all the dreariness of the dark tidings, you had to deal with the cold and the snow. Will wasn’t sure which he hated more. He had never liked snow, but being out in the cold was its own kind of torment. He was a warm weather man and there was no number of layers that would ever be enough to warm him when the temperature lowered to below freezing.

One would never know he was born and raised in Illinois. If it weren’t for the massive amount of Bears gear…blankets, jerseys, sandals, and even bath towels…it would be impossible to tell he grew up in the northern part of the state. A state where, once winter hit, snow came and didn’t leave until spring, where many considered forty degrees to be t-shirt and shorts weather.

He just wasn’t as warm-blooded as most people. As he watched the snow fall outside his window, he dreaded having to go out to shovel the long driveway. It looked like there was already five inches on the ground with no sign of stopping. Everything was white. His mailbox was covered, and only the faintest depression in the snow allowed him to make out the sidewalk.

It was early. He still had another hour before people in his neighborhood started their trips to work. Those who rode the bus would walk past his house, so he knew that if his part of the sidewalk wasn’t clear, he would receive another citation in the mail.

He saw his neighbors on both sides had already shoveled once, but their work was quickly getting covered in a fresh coat of white powder. He figured he’d wait another half-hour before starting. He hoped the coffee would warm him enough that he wouldn’t be too chilled.

“I thought you were going to shovel?”

A shiver ran down Will’s spine as he turned. There she was. The woman he had married three years ago. Her stomach bulged from the soon-to-be bundle of joy they both looked forward to, although they had been fighting a lot lately. When she approached, he realized there had been a sharpness to her tone.

He wasn’t sure why, but something about her made him uncomfortable. He felt himself getting angrier as she walked closer. It didn’t feel right. Why was he so upset with her? He couldn’t think of a reason, but just the sight of her caused his teeth to clench. He had to work to control his breathing.

Then the feeling passed. He picked up his coffee mug from the table and watched her as she smiled coyly.

“I will. Just wanted to give it a little more time before I headed out there.”

“Okay, well…” The woman approached and gently ran her fingers along his crotch. His reaction was immediate. “I was getting ready to take a shower and figured once you were done, maybe you could join me.”

She turned and walked toward the door. He didn’t remember where it went. The house seemed strange to him. She felt strange to him, like she shouldn’t be there.

“That is, if you feel up to it,” she teased, stopping in the doorway. He hadn’t noticed what she was wearing, now seeing only a towel wrapped around her. Her back still to him, it fell to the floor, then she was gone.

He quickly grabbed the shovel by the door and went outside.

 

* * * *

 

The hot water should have burned his skin. The steam swirled. The room seemed dark past the mist, but he still saw himself as he ran his hands along his skin.

Another shiver ran through him. He turned the knob and felt the spray get hotter, but it didn’t help. No matter how warm the water, it couldn’t push away the feeling of cold that had burrowed into his bones. The water burned his skin, the steam boiling his flesh, but the chill remained. It had become a part of him, like a limb. It was part of who he was and would always be there.

“Do you want some company?”

“Sure,” he said, even though he really didn’t. Something about that voice… When he heard it, it didn’t comfort him. He wasn’t soothed as he felt her hand run across his chest. She pressed her body against him. He felt the rise and fall of her breasts, but it was alien to him. As her hand went lower, he quickly spun to face her.

“What’s wrong?” She looked down, pouting briefly before glancing back up with a smile. She reached out, but he maneuvered by reaching in and pulling her into a hug.

“Nothing. I just finished up and was about to get out. You can finish.”

“You don’t want me to wash your back?”

He knew she wanted to do more than just wash his back. He couldn’t, though. He needed to get out of there. It felt too tight, too hard to breathe. The mist was heavy and hurt his lungs. She was too close to him. Why couldn’t he stand to be around her? She was his wife. They had a daughter together.

            Ex-wife…

No, wife. They had a house. He was there with her. He loved her. He left to go on the road because he was an over-the-road truck driver.

            Space trucker.

His head throbbed as he reached for a towel. The mist evaporated and he could see the well-lit bathroom. He grabbed the towel and draped it around him as he emerged from the hot water.

None of this is right. I shouldn’t be here. I can hear a voice screaming at me, but I can’t quite understand it.

 

* * * *

 

Even though the room was filled with the hot steam from the shower, it was still cold. It felt like he had stepped into a walk-in cooler. He had driven a refrigerated truck for a while, but this was worse. It didn’t help that he was naked, except for the towel.

He didn’t wait to dry himself. He was cold, and he wanted to be anywhere else. He quickly ran to the bedroom and jumped under the covers.

“Too cold. Too cold. Too cold,” he chanted as he pulled on blanket after blanket. He had cranked the heat up before getting into the shower, making sure the dial was set at eighty. Still, the room didn’t have any warmth to it, and it was so dark, he could barely see the wall, even with the flashing light from the strip club across the street.

Wait, that isn’t right. We’ve never lived across the street from a strip club. We own a house.

The light continued to flash, the bright red almost hurting his eyes as it penetrated the darkness. He could almost see the lettering on the bedroom wall, but not quite. It didn’t matter. It probably said what dancer would wrap her legs around the pole that night. It was annoying, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to get warm. Nothing seemed to be working.

He pulled the covers tighter around him.

“Getting yourself wrapped up in your burrito?”

“What?” He looked at the door to see her standing there, naked. He looked away as another shiver ravaged him. The cold violently burrowed deep into him. He would never get warm again.

He thought he felt something when he had first gotten into bed, some kind of warmth. He had felt a heat scorching across his flesh, then it faded. Now only chilled air surrounded his already cool skin. There was no warmth left inside him.

“You always do that. You always run to the bed as soon as you get out of the shower. You would think with all the hot water that you’d be sweating. That you wouldn’t want anything to touch your skin.” She walked closer. “How about I warm you up.”

“I’ll be fine.”

But he wasn’t. He felt the winter’s touch reaching into his chest, making it hard to breathe. This wasn’t how it should be. This wasn’t how it was. He knew she was something else now. She was cold… She was a cold-hearted bitch. She was…

No, there had been another cold-hearted one he had dealt with. He tried to remember it. Somehow, he felt like she was still there, trying to get in.

Something was trying to pull at him. He felt the tug. The dark room beyond grew darker yet, slipping away. He watched as parts of it stretched away, elongating, becoming distant.

Then she was gone and everything was dark, except for the pulsating red light. It began to burrow in, attacking him in some way he couldn’t quite comprehend.

 

* * * *

 

He was alone in a black box. He recognized it, although he couldn’t see much. A haze had materialized, his slow breaths forming crystals in front of him.

It is beyond the freeze of the deepest cooler.

He didn’t know how he was still alive. He shouldn’t be. It didn’t make sense…unless there were some kind of backup system keeping him that way. Was there more to the box than he realized? He guessed that made sense. He wasn’t a tech, but only the gear-jammer behind the wheel of the proverbial space beast.

He saw the red flashing light from the tablet controls in front of him. He couldn’t quite make out the writing on it as his vision was blurry. He could just see the large text blinking at him, urging him to do something.

 

* * * *

 

“My water just broke,” she yelled. Even though her voice was calm, he heard it in her tone. There was anger seething there, but what did she want him to do? It wasn’t like he could change the weather.

The snow came down in a mass of white flakes. Everything was pale, color having been completely washed away in the blizzard. White covered the road, the shoulder, and the world around him. It was impossible to tell the difference between the interstate and the empty fields to the side of it.

When a shiver ran through him, he reached up, risking taking his hand from the wheel to hold it over the heating vent. The windshield wipers had a hard time keeping up, the frost and snow building up along the bottom. His hand met cold air, no warmth coming out of the vent at all.

An unfamiliar red light started to flash on the dashboard. It wasn’t the check engine light. He had seen that plenty of times before…usually right before having to sit on the side of the road for eight hours. This light was a triangle with an exclamation point in the center. It was bright, blinding him.

“Will!”

He heard her voice, but it sounded distant. She was yelling at him, her scream piercing, his anger rising. He should be worried about getting home, wanting to be there for their baby, but something was different. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. He was there when his little girl was born. It had been one of the happiest moments of his life. Looking into that precious face as those large, round eyes opened for the first time to look up at him. Those chubby little cheeks and the hand that closed around his little finger.

The cold penetrated his bones. He heard the windows crack, snapping as they got colder than they were designed for. He saw the splintering of the glass, the spider webs forming in front of him.

He knew he wasn’t going to make it home. He wouldn’t see his daughter’s birth. The weather would be the end of him, the cold pulling him deeper into its grasp.

 

* * * *

 

He wasn’t in his truck. He wasn’t back on earth. What was he thinking?

The question had already been answered. He was anywhere other than there. Why would he stay there for his death?

I always thought I would die in my sleep

But he was asleep. He was also awake and drifting in between the two states. He was losing himself to his unconscious mind, but what did it matter? He was dying anyway. He just wanted it to stay that way. He wanted to die in his sleep and not know when the time came.

Then there was the flashing red light that kept penetrating his dreams. Every time it felt like he could just slip away and enjoy the last moments of his life, that bright light would reappear and rip it away.

It was still there. He was pretty sure he was awake again, or close to it. It was hard to tell because there was so little light and a dense fog both in mind and vision.

The one constant was that he still felt bone-devouring cold. He could just make out the flashing red light coming from the controls. He tried to get a better look, but couldn’t. He felt like a prisoner in his own body, paralyzed by some unseen force.

But he hadn’t moved, had he? He remembered looking at the flashing red light on the tablet. The last time he was awake, it had been visible, but he had a hard time making out what it said. He couldn’t even see it now. Just the reflection of the flashing light as it lit up the small space.

That was where he was. Space.

He had been outside. His rig had some kind of leak and the damn automated system couldn’t fix it, so he had to. He had gone out in this suit, which looked more like a coffin than anything he had ever seen in old TV shows, and fixed the air leak. Once he had, though, the automated system kicked back in and he was thrown clear. His tether had snapped, leaving him behind.

He was left alone out there to die in space. No one would come back for him because the ship was a one-man space truck. Much like the rigs back on earth, there was no second driver to split the work. The space trucks were so automated, he was there just to fill legal requirements.

And now his truck had left him behind.

Yeah, the damned electronic heap had probably become sentient and decided to get rid of his useless carcass. It would have been nice if it could have waited for him to be dead before dumping him out like yesterday’s rotten meat.

Maybe there was some truth to it, though. It was a waste of money to have him on the ship. Maybe some number cruncher had decided to code something in the computer to get rid of him and have the rig fly itself. There would be no problem for it to get to Mars without him. It would be the test case to get rid of other unneeded drivers. Then the number cruncher could point to this case and tell Congress, “See. We don’t need drivers. Our systems are so amazing, they can run themselves.”

The number cruncher wouldn’t be wrong, but it would suck for him because, well… He had to die in order for people to know that. It would also suck for all those other drivers because they would be out of jobs. It’d be hard to go back to just driving a rig back on earth. As much as he complained about it, he would never return to being a regular truck driver. How did you pass up the chance to be in space just to go back to driving a semi on earth?

Most of those drivers would probably end up killing themselves. There was a high rate of suicide among drivers who went from doing this back to driving on earth. It was just hard to go back to terrestrial travel once you’ve been to the stars.

Still, he got the shaft on this one. He was still going to be the one to die just to prove their test case.

The more he thought about it, the more he had a hard time not believing it, although he wasn’t sure how they manufactured the air leak. That was the only thing that didn’t make sense. It seemed like a big chance and a huge risk of money if he hadn’t been able to fix it.

Who knows? Maybe the system in the suit was more automated than he realized. Maybe he hadn’t done as much as he thought he had when he secured the hole.

This had been a long four months. He wished he could go home and see his daughter. He still remembered that last message she had sent just before the connection between the rig and his suit had completely lost range. He saw her angry face as she paced back and forth, upset with her mother for lying to her. If she hadn’t lied, they would have gotten a chance to spend some time together before he had gone back out. Her mother had, once again, done what she does—ticked him off and kept him away from his daughter.

He had obviously done something to the woman that had changed her. He had no clue what, but something made her always figure out ways to keep him from his daughter.

How had he ever been married to such an evil woman? She wasn’t like this before, he was certain of it, but something had turned her into this vile monster who now spit fire whenever she talked to him.

Now his daughter was affected by it, as well. He had hoped to always protect her from that. She was his baby. He never wanted her to see the way her mother screwed him over. It was his job, wasn’t it? He was to be the protector. He didn’t want her to know some of the evils in the world. Hers was supposed to stay perfect. Now that perfection was cracked and he didn’t know if he would ever be able to fix it.

She had asked if she could come out there with him. He wanted to say yes. It would make it easier to protect her and keep her safe from so many of the horrors she would someday face.

It would also mean losing her education and the future he envisioned for her. If he brought her with him, she would not be the computer junkie he’d hoped for. He wanted her to be one of the ones making the world, not one of the slaves to it.

What did any of it matter? He was as good as dead. She would have to stay there, which would be a good thing. She should never have to risk her life like he did. He wouldn’t want this for her.

He saw her angry face in his memory and he smiled. She would stay on earth, and she would be safe.

The darkness around him drifted again. He felt himself slipping back to sleep as the world around him grew heavy in his thoughts. He was more awake this last time than he had been, so the pull had to be stronger to drag him into the realm of sleep.

This time, maybe he would get lucky. Maybe the world around him would just slip away and he wouldn’t wake up.

And then sleep fully took him.

 

* * * *

 

He didn’t sleep well. He didn’t know why, but he had been up and down all night, constantly going to the bathroom. That wasn’t normal. Sure, he had been out drinking all night, but it was good to be back in Wisconsin, where the craft beer flowed free and the trash talk was loud. Being a Bears fan in a Packers bar was always good for that.

Maybe all the space travel was getting to him. Something about all those months in space made you want to drink beer within hours of stepping foot on soil. It couldn’t be good for his liver and was probably one hell of a shock to the system. Yeah, then following the beer with shots couldn’t have helped things.

All that additional gravity pulling on him as he drank glass after glass hadn’t been easy on his stomach. He had puked three times before he somehow found his way back to his hostel room.

Damn hostel. He hated not having a real home to go to. He was always back on earth for such a small amount of time before he went back into space, it was impractical to have a full lease, and most apartments didn’t rent short-term.

The hostel was close and was cheaper than a hotel, but they sure didn’t like him coming in at three a.m., drunk, unable to remember which room he was in. When he did find the right room, he had fallen onto the wrong bed, waking the occupant to quite a surprise as Will vomited for his fourth and final time that night.

Will had woken in his own vomit, the proper occupant of the bed having vacated. When the owners told him he was no longer welcome, he wasn’t surprised.

He would have to find another one soon. Either that or a cheap motel. He planned on going to see his daughter later in the day, so he would find someplace near where his ex-wife and her new rich husband lived. Whenever he was home, he tried to be as close as possible, much to the frustration of the new man stealing his life.

Why should he care if he aggravated the man? What was his name? Thomas, Tomas… He had some fancy name that started with a “T”. Will didn’t pay much attention. He was more frustrated that they made his daughter give up his last name, and they did it while strangling him with his bank account. He would either have to pay an arm and a leg in child support or allow his daughter to have a new life as a “Smithers”.

He hated thinking about the man. Every time he did, Will’s temper flared, pushing him to drink and fight. The man had stolen her from him while he was up there making a living, supporting his family. All the effort and energy he had put into their marriage wasted. It wasn’t fair.

No matter how hard he tried to push them away, the dark thoughts kept coming back. It was hard not to brood. He had eight months of solitary, so that was familiar to him. Even when he was home, he no longer felt at home. The brooding was a feeling that welcomed him, a friend who was there to put an arm around him, no matter how low it sagged his shoulders.

In the painful morning light, the dark thoughts stayed with him. He was alone to walk the streets, looking for a place to stay, looking to find some kind of connection to this world he felt like a stranger in.

He found a phone and called the only number he knew by heart. He hoped she had kept her phone, the one he bought her after the divorce.

It only rang once before it went to a recorded message. It wasn’t her voice. The computer-generated one told him the number he had dialed was disconnected. He stood there, dumbfounded, holding the phone to his ear.

He stood in the phone booth. When was the last time he had been in a phone booth? When was the last time he had even seen a phone booth? How had he found this one? Why hadn’t he just bought a prepaid phone like he normally did?

Those questions and more kept assaulting him. He hadn’t noticed how the day became night, blackness surrounding him.

He was no longer in a phone booth. Gone were the handset, as well as that computer-generated voice telling him his wife’s number was no longer in service.

Ex-wife, he reminded himself. Sometimes it was so hard to remember that in these dreams. Everything was jumbled, and things slipped from one truth to another.

What was truth? It was so hard to remember what really happened and what these dreams created as their own.

He had to be in a dream.

He looked around, unsure of where he was. Remnants of his fight last night came back as he watched another fist come at him. He was outside himself and saw three men forming a circle around him.

He was in another bar, one of the many he had been to after he came home this time. Who knew what the fight was over? Had he knocked over the guy’s drink? Maybe Will just said something political that irked him. It was so hard to keep up with what was going on. Being in space for so long, he was out of touch. How could he have known that some flavor of the week celebrity was an actual candidate and, to his greater shock, was being taken seriously?

None of how or why the fight started mattered. It was just his anger boiling up inside him. His daughter was gone and he may never see her again. Space was such a cold-hearted bitch, it rivaled the woman he had once called a wife. He had barely survived one, and every time he went up, there was a chance he wouldn’t survive the other.

What if he didn’t make it back? He would never see his daughter again. This whole time at home would have been a waste…

And that woman wouldn’t let her see him. She had sent his daughter away, had changed her numbers, had moved. It made it hard for him to find them.

Yes, he had become a drunk, but he was still her father. Sure, he fought a lot; however, he had never been that way when he was married. This was the man his ex-wife had made. What reason did he have to be better? His daughter made him better, but he didn’t even have that now.

The fight was gone…if it had ever been real. None of this was. It was all a dream within dreams. Something else was happening and he didn’t want to be a part of it. He was tired of being a part of things. Whenever he was, it always shattered. He was done with it all. What did it matter anyway?

 

* * * *

 

He knew he was awake again and crying, but tears weren’t there. It was too cold for that, the chill now a constant ache. There was a change in the darkness around him, his thoughts were no longer all over the place, and he could focus on the display flashing red before him.

 

Retrieval imminent.

Press here to confirm life.

 

Yeah, he knew that wasn’t true. There was no chance of rescue. Sure, he was only a truck driver, but he knew enough from his years out there to know that it would be nearly impossible for them to rescue him. Even with all the science mumbo jumbo that would have retrieving him as hard as finding a needle in a thousand haystacks, there was also the cost. It would be too expensive to rescue some dumb gear-jammer. It would be cheaper just to leave him out there.

None of it mattered. He was never going to see his daughter again. Worrying about all this was exhausting, and what was the point.

When he fell back to sleep this time, maybe everything would just fade away. Let the dream just take him. If he were lucky, it would be a peaceful one, his last thoughts one of joy.

He didn’t have too many great memories. His childhood was too long ago, usually feeling like a dream that had some vague qualities of truth. His marriage, while it might have been good at one time, was marred with the aftermath. All he had was that little girl he once held in his arms.

 

* * * *

 

Babies were the most precious and amazing creatures on the planet. It didn’t matter what species, either, because they were all adorable. Even the most vicious of predators or the ugliest of creatures always had that element of beauty at the beginning of life.

But the most amazing of all of was the human baby. There was that chubbiness in the cheeks, the way the mouth opened and closed while the eyes stayed shut. Those small little hands that grabbed your finger, held on, and clutched their way into your heart.

Then there was the baby’s first smile.

How does a baby learn to smile? How was it that within hours of making their appearance into this world, they were able to smile, lightening even the darkest of hearts? They reached in and touched that spot in your chest. Before you knew it, the tears started flowing as you saw this new life, the happiness spreading.

Will would never forget the first time he saw that smile. He had been on the road so much while his wife was pregnant, but he was there for those long hours of labor. He was glad he had been when he held his little girl for the first time and welcomed her into the world.

She smiled up at him, eyes closed, her little hand wrapped around his pinky. He heard baby-like noises. Not those little sounds they made, but that of adults when they tried to talk to a baby. He smiled, thinking someone else, other than his sleeping wife, was in the room, but when he looked around, he was alone and those noises came from him.

It was the most amazing experience. He thought he was ready for it, but he wasn’t. It was something new, a connection he never thought he’d have. There was a bond that formed the second she had been put into his arms, and he knew that no matter what, he would do anything to protect her.

“I love you, and I will do anything, anything to always be there for you, to always protect you, to make sure you have everything you need. You will always be safe, and I will be there for you. I will teach you to ride a bike, show you how to fish, and when your first boyfriend takes you out, I will be there sitting on the porch when he brings you home…”

Will got choked up. It was like he was making a promise to her… No, not a promise. This was something more, something deeper, something like an oath. It came from within his soul and, by God, he meant every syllable.

“And when that special day comes, I will be there to walk you down the aisle. I will always be here for you.”

There it was again. That little smile. Her eyes weren’t even open, but somehow she knew.

“Your first?”

Will looked up to see a doctor standing there. He was a tall, skinny man, but had a very welcoming smile that touched his eyes. He guessed he would have to be very warm to work in such an environment and deal with so much life every day. This man helped give joy to the world.

Will nodded as he tried to form the words, not realizing how dry his throat had become. He felt like he hadn’t spoken to anyone in weeks.

“They are so precious. When you hold your baby in your arms for the first time, you realize what your life is all about.”

“Yeah,” he whispered, a fresh wave of tears suddenly flooding him he clutched onto the little bundle.

He looked down at her through his watery eyes. Little droplets fell from his cheeks, one falling onto her soft skin. Her eyes fluttered open and those large, round orbs looked up at him.

The smile returned. He responded with his own.

“So, are you going to just give up on that little girl?”

Will heard his own voice. He looked up to where the doctor had been, seeing himself standing there. It wasn’t the young man he had been when she was born, but the one he saw every time he looked into a mirror. The man glared at him, his arms crossed.

“I would do anything for her.”

“But you’re not.”

“Yes, I would.”

“Then why are you allowing yourself to just die? You’re not even curious to see if there is someone out there coming for you. You saw that message. Something is happening, but you’re just giving up.”

Will turned away from his older self and started bouncing his baby as he walked toward the window of the room. The little girl cooed against his chest as he started to hum “Hush, Little Baby”. He would sing it to her, but as much as he tried, he couldn’t remember any of the words. So he hummed it, feeling her little hands reaching out and clasping his shirt.

“Do you remember when she was three and burned her hand? You had only turned your back for a minute and she climbed up onto the stove and reached out to grab the skillet.”

The tears came back as Will looked out the hospital window, seeing the LifeFlight helicopter sitting on its helipad.

Of course, this isn’t the same room we actually had when she was born. This is the room we had later, when her mom had been admitted into the hospital with a failing kidney.

“You rushed her to the hospital. You didn’t even think about it. You heard that scream, then her cries. You just scooped her up into your arms and you were gone. The hospital was twenty miles away. You drove the whole way, telling her all the jokes you could think of to take her mind off her pain.”

While we waited for her mom to come out of surgery, I took Angie, who was almost seven, down to the helipad. The pilot was extremely nice and gave her a tour of the helicopter, showed her where they saved lives, and even allowed her to sit in the co-pilot chair.

            It was all to take her mind off how scared she was while we waited. The waiting is always the hardest part.

“How many times have you held her and told her you will always be there to protect her and look out for her, whether it was telling her a story to keep her distracted, telling her jokes to make her forget the pain, or even just taking a walk with her because you wanted to spend time together.”

“I need to take her,” the doctor said.

Will spun around. It was too fast for his little bundle to handle. He felt the little arms and legs squirm, then heard the bubbling gurgle as she spit up. He tried to calm her, but didn’t take his eyes off the doctor standing where his older self had been just a minute ago.

“Why?”

“She needs to be taken care of.”

“I’ve got her.”

“She needs someone who’ll be there for her.”

“I said I’ve…got…her.”

Will heard the anger in his voice and felt the heat in it. That fire burning, growing as he recognized the doctor. He hadn’t met him too many times, but he would never forget the face of the man who had stolen his life from him. The man who was now married to his wife and raising his daughter. The man who helped lie to him, supporting his wife when she told Will Angie was away at camp.

Will held the bundle closer. He was afraid he held her too tightly, but couldn’t stop himself. He wasn’t going to let this bastard take her from him. He had taken her teenage years away from him, but Will was not about to let him take her first moments. Those were his. She was his. She would always be his.

“You left her. You always leave her.”

But he hadn’t. She had been taken from him. First by his witch of an ex-wife, then by this bitch known as space.

No. I am leaving her. I am leaving her by not trying to get home.

He saw the flashing light. He had no idea what it meant, but something was happening. He should be doing something to get back to her. There had to be a reason it was flashing, asking him to confirm he was still alive.

            It just doesn’t make any sense. There is no way the company would ever waste money and resources on saving my life. I am alone, left to die, so why even bother?

He looked down at the bundle in his arms. The pink cheeks stirred something inside him. In the cold surrounding him, he felt a warmth emanating from the depths of his soul as he remembered the song he sang to her that first time he held her. The real song, not the one he hummed to her in his dream. The one he had heard on the radio in their rush to the hospital. He would always remember it because of how true it would always be. This time, he didn’t sing it, but mouthed the chorus. I saw God today. Maybe there actually was a God out there and Will just needed faith.

He placed a gentle kiss upon her forehead, then opened his eyes.

 

 

* * * *

 

 

The light still flashed, the cold still there. But he felt a change. There was a warmth building, pushing back the chill. It came from deep within his core and worked outward.

Before, there was only the cold. It was all he felt, encompassing everything he had thought he was. He had been frozen by it, unable to move. He didn’t think he would even be able to reach out and touch the screen, let alone the flashing button.

Now he had hope flowing through him. He felt it. He just had to reach that screen.

And he tried.

He desperately wanted to move his hands, his arms, anything, but he found he was still trapped in the arms of the forever chill. No, no, no. It can’t end like this. He was in Death’s grip, the strong fingers of that long hand holding him tight.

Then there was that warmth again.

He tried to reach out for the tablet, which had once been affixed to a metal arm he could control. That arm had snapped, and the screen now floated just out of his reach. He just needed to reach it. He worried more about how the cold would affect it, hoping it would still recognize his touch.

            When he touched it

His arms didn’t move. In his mind, he felt them moving toward the screen floating near him, but they weren’t. It was in his head, just like the dreams that kept trying to pull him back into them.

He felt them threatening to take him again. He was so tired, it was hard to tell when he was awake or when he was dreaming. Will had slipped in and out of dreams so much, he wasn’t sure if this was real or if he was only partly awake, watching his inability to do anything.

“Come on, you waste of space,” he grunted through clenched teeth. It was good to hear the faint sound of his own voice. It was distorted to his ears, but he felt the air and tasted its chilled metallic taste.

Air… He couldn’t have much left, and that iron taste probably wasn’t good. Whatever the little suit used for oxygen had to be nearly depleted.

Meaning he had more reason to hurry and touch the flashing button.

He tried to reach out again. Nothing. This time, he actually felt the inability, not just saw it.

Come on. Don’t just float here.

But the cold was too deep. He felt it in his bones, reaching deeper, pushing against the small warmth he had experienced. Death was in the little suit with him, and it was not going to give up easily.

Why should he fight so hard, and what would hitting that little button do? There wasn’t anything to hope for, nothing out there for him. There was no way he would ever see his little girl again, so there was no point.

You don’t know that. You have to try.

            There it was again. That strange force inside him. It was warm and comfortable. He almost laughed when he had the brief thought of being in a microwave, warming from the inside.

Was the warmth even real?

He felt a tingling in his fingers, the sensation spreading. It wasn’t intense, but like a hum of electricity building up inside him.

“Lord, I don’t know if that’s you, but please, help me make it home to my little girl,” he prayed. He had never been a religious man before, but if it meant he’d get home to his baby, he was all for it. Whatever worked, he would do it. He had to.

He reached out to touch the tablet floating near his hand again. It wasn’t too far. It would just take a little twitch of his finger and a slight twist of his arm. He saw it out of the corner of his eye as his gloved hand started to shake.

I’m doing it. I’m really doing it.

            There was a sudden jerk to his suit and he felt himself spinning around, a sense of gravity pulling him to the back of the pod. Outside was dark, the star-filled sky he had grown accustomed to was gone. Worse, he saw the tablet disappear from sight.

No, no, no! Not now. Not when I am finally fighting to live.

He had to get it, but his body felt alien to him. He could barely control a finger, let alone his arm to reach around and find the device.

Where is it?

He craned his neck, trying to see where it had floated off to. The flashing on the screen should make it easy to see.

Is that it?

He thought he saw something red reflecting off the pod down near his leg. How the hell did it get down there?

He knew how. It was free to go wherever in the small pod. It could just keep bouncing around and he would never be able to get to it.

It was so hard to work with no gravity, no invisible force to keep objects in perspective. The tablet could be floating anywhere. He could be floating anywhere. It was outer space, that endless stretch of nothing that went into infinity.

Another jerk to the suit and he felt the sudden thrust as he was propelled against the lower portion of the pod. The strain was strong against his weakened legs and his knees buckled as they slammed against the front of the pod. He was wedged lower into it than he had ever been before. Pain shot up his knees, even through the suit he wore. The world around him, the world he had come to know as his life-pod, felt like it had started collapsing around him.

“Dammit!” he cursed through clenched teeth. His bones protested the force pulling him down. He struggled to pull his hands free from where they had lodged behind him, and as he did, he felt something tap his arm. He saw the blinking red, knowing the tablet was caught between him and the side wall. If he adjusted his body just right…

Damn, he only needed to get his hand free. All he had to do was tap on the screen, acknowledge he was alive.

But what would that do? There was no way he would be saved. Whatever was happening outside wasn’t some kind of rescue. Was that what he really thought? How could he even begin to hope? That tablet wasn’t going to do a damn thing for him.

So what was slamming him around like a piñata?

A comet. He was caught in the gravity well of some comet that had flown by. It pulled him around. As he was caught in its wake, there would be some gravity. That same gravity that kept all the ice particles together now pulled him along.

Or it could be an asteroid. He’d been near the asteroid belt when he had been ripped from his rig. Maybe he had floated into the belt and was now caught in the pull.

Yeah, or he could be getting picked up by aliens.

Was he desperate enough to think aliens would pick him up out in the depths of space? This was getting ridiculous. He was about to die, crushed to death by the force of something he couldn’t see, and he blamed it on aliens.

The pod shook again, violently slamming him up and back down. He tried to push against it, the squeezing of his legs cramping the muscles. His back screamed in protest, and he felt the tablet wedged into his side. The pull in the pod was now at an angle, pushing his body against it.

He had to shimmy a little. The pod was now vibrating, so he used that force to slide along the wall. It allowed him to get away from the pad. He worked his body so he could see the large red triangle and the flashing red light. It was near his hand. All he had to do was adjust a little to the right and turn his hand so he could touch the screen. He almost had it, as long as the pod didn’t shift again and slam him in another direction. He was almost there. Just a little bit farther…

Got it! The flashing on the screen stopped and a symbol appeared. There wasn’t any text, but it looked like two objects, one roughly the shape his pod. The other was much larger, a line stretching between the two.

The shaking of his pod stopped and he felt a shift. With all the violence he had endured, he had forgotten about the freezing air around him, but there was no mistaking the sudden warmth he felt. It was faint, but something radiated around him, like a heater had been turned on.

Before he had been disconnected, he had heat. Where had it come from? It would have been around him, much like how it felt now.

The gravity stabilized and he suddenly felt normal in the small pod. It wasn’t like the free floating he had come to know. This was even more recognizable, like the half-g of acceleration-forced gravity he had been used to on his rig.

It all felt so…right. He couldn’t explain it, but everything made him feel like he was in a comfortable place, like the hand of God had come for him.

Then he felt the weight of everything pulling at his eyelids, an exhaustion like he never felt before coming over him. He didn’t know why, but he smiled as he felt himself fall away to the long stretch of sleep.

 

* * * *

 

Moments came and went, leaving only a fading faint impression. Then those were gone. White walls? Flashing lights passing by? Light came and went. Things went dark, then got bright.

He couldn’t tell what was going on. It felt like time passed, but was mashed together in slow, dull moments.

The only thing that had remained, the constant wrapping around him, was that the cold had returned.

 

* * * *

 

The first thing he felt when he woke was something cold touching his skin. No. Multiple things touching him. He felt it around his arms, his legs, pressing against his forehead. He was hunched over something.

When he heard a crash around him, he jumped, fully awake. He tried to pull himself up as the world around him came into focus, but he was stopped short by cold metal around his wrists.

Where was he? Where was his suit? How was he not in the pod? No, this wasn’t right. He was in a room. That was impossible.

I’m still dreaming. I’m in another nightmare.

But, as he looked around, he knew he wasn’t. It was a simple room with stainless steel walls, a door that had a large round wheel in the center of it, and a stainless steel table he was currently handcuffed to. They were attached to a long chain that ran through the ring fastened in the center.

If he didn’t know any better, it looked like an interrogation room from one of those old cop shows. The main difference being the futuristic steel walls and the hatch door rather than a regular one.

The sound that had awoken him had been the twisting of that wheel and the release of the latch. He watched as a woman stepped into the room. He studied her, trying to place her.

She had a stern, pinched face as she glared at him. It didn’t take long for him to realize she was studying him, not coming any closer.

And it was true. He was in a room with another living person. It didn’t make sense. He didn’t know how it happened, but he was alive and she was there—a living, breathing, honest-to-God person.

“I’m alive?” His voice was dry and gravelly. He didn’t know how long it had been since he had tried to talk.

“Of course. You are here with us on Mars. We wasted a lot of money to bring you here, but don’t worry. You’ll be able to pay us back in payments.”

He looked at the cuffs and the table. He was definitely alive. The cold steel was too solid, his body too sore.

“What’s going on?” he asked, pulling against his chains.

“Settle down or you’ll have to be sedated.” The woman didn’t come closer, staying near the door.

He tried to do a she said, but it was hard. So much rushed through his head. Questions of how he was saved and why he fought against wanting to thank the woman while outraged about being confined to the table.

He saw the fear that kept this woman from getting any closer. Something in the back of his mind whispered to him, warning him that he needed to be careful. He focused on taking deep, long breaths until he felt himself relax.

She watched him curiously. When his shoulders relaxed, she nodded. “Good. As I was saying, you are on Mars. The company is suing you for negligence and fraud, so we’ll soon be sending you back to earth for your trial. I am here to determine whether you are sane enough to stand trial, or if you’ve been suffering from Coffers.”

Will felt the color drain from his face as his mouth dropped open. None of this made any sense.

“What do you have to say for yourself?”

He didn’t have anything to say. This didn’t make sense. He was dumbfounded.

“What did I do?” he whispered.

She seemed frustrated and had a hard time looking at him. He tried to plead with her with his eyes. It came off like a desperate, broken man, and it wasn’t long before the tears came. They hurt because of the dried roughness around his eyes.

“Unlawful negligence, vehicular manslaughter, and damage to corporate property in access of one million dollars.”

Her monotonous voice said the words, but he had a hard time focusing on the meaning. These were crimes. Actual crimes that he was going to be put on trial for. How was that even possible?

“How?”

“How what?”

“I didn’t do anything wrong.”

The room seemed to get colder, and he wanted to take his chained hands and wrap them around his body to find warmth. The air coming through the filtered vents had such a chill, he felt it on his skin.

Was it all in his head? Did he really feel the room dropping in temperature?

“Because of your mishap, your ice shipment came in unmanned. The corporation was heavily fined. We had to pay out a large sum of money for your rescue and—“

“Why did you do that?” He didn’t mean to cut her off, but he couldn’t think of a better time to ask.

“Excuse me?”

The first emotion finally registered as she looked up from the pad she had been reading from. She was stunned. Was it because he wanted to know why he was accused, or because she wasn’t used to people cutting her off like that? He hoped it wasn’t the latter because the last thing he needed now was to piss this lady off, but he wanted to know. Shouldn’t he know why the hell they were charging him with this stuff?

They’re making an example out of you.

The thought came from nowhere, but as the voice echoed in his head, he had a sinking feeling it was true. But make an example out of him for what? What purpose would that serve?

“Why was I saved? It doesn’t make sense. I’m a nobody. Some cheap truck driver paid to haul ice from point A to point B. I’m not someone important.” Will had to swallow past the lump in his throat before he continued. “So why come save me?”

“Oh.”

She didn’t want to meet his eyes. It was obvious with how she tried to find something to look at on her tablet. He saw it in her face. She didn’t want to face him, but why? She had been so full of herself before.

“Well, it’s because you’re cheaper alive than dead,” she finally said.

“Excuse me?”

“You are cheaper alive. If you were to die, the company would have to pay your spouse twelve million dollars, as well as pay for your children’s educational needs. If we recovered you alive and injured, we would only have to pay your family one million. It was cheaper to recover you and have you live out the rest of your days as a vegetable than to just leave you out there.”

His jaw dropped. It was cheaper to save him than to let him die? He should be happy to hear that, but something about it being on paper, a financial decision that allowed him to still breathe, made it all wrong. He was only alive because of a clerical calculation that had shown the cost of saving him more viable than to let him die.

So if it hadn’t been cheaper, they were okay with just letting him die. He knew that. He had always known that. In fact, he had spent time in the pod expecting to die. So why did it upset him so much to hear her say what he already knew?

“So you thought there was a chance I would just be a vegetable? That means you were reasonably sure I was still alive.”

“Mostly. The survival suit you decided to take for a joy ride has built-in cryogenic capabilities. While having never been tested on humans, it has had a seventy-three percent success rate on monkeys, although only five percent have had full recoveries.”

His head hurt. He didn’t want to hear more of this, but he wanted to know why he was still there, still alive and talking with the woman.

“That’s f’d up. I was just some dumb lab rat for you out there.”

“Mr. Wozniak, you were hired to be subjected to tests. In your employment agreement, you stated you acknowledged this new form of space travel had risks and that there were new technologies you would be working with to help the corporation achieve its goals. You signed up for this.”

“I signed up to haul ice. I’m a truck driver. Hauling things is what I do.”

“You signed up to sit in a room and be isolated for eight months. How much ‘hauling’ have you actually done?”

“But…”

He wanted to argue that it wasn’t true. He had once been a truck driver. Now he was a space trucker. It was who he was. Saying he was just there to be a lab rat, paid to sit in a room as it flew across space… That wasn’t him.

But how could he argue? It had been his life for the past six years.

“Mr. Wozniak, you stopped being a driver long ago.”

His head dropped. He wanted to cry. He wanted to go home and see his daughter, spend time with that precious little girl he had once held in his arms. He wanted to hug her, be there with her as she prepared to go off to school.

“What do you want from me?” There had to be something. She wasn’t telling him all this for no reason. She wanted something from him, and he realized he was tired and done with all the bull.

“We need you to sign an agreement. You plead guilty to all charges, accept responsibility and say there was no fault by the corporation. By doing so, we will get you home. Your imprisonment will be logged as your flight home, so you will spend no actual time behind bars.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes, sir.”

He felt a chill again, the room around him growing colder. This time, he knew it wasn’t a dream. He was sure he was awake. He was in hell, and it had started freezing over. He knew what he wanted to say to this woman. He wanted to tell her she could take her agreement and stick it where the sun didn’t shine, but they were a long way from the sun. It didn’t shine out there as well as it did back on earth.

Back on earth… He could see his daughter again, spend some time with her. If he wasn’t doing these long runs any more, he would be able to stay there and be there for her. They could do all the things he promised her they would.

But that also meant he would have to agree it was his fault the company dumped him out in space, saving him later. If he did that, would he ever be able to look his daughter in the eyes? He already knew the answer.

And if he was home, would they ever actually do those things, like go to Disneyland or Soldier’s Field? He doubted it. There would always be another excuse, and why not? That was never going to be his life. Earth was never again going to be his home.

The chill grew deeper. He was sure he would never get rid of it. It had become a part of him, and as the shiver ran down his spine, he knew he was okay with it. The cold wouldn’t kill him. It would only make him stronger.

He looked up to stare her in the eye. It made her uncomfortable. Good. He wanted her to be uncomfortable. The cold became steel running through his veins, a fire burning a new fury deep within himself.

“Yeah, well… You can go f—”

* * * *

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Space Truckin’: Free Fall

Free Fall

(Space Truckin’ Part 1)

 

Will was once a truck driver. When he was on Earth, his days were spent alone, traveling the highways for months until he went home to see his wife and family. Then Space Trucking became the new thing, and they didn’t want pilots. They wanted men like him, the ones who were used to the isolation.

Now he is a new breed of driver. He is a Space Trucker, and his job is simple enough. Haul the load and drop the load. Just now he is in space, and his destination; Mars.

*********************

Published by

Breaking Fate Publishing

© 2017 by Breaking Fate Publishing Publishing

All Rights Reserved.  No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law.  Please purchase only authorized electronic and print editions, and do not participate in or encourage any form of piracy of copyrighted materials.  Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

This is a work of fiction.  Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Please visit us online at http://breakingfatepublishing.com
“Free Fall (Space Truckin’)” is available for purchase as a Kindle Single and in Audio

Edited by Kim Young
Cover Art & Design by Jason R. Davis
Copyright © 2017

*********************

Free Fall

(A Space Truckin’ Story)

 

“Hey, Dad. When are you coming home? It’s been forever since we’ve had a chance to hang out, and I know I was away at camp last time. Mom sent me there, and when I got home, you were already gone. We miss… I miss you. Come home, Dad.”

Will reached a hand out to the computer screen, slightly touching it, as he watched his daughter do the same. He was trying to keep the torrent of tears at bay. He had told himself he wasn’t going to cry and, damn it, he was going to keep that promise.

Her tears came first. From the glow of her lamp behind her computer, he could see the little glint. He couldn’t see the lamp, but watched it twinkle off the little tear creeping down her cheek. Then another one came down the other side of her sweet, innocent face, and he heard her sniffle. He knew it would just be a second before she would pull her hand away from the screen to wipe her nose, then she did.

That was all it took, although his tears didn’t flow down his face. In just half a G of constant acceleration, the tears hung at the edges until more formed, then the little drops of saltwater floated around the cabin. Eventually, they would hit something, or he would drift into them and the wetness might actually reach his cheeks. Right then, he longed to feel their touch. It would allow him to share in what his daughter was feeling…that moisture, those tears, that hurt as she looked at the screen. Her tears were coming faster, and he watched as her chest heaved in sobs.

“I love you, Dad,” she said, quickly reaching forward, grabbing her laptop. Then his screen went dark.

He didn’t reach as quickly for his own. There was no reason for him to hurry. It wasn’t a live communication as he was out of range and anything that would be fast enough for them to talk without any kind of unbearable delay, so it was just easier to send the video messages. This one was her latest as she had just gotten home from camp, realized he was already gone again, and knew it would be at least another six months before she would see him.

It had already been two months since he left. He was ready to get back and stay home the full time this time. As it was, he could have stayed home and been there when Angie got back from camp. Had he known she would have been home, he probably would have. If her mom hadn’t been such a pain in his…

            Don’t let yourself get worked up thinking of her. It won’t do you any good. Don’t go down that road. Just calm yourself, take deep breaths. Deep breaths.

            Her mother, that selfish woman he had been married to for nine years, had lied to him, allowing him to believe Angie had been sent away to school. That cocksucker of a new boyfriend of hers had money, and Wendy got most of his, so he had little way to verify what they told him. It wasn’t like he was home all that often. He had no way to research or look into it. How would he have known Angie was only away at camp? She was supposed to be overseas doing some kind of school internship.

He could have spent some time with his daughter before coming back out here. He didn’t have to hurry. He had plenty of time to use. He could have stayed home, seen her, spent time with her. Instead, he had taken that woman at her word, allowed her to tell him his daughter was gone.

            And if you continue to just sit here and allow yourself to get pulled further into thinking about it, you are only going to make it worse. Your daughter’s home, she is safe with the beast, and you are now almost a million miles away from Earth, driving your rig to Mars. If you start thinking about it too much now, you’re just going to continue thinking about it, then you’ll be falling back into depression again. Space is the last place you want to be suffering from that. It isn’t like you can just pull into a truck stop, like the old days, and start talking to someone.

And it wasn’t like he could just pull into a truck stop to “find” someone for a little “me” time, even though he’d never done that before. He hadn’t been one of those drivers who found comfort in another woman’s arms when he was out on the road. He knew many other drivers who did, but he stayed faithful, even though she never believed he did.

He reached forward and clicked “Save” on the message. He knew he would probably never watch it again. It would get stored in the internal storage of the on-board computer system and just sit in his personal folder. It would get lost in the depths of family photos, music he had made sure to download for the journey, some TV shows he had been behind on from his last trip out, and whatever movies he could sneak off the net before he had launched back out.  Yes, it was illegal and, sure, it wasn’t right, but when you were gone from Earth for eight months at a time, there was a lot to catch up on. There was just no way to pay for it all before he left.

William was one of the few in the fleet of “truckers” who were now on the space highway hauling ice and whatever else was needed for the terraforming efforts taking place on Mars. Few meaning there were only about a hundred or so, but it wasn’t a job in high demand right now. Not too many people wanted to take on the risk or could deal with the isolation. After all, this whole project was not like what sci-fi books or movies portrayed. This was a corporate run, which meant everyone was in it for a profit, and profits meant being on the cheap.

N.P.T.H. Tech, the subsidiary of the larger search company that started it all, tried to run things as cheaply as possible. They cared more about their computers and its self-driving capabilities than the human component. He was more of a hindrance in their machine than actually a help. Sure, he was knowledgeable about fixing things on his rig here and there, but he wasn’t a true pilot or “driver”. He was just a passenger, only there to allow them to get government approval…not that they really needed it.

It was well-known that N.P.T.H. could have easily launched the whole project from any country, and the laws were kind of lax with it being a space-borne project. He launched up to an orbiting station, the Alpha, at which his rig would dock. His load looked more like a train. The lead car housed his living quarters, followed by a row of ice blocks or shipping containers linked together, and ending in the “caboose”.

On Earth, the whole system would be a mess with cars trying to slip in and out, nothing able to keep them from going all over once the thrust was applied, but this system was developed for lower gravity. The propulsion came from the caboose, the propellant converted from excess ice in the rear car, and the links kept straight by cables along the corners of each car. The cables could pull in or extend a little, depending on how everything needed to adjust while the rig was in motion

N.P.T.H., or even their parent company, was a business. Astronauts cost money, and since their self-driving system, which would be nearly legal on the highways across the United States, was such a good system on roads, why not use it in space? And if the system could drive itself, why pay for an astronaut or scientist? They weren’t used to the isolation, have a higher education, and might cause ripples. Worse yet, they might look at the technology under the hood and steal it for a competitor. Why bring on those people when there are cheaper alternatives?

Will was not sure when or how someone started to look at truck drivers to become these “space truckers”. Maybe it was when one of the high-priced execs was stuck in traffic one day, sitting behind an eighteen-wheeler, and started thinking about that driver sitting behind that wheel all day. Maybe he looked into it and found that these people drove fourteen-hour days, stayed out on the road for months at a time, and were locked up in their own self-imposed isolation away from wives and kids.

They realized they wouldn’t need scientists. They just needed gear jammers, someone to sit in the seat and be a passenger as this behemoth drove itself.

It was an interesting system. He would haul the loads to the station on Mars, drop off his load, hook up to the empty containers, and bring them back to Earth. In a way, it wasn’t any different than his trucking job had been. He would be out for the eight months it would take for a round trip, then he’d get four months off before he would go back out.

This last time, however, he had only been home a month. In that time, he had nearly gotten himself locked up, fought his ex many times, and had a couple of bar fights and an all-night drinking binge. The whole mess had him on such a downward spiral, he felt as if he needed to go back out again. Being home wasn’t doing him any good if he couldn’t see his little girl. Burn and turn, make some extra money, and when he got back the next time, they would be able to do something really nice with his four months.

But he could have stayed. He could have been home longer.

A light flashed on his console. He had another incoming message, but unlike the message from his little girl, this one had the standard tag on it. It was from his dispatcher, Audrey. She was a nice girl, but she needed to learn it wasn’t necessary to check in with him every day.

He touched the screen, sniffling in the last of the tears as he did. They kind of clung in the back of his throat, not having the force to really pour out of him like they should. In a second, a young woman, blond hair cut short in a bob that he was surprised to find out was coming back in style, appeared on the screen.

“Hey, Will. Just checking in. You’re halfway there. Yeah!” He watched as she did a little happy dance in her seat, and he couldn’t stop the side his mouth from curving into a small smile. It was funny how these young pups seemed to be the ones behind the screens now. The computer world was for the young. He would always be the gear jammer, just going where this younger generation sent him. Although it made him happy to think that his daughter would soon be one of these young people running things. “Everything is right on track. You don’t need to send me a reply or anything, unless you need to talk. I’m always here. You know that. You guys out there… You are all amazing, and I’m just amazed at how you keep those rigs running so safely. We’ve been two hundred and ten days without an accident. Safety is all over how astonishing that is. We have now set a record, and so now everyone’s worried about when the shoe will drop and something will happen. Don’t let it be you. I’d hate for it to be one of my drivers to break the record. You be safe out there.”

The communication cut off as she gave a little wave, then stopped the recording. He continued to look at the blank screen for a moment before his little smile wavered and the silence of the room around him closed in.

He knew she would be sending that message out to the others, as well. She had about eighteen people she coordinated. Each one was a few days behind the one in front of them, all on their own trajectory to meet Mars orbiting around the sun, and running in a continuous loop. With how Mars had an elliptical orbit, it was somewhat funny how one of them would leave after another driver, but be able to get home first just by how their launch window was.

Well, it was time for him to start his day. He’d been sitting there long enough listening to messages. It was time to get something done.

He spent the next five minutes checking, seeing all the systems were running fine. There were no anomalies. He was on course. Everything was the same as usual. All the automated systems were running as they should. Everything was normal.

The propulsion system was converting ice to fuel, just like it should. The flow was optimal. There was nothing he needed to do but sit there.

Damn, this is going to be another long day.

He unfastened his seat belt, feeling that artificial sensation of gravity give way as nothing held him. He was left to just hover, his body floating above the grav chair. It was always so disconcerting to no longer feel his weight against the chair, even though he had never truly felt it. It had only been the pressure of the strap that had kept him there, not his actual weight.

He had to find something to do. There was the aft propulsion he should check on. It would only be another day before the caboose ended its long burn and the cab would fire its engines.

He was never at a constant speed, but at a state of constant acceleration.  It gave him the little gravity he did have, but meant he was either accelerating or decelerating.  There was never a time when the rockets weren’t burning, so tomorrow, when the accelerating rockets cut out, the decelerating rockets would fire, starting the two months of constant deceleration. There would be a sudden jolt and a wicked twist, then his stomach would feel like it was upside down.

There were still plenty of system checks he should perform. They were mandatory, just like doing the logs every day. Check this and that, make sure this system was a go, that this valve was regulating properly. He made sure to check them every week. It wasn’t a big deal if they didn’t get checked daily. However, now that the big burn was going to shift, he really should look more into it, make sure it was all good to go.

It always was, just like everything else on this damn automated rattrap. He didn’t know why he even bothered.

He reached out the on-board tablet mounted on the console and unfastened it from its dock. The screen immediately lit up, requesting his passcode. Why the hell he needed to enter a passcode on a rig where he was the only person made just as much sense as why there were EVA suits for five people stored in the maintenance lockers. Just another of the many mysteries of wasting money.

He typed in the eight digits that made up his daughter’s birthday, then cursed under his breath when the screen flashed “invalid”. It was never easy typing in the damn thing when gravity was loose around him. He took a deep breath and slowly retyped it, making sure each number registered correctly.

Before he could finish, a light flashed on the console, indicating a message. This time, it wasn’t a delayed video message, but a live audio message. He pressed the box on the screen, letting the table float near his head as he reached out to pull himself back into the grav chair.

“Hey, Space Cowboy. This is the Young Duck. Comeback.” A very young and excited voice filled the small room. He quickly reached to turn down the volume. There was always something odd with how the live audio feeds came in at such a higher volume than the recorded messages. Someone once said it had something to do with compressing something else, but it didn’t matter to him. All of that was all over his head.

It was always good when he was able to hear another voice. It often occurred when a return driver just happened to be within a relatively close range. It didn’t always happen, and when it did, they typically had maybe an hour or two before they’d lose the ability to talk in near real time. After that, they would drift far enough apart where the delay would make communication harder and harder until it would grow unbearable.

Truthfully, it wasn’t usually the delay that stopped the conversations. Will didn’t know how it was with other drivers, but he wasn’t the most talkative. He liked the chance to talk for a little bit, but two hours was a stretch. Any longer than that, he just didn’t think he had in him.

“This is the Space Cowboy. You on your deadhead?” He knew the other driver must be, but it was just as good of an icebreaker as any.

“Sure ‘nough. Already kicking in the reverse burn and we’re almost home. It is going to feel good. Damn, I can’t wait to get that paycheck and those four months off.”

So much energy, so much fire. Young Duck was probably just that. Some young pup who was probably doing his first solo run.

“We?”

“Yeah. I got a passenger heading back. One of the locals from the station who needed to get home and couldn’t wait for the next rotation.”

“Coffer?”

“Yeah. She’s got it bad. They have me keeping her in restraints.”

Coffer was what some of them got when they had been out there too long. It was a form of cabin fever. That confined feeling when someone couldn’t get out, just staring at the same walls all day. It drove some of them to a form of mental breakdown.

One of the first cases had been pretty bad. The man had been locked in his room on the station, lying in the dark. He was convinced he was dead and in a coffin. Somehow, that coffin feeling, being trapped in the darkness of space, that claustrophobia of being in a small box, had come to be known as Coffer Syndrome.

Sadly, it wasn’t all that uncommon. Many times, it set in quickly, usually with the new shuttle jockeys. Young Duck would be a perfect candidate as it often happened to those who were the most energetic and new to driving.

“Yeah, well, keep those restraints on her. They can get dangerous if she gets free.”

“I am. Keeping the meds in her, too.”

“Good.”

“How long you been out?”

“I start my reverse burn tomorrow.”

“Ahh, damn. Sucks man. Still got another six months. How ya doing with it?”

“Just another day.”

“Really? How long you been doing this?”

“Six years now.” Six long years, and getting longer. This job wasn’t getting any easier.

“Damn. I don’t know if I could do this for six years. Though it’s gotta be nice. Hell, the mad pay… You gotta be rolling in the dough.”

Will didn’t want to be the one to break it to the kid. When drivers headed out, nobody told them they had to pay for all the prepackaged food and stuff they sent off with them. When they got back after eight months, they deducted all those expenses, as well as anything he may have damaged in flight, and took that off the paycheck. It was another one of the ways they got a person out there, making it so he had to stay. Sure, he got four months off when he got home, but his cell phone would be turned off and he’d lose his apartment while he was out. It was hard to find places that supported renting to someone for just four months.

He might make a decent paycheck, but it never seemed to add enough to get him out of the hole he always seemed to dig himself into.

“Yeah, just keep raking it in. So, any word from the station? Any news?”

“There’s talk. The Martians are all up in arms about the robots. They need new parts, but aren’t getting them from Earth. Plus, they’re all bitchin’ about their rotation being so damn long. Man, there is this one hot MILF there. Next time I get back, we’re going to-”

When the radio started to hiss and break up, Will wasn’t too worried about it. The kid was probably on a trajectory farther out than Will had originally thought. It wasn’t the worst thing, though. The kid was somewhat annoying.

Young pups… Why was the energy and excitement for things always wasted on the youth? Was he ever truly that young?

He let his head fall back to the headrest, feeling a little moisture touching the edge of his eye. His chest had that little ache, and each breath was pulled in with effort.

He already knew what was going to happen to the kid. He would get back to Earth, expecting to get some huge paycheck that would turn out to be a third of what he thought. He would say it was still more than he would have made if he continued to be a gear jammer back on Earth, and he could still have a lot of fun with four months off.

Then the kid would get home and his parents would be older. If he had a girlfriend, she would have run off with someone else. Of course, he had been sending her messages. When she didn’t respond, he just thought she was really busy with work. If she did respond, her responses would be short and sporadic. He would go home, if he still had a home, and find all her stuff gone from the apartment. Or he would go to her place and the door would be locked, and when he knocked, a man would answer, asking who the hell he was.

The kid was in for one hell of a shock when he got home. Will almost felt sorry for him, but it was the nature of the beast. If the kid was going to make it, he would have to learn that they were gone for eight months at a time and things didn’t wait around for them. Life moved on, and they were now just tourists to Earth.

“Fly safe,” he said into the silence, knowing the kid would never hear it. With any luck, the kid would be okay.

He made sure the timer was set to wake him an hour before the burn, then he keyed the lights and undid the safety harness before floating back to the sleeping compartment. As the timer on the light counted down, he made his way to the bed, then secured the safety net around him. When the timer hit “0”, everything other than a few emergency lights turned off.

Tomorrow would be a new day, another day closer to getting home.

 

. . . .

 

“What in the Sam Hill?” Will grumbled, fighting against his restraints. Around him, alarms blared, lights flickering from red to orange and back to red. The ship itself, heavy by Earth standards, shook harder than what should have been possible. The harness strapping him onto the grav couch pinched him tightly as everything shook, causing the fabric to automatically tighten, which he thought was one hell of a flaw. He tried to undo it the damn thing so he could find out what in the hell was going on, but it wouldn’t release. The clasp was locked so tight that even when he found the release button, it wouldn’t budge. The catch was caught against whatever fasteners were in the mechanism and it wouldn’t let go. He was stuck in the damn bed as who knew what was going on in the ship.

The alert klaxons raised in pitch around him. Another great design. If an alarm was ignored, it must need to be louder. He tried to figure out how the hell to get out of this damn grav couch, but he could barely think over those alarms. What happened if he couldn’t get up to turn them off? Would it get loud enough for his ears to bleed?

He pushed and pulled on the release of his restraints while holding in the button. It still wouldn’t budge as his efforts grew more frantic. In his head, he could feel the strain wearing on him, the start of pain at the edge pushing in on his thoughts. If he didn’t change something soon, a migraine would attack him while he had to deal with that damn overbearing alarm.

How…much…more…can…I…take?

After a bunch of short tugs on the release, he gave it one long pull…and it opened. The straps holding him in place loosened and he was free, his body rising in the room.

However, he was rising faster than normal. The sudden release should have bounced him up a little, but he was rising faster…and not straight up. He was moving at an angle. Something wasn’t right.

He reached above his head to a handhold and grabbed it, twisting himself around. Not having the time to worry about putting on his uniform, he stayed in the one-piece undergarment he had been in and pulled himself out of the hatch.

It didn’t take him long to reach the control room, what he always thought of as the cab of the “space truck”. Half of the console was flashing, and the touch screen that handled most of the automated systems was flickering. He could see part of  an image that he thought was the main information screen, but then it would shake again, leaving him with a jumble of numbers and letters.

This system was supposed to be able to run by itself and was never supposed to be like this. This was something out of one of his first nightmares when he had been a first-year. Being in space had been a very upsetting experience, and there had been quite a few video messages sent home of him freaking out. Sometimes, he would be a crying mess after just a warning message would appear, sure that the whole system was going to go dark and he would be left adrift out there, never to see his wife and daughter again.

This shouldn’t ever be like this. Not unless something really bad was happening. Not unless the system was lost in… What had the techs called it? There was something… Some kind of cycling.

He tried to think about what the techs had said. They had told him something he could try. One of them had laughed about it, joking that it was the solution to almost all tech problems. Whenever something happened, it was the tried-and-true fix.

Damn it! What the hell was it?!

He racked his brain, but he just couldn’t think. That noise erupting around him, the edge of sleep still not fading away, his brain still fuzzy. Dreams sticking at the edge, calling for him to come back to them, lay back down. Just turn off that alarm and go back to sleep.

Turn that alarm off! It was so loud; he just couldn’t think over it. He needed to turn it…

Turn the system off. Restart it. That was it. He needed to reboot the system. He needed to cycle it all down by removing the side panel and finding the processing core.

It sounded so complicated, something a tech should be doing, but they had shown him how to do it multiple times. It was just a simple button he had to hold down for ten seconds, powering everything down. Then he’d wait thirty seconds before pressing the button again. They said it was no different from his computer at home, although he hadn’t admitted to them that he didn’t have a computer at home. All he had was his phone and his tablet to play games on. It didn’t matter. He remembered where the button was.

The system made a few beeping sounds as it restarted, then there was a long squeal. He wasn’t sure if it was actually coming back to life or if he had just screwed the whole damn thing up. Just what was it supposed to sound like? Was the screen supposed to flicker like that? It flashed some damn logo, then went back to a black screen. Was that normal?

A bead of sweat trickled down his cheek before it lifted into the space around him. He felt warm. Was the ship’s thermometer screwed up? If it had quit, the ship should be cooling down, not getting warm, especially since he was traveling away from the sun. To him, that meant the ship’s systems were out of whack.

And how the hell would you know that? Even your basic knowledge of trucks is rudimentary. Even with the slightest problem, you always had to call on-road to come out and fix it. Remember that one time you ran out of antifreeze and had to wait for five hours just so someone could come out there and put water in your radiator? How would you know if it’s the thermometer, rather than something more serious?

He could just be nervous. His stomach had knotted, and he could feel the taste of last night’s food working its way back up. It had been a long time since he had vomited in zero gravity, but he never wanted to repeat it. Just the thought had him remembering the stench he had lived with for four months. The smell had been cycled from the air immediately after the mess had been contained, but psychologically, he smelled it the whole remaining trip.

Now he smelled it again.

The screen flickered a few more times before he saw the familiar logo, then the icons he was used to. Everything looked normal. Maybe it had just been a computer glitch.

Yeah, one hell of a computer glitch.

Then a large “danger” symbol flashed on the screen, everything tinted red. The icons blurred in the background as the danger symbol kept flashing.

What the hell did that mean? Well, he knew what it meant, but what was he supposed to do about it?

Taking a stab in the dark, he pressed the “danger” symbol. A box appeared, containing a message.

 

Hull has been breached. Propulsion is being released. Please exit the vehicle and repair.

 

Below the message was a button.

 

Click here for directions.

 

Feeling like an idiot, he clicked the button, not really sure what they expected him to do. Sure, he had the minimal training on how to do some of the crap that might need to be done, but no one ever seemed like they expected him to actually do any of it.

Another box appeared with what looked like the EVA gear. Beside it stood a person. The screen then started to go through an animation, walking him through what they expected him to do.

The acidic feeling in his stomach turned to a large lump of clay. This didn’t look like something he was going to be able to do. He was in way over his head.

Why in the hell did they choose him for this crap if they knew he was no good at it?

Because he was one of the few idiots willing to do it. There weren’t a lot of candidates, and the turnover rate was terrible because most hotshots lasted one or two trips before they quit. Too many lost themselves to cabin fever.

They didn’t care if he knew how to handle this. They lose a load, or him, it was just a write-off. He was just a write-off.

Everything on the cheap. Yeah, but how cheap was that EVA suit going to be when he got into it? How well-made was it going to be? Could he even fit into the damn thing?

When the animation ended, there was the option to replay it. He pressed the button, trying to pay more attention on what he was about to do.

 

. . . . .

 

It felt odd, definitely not like anything he had expected a spacewalk to be, and nothing like he had ever seen on television. Not that he was into all that science fiction garbage. He didn’t think it was all that realistic, but that was before they had started doing these space trucks. Lightsabers? Really? Who would use such a thing? How was that even practical?

It wasn’t.

But this thing he was in now was a damn box with arms. It looked more like what some kid would put together in his or her garage while playing with Dad’s tools. It was bright white, and the outside felt like some kind of soft plastic over a hard exterior. It wasn’t something he could really explain, other than it felt almost like touching skin.

Once he was in it, it felt like a coffin. There was some kind of gel substance he had lowered himself into, then the lid closed over him. Tubes ran in for him to breathe into, and he assumed the tubes down below were supposed to take care of his bodily fluids. He didn’t want to know what happened to it.

When the ship “launched” him out of the undercarriage, he knew the box he was in shook. He could see it in the screen showing him an outside view, but he didn’t feel it. The gel must have been some kind of shock absorber.

He tried to take a deep breath, but the maintained air filtering in wouldn’t allow him to. The flow was steady and consistent, and he let out a silent curse through clenched teeth. Why was this damn machine keeping him from taking a deep, calming breath if he wanted to?

Don’t waste oxygen, you idiot. That’s what the machine is trying to tell you. Listen to it. Get the job done and get back in.

            That annoying little voice in the back of his mind was right. He knew what he needed to do, or so he hoped. He had watched the animation five times, saw where the propulsion breach was and the quick fix the computer had recommended. It sounded simple enough…if he didn’t think too much about the spacewalk aspect of it. He would just head out to where the gas was leaking, then apply the super strong duct tape to the hole. It really wasn’t duct tape, but the roll of sticky material had that feel to it. It was that “fix everything” solution engineers and mechanics loved to use. Duct tape and WD-40, the solution to everything. He had to give it to the space guys for coming up with a space version of it.

His little coffin briefly fired a thruster, shifting him around. It was automatically doing everything. He just had to use the glove things near his hands. They were odd little gloves that he fit his hands into, allowing him to move the arms outside. He would use the arms to adhere the space tape, then he would be on his way again.

It all seemed so simple, he wondered if a robot could do the job. It had to be almost like what the robots did on Mars. They used robots for almost all the terraforming work. The people in the Mars station were only there as computer monkeys, typing all day on their machines.

Yeah, and none of them risked their lives to go out and fix a hole in their station. They would just tell their robots to do it. Or maybe the robots would fix the hole without being told.

He didn’t have a robot in his little space truck. It probably cost too much. Life was cheap, but robots cost money. We couldn’t risk one of those now, could we?

Maybe the coffin was automated, but he’d still have to be in it to work the controls, which he prepared for by putting his hands in the gloves. The material seemed to tighten around them, and he had a brief moment of panic that he wouldn’t be able to get his hands back out. Just to make sure, he pulled his hands, yanking them free.

See, there is nothing to worry about. You are not going to lose yourself to some damn machine. It still needs you, you need it, and everything is going to be fine. Now, quit freaking out about every little damn thing and get this fixed. The longer you take, the more off course you’ll get and the harder the burn will be to set everything right. The animation said so.

            “Forty below and I don’t give a f-. Got a heater in the truck, and I’m off to the rodeo,” he sang to himself, remembering the old trucker’s song he used to listen to back on Earth. When shit was going bad, he always found humming a few verses seemed to put some calm back into him.

He opened his eyes, putting his hands back in the gloves as he practiced working the arms. Then he closed them again to keep from looking out at the large black expanse of nothing he could see through the little visor in the suit.

“Eighteen wheels and a dozen roses,” he sang, changing to a more positive tune, although it made him think a little more of home. While he wasn’t itching to see his ex anytime soon, it really wouldn’t be the worst thing. He had loved her once, and maybe she hadn’t kept his little girl from him on purpose. Maybe it had been an accident. He would be home soon, then he would see them both. He would hug his little girl, getting lost in that smile.

How long ago had it been…years maybe, when he had come home from being out on the road.  He had been away for too long and had come home to see a  large gap in the front of her mouth. She had lost several teeth that summer, and he made sure the tooth fairy got back pay for all those missing teeth he hadn’t been home for.

The jets turned him around again so he was now facing the ship. He could see the little hole, gas leaking out in a white mist. He couldn’t believe that little hole was causing him all that trouble. Had he not been so close, he wouldn’t have been able to even see it. It was the size of a pinhole, maybe smaller.

He hoped it hadn’t gotten him too far off course. The accelerated burn of the reverse thrust might not be so bad.

He reached out and fastened his safety line to the side of the ship, the magnetic clamp firmly grasping the metal. It was a small, thin cable designed to keep him from falling behind the ship. Once the line clasped into place, the magnetics sent a signal to his suit, confirming the lock, and the suit’s thrusters quit their burn.

The ship was still in a state of acceleration. If he were to let go, he would stay at his relative speed while the ship continued to accelerate past him. It was so strange. He didn’t feel like he was accelerating, the motion having a constant pull against him, but that was how it was out there. He just always lived with that feeling in the back of his stomach, as if something wasn’t right.

That was why so many new space jockeys got nauseated so much at first. It took a while to get used to the feeling.

He put his discomfort out of mind as he went to his work, using the metal arms to fix the hole. It wasn’t that hard. The controls felt intuitive and, in a strange way, he rather liked using them. Hell, it gave him something to do. Better than the nothing he did nearly every day. This was actually a nice distraction away from all the rest of it. He finally had a purpose.

He finished with the first “bandage” and looked at it. The silver of the space tape was bright compared to the dull gray of the aging metal around it. Would it truly hold once they started the reverse burn and this part of the ship went from being the control center to being the caboose that had to slow everything down?

It just wasn’t in his nature to trust one piece. While he enjoyed being out there, having a purpose, he didn’t want to be doing it again any time soon.

He pulled another stretch of tape from the roll and made another line. Then he pulled a third, placing it on the craft.

Better.

He smiled, looking at his work. That should definitely hold up. If the space tape did its job, this would work. He just had to believe those space scientists knew what they were doing when they developed the stuff. He didn’t want to find out it was just duct tape with glossy metal backing. He might never go back in space if that were the case.

He pulled his hands out of the gloves so he could tap at the controls on the screen below the window in his box. It took only a few taps for him to bring up the status of the rig. The system no longer flashed danger, but the alert icon was still on the screen. He tapped it and the little dialogue box appeared.

 

System fault. Course warning.

 

Below the brief message was the little box he had grown so accustomed to over the years. He tapped the “Okay” button, but wasn’t ready for the jarring shock immediately afterwards.

Around him, the space seemed to blow up, the metal exterior of his ship shaking. Everything seemed like it was on fire, and the internal sensors of the suit flashed with the growing familiar red warning.

 

Exterior temperature warning. Shutting down.

 

He could feel it, too. Suddenly, the suit no longer was the comfortable controlled temperature to which he had grown accustomed. It radiated heat, the gel around him growing increasingly hot.

            Wait… What? Shutting down?

Just what was shutting down? If the suit shut down, how was he supposed to control it? How were the thrusters supposed to get him back inside the ship?

He fought to pull in breath. The air felt as thick as syrup and was getting hot. The moisture evaporated inside his mouth, and the hairs in his nose felt like they were burning. He tried to blink, but his eyes were stuck open as the warmth got more intense.

            Just what was going on?

He tapped on the touch screen, but nothing happened. The screen was frozen, the “Okay” button the only thing left on the screen. Everything else had blurred and was impossible to read. He kept tapping on it, then slammed his fist on the pad as hard as he could. The sweat on his hands blurred the screen further, then it went black.

“Come on, you damn piece of…,” he grunted, his teeth clenched. The gel around him was getting hard, as if the material was losing its elasticity. It was becoming solid…and shrinking, giving him room to move. But when the box shook, it slammed him into the sides. It was getting hard to move against the different directions the box seemed to want to go. It really was turning into a coffin. He was dying here.

You have to do something. Come on. This damn tablet… Why did every damned thing in this box have to run from the damn tablet?

The gloves didn’t, but what the hell could the do with those? Grab something? Like what? He couldn’t even see anything through the screen. It was all just white noise out there. Everything was too bright. Even with his eyes nearly closed, he couldn’t make anything out. Was he going blind?  Was this what it was like?  He had always imagined going blind like everything just went black. Was it just the opposite?

He knew of one other occurrence people claimed to see white. Could he have died?

That didn’t explain the heat, and he didn’t care how much of a heathen he could be. He did not feel like he could be going to hell. That just didn’t fit. He was a good person.

He put his hands back in the gloves. They no longer had the suction as the lining had stiffened, now fighting against his motions. He had to use them, but would he be able to find something to grab onto?

The coffin slammed against something, sending him hard against the far wall. Even in the thermal protection suit he was wearing, he felt the searing heat, like he had fallen into an open flame. His skin felt as if it were melting. Was the suit even still there? It didn’t feel like it, the heat scorching him past the point he could even feel the heat any more.

He was no longer sweating, his body no longer possessing the ability to cool itself.

            Can I really survive this?

He felt some resistance in the gloves, the hands closing into a fist, forcing his own hand closed. Had something just slammed into the robot arm outside, or was the glove no longer operating?

Pushing against the sensation, he tried to force it open. The glove resisted and he pushed harder, but it didn’t respond. He was sure it was wedged against something, or maybe shattered.

Suddenly, there was intense gravity. He felt the coffin spinning wildly, slamming him against the back wall. The gel seared into his back, the heat setting it alive. It felt like second-degree burns all across his skin…and that was being optimistic.

As the gravity grew stronger, the coffin rattled vigorously, slamming him back and forth until the gravity became strong enough that he was stuck against the back wall. Even though he could smell his burning skin, there was no way he could pull himself forward to relieve it.

            This stuff was supposed to be designed so it didn’t melt and burn like this. Those damn lying scientists. Never trust ‘em. Those bastards always think they are too damn smart.

And if you don’t start getting smarter, you are not going make it through this. Don’t be getting all pissed at people who are not here. It’s not going to do you any good. Come on. Get it together.

            Remember that one time you blew a steer tire? You had to fight that bitch while she wanted to take you into the woods. You had to work it, fight with it, and just go with the flow. There wasn’t much you could do. You briefly sped it up to take weight off the tire, then just let the rig do its thing as you eased her over to the shoulder. Ease it in and let her decide when she is going to stop. Doing it any sooner will only cause it to roll and everything will to go to hell.

            So just how was he supposed to ease it in? This wasn’t like a tire blowing out. He was out in space. He had no idea just what was going on. His little tablet thing that was supposed to keep him updated was freaking out, and it was so damn hot and bright that he couldn’t see anything. It was as if he were caught in a…

No, that couldn’t be it.

He forced himself to stare at the little window in front of him. He could see the intense white light, but it was flashing. Because he was spinning, it wasn’t a steady light, and he had brief moments where the darkness of space could be seen.

He was spinning next to the ship. The reverse thrust jets had fired, starting the braking process. It had started early, probably because the ship was off course and was trying to correct itself. When it had suddenly jolted because it was now decelerating rather than accelerating, it had jarred his coffin, throwing him around as the ship he was connected to had gone from being the cab of the truck to the caboose.

Of course, he had not physically moved. Both ends of the craft were identical, depending on whether the ship was speeding up or slowing down. So the engines at what he would often think of as the back of the rig had now turned off, the ones firing on the section he was now by.

That had to be what was going on, but how was he going to be able to stop it. He didn’t think he could get back to the access door with the jets firing as they were. He would have to get closer to that intense heat, and with the computer system having issues, the suit having who knew what kind of damage, and who knew what else had gone wrong, he wasn’t sure it was possible. The coffin had to be venting from somewhere, and he doubted it could withstand this much longer. He knew he couldn’t.

How was he spinning?

If the cable was attached to the rig, it shouldn’t have been able to come undone.   But then how was he spinning?  He should be slamming against the trailers, not that the thought of being slammed continuously into the ice containers was all that appealing.

So if the wire weren’t holding him to the rig, what the hell was going on?

The box rattled and slammed again. His head hit something hard and he felt a searing pain throbbing through his temple.

Too much more of this crap and his brain was going to go to putty. It was hard enough to think and now that throbbing… An orchestra was trying to play some crazy drum heavy ensemble piece through his head, bringing the whole marching band to accompany them. Stars were forming all around his vision, flashes of light pushing at him. When he looked away, something else caught his attention out of the corner of his eye.

He looked down and saw that the tablet wasn’t blurred anymore. The dulled screen, which had been so unresponsive moments ago, was bright, vibrantly displaying the standard home screen with its normal set of icons. He saw the engine status icon, and even though he was sure he already knew what was happening, he pushed on the glass. The screen vibrated in recognition of his touch, then faded in to display the engine status. The braking thrust had begun. His rig was slowing down, the sky around him a bright array of color as the propellant worked to slow the momentum of the beast.

He grimaced and went to the next screen. The special icon for his EVA, although it seemed so wrong to use the archaic symbol of the old space suits on the original moon landings for the square picture. When pressed, it took him to the status of his pod, then the tablet started to flash with warnings. First was the battery flash, which he cleared by tapping “Okay”. So the tablet was now on battery power. Then it flashed with a network error connection. The tablet was no longer wired to the rig’s network and had been switched to the local intranet. He clicked it as the building dread came back to him.

The pod wasn’t as hot as it had been, quickly cooling around him. Where his skin had severely burned, it still felt hot, but the rest of him was starting to shiver a little because of the chill pushing in on him.

The light was fading so he knew he could look out the portal if he wanted to see what was out there. He didn’t feel he was ready yet.

He tapped “Okay” and waited for the next warning. Any time now, there was going to be that message saying pod disconnected or life support warning. Something was about to tell him he was done. He had gone longer than most, survived past the odds, and had started to think of this as a regular job. He had taken for granted just how much a bitch space could be. He knew she was cold-hearted, that she came for all of them. Now, it was his turn.

The tablet beeped, but it wasn’t another warning. He was lost, drifting, slipping away into his eternal darkness. He was on the threshold, death was at his door, when he heard the familiar sing-song tone of an incoming message.

He saw his daughter’s face. She had sent him another message. He looked at her smiling face, that picture he had taken so many years ago, using it as her profile picture for when she sent him a message.

That picture had been taken on a good day. It was before the fighting, before the wife from hell had started to tear into him. They had all been happy then, or he liked to remember it that way. He couldn’t remember the fights, but he remembered that smile. He remembered the roller coasters and cotton candy. The state fair with music playing at a far stage, too many people, too hot, too muggy, but there were still the smiles. Her riding on his shoulders, and that picture… She held his phone up while he held her. It was her first selfie. It would always be on his phone, and it would always be with him.

He clicked on the smiling face.

“Dad! I can’t believe what Mom did. She told me. Can you believe that? She lied to me, Dad! Grr.”

He tried to figure out what had happened. It was obvious that his daughter was upset. The laptop she was talking into was placed on her desk, but she couldn’t stay seated in front of it. She was walking back and forth, running her hands through her long hair, then looking at the screen. She was so animated, her hands were a blur. She seemed to have her own sign language, but the motions were going a mile a minute and the video feed couldn’t keep up.

He had never noticed the blurring of a transmission before, but the person was usually seated.

“I just found out what Mom did. I can’t believe…”

The signal glitched. He could see her moving, but the sound sputtered with only syllables coming through here and there.

He blinked away the wetness in his eyes. It took a few times, as the moist wall didn’t want to go. Then he felt the tears drift away, but not down the lines of his face. They just slipped away, floating around him.

He finally looked up to the portal to look out.

“I mean, how could she do something like that, Dad? That’s just so cruel. She has to be the most cold-hearted bitch.”

Outside, he saw the true cold-hearted bitch. It was staring right back at him. That big nothingness of space. So much out here, yet so little. Everything so far from one another. As his pod rotated, he watched as the rig he had been so used to thinking of as home came back into view. He had to be twenty feet away from the third car. He could see the strands of cord keeping what was essentially just a large block of ice attached to the rig.

The cord that had once connected him to the rig dangled just on the outside of the portal. It floated there, free in space. He was also floating there, free from any attachment in space. There was nothing connecting him to anything back home. It was all just slowly moving past him and there was no way he could get back to it.

The fourth car moved past him, then the fifth. He was moving away from it, and the pod was getting colder.

“Dad, I really miss you.”

He looked down at the screen. The video cut out as the rig got farther away, the signal getting weaker.

Yeah, it would never be any clearer than what it was now. He was never going to see his daughter again, even in the video. He could only listen to her. She seemed to have calmed down, but there was a sadness now. He could hear her sobs, feeling his own rising up inside him.

“I hope you make it back soon. I know it’s supposed to be another six months, but… I don’t know. Maybe your ship will break down and you’ll have to come back early. I just…”

Her words hung there, and all he could think about was how much he wanted to be there to give  her a hug.

The eighth car passed him by. There would only be a couple more before the caboose became visible, although he wouldn’t see it. He was still rotating around. He would be facing away from the rig when the caboose finally made its slow trek past him.

“Dad, can I ask you something?” A flicker of light made him look back at the tablet. He was surprised to see he had video again.

“Yes, hun. You can ask me anything,” he said, the silence of the pod being the only response, but he watched as her eyes looked through the millions of miles to stare deep into his own, seeming to wait for his response.

“When you come back, can I live with you? I can’t stay with her. And, well, maybe I can come out there with you. I know you’ve said no in the past, but I can’t stay with her. I miss you. Please, take me with you.”

When the pod made its way around again, he could see the caboose already past him, slipping away, moving into the distance.

“Dad, I love you.”

He looked back to the tablet and saw that the video had frozen as she was looking at him, awaiting his answer. He wished he were on the rig, connected to a strong signal so he could send back his message. He wanted to tell her how much he loved her, that she could come with him. He could ask for a transfer, maybe stay on Mars and keep her there. Or maybe he could go back to just driving a truck. It would be a pay cut, but he could take her on the road with him. It wouldn’t have the schools and the learning he was sure the families on Mars had, but she would be with him.

They had to have something on Mars that he could do. He was just some driver. He had never been special. Just some road jockey who had gotten lucky enough to land this cool gig out in space. It had made his daughter think he was so cool. He was an astronaut, a space trucker, out there amongst the stars. How awesome was it that her dad got to leave Earth and travel back and forth to Mars.

He wasn’t special. He was just some guy who sat in a rig for eight months.

Now he wasn’t even that.

He looked at that image, his daughter looking at him through the distance, as his life left him behind.

 

Last Exit Audiobook

I just received the audiobook for Last Exit today, and was able to sign off on it! Looking forward to the reactions as people are able to listen to Darren Marlar as he narrates more of my work. This has been a long running partnership as he has narrated a number of my titles and I have enjoyed each of them. By how you have reacted to his narration of my work, I get the sense that many of you agree.

Without further ado…here is the sample for the upcoming audiobook release of Last Exit

Coming Home

Coming Home by Jason R. Davis

How do you explain to your son that his father will never make it home? How do you explain death? Even if you believe in God, you still have to explain to a child that his father is with God. How do you stop him from trying to join his father?

Martha has to find a way as she struggles with her own grief to explain about her son’s father no longer either. Though the father doesn’t make it easy on her with his ghostly phone calls to their son, telling him that his father is coming home.

*********************

Published by

Breaking Fate Publishing

© 2017 by Breaking Fate Publishing Publishing

All Rights Reserved.  No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law.  Please purchase only authorized electronic and print editions, and do not participate in or encourage any form of piracy of copyrighted materials.  Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

This is a work of fiction.  Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Please visit us online at http://breakingfatepublishing.com
“Death at Germantown” is available for purchase as a Kindle Single and in Audio
“Death at Germantown” is also featured in the Last Exit anthology.

Edited by Kim Young
Cover Art & Design by Jason R. Davis
Copyright © 2017

*********************

How do you explain to your son that his father will never make it home? How do you explain death? Even if you believe in God, you still have to explain to a child that his father is with God. How do you stop him from trying to join his father?

When the son is only six, barely grasping the principles of life, it seems impossible. That unforgiving job of trying to describe it in a way they can understand. Loss is never easy, especially when it comes to the young.

“Damn him,” Martha said to herself, knowing she didn’t truly mean it. It was just so much easier to express rage at the man who had turned her life upside down. She had loved him so much, had stayed married to him through the good times and the bad, even when he had not made it easy for her to do so.

“Damn him. Damn him. Damn him.” Even though she kept saying it, she could feel the tears threatening to fall again.

She watched as the car in front of her slowly moved up a spot. She quickly wiped at her eyes, first the left and then the right, then eased her car up another spot. The line was moving as usual, so she still had about two minutes before she would be in front of the school and Matty would be climbing into the car.

She looked at the passenger seat and saw the mess of tissues scattered around. Oh god. She hoped no one from the school would need to talk to her. She didn’t want anybody to see the tissues and the state her car was in.

She probably shouldn’t even be driving in her state of mind. She kept thinking about the phone call she had received an hour ago, still trying to figure out how to tell her son that his father was never coming home.

The car in front of her moved up another spot and she followed, edging closer to that moment.

 

 

. . . .

 

 

She looked at her reflection in the mirror, but the haunted shadow looking back at her wasn’t familiar. What happened to the smile that was always there, even when she wasn’t happy, and where did those dark circles come from?

She couldn’t meet the person she saw in the mirror’s eyes because she knew how much of a coward that person was. She had never been weak before, always facing things head-on. Who was this person looking back at her? Whomever it was, she wasn’t proud of her. There was nothing there to be proud of.

“Hey, Mom, what’s for lunch?” Matty said as he ran into the bathroom. His cartoon must have ended, as he never strayed from in front of the TV while it was on…even during the commercials.

She’d rather he be outside, as too much television rotted the brain, but she couldn’t bring herself to yell at him today. It made it easier on her for him to just sit there and watch whatever he wanted.

She still hadn’t told him about his father. She had chickened out yesterday, deciding today would be better. It was Matty’s birthday weekend, though. How could she tell him before his birthday? What kind of mother was she?

But how could she not? It would only lead to him thinking his dad was going to make it home for the party. But he wasn’t going to make it home today, nor any other day. Putting it off was only going to make it worse.

“Just make yourself a jelly butter, okay?”

Matty stayed in the door as she looked over at him. She could feel how raw her eyes were and all she wanted to do was rub them some more. They were tired, puffy, and red. After rubbing them last time, not sure if she imagined it, she heard what sounded like sandpaper. Were they really that dry? They sure felt like it.

She wasn’t sure how much strength she had left.

“Mom, when’s Daddy getting home?”

And there it was. She had hoped to avoid the question a little bit longer, but as much as she tried to put it off, she knew her time was up.

“Go make your jelly butter and I’ll be out in a minute. Okay, hun?” She knew distracting him with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, what Matty had called a jelly butter since he was three, would only last a little while. She had to tell him soon.

“Okay, but can we call Daddy after? He promised he’d make it home in time.”

She nodded as she leaned over the sink, both hands grasping at the sides while she bit back the tears. “You know he can’t always control it, hun. Sometimes his loads get delayed.”

“But he promised.”

“I know. Go make your jelly butter.”

When Matty left the upstairs bathroom, the floodgate on the tears she has fought to control let loose.

 

 

. . . .

 

 

John had been a truck driver for five years before he met Martha. They had both been in Texas at the time. He was down there visiting with his father, and she was there as a pharmaceutical sales rep. John and his father could only survive each other’s company for a short time, which they had already exceeded on this trip. Needing some space, John found himself in a bar. Martha was there on a blind date.

However, the date had not gone well. The guy had been a scumbag of a lawyer and was so full of himself, he barely even noticed when she had gone to the bathroom. Instead of returning to the table, she found herself at the restaurant bar and, somehow, they started talking.

They never agreed on how the conversation started. Years later, Martha still claimed it started with John mocking her shoes…a pair of hot pink heels. According to him, he said no such thing, but had seen her in the mirror and walked up behind her, telling her beautiful women weren’t allowed to cry. It was the law.

Sure, he may have eventually said something like that, but it had all started with the shoes.

Sometimes being there during the hard times makes for the best relationships. When her lawyer “friend” eventually found her, John was quick to get rid of the guy. In return, she was there to listen to him complain about his father.

They made plans for the next two evenings, then he was gone, back on the road, and she went back to flying around the country. They talked, meeting periodically, finding that their jobs complimented each other. Whenever she knew she was going to be in a city for a while, he could set his home time for there and they would have the weekend together.

Within two years, they were married. A year after that, Matty was on the way, and six years later, she was still a stay-at-home mother. They had made enough from his job to get by, and the house payments weren’t too much. The plan had been for her to stay home for another year, then get back into sales locally. It wouldn’t pay as much, but she would be home every night, and he would still be home every other weekend.

Now, he was gone…

She wiped away the tears again and sniffed back the runny nose before looking at her reflection. She could hear Matty downstairs making his sandwich.

She knew she would find a mess in the kitchen…jelly would be all over the place, peanut butter on the floor. It didn’t matter how many times she showed him. There would always be the mess. She wouldn’t yell at him this time. It was time to tell him.

 

 

. . . .

 

 

She found the kitchen just as she thought she would, although the peanut butter on the seat of the chair was new. She wished she had seen it before sitting down. She had to work to control her anger when she stood back up and could feel the stickiness on the seat of her pants.

Another time, she probably would have laughed it off, especially if it had happened to John. She could imagine them all laughing at how absurd it was, maybe even having a little peanut butter food fight. In the end, they would all be covered in peanut butter and jelly.

However, the fantasy didn’t match the reality. Had it really happened to John, there would have been yelling, Matty would have had to clean up the mess, then be sent to his room where he would pout and cry until supper. Still, the scene that played out in her head was a good daydream, one she wanted to keep and hold onto for a while.

“I’m sorry, Mommy,” Matty said for the second time. She hadn’t heard him at first, still caught in her own daydream. He probably thought he was in really big trouble.

“Don’t worry about it, hun,” she said, sitting back down. The damage was already done. She’d have to clean it later because she just didn’t feel like she could deal with it right now. “Come over here. I need to talk to you.”

He slipped off his chair and walked over, his half-eaten sandwich in hand. He had pieces of it around his mouth, and he smelled like he had bathed in it as he neared. Once he was within range, she grabbed him and pulled him up onto her lap.

“I need to talk to you about Daddy.”

“Okay. He said he’s going to be here for my birthday party tomorrow.”

“I know, but-”

“And you said Aunt Lucy is bringing Tommy and Michael, and you invited Danielle and Luke from school, right? It should be a great party. You remembered about the cake, right?”

As he kept going, she kept trying to interrupt. All he wanted to do was talk about his birthday party tomorrow night.

“Matty.” He finally stopped and looked at her. “Your dad’s not going to make it to the party tomorrow night.”

“Yes, he is. He promised.”

“I know, but you know how there were times when he said he’d be home and then something happened and he wasn’t able to make it?”

“But he’s going to make it this time. He told me.”

“I know he promised, but something happened and Daddy’s not going to make it.” She was working her way towards it, first trying to get him to not blame his father for not being there. Then maybe she could wait to tell him the rest until after the party, let him have his birthday without the knowledge that his father was never coming home.

When she looked down to meet those eager eyes, she didn’t see the crying or upset boy she expected. Matty was a bright kid. He had to understand what she was trying to tell him.

“You understand what I’m saying, don’t you?”

“I do, but you’re wrong.”

“I’m sorry, hun, but I’m not. Daddy won’t make it home for your birthday.”

“But when did you last talk to him?”

She felt his question stab through her, having to sniffle back the sudden urge to give into the tears. Closing her eyes, she counted back from ten to get herself under control.

“Matty, he’s not coming home.”

“But, Mom, you’re wrong. I just talked to him. He said he’ll be home tonight. He misses us and can’t wait to get home.”

 

 

. . . .

 

 

Martha had been doing the laundry when she got the call. It was Friday. John should have been home late that night, so she wanted to have all the clothes done beforehand so she could do his on Saturday.

He always came home with two weeks’ worth. Although he usually fussed about trying to do it himself, she liked doing it for him. While some stank to high heaven, they all bore his scent and, well… It gave her some time with him while he slept.

He would always sleep in late that first day, and while she enjoyed sharing the bed, she was used to sleeping alone and found it hard. She often got up early. Doing his laundry was her way to be with him and not be with him at the same time.

She was lost in piles of Matty’s socks, taking her time to pull them inside out because the boy could never take them off correctly, when the house phone rang. At first, she ignored it, knowing that a call at this time of day would probably be some telemarketer. It was so much easier just to let the machine pick it up. If it were important, they would call on her cell.

As soon as the house phone quit ringing, her cell started. While the landline was in the kitchen, the cell was sitting on top of the dryer. She didn’t recognize the number, but the display said it was someone in Virginia.

“Hello?”

“Ms. Miller?”

“Yes. Can I help you?”

“May I ask your first name?”

“Martha.” She paused, not wanting to give out any information without first knowing who was calling. However, the guy on the other end already knew her last name, probably knowing her first.

“Hello, Martha. This is Deputy Taggard of the Virginia Highway Patrol.”

She heard the soft timber of his voice, but barely understood what he was saying. After she heard he was from the highway patrol, it was hard to focus.

When she hung up, she found herself sitting on the floor, the vibration of the dryer on her back. The deputy had given her the number of the medical examiner in her county who would talk to her if she needed. Right now, all she felt was the urge to curl up on the floor and pull herself as close to the dryer as she could get.

John was dead. He hadn’t killed anyone in the accident, which was a good thing, but the deputy had hinted that it had been his fault. He was driving past the time on his logs, running on coffee and uppers to keep his wheels moving, but it hadn’t been enough. He had fallen asleep and driven off a bridge.

She knew there had to be more to it than that. John was a good driver and he wouldn’t fake his logs. Sure, he would push himself every now and then, but it was usually just to get to a truck stop to shut down. He had never gone beyond his limits. He was much too safe for that.

But what did it matter? He was gone, and she didn’t know what she was going to do now. What was her life without him?

 

 

. . . .

 

 

“What do you mean you just talked to him?” Martha asked, wiping bread crumbs from Matty’s cheek. When she met his eyes, he smiled.

“He called, Mommy. I talked to him. He said to tell you he’d be home late. He misses us and can’t wait to get home.”

“Mathew…” She opened her mouth, but the words escaped her. They were trapped around her heart and clutching at her chest. Mathew, your dad is gone and never coming back. Why was that so hard to say?

She knew why as she looked into those large, round, innocent eyes that put the weight of the world on her shoulders. How could you destroy his childhood, taking away his happiness? Yes, she wanted to put it off until after his birthday, but it was still going to shatter him.

“Matty, something happened to your father. He was driving and there was … there was an accident.” Her voice caught and she tripped over her words, but there it was. She had finally gotten it out. She watched him as he looked at her. She expected tears, but his brows raised in question. He didn’t understand.

She had to wipe away the tears from her own eyes before she continued.

“He was hurt badly, and he won’t be coming home.”

“But he will, Mom. He called me.”

Why had they never allowed Matty to have a pet? This would be so much easier to talk about had she already had to explain about the death of a pet.

She could tell him the same thing her mother had said to her when she was young, but her mom was a devout Catholic. Martha hadn’t stepped foot in a church in nearly ten years. She wanted to say, “Matty, your dad is up in heaven now,” but she couldn’t. It would be like telling him that daddy was off with Santa Claus, like a fairy tale.

“Matty, Daddy died. You know, like…” Her mind was blank. Hadn’t they watched a thousand cartoons? There had been families dealing with death in a few of those, but why was it so hard to remember any of them now?

She remembered a lion. That was relevant, but why? Then it came to her.

“Remember how Simba’s father died and went up to the clouds?”

“Yes.”

“When Daddy had his accident, he died. He’s up in the clouds now.” She hated lying to him, but how else do you explain death to a six-year-old?

She watched Matty to see if he understood. He still looked confused and wasn’t getting sad like he should. Was that shock? Had she traumatized him that much?

“Matty?”

He looked at her, the confused expression falling away. He smiled. “What?”

“Do you understand?”

“I understand, Mommy, but you’re wrong. He just called and I talked to him. He said he had an accident, but was okay and running late. He apologized for not being here and said he’ll be home late tonight. He really misses us.”

Martha looked up from her son’s eyes and used the palm of her hand to wipe away more tears, sniffling. She knew this would be hard, but he was making it impossible.

As she looked around the kitchen, she noticed the phone was off the cradle and sitting by the open jar of peanut butter. The smudges of peanut butter and jelly around the receiver were visible from across the room.

“Matty, could you bring me the phone, please?”

He slipped off her lap and ran to the phone, bringing it back to her. She was starting to wonder if maybe the state police had it wrong. Could John have survived the accident? The deputy had sounded so sure, and the details she had been given of the accident made it sound like they had a definite confirmation that he had been in the truck.

Could they have been wrong?

She scrolled through the received calls with a flutter of hope that maybe he had called. What should she be looking for? It wouldn’t be his cell because that was with the police, so she would have to look for calls from Virginia numbers.

There weren’t any. There were no Virginia numbers, no calls from out of state, and no calls from numbers she didn’t know, other than the one from the deputy. There had also been no incoming call after her mother called early that morning. The phone had been quiet ever since.

She looked back at Matty, who was smiling.

“See, Mom. Daddy’s coming home.”

 

 

. . . .

 

 

After that, she let the subject drop and carried on as the day passed. She tried to keep busy, always working to think of other things, but there were momentary lapses when John would sneak into her thoughts. She would be putting away a dish and come across his “Handsome Devil” coffee mug, or she would walk out to the garage and see his motorcycle. It was almost the time of year when he would take her out and she would feel the wind through her hair.

Later, as she was doing laundry, she came across one of his favorite shirts…an old, well-worn ’85 Chicago Bears shirt with many holes. He loved that shirt and wore it often. She hadn’t washed it yet, putting it to the side.

After she tucked Matty in for the night, she put John’s pillow into the shirt, using it like a pillowcase, then cuddled up to it. She could smell him, the slight linger of diesel fuel mixed with mild sweat and his deodorant, which she always said smelled like pineapples.

Her room was dark, the night quiet. It took her some time before she finally drifted off into a restless sleep.

 

. . . .

 

She didn’t know if it were a dream remnant or if she actually heard the winding down whine of a diesel engine as it downshifted through the gears. She grabbed tighter to his pillow, pulling it deeper into her bosom. His essence wrapped around her, and she could feel the shirt moisten from her tears.

“Why did you leave me?” she whispered into the cold, dark room.

When she heard the gravel crunch under the tires of a vehicle pulling into their driveway, her eyes flew open and she jumped out of bed much faster than her sleep rattled brain could take. She felt the wave of dizziness as she hurried to the window, fighting to keep upright. She found the curtains and pulled them aside, expecting to see his rig pulling in.

Maybe it was all a mistake. Maybe he actually was coming home and would be there for Matty’s birthday. She could run downstairs, wrap her arms around him, and give him the best kiss since their wedding. Maybe it would even be a little better. A kiss after he returned from the dead.

But no one was there. The driveway was empty, other than her own car parked near the house. There was no semi working its way up the long driveway.

She realized that she didn’t hear the semi or the crunching gravel anymore. The night had gone quiet, leaving her alone with her thoughts.

Sighing, she walked back to the bed, falling into it, looking at the bedside clock. It was almost three in the morning. She wasn’t sure if she would even be able to get back to sleep, and if she did, it would almost be time to get up again to get a jump on the day.

There was still so much to do. Sure, the cake was already baked, but she still had to decorate. There were all the balloons to put around the house, and she wanted most, if not all, the decorations up before Matty woke up and came downstairs.

Much to her surprise, she did slip back into sleep.

 

 

. . . .

 

 

Her eyes flew open with the sound of the crashing door, and she barely had any time to prepare before Matty flew onto her bed and into her arms. He was crying, sobbing hard, and when she wrapped him in her arms, she could feel him trembling.

“Honey, what’s wrong?” she asked, running her hands though his hair. She looked at the clock. It had just turned three. She had only been back to sleep maybe ten minutes.

“Daddy’s home,” Matty said through his tears. “Daddy’s a monster.” He went into a new set of trembles, grabbing her harder.

“Hun, I told you. Daddy’s gone.”

“You said Daddy was dead.”

“Yes, Daddy passed away.”

“But he’s here, Mommy, and he’s a monster.”

“Oh, Matty.” She pulled him closer. “It’s all okay. No one is going to hurt you. It was just a bad dream. Okay?” Matty nodded, but he didn’t relax his breathing. Whenever his grasp started to relax, he quickly reached out to get another strong grip on her.

She stroked his hair. She should have realized he would have nightmares, and should have suggested he sleep with her, at least for the next couple of nights until he started to get a grip on it.

Suddenly, Martha heard something creak outside her door. It sounded like someone walking along the hard wood had stepped onto the soft spot. What if someone were in the house? Maybe that was what woke Matty up and had him thinking it was John?

She had the revolver in the gun safe in the closet, but that was too far away. She would make too much noise if she got up and went to it. Of course, there was another option. When John had suggested it to her, it seemed silly and childish, but it was safer than an unsecured gun in the house.

While she kept Matty tight to her chest, she leaned over and reached into the night table and pulled out the pellet gun, aiming it at the door. In the light of day, she doubted anyone would ever mistake it for a real gun, but in the dark, she was confident it would scare the hell out of anyone trying to get at them.

When she heard the footsteps getting closer, her breath caught in her chest, and Matty whimpered.

“Daddy’s here,” he whispered, crying, “and he’s a monster.”

The door slowly swung open, creaking as a cold gust of air rushed in. In the doorway, a shape stood. In the moonlight streaming through the window, she could make out a faint outline. Somehow, she could tell it really was him. John really was standing there. She didn’t know how he had made it, but he had. He was there and had made it home just for them.

She pushed Matty a little to the side, wanting to rush to him and take him in her arms, but Matty wasn’t letting go. But it was John, her husband. She had to rush to him and welcome him home. Who knew what he had gone through to get there. She needed to comfort him.

He took a slow step forward, then another, dragging his right leg.

The light illuminated his legs first, making her see why he was dragging one behind him. Just below his pelvis, there was a long sheet of metal imbedded into his right leg. He shouldn’t even be able to stand, let alone walk.

She stopped trying to get up and pushed herself back on the bed, pulling Matty against her as she sat against the headboard.

“John?” Her voice was faint as she watched him approach.

“I…came…home…like…I…promised…” The voice sounded nothing like John’s, but she still knew it was him. He rasped and gurgled, each word sounding like painful torture as they worked themselves out.

When John took another step forward, more light hit him. She could see his shirt torn in many places, burned and dirty, metal fragments buried in the fabric, the burned impression of a steering wheel across his chest.

She didn’t have to see the rest of him to know. She didn’t know how he made it home, but he had…although he really was dead. She didn’t know how she could handle this.

Close your eyes. Don’t look, said a voice in her head, and she knew she should listen. He was about to step closer so she would see his face, see the confirmation. Her sanity would never be able to handle it, and Matty… What would it do to a six-year-old mind?

When he took a step forward, she saw what was left of his face, a sheet of glass cutting through half of it. Parts of skin were torn away. His teeth were exposed, much of his jaw missing. His left eye was gone just above where the glass had cut through. Most of his nose had fallen away, and there were cuts all over.

“Happ-”

When she noticed the sound came through a large gash in his throat, his mouth not moving, her screams were all she heard as she slipped away into her own darkness.

He had kept his promise. He made it home…just not alive.

The Rest Area

Now available in the Library…
“The Rest Area”

Published by

Breaking Fate Publishing

© 2017 by Breaking Fate Publishing Publishing

All Rights Reserved.  No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law.  Please purchase only authorized electronic and print editions, and do not participate in or encourage any form of piracy of copyrighted materials.  Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

This is a work of fiction.  Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Please visit us online at http://breakingfatepublishing.com
“Death at Germantown” is available for purchase as a Kindle Single and in Audio
“Death at Germantown” is also featured in the Last Exit anthology.

Edited by Kim Young
Cover Art & Design by Jason R. Davis
Copyright © 2017

*********************

Light pooled below the yellow incandescent bulb; it was barely enough to light all the way down the bleak wooden pole.  Alone, isolated, only a small moth flew around it, slamming into the warm sun-like glow, and bouncing off from the heat.  The moth, never learning the tale of Icarus and never learning from its own flight, continued to get too close to its own sun.

The single streetlight in the small rest area was not enough to light the surrounding area, but it was the only one there.  Darkness surrounded it, making the little building tucked back near the woods feel that much more like a small shack that time forgot and civilization ignored.

Randy could care less or give two shits about it.  He saw the sign, an arrow and the words that said “Rest Area”, and he was quickly downshifting.  The roar of the engine announced to all life nearby that he was coming in.  He came in fast, breaking hard, trying to slow down to slightly less than a reckless speed as he whipped it in.

The rest area was small.  He had seen that from the highway but, as he was navigating his big rig down the narrow entry ramp, he saw just how small it was.  There wasn’t anything there.  He saw the light and the small road that had a little more gravel to its shoulder to accommodate for parking a single rig.  Thank God no one else had been parked there for the night or he wouldn’t have been able to stop.

He pulled the truck over.  The hiss of the air brakes releasing was a loud “whoosh” in the silence, quickly followed by him opening his door and nearly jumping down from his seat.

Whoa.  Breathe, in and out, in and out.  Wha, wha wha, whoo.  Wha, wha, wha, whoo.  He felt like he was training some dumb broad for Lamaze class as he worked his lungs, keeping his stomach tight, clamping down on his ass.  His legs were straight, making him walk like something out of an old universal picture.  He was the Frankenshit, hurrying to an outhouse near you, trying to make it before that brown stain would creep down his pant leg.

He hadn’t even seen the little shack when he stopped, nor did he care.  He would just take a shit on the side of his truck if he had to and, with how damn dark it was out here, he doubted anyone would even catch him.  It always seemed so dark when you were this far north.  He didn’t know if it had something to do with all the damn trees, or that they just used cheap ass bulbs in their streetlights.  Outside of New York City, none of the northeast seemed to be well lit up.  Now, being only five miles from the Canadian border and driving up through Connecticut, it seemed to be as dark as the devil’s twat.

He made it across the little road, and had to waddle to step onto the curb.  Luckily, no cars had been rushing to get in because he wouldn’t have seen them coming and he doubted he could move out of the way.  He would just splatter on their windshield, becoming that brown streak running along their hood.

“Come on, baby. Just hold it in there a few more feet,” he muttered to himself, concentrating on his breaths as he said it.

The door was a dim outline in the low light, not even fitting snug in its frame.  Graffiti, which seemed strange so far north, was painted along the front of it, symbols that reminded him a lot of what he saw whenever he made it out to California.  What were gang signs doing all the way up here?  That didn’t make any sense.

He wasn’t going to dwell on it.  He reached forward to where he thought the door handle should be, the light barely showing more than vague shadows.  His hand found the cool metal and he pulled.  The door stayed closed.

“Come on!”  The fucking door was stuck.

He didn’t waste time looking at the door, but he did have an uneasy feeling around him.  Something was wrong, something didn’t fit.

He pushed the uneasiness away, allowing it to flow through him in a shiver that buckled his knees.  He steadied himself and pulled again, this time putting forth more effort.  There was a squeal of metal on metal as hinges that had long rusted closed protested.  As the wood rattled against itself, frame fighting against warped door, it finally let go with a crying scream of release.  He was forced back by the suddenness of it and the door, with the springs attached to it, quickly slammed itself shut.

He was able to stop himself from falling.  Damn, this place was really starting to get under his skin, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to be made a fool of by some damn door that –.

He closed his eyes and had to fight against the pain that ripped through his stomach.  It felt like a freight train wanted to barrel its way out his ass, and he had to fight it down, clamping his ass cheeks together to hold back the engine.  His body was trying to resist him.  He was going against nature and it wanted no part in it.  His stomach screamed for him to just release it, to let the pain end. No way!

Just breathe, one…two…just continue to control that breathing.  Keep that flood of shit from spraying down your leg.  Just breathe.

He heard a groan from the pit of his stomach, and could feel the tension release.  It was a reprieve.  He didn’t have long, though.

He rushed over to the door and yanked hard. This time, it gave quickly.  His forward momentum propelled him into the bathroom, and he felt like a bull leading a charge as he barreled in.

It was dark, lit only by a single bulb in the center of the room.  Shadows loomed in the corners, and he could see that there were two stalls.  At one time, the doors may have been painted white, but now they were a dark brown with spots of black here and there. They also sported the same graffiti that was outside.  He quickly went into the handicapped stall and slammed the door.  It barely fit and he had to force it closed, but he didn’t bother latching it.  Hell, it took him so much to close it that he doubted the latch would have worked anyway.

The relief that went through him was wonderful.  It felt like a dam broke loose and he could just feel the pain forced out of him.  The demon exercised itself, and sweat beaded across his forehead.  The room around him suddenly felt like it was on fire.

He closed his eyes and let his head rest against the cool wood of the stall wall.  It was a rough surface and he doubted it was as cold as it felt but, right then, it was like a little heaven on earth.

He had made it. He didn’t care how long he sat there, he just relished in the absence of the pain that had been seizing at him.  There was only an emptiness that was so pleasant it could be mistaken for pleasure.  It was an absence of the pain, and it was wonderful.

He kept his eyes closed for what seemed like most the night, just relishing in his head touching the cool stall wall.

Time seemed to lose itself, and his mind just wanted to swirl around him.  Thoughts came, some reminding him that he had a load sitting out there, and he should be hurrying up and getting back on the road.  Others nagged at him about what he had seen out of the corner of his eye on the way in.  It really was a beautiful night, though it would have been nice if there had been a moon to help give the area some more light.  It was just so dark up here.

It sure had been quiet.  He had vaguely noticed it, largely because of how loud he had been and how the door had slammed shut.  His surroundings just seemed to swallow the noise.  There had been no echo, but there had been no other sounds, either.  He knew he was only a few miles from a small town.  There had to be houses nearby, and one of them had to have a dog.  There should be some kind of barking to acknowledge the noise he was making.

What about bugs?  He wasn’t sure if there were locusts local to the area but, being from the Midwest, he was used to their endless droning whine…the ins and outs, highs and lows as they buzzed through the hours of the day and night.  Was there really nothing like that out here?  He highly doubted it.  He had been out on the east coast plenty of times.  He never came this far north all that often, but he was still near enough that it couldn’t be all that different.  There were birds.  There should be some chirping or something.

Wasn’t this the year he had read about some big migration of bugs?  It was supposed to be some epidemic of massive proportions, enough to throw the whole east coast biosphere out of whack or some crazy shit like that.  Those things were supposed to be noisemakers, too, right?  Didn’t they have some kind of racket they made?

However, when he had gotten out of his truck, it had been silent.  Not just a little silent, or the occasional creature making a noise.  The area had been like a vacuum; there hadn’t been anything.  Even the noise from the interstate seemed to have disappeared.  It was like he was gone from it all.

Something wasn’t right.  He had a vague sensation that his head was growing heavy.  Something just wasn’t right about this.  He tried to think about what it was, but his thoughts drifted and shifted, and he couldn’t seem to focus them.

He pulled his head up and looked around the shitter walls and the door.  He had thought that it had once been white–with the little light, it had looked that way–but now it looked darker.  He saw a tint to it, like it had actually once been red, was painted white, left to fade, and was now going a dirty brown because of the mold and shit that was allowed to coat it.

More graffiti signs and words covered over the faded inner walls.  There were scratches all over it, but on top of it all in large sharpie print were the words, “Yuz gonna die”.

He let a smile touch his lips.  However, his guts were already twisting and he was afraid that round two might be eminent.  The revelation on the wall, the words telling him he was going to die, didn’t help to keep it in.

He looked closer.  Under the words, he could see hundreds of tally marks.  They were haphazardly drawn down the face of the wall.  Every once in a while, there would be a name scratched into the wood.  None of these names looked like they were done by the same hand…some were done with shaking hands; some looked like they had been done with a quick scratch of a pen; others were deep, with long gouged strokes to indicate they were done with a knife.  All the names were crossed off with what looked like the same tool that had cut in the tally marks, and some of the names had dates next to them.

He saw one, Simon Parker, with today’s date.

He looked at the name and found himself reaching out to touch it, but he couldn’t because the door was too far back from the toilet. He saw that his hand was outstretched and realized what he was doing.  What did it matter if some asshole had decided to write their name up on the shitter’s wall?  It’s not like it was something he wanted to do.  He would never desecrate something that would make some other underpaid asshole have to come in there and paint back over it.  However, looking at the wall, it didn’t look like anyone had been in to paint over that mess in quite a while.

Time to get this done and get back on the road.  He reached over and stopped.  Where the toilet paper should’ve been, there was a hole and what looked like someone’s eye looking at him.

“Hey!” he yelled.  He hadn’t heard anyone come in.  He didn’t know how someone could be over there without him having heard it.

The eye blinked and then moved away from the hole.

“Hey, asshole!  Enjoy the fucking view?!” Randy said into the silence.  He quickly grabbed for wads of toilet paper.  Some asshole was over there, taking perverted looks at him.  Somebody just crossed over a line.  Fucking looking in at him while he was taking a shit.  Who the hell does that?!  Someone who wants to be beaten to a bloody pulp, that’s who.

He reached back for more paper, looking away from the hole in the wall for the first time, and looking down at where he was grabbing.  Then he looked past his hand and down at the tiled floor.  A dark liquid was coming from the stall next to him.

“Oh, come on!” he yelled and pounded his fist on the wall.  “What the hell you doing over there?!  Shitting on the floor?!”

He looked down at the mess that was creeping towards his boots.  Great, now he was going to have shit water all over him.  He was going to be walking around, touching the pedals of his truck with shit boots.  It didn’t matter if he washed that crap off.  He’d still know.  He’d be thinking about it weeks later.  He’d have to pick something up from his floorboards that fell down there, and he’d remember that he touched there with shit boots.

He tried to pull his feet back as far as he could.  The shit water wasn’t moving that fast.  In fact, it was slow, sluggish, not like how water would move.  This was much slower and just seemed to seep its way across the tile.

Then he heard something hit the floor.  It rolled under the stall door, like someone had gently tossed it, bouncing up slightly as its nose hit tile and then the head spun around to face him.

Randy heard the splatter, as his stomach released what remained inside of him.  It twisted, he could feel puke threatening to race up his throat.  His stomach had already gotten rid of everything, but that didn’t stop his body from wanting to throw up so he dry heaved. All of him just wanted to be sick.

The head’s eyes were looking up at him, but it was upside down.  It was…put together wrong.  The mouth, which was open in shock, was in the forehead!  He could tell it was a younger guy, probably around his early twenties.  He had an earring in his ear, and was probably one of them New York fags on his way to Canada or some shit.

It doesn’t matter.  The man wasn’t going to get where he was going because he was missing something.  Where was his body?  That’s probably where all the blood was coming from.

Was there still someone over there?

Randy quickly looked over at the hole, scared that he would see the eye looking back at him.  He didn’t see anything so the man must be out in the urinal area, waiting for him.

He looked at the door, not wanting to think about what waited out there for him.  What was the man killing with?  Images of all kinds of horror movies flooded his mind.  He was never a big fan, didn’t watch them all that often, but he still knew enough to be familiar with Jason and the like.  What did they use?  There was that chainsaw one, then the machete, the butcher’s knife, and many other kinds of instruments.

What would he use to cut a man’s head off?  He didn’t know because he wouldn’t do that crazy ass shit.  He couldn’t ever see himself killing someone but, if he ever wanted to, he’d just pull out his .38 and shoot the sonofabitch.  He wouldn’t be taking a machete and chopping heads off.

He remembered a name and a date.  Simon Parker and under it was today’s date.  He looked back down at the head.

“Guess that’s you.  Tough break,” he said under his breath, looking at the head.  The blood was around his boots now.  It ran up against the basin of the toilet, and he could see the red color as it moved along the white smooth surface.

He’d run full speed, rush the door, and get the hell out of there.  He’d make it to his truck and, if something followed him, he would reach inside, grab his gun out from under his seat and the special compartment he personally configured there, and shoot the asshole.

Yeah, his fat ass was going to outrun someone.

You bet your ass you are because if you don’t, you won’t be getting that cake at your next birthday, he thought.

He looked down at the pants around his ankles.  He was going to have to pull them up quick and slam the door.  The door swung inwards, but that didn’t matter.  The hinges were small and weak, and the wood looked old so it should just bust when he ran into it.  Then he’d hit low, like the good ol’ football days from nearly thirty years ago, and take out whoever was waiting for him.

He reached and grabbed, mentally and physically preparing himself.  He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, holding it.

In the stall next to him, he can hear what sounds like little whispers, but he can’t understand what they’re saying.  It doesn’t matter; he can’t think about that.

Go! He mentally screamed.  He propelled himself up and lifted his pants up in one motion, not worrying about clasping them closed, and slams into the door, putting all his weight and momentum into it.  There’s a loud snap and the hinges pop, the wood of the door barely slowing him.

Don’t stop, keep moving, he kept saying to himself.  He had to fight the urge to look around, to see what was around him.  He had to move carefully as his boots wanted to slip on the blood soaked tile.  Midwestern winters and running on ice helped him as he ran.

Don’t look, just don’t look.

He wanted to.  He wanted to turn and see it; he wanted to look in the mirror as he was passing it; he wanted to see who was back there, see what they had done with the body.  It was some sick fascination, but he didn’t know why.  It must have been that human nature, the one that caused people to slow down and gawk at nasty wrecks on the road when they went by.  He wanted to know–.

Just a little further.  You’re almost to the door, he chanted to himself, over and over.  He had to keep going, push himself.

He slammed into the door…and came to a dead stop.  The door held in its frame.

Behind him, he heard a crash come from the other stall.  He chanced a look at the mirror, and saw that its door burst outwards and Simon Parkers body had been flung out.  The body was nude and cut to shreds, with flesh dangling.

Randy turned back to the door and slammed his weight into it.  This time he could hear the warped door protest against the frame.

“Fuck” he yelled, as he stepped back and came at the door again.  He had to get out of there.

He slammed into it and, with a loud squeal, it opened and released him.  He stumbled through it.  He was out, but now he had to get to his truck.

He staggered a few steps towards the sidewalk, and stopped.  The sidewalk, everything, was gone!

He looked around, but there wasn’t anything in front of him.  It was all just darkness, like the world just dropped off after a couple more feet.

He turned around and saw that the building was still there, but the woods beyond it were gone.  There was him, the building, and then nothing.

No, that wasn’t right.  He had heard something else, and it was still in there.  It was crashing its way towards him.  He could hear it.  It was like the locusts back home, but louder and deeper.  It was as though one of those locusts was ten times its normal size.

That alone was enough to send shivers down his spine, but he could feel his knees give out when he heard an answering call from the darkness around him.  It wasn’t just one, but many.  They were there in the darkness, and it sounded like thousands of them.  They droned on, in and out, high and low.  The sound moved around him and with that low deep base of their call, he could feel it growing in his chest.  The sound, the pulsating noise, seemed to take over his heart.  He tried to fight and keep it on his own rhythm, but he could feel it dwindling to match their slow melody.

Then, the one that had been in the bathroom came to stand in the door and he finally saw it.  It was tall and slender; its legs came to points that seemed to step down into the cracks of the tile; its arms weren’t arms, but what looked like knives that dripped crimson.  Then he looked at what was probably his face.  It was long, with what looked like a jaw coming halfway down its torso.

It stepped forward, coming towards him.  Once it fully emerged from the door, it folded out its wings.  It grew to its full height, and towered over him.  He had no way to compare how tall it was, but it seemed like it had doubled in size.  It came towards him, and he couldn’t do it.  He couldn’t stay there.

“No, no, no, no!” he said, stepping back.  He realized that he had reached the edge, but he didn’t hesitate.  He continued to step back.

He felt like he was falling for a brief moment before the first sensation of pain cut through him.  He knew that they’d be swarming around him, that they wouldn’t let him get away.  He just hoped that wherever he was falling would kill him fast.

Death at Germantown

Free to Read in the http://jasonrdavis.com Library

Published by

Breaking Fate Publishing

© 2017 by Breaking Fate Publishing Publishing

  

All Rights Reserved.  No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law.  Please purchase only authorized electronic and print editions, and do not participate in or encourage any form of piracy of copyrighted materials.  Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

This is a work of fiction.  Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Please visit us online at http://breakingfatepublishing.com
“Death at Germantown” is available for purchase as a Kindle Single and in Audio
“Death at Germantown” is also featured in the Last Exit anthology.

Edited by Kim Young
Cover Art & Design by Jason R. Davis
Copyright © 2017

*********************

“The general don’t know what he’s doin’,” Adam whispered to the man next to him. They were supposed to be as quiet as the night around them, but as his frustration grew, he couldn’t contain his mouth.

“I can’t see nuttin’,” Tom said under his breath from behind him. Through the long night and into the pre-dawn, as the sun should have been lighting the sky, there was nothing except the gray expanse of fog. He could barely see the man in front of him.

“Adam?” Tom said after a moment. He hadn’t heard the man’s steps. Actually, most of the steps around him had quieted. Had a call to halt the march been sent out and he had missed it?

The night was cool, the air harsh on what was left of his clothes. His boots had long since worn away, so he was now barefoot in the brisk October night.

Looking around, Tom saw the fog getting worse, making it hard to follow the soldiers in front of him. Now he couldn’t see his friend, Adam, who had joined the militia with him. They had kept close as the column of troops moved in. Everyone was under strict orders to be silent so as not to alert any enemy patrols, but who could hear a whisper if they were right next to one another? If someone were that close, they would be able to hear the marching men anyway.

“Adam?” Tom tried to whisper, but fear crept into his voice.

They had made it this far. As hungry and tired as they were, they were still alive. Since joining the revolution, they had suffered through many hardships, but Tom and Adam had held their heads high. They all fought for their independence…not that their country made it easy for them.

He tried to deny what he had seen when they marched through towns and farms. While the army barely had bread to eat, their clothing becoming torn rags, those they fought for had food every day. They had to march in bare feet to fight battles against British soldiers who had uniforms and boots. They had to use bayonets against a force that had muskets, gunpowder, and more ammunition than their mere nine shots.

But it was for freedom, pay, and the opportunity to own land, something Tom had never thought he would be able to attain. He couldn’t read. He knew how to use a hammer and an axe, but no matter how hard he worked, he never had a way to support a family. He barely made enough to cover the cost of his drink and tobacco, let alone somewhere to sleep. If he were to find a woman, how would he pay for her?

Joining the militia was Tom’s way to make due. He was determined to change his circumstances. This country was his home. He would own a part of it. He just needed to live until January, then he would have served his enlistment time of one year. He would be a land owner, rich with opportunity.

But while he knew he had to fight, he never thought he would die from hunger. So many of those around him had fallen to disease, frostbite, or starvation. His own stomach called out, the pain of hunger cramps as familiar as his own right hand, and his feet had grown numb an hour into their march. Tom was thankful he couldn’t see them, fearing they would be black. That would be just his luck. He’d get a piece of land and not be able to work it.

The fog was so think, he didn’t see something in his path until he tripped over it, falling. Looking over his shoulder, he barely made out the outline of a man. He rolled out of the way, knowing it wouldn’t be long before another soldier would come upon him. Once he was out of the path, Tom grabbed the man’s shirt and pulled him to the side. He heard more troops marching closer as he tugged the thin body, the man’s skin cold, the clothes covering him stained with dirt and grime. He got him off to the side before the next soldier lumbered by. Tom couldn’t see who it was, but saw the dark feet shuffling along, moving with barely enough energy to lift them over the uneven terrain.

He gasped as he settled back, the corpse he had pulled from the path lying across his legs. Now that he was close, Tom could see the face and the unblinking eyes of the boy he grew up with. Adam was the latest to fall in this war, another casualty of the lack of help from the country he fought to protect.

“Oh, Adam.” Tom’s voice was lost in the fog as he fought to hold back tears. There was no time for them.

He continued to hear more soldiers walk by. Occasionally, he heard another one fall, not being able to take any more, pushed past his limits.

“Come on, Adam. Get up.”

He shook his friend, as though he were just asleep, caught in some dream.

This war was going to be the death of them all. They had to fight, but was it ever going to do any good? The British were going to win. What did it matter if they died out there? They were just farmers against an army that had greater numbers and men who knew how to kill.

They were all going to die out there. In the fog that surrounded them, they wouldn’t even be able to see the enemy. Maybe they were already dead and this was hell’s battlefield, their souls lost in the endless torment.

The gray swirled as a soldier collapsed next to him. The man was still breathing, but barely. Each breath sounded like a struggle as he fought to find the strength to pull air into his lungs.

Tom could feel the cold getting worse, making him numb. If he didn’t move, he’d join the men collapsing around him. He had to get up or he’d be one of the lost. Who was he kidding? He was already lost, pulled deeper into the endless gray mist around him.

He pushed himself up, but not because he thought he could struggle, fight, and live through another day. If he were going to die today, he was going to take a few of those evil cretins with him. A soldier passing by saw him and startled, bayonet at the ready. Tom was certain the young man, who looked like he wasn’t over the age of sixteen, was going to run him through. Letting out a breath when he recognized Tom, the man reached out a hand and he grabbed it.

“Thanks,” Tom whispered.

“No problem. We gotta keep moving or we’re going to be dead in the dirt like these poor saps.” The kid nodded at Adam, Tom biting back his anger as he fell in line behind him.

“How much longer until we reach the Brit’s camp?” Tom asked.

“In this soup, we might end up in Philly before we ever find them red-coated devils.”

“Quiet down!” a voice barked from behind them, a ghost in the mist.

Tom kept marching. Not being able to see anything around them, the woods made its presence known only when he stumbled over a root or when the kid moved a branch and it swung down at him. It was impossible to know how far they had come. Even a man familiar with these woods would be lost in the fog. Familiarity was lost, a shadow to be taken away with the absence of light and dark.

When there was a sudden explosion all around them, Tom covered his head. Glancing up, he saw lights screaming through the woods, roaring with a sound like he had never heard before. They swam through the mist, one nearly striking him as it went by at a speed faster than he could fathom. He could feel it, the wind swirling around him.

For the briefest moment, he saw it. It made him think of a carriage, but he saw no horses. They were loud and vicious monsters, supernatural demons that took to the night like ravenous beasts. Just as he knew the Devil was the master of lies, he knew these things were his creation there to tear them down. Lucifer himself wanted them to die, taking the British for his pleasure.

It passed him quickly. Just as fast as the lights had come, they were gone. The swirls of mist calmed, the soldiers around him screaming out, the silence erupting in chaos. Men yelled for help, some claiming they had been hit. Fallen soldiers around him cried out in pain from broken limbs. Then there were the sounds of the dying gasping for breath, men who couldn’t scream trying to do so.

He turned away from them, spinning around, no longer sure which way he should be facing. No one seemed to know. He kept spinning, not able to stop. If he didn’t, he knew he would flash the hash all around him, but the moment he did stop, he had a feeling he’d be hunched over, dry heaving.

Then a hand caught him, turning him around. Adam stood before him. He knew it was him, but not from what he could see in the face. What stood before him was the dried remains of a rotted corpse. his clothes hung in rags, the eyes pure white, the rotten teeth exposed. Parts of his skull were missing, and worms crawled out of holes in different parts of his body.

Tom took an involuntary step back as the stench of the creature struck him. The rotted flesh smelled worse than the refuse-filled ditches at camp, pushing him farther back. Within a few steps, he lost sight of the thing. He spun around, his feet getting caught in tangles of weeds as he scrambled to get away.

“Move forward. March! March!” he heard someone yell from horseback as they raced by. How the officer could ride through this muck at such speed would have usually impressed Tom, but he fought not to fall as more weeds grabbed at him. He didn’t know if that thing were still behind him, but he wanted to get some distance.

Bushes clawed at his flesh, the thorns pulling at his rags. His dead friend was out there somewhere, and there were probably more. Each tug caused him to swirl, expecting to see those dead eyes staring into his own.

“Quiet down. We’re getting close!” another officer yelled in the distance, his voice barely able to be heard. In the thickness of the mist, Tom didn’t know how far away the officer was.

How were the officers oblivious to the chaos around them? Did they not hear the other soldiers? Tom could tell he wasn’t the only one scrambling through the woods. The trees had the life of the scared running through them.

Maybe the officers thought it was the enemy? Tom couldn’t see them, which meant they couldn’t see him. They might not know about the dead around them, the ghost faces haunting their troops.

It didn’t matter, though. Tom had seen them, and he didn’t want any part of it. He wanted his independence, he wanted that land, but it was not worth losing his soul for. If it were the dead fighting them, they had already lost. This battle was cursed, and damn that Washington for bringing them out there.

He just had to get to the top of this hill. That would take him far enough from the path, then he could double back. He just had to fight his way up through the dark, the mist, the bushes and trees he couldn’t see until their branches had hold of him. He had to fight through all that and get away.

He felt it before he knew what had happened. The pain as something snapped in his foot when it slammed into a root or stump, making him stumble forward, the thorns of bushes cutting into his face and arms as he fell. It was excruciating. His vision went blurry as wetness mixed with the dirt around him ran into his eyes.

“Over there!” someone from below yelled. They must think he was deserting. Washington’s orders rang through his head, remembering how the general called the deserters “cowards”, saying that anyone caught doing so during battle would be shot.

Would they waste the gunpowder?

The dirt he felt kick up a few feet away from him answered his question. He heard more reports as firing broke out. The woods became a cacophony of noise around him, shots seeming to come from everywhere. The ground around him rose and fell as musket balls slammed into the leaf-covered dirt, some of the remnants showering him, mixing with the flowing blood getting into his eyes.

It seemed the world was now fixated on making him one of the many ghosts in the mist. The sound felt like an echo of insanity inside his head. His eyes burned as he clenched his teeth, fighting to keep from screaming in pain, trying to wipe away the moisture on his face. Each time he brought up his muddy fingers, it just made the mess worse.

“Ah!” It was more of a cry than a scream as he felt his coarse fingers digging into him. He could feel the throbbing in his foot getting worse, hurting like nothing he had ever felt before. As he thrashed around, it felt like hot needles up to his toes, then he felt nothing. When he pulled his foot back, there was only numbness.

“Over here. I think I got one,” he heard someone yell above him.

He had to wonder if they weren’t only going for him. The army must have spotted the British and were now trying to send them all straight to hell. He wished to God he were there with them. He wanted to make them pay for Adam. If they weren’t ruthless bastards, his friend might not have died. Why didn’t they just go back to their own country and leave them alone? They had no right to think they could tell them what to do.

He tried pulling the faded rag that had once been a shirt up over his head. He ignored the smell of the cloth, feeling it rip more, the fabric long since worn to the point that it was falling apart. His fingers having lost feeling to the cold long ago, he struggled with it. He was finally able to pull it free and wrapped it around his hands, then rubbed it along his face, removing the muck. He ran it along his forehead, feeling where it had hit the ground. The pain caused him to clench his jaw harder, feeling as his teeth began to crack.

Some of the shooting had tapered off. He could now hear boots coming nearer.

He held his breath and stayed still. Why was he even trying to wipe the blood from his eyes? He couldn’t see anything in the mist anyway. He needed to focus, listen. Someone was getting closer. There weren’t shots near him anymore, and it sounded like much of the fighting had moved farther down the line. He was able to get a sense of where the British soldier was as he made his way toward him.

No, there were two of them. He heard another set of boots a little farther away. They walked in a line, though, spaced out next to each other. The leaves on the ground were dry and brittle, their footsteps loud. There might have even been a third and fourth one out there. The British loved their formations, and Tom could mentally see them stomping through the woods in a line as they hunted for his brothers.

They would be on him soon. What could he do? He didn’t remember dropping his musket, not that it would have been useful with him trampling through the woods and falling over himself. There was the bayonet, but that would require getting too close to the enemy. He would have had to sneak up on them…but he couldn’t even see them.

But that meant they couldn’t see him, either. Unless the fog had cleared out in the last minute, which he knew it hadn’t, they were just as blind as he was. He had to stay quiet and listen. He ground his teeth to hold in his pain-filled scream as they drew near.

He heard a boot come down near his head, unsure if he were about to feel the fire of a musket shot or the sharp blade of a bayonet. He knew he had to do something before that happened.

Using his good foot, he dug into the dirt, launching himself in the direction of the soldier. He guessed he hit him around the knee when he heard something pop, followed by a scream. Tom’s momentum caused them both to fall, Tom landing on top.

The man fought beneath him, his hands flailing, fishing around. Whenever he brought them down, he brought them as fists. Some blows hit the man’s body, and some came down on solid earth.

At first, the soldier had been shocked. Tom had probably looked like a corpse coming out of the mist below him. Now that the shock had worn off, though, the man squirmed, trying to pull himself away. When Tom landed a hit to something solid, the man started spitting. Good. He’d nailed the jaw. Damn British bastard deserved it. He hoped he had knocked out a few teeth.

Tom could hear other soldiers working their way toward them, but he was more focused on the one cursing below him. He brought down his fist a few more times, glad when the man started slowing down.

When the soldier stopped, Tom started to feel around the ground for the man’s rifle. Finally feeling metal beneath his hands, he felt along it until he found the end holding the bayonet. He brought the blade down into what he hoped was the black heart of the evilness below him.

He had gotten one. With the dead walking around him, and his own men dying, he had managed to kill one of those damn British bastards. It wasn’t much, but he would take it.

He heard more running toward him, getting closer. He knew he would die soon, but he had done his part. He’d take one of them down with him. And who knew? Maybe he would get lucky. Maybe the ghosts around him would take some more.

He wasn’t going to go down without a fight. With bayonet planted firmly in the body, he used the stock of the musket to pull himself up, pushing down the pain in his foot as he did so. Judging from the noise, there were two men coming from his left and one from his right. He pulled the musket up, having to fight to pull it free from the corpse below him, and turned to the one on his right.

They weren’t calling out like the others had. What if it weren’t the British? What if it were more of the dead? What if they were all around him, surrounding him, wanting to take him down to hell?

“You damn British, die!” he called as he fired.

Then he felt pain on the back of his head, his world fading.

* * * * *

“Captain, what happened?! I trusted you with two columns of troops, but you lost two-thirds of them!”

“We were attacked, sir. We were attacked and fought back.”

Tom heard the voices nearby as he felt himself wake up. His head and body hurt. He opened his eyes, knowing all he would see would be the fog, all he would feel would be mud and drying blood caked over him. He was surprised to find that he was back at camp, lying with others as their wounds were tended to.

He was alive. Somehow, he had survived.

He saw General Washington walking among the injured, his captains and aids around him. He didn’t look happy.

“You were attacked? How many British did you kill? How many!?”

The captain lowered his head as they walked by him.

“It was the dead, sir. The dead attacked us. We drove them back to hell,” Tom whispered, barely able to get his words out.

General Washington turned to look at him, a sorrowful look on his face. Tom had never been so close to the general before. He saw the haunted gaze of the troubled man, the pitted cheeks, the eyes that seemed to bore straight into his soul. But Tom had seen the dead walk, so this gaze could no longer make him turn away. It was Washington who looked away first as they continued down the line.

“Did you know it was your own men you were firing upon?” the general asked his captain, not acknowledging Tom.

Maybe he was dead, but just didn’t know it. He had seen walking corpses out there, but he’d also seen something else. What had been those lights, that loud noise? Something had been out there. Tom wasn’t sure what world it was from, but he was certain it wasn’t this one.

When sleep took him, he drifted into the nightmares that would never leave him. From now on, every time he closed his eyes, he would always see his friend, his corpse of rotted flesh smiling, calling for him to join him. Tom knew he would wake screaming…until the one time he didn’t wake at all.

*******************

If you enjoyed reading this story, you can now also experience it in audio as featured in #WeirdDarkness

The Revolutionary’s War: Death at Germantown

“Death at Germantown” featured in a special holiday episode of Weird Darkness. Watch now as this historical horror fiction comes to life…

Let me start out by thanking Darren Marlar when he decided to do a special holiday episode of #WeirdDarkness. He contacted me yesterday as he was recording DEATH AT GERMANTOWN for the upcoming Last Exit audiobook release and fell in love with the story. He wanted to know if it would be okay to include it in this special holiday episode commemorating the birth of the United States. How could I say no to that?

I hope that everyone enjoys this short story, which I will be including in the library of this site later this weekend if you find the audio version too intense. This title is available at a part of Last Exit, now for sale in Print and Kindle and soon to be available in audiobook.

Death at Germantown is now available as a Kindle Single if you would just like the short story by itself to be a part of your Kindle Library.

Roadside Assistance

Published by

Breaking Fate Publishing

© 2017 by Breaking Fate Publishing Publishing

  

All Rights Reserved.  No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law.  Please purchase only authorized electronic and print editions, and do not participate in or encourage any form of piracy of copyrighted materials.  Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

This is a work of fiction.  Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Please visit us online at http://breakingfatepublishing.com
“Roadside Assistance” is available for purchase as a Kindle Single and in Audio
“Roadside Assistance” is also featured in the Last Exit anthology.

Edited by Kim Young
Cover Art & Design by Jason R. Davis
Copyright © 2017

******************************

The world around him was a dark place, lost in an endless nothingness of gray.  Miles of road had faded away and vanished beyond the short glow of his headlights, but the fog never seemed to end.  Yellow lines flew by on his left, coming from nowhere and disappearing behind him.  The white line to his right was a steady beacon that guided him and kept him on the right path.  Neither could be seen for more than a couple of feet beyond the hood of his truck.

The fog seemed to stretch on forever, and he had no idea how many hours he’d been captured in it.  Curves in the road would suddenly appear and try to catch him off-guard.  They would twist left, then right and, before he realized it, he would be going up another hill.  His truck would accept the challenge of the harsh rise in the earth, and he could hear the roar of the diesel engine growling under his feet.

The latest hill was a long stretch that curved in and out.  His engine was fighting with fury as the RPM’s slowly lowered, until it could go no further without shuddering.  With the engine screaming, he downshifted so the higher gear was released, and there was the quick grab as the lower gear engaged.  The engine steadied, and he continued up the rise.

His speedometer showed that he was now down to thirty miles per hour.  Even at that speed and with the weight in the trailer behind him, it was a fight just to keep the large truck on the road.  His 8-speed transmission, along with the low horsepower engine of the company truck, made the climb almost unbearable.  Even with the throttle open all the way, he was still inching along at a crawl.  He wondered if he’d be able to walk faster.

He reached forward and grabbed his coffee.  The taste was bitter and it had lost much of its heat.  He had filled the cup when he’d started out that morning, but the warm, soothing liquid had soured as it cooled.  He put it back into the holder, and rested his hand back on the gear shift.

He hoped that the mountain would crest soon so he’d be able to shift back into higher gear.

He could feel sleep crusting at the corners of his eyes.  The night seemed like it would last forever, and the fog made the road disappear into nothing.  Fog always felt like that to him.  Even if it was daytime, he’d have to fight to keep his eyes from betraying him.  However, they felt like they were more closed than open at night.

He wished he could just pull off somewhere, step back into the sleeper, and get a few additional hours of shut eye.  He had time so he could afford to do it, but it wasn’t time that kept him from pulling over.  No, it was the damned fog.

He wanted to stop at one of the little emergency pull-offs and tuck himself away because his eyes really needed it.  The lines were moving on him, swaying back and forth, making it harder for him to stay between them.  He would love to just pull off into the haze.  It seemed like it was calling to him, pulling at him.  Sleep was beckoning him and he desired it more than anything.

He just never saw any place to pull off in time for him to stop.  His load was too heavy, and it would take a lot of braking distance.  Being barely able to see past his hood, he wouldn’t be able to stop until he was long past the turn to any of the pull-offs.

Another one came and went, and he watched it pass with longing.  He never thought he could crave anything this badly; it was just sleep.  All he had to do was close his eyes and it would come; he’d be lost to it.

He knew that if he closed his eyes, he’d be dead.  If he was lucky, he’d only get himself killed.  All it would take would be for his eyes to stay closed too long, a gentle drift of the wheel, and he would either roll the truck or be barreling down the side of the mountain.  He knew that his rig would take out the guard rail like it wasn’t even there.  He was driving an eighty thousand pound missile, and the thin piece of metal guarding the side of the road would do little to stop it.

He finally reached the top of the long ascent, and the rig started to speed up because his foot still held the accelerator to the floor.  He got it to the right RPM’s and then slammed it into the next higher gear.  He shifted his way through the gears, getting back to speed now that he was on level ground.  When he finally reached his last gear, he could already feel the truck starting to head back down the hill.

With a flick of a switch, the engine brake roared to life, trying to slow his momentum.  Now, with the truck not going uphill, he had to fight it from going too fast on the downward slope.  His load was heavy, and his engine brake was calling out in frustration, trying to slow the truck down.   He wasn’t sure if he’d missed the sign or if this state just didn’t post the percentage of the grade, but he didn’t know how bad a fight he was in for.  The truck was already speeding faster than he would have liked, and he had no idea just how far the slope descended.

Maybe he would get lucky and it would be a short, straight hill and he’d have nothing to worry about.  His wife had always told him he needed to think more positively.  Maybe he would.  Maybe this hill would start a change in his life, a new him.  When he reached the bottom, he could call her and tell her everything was going to be okay.

His ex-wife.

Things weren’t okay.  They weren’t okay now, and they weren’t ever going to be okay.  A long way up usually meant a long way back down, and he had been climbing that hill for what seemed like an eternity.  In the fog, his perception of time was warped, but he was still pretty confident that it was a long drop.

The truck quickly pushed itself well past the speed he wanted her to go so John pressed down on the brake, but he didn’t want to push down too hard or too fast.  If the road turned out to be slicker than he’d thought, all it would take would be for the rig to slow down too fast before the air brakes on the trailer had even engaged.  Then the nightmare would truly begin.  The rig would jackknife, the trailer would slide down the road past his track and pull him into a spin.  It would be unrecoverable, and his life would be left to the fates. The semi would become deadly to any vehicle in its path.

If he was lucky, he would see the trailer sliding around him in time and would have two options.  He could try and save it by flooring it and trying to outrun the trailer.  He would be going at top speed down a mountain that he didn’t know and he’d still be a danger to those on the road, but he’d have a chance to regain control.  With any luck, he’d come to a runaway ramp and be able to turn off into it.  That way, he and his load would be saved.

There was still a lot of risk, though, and he could be speeding at 80 miles per hour or more.

The other option was sacrifice.  The moment he saw the trailer coming up alongside him in his side mirrors, he could crash the truck.  He could try going left into the median, but that would probably put him in a much faster spin. If he sacrificed himself by turning the wheel to the right, he would take out the rail, but no one else would get hurt…unless there was a house at the bottom of whatever mountain he was going down.

The brakes were a bad option unless he did it just right so, instead of applying hard pressure to slow his speed, he eased his foot down.  It took a second for the air to rush through the lines and the brakes to engage before he felt the rig slowing.  He counted to five, watching as the speedometer roughly matched him.  He slowed one mile per hour for every second he applied the brake.  Once he hit five, he let up on the pressure.

The truck quickly accelerated forward again, picking up speed like he had never even applied the brake.  The engine whined loudly, but John doubted that it could be heard far beyond the fog.  He was convinced that the fog muted sound as well as his sight.  It was easy to believe that he was the last man on earth.  Was he?  It had been so long since he had seen another vehicle.

Again, he pressed the brakes before the truck could gather too much speed, counted to five, and watched the speedometer fall.  He let up and, again, the truck lurched faster down the mountain.

He should have started his descent in a lower gear, he thought.  He knew better.  In this weather, he never should have tried to get the truck back up near the speed limit.  Because he didn’t know how bad the downgrade was going to be, he should have been in a lower gear.  It was stupid to act like everything was fine and he could just float down the hill.  It wasn’t like he was hauling a light load.  No, he was nearly overweight.  There was no way he could take too large of a downgrade without having to take off down a runaway ramp at some point.

He also couldn’t keep applying his brakes this heavily.  He was getting back up to speed nearly as fast as he was taking his foot off the brake.  His brakes would be smoking soon but, if he was lucky, they wouldn’t catch fire. In a way, he’d be lucky if the flames leapt out, blew one or more of the tires, and that would be the end of it.

What did he have left anyway?  Christine?  How long ago was it that she told him she didn’t ever want to see him again?  Two weeks? Or had it been three that he had come home and found her in his bed with another man?  He’d come home and caught her, yet she still had the audacity to kick him out of their house.

He knew it was because she blamed him.  Somehow, somewhere through the years, her love for him had soured into hatred.  He had seen it in her eyes as she screamed at him and chased him out, as though he had been the intruder.

The image of the two of them together still lingered in his mind.  First, she looked at him like a trapped animal.  Then her face changed, and he had seen the hurt in her eyes.  Somewhere inside, he knew that she still loved him, but that hadn’t been enough for her.  She had needed something else, and she hadn’t been getting it from him. The look had been replaced with one of satisfaction, then cold hate.  All the years of their life together had shown through in that instant, and he knew that they were done.

He didn’t want to think about it and, right now, he sure as hell didn’t want the images to invade his concentration.

He let his boot off of the brake, not sure if he could see a flicker of light in his mirror.   With the fog, he had no way of seeing the back lights of the trailer.  If it was sliding around him, he wouldn’t see it until it was too late.

“Fuck it,” he said to the empty truck.

He kept his foot off the brake, and he quickly picked up speed.  He could feel the truck becoming a weapon that, if he decided to target it, he wasn’t one hundred percent sure he had enough control left to aim.

He wouldn’t aim it, though.  He was just tired.  He felt like he just wanted to be done.  He just wanted to let his head fall forward and stay there, his eyes close and stay closed.  He wanted the nothingness, the void outside, to suck him up.

Suddenly, he felt the ground beneath him change.  His descent was slowing.  His speed was still excessive, but was no longer increasing.

His eyes grew heavier.  He hadn’t realized just how much the acceleration had actually revived him.  He reached for his coffee, and again tasted the acrid flavor of what had once been a rich, full-bodied extreme blend from one of the truck stops.  Extreme blend was such a joke.  It would get his heart racing like it was going to explode, but his eyelids would still feel like they were tied to anvils.

The truck reached the speed limit, and he allowed his foot to move back to the gas pedal.  He wasn’t going back up another hill, which was good.

He thought maybe he should just pull off to the shoulder for a while.  He could sleep fifteen minutes.  That would be enough to keep him going.  He just needed a quick power nap.  He could even stay in his seat.

He glanced along the side of the road.  His weariness hungered for rest; it was a tiger wanting to be fed.  He wanted nothing but to fall into a quick coma.

He could, too.  The shoulder had become wide enough for him to pull off.  He doubted any state patrols would stop by in this fog, and he wouldn’t be there long.  Why not?

Why?  For the same reason that he never allowed himself to park on the shoulder when he was tired…because if he did and some idiot happened to hit him, he was still at fault.  Even parked along the side of the road, the truck driver was always at fault. The other driver could be asleep at the wheel or just a bad driver, but the truck driver was always to blame.  If he was lucky, there were no injuries.  Injuries meant criminal charges; deaths meant involuntary homicide, if the driver had a record.  It wasn’t fair, but it was the life of a truck driver.

Drivers lived with the constant fear of mistreatment by the law.  They were always targeted by either a patrol officer who had a chip on his shoulder, or someone out to make their unofficial quota for the month.

John was thankful for the anger that was starting to push back some of the drowsiness.  While distracting him from the road, his thoughts made the weariness lift a little, and he could think about some of the wrongs they had done him.  He could think of why he had to be working for the company he was with now, and that was because of his high CSA score with the DOT.

Who were they to get on him for his past?  Some pieces of it he hadn’t even thought of in years.  Why should they come back to haunt him all this time later?

The company he was forced to work for now, one of the few that didn’t look too closely at driving records and infractions, was also the company that was pushing him to go far beyond what his body was telling him he could handle.

He wiped his eyes of some of the sleep that had crusted there.  He knew it would be back soon, but he wiped it away anyway.  He wanted the sleep gone, he wanted his life gone, he wanted–.

He pulled his hand away from his eyes just in time to see the large alligator teeth standing tall across the lanes of the interstate, all twisted and gnarled shapes of rubber and metal that would bite into his own tires and tear them to shreds.  He didn’t have much time to react, and there wasn’t much he could do anyway.  The blown tire in the road was fresh and if he hit it wrong, his own tires might go.  He wasn’t too worried about the tires on his cab, they could take the punishment, but the tires on the trailer would barely pass an inspection.  They were already filled with notches, and the tread on them was barely at the legal minimum.  If they hit the debris directly, who could say if they would blow? It wasn’t a chance he wanted to take.

He swerved to the right, trying to keep an eye on his trailer.  He didn’t have much time.  He knew that if he was going to keep the tires from hitting the warped rubber and metal in the road, he had to get as far over onto the shoulder as he could.  The debris was covering both lanes so there was no point in trying to go to the left. Even though he had the road all to himself, his instinct was always to go right.  It was precaution.  If he did go left and someone just happened to be passing him, he’d slam them into the median or, in a worst case scenario, send them spiraling into oncoming traffic.

He looked away from the mirror, not sure if he was going to miss the tire or not.  The fog stole his view of the rear of the trailer, and he wasn’t sure if he was going to miss it or not.  It looked like he should, but it was hard to tell.

“Damn! Damn! Damn! Damn!”

He turned his gaze forward and glanced at the shoulder, just in time to see the source of the blown tire in the road…and he was heading right for it.  “Fuck!”

On the shoulder of the road was a large passenger bus, pulled off at a bad angle, its flashers trying to penetrate the fog.  They weren’t doing a good job, and he barely saw it in time to veer back to the left.

His right mirror clipped the back left corner of the bus, shattering.  Hundreds of little shards shot out in a whine of protest, as they left the frame of the mirror and crashed against the passenger window.  Little scratches formed a mosaic patchwork of the world outside, lasting for less than a second.  There was a loud crack, and he barely saw the mirror frame as it smashed into the window.  It suddenly became a spider web, barely able to hold itself together

He could hear the squeal as the corner of his trailer grazed the corner of the bus. The view to his left had disappeared.

With the window a mess and the mirror gone, he had no way of seeing how hard he was about to hit the bus.  He also had no way of knowing if his trailer was going to slide around him, jack-knifing along his flank.  If that happened, the bus would be lost because the trailer would slam against it and push it through the guard rail.

Another sound blasted into the morning air.  His imagination flared with the image of the bus falling, the thought that they were still on a mountain and that the bus was going over a great cliff.   In his mind’s eye, he saw the bus teeter back and forth on the edge for a few moments then, like some grotesque cartoon, slip over the edge.

The tractor made it back onto the road, but he still didn’t have much control over it.  He was turning the wheel frantically, now back to the right.  His foot was off the accelerator, and he had somehow remembered to switch off the engine brake.  Now he was easing it with the air brake, just putting slight pressure on it to keep from causing any more of a skid.

He chanced a look into the driver’s side mirror.  His trailer was still behind him, but it was swaying badly.  It was leaning to the left and looked like it was on the verge of tipping.  If it did that, the tractor would be taken with it and he’d have to rely on good luck to keep him from going over the edge of the shoulder.  The truck would be on its side, and he would be left to the fates until it eventually slid to a stop.

The shoulder past the bus was clear.  He had to fight the truck so he wouldn’t lose control or go over the side.  The road was slanting back up so his speed decreased greatly.  He was thankful that he could slow the truck down and inch up the slope.

The truck came to a stop.  The smell of burnt rubber and burning brakes filled his nostrils.  He didn’t let himself relax, though.  He quickly pulled the two knobs on the dash, and heard the air hiss as it escaped from the lines.  This allowed the parking brake to grab the rig and keep it from going back down the hill.

Then he was out the driver’s door and landing on the ground.  He hadn’t even tried to lower himself because he didn’t have time.  He had hit that bus, and his heart was racing with the thought of all those people falling in a twisted metal coffin of death.

His lungs burned and his chest felt like it wanted to collapse in on itself.  It hurt to breathe, and there were tears escaping the corners of his eyes.  He wasn’t sure if it was from the pain, the worry, or just from the exhaustion that was threatening to come back.

Part of him still felt like this may be a hallucination. The fog still pushed in from all around him; it felt like it was even in his mind.

Maybe he hadn’t even hit a bus.  Maybe he had imagined all of it and he was actually asleep, still at the wheel, rolling over or falling to his own death.

He made it to the back of his trailer.  After seeing nothing wrong with his driver’s side tires, he hurried over to the other side.  Everything was fine so far.

He stopped when he rounded the back corner of the trailer and saw the shredded tires.  Both the outside tires had blown, and now only fragments of rubber were clinging to the metal of the rim.

“Fuck,” he said quietly, as he had a selfish thought…his career was probably over.

He reached into his pants pocket to grab his phone.  He needed to call it in, get the repair crews out, and get both tires fixed.  He also needed the emergency crews in case someone was injured, or even dead, inside the bus.

He patted his pants and was momentarily surprised that he didn’t feel his phone.  Of course it wasn’t there.  He’d been driving and he always emptied his pockets on long trips.  Wallets dug into his ass, and it was hard to answer a phone that was in your pocket.  He often kept both of them in the little recess under his stereo, but he hadn’t thought to grab them.

What about the people on the bus?  He still hadn’t heard anyone call out.  He would have to go back for his cell phone later.  Right now, he had to make sure everyone in the bus was alright.

He could barely see it.  The thick fog kept it well hidden, but he could faintly see the flashing hazard lights.

“Hello!” he called out, as he started to walk towards it.

His heart was starting to slow down and, as he walked toward the bus, his lungs weren’t hurting as much.  He still felt like there was a large weight pressing down on him, but he no longer felt like he was going to pass out.

“Hello!  Is everyone okay?!” he called out again.

As he yelled, it felt like the fog around him soaked up the sound.  He never heard the echo that he would have expected, and there were no morning sounds.  He didn’t hear any birds singing, there were no car sounds along the interstate.  Most valleys had rivers or towns in them, but even those were now silent.  There was no sound at all.  Even his truck, left idling behind him, was growing faint.  It sounded like it was getting farther and farther away.

The hair on the back of his neck was starting to stand on end.  He felt like he was drifting into an episode of the Twilight Zone, and like the world around him was changing.  Maybe he was walking into…what did they call it?  Another dimension.

He tried to laugh at the thought, but could barely crack a smile.  Something wasn’t right here.

He had to work hard to ignore it.  What was he?  Some little boy that let childhood fears take control of him?  Yeah, just keep thinking that, he told himself.

He reached the bus, glad that it hadn’t been pushed over the railing.  It hadn’t even been pushed near the railing.  The loud sound he had heard must have been the explosion of his own tires.  That was at least some good news; he was already starting to feel a little better.

“Hello?  Is everyone alright?!” he yelled again, as he looked from the back of the bus to the open door.  Fog swirled around him, and it seemed thicker here.  It seemed like it was billowing out from the bus itself because inside was a massive wall of gray.

He tried to look through the windows, but couldn’t see a thing.  It seemed like lighter spots spun and twirled within the darker gray, moving in and out of each other.

It was like watching a container of water as food coloring was added.  The colors would at first swirl around each other, then mix together.  The fog, however, wasn’t mixing together.

Where was everyone?

Well, just because it was a passenger bus didn’t mean it had been full.  The bus could’ve been empty.  Okay, then where was the driver?  The door was open so someone had to have survived the accident.

Maybe the driver had been thrown when he hit the bus?  He could’ve been thrown over the guard rail, or he could be somewhere along the pavement.  He was probably hurt, or passed out.  If he’d been thrown when his truck had hit the bus, then he probably had a nasty head injury.

John turned away and looked briefly around at the surroundings.  Well, he might as well get the worst possibility out of the way first.

He stepped over to the guard rail.  It took him a couple of steps to reach it, making him doubt that the driver could’ve been thrown that far.  However, if he had, John didn’t think he would have survived.  When he got to the side, he saw that it wasn’t a metal guard rail.  It was a cement barrier, which meant that they were on a bridge more than likely. If they were on a bridge, it also meant that it was probably hundreds of feet down.  It wasn’t something anyone could have survived, unless they had wings.

Yeah, it was too far to be thrown.  The front of the bus hadn’t been hit that hard and even if he was propelled out of it, the furthest he would have traveled would have been to the base of the barrier.

John turned and looked around at the ground outside the bus.  He couldn’t see very far, but he didn’t see any blood.  He guessed that if the driver had fallen out of the door, he would have been hurt and probably bleeding.  So where the hell was he?

“Hello?!”

He was surprised that there still hadn’t been a single car or truck drive by.  The fog was bad but, even in the worst conditions, there were always a few idiots out driving around.  Tonight he had been one of them, but he couldn’t imagine that no one else was out there.

He walked back to the open door and reached in to grab the metal bar, fumbling to find the step below him.  He couldn’t believe how much thicker the fog was inside of the bus.  He could even feel the coldness as he reached in.  It felt like the inside of the bus was 20 degrees cooler than outside.

As he stepped up onto the first step, a shiver went right through his bones.  He fought to keep it from shaking him, but he actually felt his bones rattle together.  All of this just wasn’t right.

Why was he doing this again?

He had to make sure that, if anyone was in there, they were okay.  He hit the damned bus, he may have hurt someone.  He doubted it now, after seeing how he hadn’t even moved the bus, but that wasn’t to say he hadn’t given someone a heart attack.

However, wouldn’t he have heard someone by now?  He looked down the aisle of the bus, but he couldn’t see anything except the fog that swirled around him.

“Hello?”

He took a step forward and reached his hand to rest it on the front barrier that separated the seats from the front of the bus.  The vinyl was well-padded, and felt like ice to the touch.  Everything was so damned cold.

Just past the barrier, he felt a bone-chilling breeze.  The fog swirled with it and, for a brief second, he could see the shape of a person sitting in the front seat.  Just as fast as he saw it, it was gone, the fog hiding it again. He was left standing there alone

He was sure he had seen it, though.  He hadn’t been able to see any features, but he was sure it looked like a person.   His hand was only about two feet in front of it, and he stood only another two feet above that.  The fog didn’t allow him to see anywhere near that far.  The person could have been a mile away but, in this mess, he never would have been able to tell unless he actually touched it.

If he was there, though, then he would’ve also been able to see him, right?  Why hadn’t he done anything?  Why hadn’t he said anything?  Why hadn’t he responded to him?

“Hello?” he said again, the goose bumps along his arm prickling in the cold, foggy breeze.  The hair on his arm was stiff.  He hadn’t worn his coat because it hadn’t been that cold outside.  He didn’t know that it was going to be like a meat locker in the bus.

He allowed himself to believe that’s why the goose bumps had formed on his arm.  He leaned in as he was reaching out.  He didn’t want to, but some instinct, something deep inside, warned him not to look any closer.  It told him to go, get out of there and run back to his truck, climb back into his cab, and get out of there as fast as his rig would go.

Being involved in a hit-and-run would cost him his job. After this, he would never be able to drive again.  However, he had a feeling that would still be better than anything he was about to find in the fog.

He couldn’t stop himself, though.  The wheels were already in motion.  The momentum was propelling him and, like his truck, once it was up to speed, it was hard to get it to stop.  He was too damned stubborn and bull-headed…add that to the long list of reasons Christine had said she didn’t want him anymore.

It was just a long list of excuses, but he had known there’d been some truth to it.  It didn’t make what she’d done any more forgivable, but maybe he had pushed her.  Maybe he did share some of the responsibility.

His hand touched something hard and frozen.  It felt chiseled, as though it was made out of stone.  It seemed moist, yet frozen at the same time.

He ran his hand along it.  It had bumps along the center, but smooth areas on either side.  The smooth part felt indented and sunken.  He went back to the center and felt another impression.  The surface in this area was soft to the touch and gave a little as he pressed in.  It wasn’t as cold as the other spots; there was actually a little warmth to it.  There was something else there, something that felt doughy on the surface.  Under more pressure, it felt hard beneath that.

When he was close enough to see, he realized that he was touching a man’s open eye! It stared blankly up at him with the expression of death, the features frozen in place. His finger was pushing in on the man’s iris.

John fell back.  His feet tangled beneath him, and he slammed against the barrier. He bounced back, and slammed into the coin collector in the front of the bus.  He felt a stabbing pain that jarred him.  He turned and landed on his side on the hard, rubberized floor.

A hot pain ran along his side, and it felt like he had been clawed on the way down.  He knew he hadn’t scraped it, but it sure felt like it.  He wanted to scream out, but he ground his teeth together to fight it.  Starbursts flashed before his eyes, and he was oblivious to everything else. The pain in his shoulder and head didn’t hurt nearly as much as his side.  He couldn’t believe the intensity of it.

He felt along his back.  He knew he wasn’t cut, but putting his hand there helped to calm the sensation a little.

It slowly faded and he started to pull himself up.  When he twisted to the side, there was a twinge of pain, but he could handle it.

He stood and looked down the length of the bus.  If the first man was dead, was there any point in going the rest of the way?  He doubted there were any survivors; if there were, someone would have called out by now.  He knew he hadn’t been the one to kill that man.  He looked like he had frozen to death.  Who knew how long the bus had been out there?  Maybe they had all died from exposure.

It had been a mild winter, though.  The last day it had been cold enough to even have ice on the roads was four or five days ago, and he didn’t think it had been cold enough to freeze a man. He was pretty sure it has to be colder than 32 degrees for that.  Plus, there was no way these people could have gone undiscovered that long.

But just how sure was he?  He was no doctor, and he wasn’t sure how much traffic was normally out there.  He was more scared than sure, and didn’t trust his own thoughts.

He was done with this.  He turned to leave.  He would drive a few miles down the road and then call it in.  The cops may give him hell, and he may never drive again, but that didn’t matter.  He wasn’t going to stay around there. This shit was just too damned strange.  He had to get out of there.

He saw a light out of the corner of his eye.  Somehow it shone through the darkness of the fog, momentarily blinding him. When he turned, he could see that it was coming from the back of the bus and was moving back and forth.  He couldn’t see the shape of it, but someone had to be doing it.  They must be up and walking around.

“Hello?  I’m here to help.  Come here, I can help you,” he called out. The light shifted.  Though he couldn’t tell if it was coming toward him or not, whoever it was had definitely heard him.  It was reacting to his voice.

“I can help you.  If you need it, I can get you an ambulance,” he said.  He was trying to keep his voice calm, though he could hear it cracking a little.  It was also higher than usual, and was almost like he was trying to calm a baby.

The light didn’t come closer. Instead, he found himself walking towards it.  It was like it was beckoning him.  He had told the person to come to him. Why was he going back there?  However, if the person was hurt, they probably wouldn’t be able to walk.  They had been in an accident, after all.

He still wanted to turn and run, to get out of there and escape whatever horror movie he’d found himself in.  He wasn’t a hero so why was he still walking back there?

He didn’t know.  His feet were no longer obeying him and he couldn’t stop.  The light was calling him, was pulling him, and he was helpless to turn away.

As he slowly made it down the aisle, he saw more shapes in the fog.  The passengers of the bus all sat in their seats like wax figures, motionless, staring blindly off into distant space.   As he walked, he could see them more and more clearly.  As he moved closer to the back of the bus, the air grew cooler, but the fog became thinner.

Halfway down, he was fighting to keep from shivering.  The hair along his neck and arms was frozen.  Even his skin was beginning to hurt from the cold.  His lips were going numb and he could feel his eyes freezing.  He couldn’t explain it, but his whole body was frozen.

The bodies sat motionless in their seats.  Some seats had just one passenger, like the man that had been at the front of the bus, but some seats had two.  Most were adults, but he had seen one woman with a little girl.  The little girl had been asleep in her mother’s lap, with her arms under her head as a pillow, when she died.

He no longer cared about what happened to those in the bus.  He had never really wanted to know, but now he downright didn’t care.  He just wanted out, wanted to get away.  It still wasn’t too late. He could just turn and take off towards the door.

Even if he did, he somehow knew that the door to the bus was closed.  He didn’t know how he knew, but some instinct told him that it was already too late.  The door was closed, and he was stuck there now.

With them.

It didn’t matter.  He couldn’t run because his legs weren’t listening to him anymore.

He neared the back of the bus and the fog started to thin in front of him. When he expected that he would finally see the light and whoever held it, it faded away.  The fog parted around him in a swirl of gray and dark blue.  It pulled back in on itself, faster than the eye could see.

Within two unsteady heartbeats, the fog around him was gone.  It still swirled outside, but it had been sucked away inside and he was left with the darkness.

The only illumination was a slight red glow that ran along the runners on the floor of the bus so that passengers could safely make their way to the bathroom.  He looked at it for a while because he couldn’t help himself.  He felt like a moth, he was so attracted to it.  It led straight into the back, and disappeared past the door to the bathroom.

“Hello?” he heard himself calling out toward the bathroom, as though someone might be in there.  He knew nobody was, but his body seemed to ignore the fact.

Nobody was in the bathroom.  Nobody was in the bus.  He was all alone.  He was all alone with a bus full of corpses.

He thought that should have worried him more and he should have been more afraid, but all he felt was cold and numb.

Suddenly, he heard a noise behind him.

In his mind, he was whirling around to face an attacker, but his body actually moved much slower.  His mind raced, waiting impatiently for his body to catch up.  He already knew what was there, and he was ready for it.

He had already accepted it, and when he turned, he saw them—the passengers.

All those people that he had passed when he walked down the aisle were standing now, their cold, hungry eyes were looking at him; lifeless, yet showing him their desire.

The closest one stepped away from its seat, and walked down the aisle.  The rest of them followed her.  They moved slowly because, well…why should they hurry?  He wasn’t going anywhere.

They’d waited until he was at the back of the bus before they moved so now he was trapped.  He could try to hide in the bathroom, but what would that get him?  He’d maybe last a couple of hours, but they’d probably have the door broken down in a matter of minutes.  They’d waited until he had no way out and there were too many of them between him and the exits.  He was trapped

The windows around him now seemed to steam up, and the air in the bus changed.  It was no longer the ice cold chill that had been running along his skin when he had first come in.  It seemed like it was getting warmer.  Somehow, with the bodies awakened, there was a pulsating heat.

He looked around frantically.  There had to be some way out.  He looked at the window closest to him.  It was all that separated him from the outside world.  He looked at one of the glass panels, and thought that it was cracked in the middle. Then he remembered that passengers could push this window open to let in a little air, but it wasn’t meant to open far enough for someone to get out.  At the most, it looked like it could open to about a six-inch gap. He’s a big guy.  He would need it to open all the way to be able to get through.

The corpses had been walking towards him when he glanced away but, when he looked at them again, they had stopped just a couple feet away and were watching him.  He wondered what they were looking at.  They had him.  Why not just come and finish it?

He looked back at the window, and then over to the one on the other side.  He briefly thought about the other windows in the bus, but they were too far away and there was no way he could get to them. His only chance was these back two.

Did he really think he could escape?  He was actually beginning to believe he could.  After all, he thought he had seen…yes, he had!  There was a small crack in the window to his left.  It had probably happened when his truck had hit the bus.  It wasn’t much but, with the glass already starting to weaken, maybe he could smash the window and get out that way.

It wasn’t a great idea, and he wasn’t relishing jumping out a bus window and landing onto the ground below.  There were a lot of things that could go wrong.  He could jump out the window and get hit by a passing vehicle, for instance.  There still hadn’t been any, but he figured it would be his luck that another car would just happen to come by when he was escaping.

Then there was the fall.  He was a large, fat man, and he wasn’t going to hit the ground softly.  He would probably break an arm or a leg, and maybe a couple of ribs.  It was going to hurt like hell.  Then what?  He’d run to his truck?  He would probably barely be able to move, and he wasn’t sure how fast these things could move.  However, even at a slow walk, he was sure they’d be able to catch him.

He couldn’t think of any other ideas, though.  No matter what he chose, nothing seemed to play out in his favor.  At least if he went for the window, he would have done something.

He looked back at the corpses.  They still stood there watching him.  What the hell were they looking at?  Why were they not rushing him?

Then it occurred to him…he was their food.  They were playing with their damned food.  They were watching him, enjoying his fear.  They were going to wait until they knew he had given up, and then they’d get him.

Well, he wasn’t about to give up.  Death had been a lot easier to accept when it was him choosing to die.  He was sure as hell not going to let someone take that damned decision away from him.

John dashed to the window and slammed his body into it.  His shoulder pounded the glass and he heard a loud crack.  He reeled and bounced back.  No looking behind; he didn’t want to see if they were getting closer.  He was purely focused on the window.  The glass hadn’t broken, but he had heard something give.  Maybe it was breaking away from the frame.

He smashed against it again and the sound of cracking got louder.  He pulled back again.   He was starting to feel pain throbbing in his arm.  The glass still didn’t show any further sign of damage, but there definitely was something happening.  Maybe it was the fiberglass of the outer frame giving way.  He had to keep trying.

He rushed forward again.  This time, he could feel the faint touch of icy fingertips graze his skin.  They’d been closing in, and he’d just avoided their grasp.

He slammed into the window again and heard an audible snapping sound.  An explosion of pain shot up his arm.  Something was very wrong.

As he stumbled back, he saw that the window was still undamaged.  However, his arm wasn’t. Lightning strikes of pain shot from his shoulder to his elbow, but he could no longer feel past that. He looked down and could see the faint outline of bone trying to break through his skin.  He took another stumbling step backward, then his legs gave away.

As he fell, he looked up and could see hands reaching out for him, dead eyes looking down.  On the closest face, he saw a smile touch the corner of its lips.  As he was falling, he could see something red just beyond the corpses, something that he’d missed before.

He hit the ground with teeth rattling force.  Blood was leaking from his mouth and he could feel the stinging pain in his tongue, but it was nothing compared to the pain in his arm.  All of it was making his head swim.

What was it that he’d seen?  The little red thing there by the window, what was it?  Why had it seemed so familiar?

His eyes focused on the red thing again before a face blocked his view. He knew what it was and it made him sick.  At the bottom of the window was the “Emergency” release.  It would have dislodged the window, giving him a chance to escape.

Cold fingers tugged at him.  They were pulling at his injured arm, and he felt warm liquid splashing against his face.  He knew they had pulled his arm off.

He heard a scream.  It was a hideous sound from somewhere in the darkness.  It seemed far away, but echoed.  He could feel it reverberating through him.  He hoped that whoever it was would be okay…

Then the last of his mind slipped away.

 

 

MEMORIAL DAY SALE EXTENDED TO FRIDAY!

All BFP Kindle titles 99 cents!

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Today through Memorial Day, all our novels, anthologies and Kindle singles are only 99 cents. Even better, by buying the books at these sale prices you still qualify for getting the audiobooks at a significant discount.
NOVELS
THIS HOUSE: THE TRUE STORY OF A GIRL AND A GHOST

by Amelia Cotter

INSIDE THE MIRRORS

by Jason R. Davis

and only an additional $1.99 for audiobook narrated by Darren Marlar

HATCHED

by Jason R. Davis

and only an additional $1.99 for audiobook narrated by Darren Marlar

CAUGHT IN THE WEB

by Jason R. Davis

and only an additional $1.99 for audiobook narrated by Darren Marlar

ANTHOLOGIES
THE DEAD WALK vol. 1

THE DEAD WALK vol. 2

DEADHEAD MILES vol. 1

DEADHEAD MILES vol. 2

LOST IN THE WITCHING HOUR

LAST EXIT

by Jason R. Davis