Breaking Fate Publishing
© 2017 by Breaking Fate Publishing Publishing
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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.
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“One Bad Night” is available for purchase as a Kindle Single and in Audio
“One Bad Night” is also featured in the Last Exit anthology.
Edited by Kim Young
Cover Art & Design by Jason R. Davis
Copyright © 2017
The wheels turning and burning, Rodney focused on the road. He had just clicked on the little button hanging from his ear, silencing the jingle reverberating in the small cab. He didn’t have to look at the caller ID. While he drove in the setting sun of the West Coast, his wife, Angie, was back east where the sun had long ago set. She was the only one who regularly called him at that hour.
“So how’s the driving today?” Despite the miles between them, her voice sounded clear, but he knew it would probably be cutting out soon. It always did when he was in the mountains.
“Usual. Just driving along in my automobile.” He couldn’t help but say his everyday joke in a singsong manner, even though he wasn’t in a car. The long tractor trailer was not just some automobile that anyone could drive down the road, and he was one of the many truck drivers who drove the large machine across the country.
“Oh, hun… Everything going okay?”
How did she always know? He could try and fake being upbeat and positive, but that woman would still pick up on it. He didn’t know how she was always able to do it, but it was downright supernatural.
Somehow, she had picked up on how his back ached, his head pounded, and he was five hours behind schedule due to the shipper hanging him out to dry. Maybe there was something to her being his soulmate. She had long since told him as much, but he was not the lovey-dovey type.
“It’s been a long day,” he said, sighing.
“Tell me all about it.” Her voice stayed chipper, and he could feel it slicing away some of the bitterness he had been holding. Still, he didn’t want to talk about his craptastic day. Not yet.
“How was your day?”
“Oh, the usual. My little cling-on at work was her usual self…driving me nuts. She has no clue what personal space is, and it smells like she never showers. She gets right up next to me and I have to fight not to gag.”
“It’s only a couple more weeks.”
“I know, but why did it have to be me who trained her?”
“Because you’re the best RN there is.”
“If you say so. So, Mr. Avoidance, how was your day?”
“Ugh…” The sigh was long, no matter how much he tried to cut it short. It was hard not to close his eyes and get lost in thinking just how bad it had been. Well, it could have been worse. You might as well just tell her. It wasn’t all that bad, was it? If he allowed himself to admit it, he guessed it hadn’t been too bad. He was alive and no one got hurt. It had just been a lot of wasted time, which would cost him in the end. “Bad.”
“Bad bad, or just bad?”
“Oh, hun, what happened?”
“Well, to put it simply, I can either be home this weekend or we can pay the bills…and even making it home is a little sketchy.”
“Why? What happened?”
“Been sitting at a dock since yesterday.”
“You’re kidding me.”
He wished he were kidding. He explained it to her, although she already knew much of it as it was an old trucker’s story. Sitting unpaid at a dock was an often and frustrating occurrence in the life of a truck driver, and it was never good when it happened to you. When it did, it always hurt.
Yesterday, he arrived an hour early at the shipper, mainly because he wanted to get there before traffic got bad. He was used to getting to places early. It was a good practice because, most times, he was awarded with getting loaded quickly and getting back on the road, keeping the wheels turning. If the wheels weren’t turning, he wasn’t making any money.
Truck driving wasn’t like other professions. It hardly ever paid by the hour or the number of loads you hauled, but usually by the mile. By getting to a shipper early, he was able to get to his next stop that much sooner and, with any luck, back on the road with a quick turnaround. As the saying went, “If the wheels ain’t turnin’, you ain’t earnin’.”
So when he arrived at Terrance Cans, he hoped he would be in and out. After only five minutes, he was close to screaming as he walked back to his truck, getting ready to back up to a door, having no idea how long he would be sitting. His load wasn’t ready because the cans hadn’t been made yet. Not only that, but the line was down, they were waiting on parts, and there was no ETA on when his load would be ready. He just knew it wouldn’t be today.
So he would have to sit there, unpaid, waiting until who knows when for his cans to be made and loaded.
When he had talked to his wife yesterday, he had been cheerful, hoping his load would be done soon so he could get back on the road. When he heard them putting a few pallets into the trailer, he got excited. He would have to drive all night, but he’d slept most of the day, so it wouldn’t be a problem. He was just ready to get out of there.
But the light by his trailer stayed red, silence descending.
Four hours later, then eight, and he still wasn’t back on the road.
When morning came, he was starving, having eaten all the snacks he kept in the truck. He had lost all his patience and still hadn’t heard anything. The night shift had already left, and the day crew all stood outside in their smoking area, puffing away.
Finally, he went back in to find out that the “fix” they had used on the line hadn’t worked and it was back down. The parts should be there in an hour, then they’d get the line back up. Until then, he was one of ten other trucks, all of them sitting there, waiting.
Rodney told her much of the story, maybe exaggerating a little here and there where it felt good. He never actually threatened to hit the smug dock worker who was laughing at all the truckers trapped there, but he had come close. Telling her he did those things, the things he would never rationally do, always calmed him, although he knew how much it stressed her out to think he was capable. He didn’t know why telling her those things helped take some of the edge off. Maybe it was the darkness in him he knew was there, but always held down. That dark corner of his thoughts that scared him, thinking what he might do if he were pushed.
He always hoped that darkness was just his imagination. He couldn’t ever do any of that, could he?
Rodney finished telling her his story, capping it off with him storming out of there just over an hour ago, having lost nearly two full days. He had taken off down the road, nearly hitting two pedestrians who weren’t paying attention and had walked out in front of him. In truth, they had just stepped off the curb, but it felt good to pad the story.
“But why can’t you make it home? It’s only Tuesday.”
“We’ll see, hun. But, right now, I don’t think we can pay rent. I pretty much just had my days off sitting at the dock. If I come home, that would be four days off this week not making money.”
The line was quiet. He knew she was thinking about what he had just said, but also upset by the truth of it.
“What about Tina?”
And there it was. Rodney was already upset. He wanted to be there, already afraid he wasn’t going to make it before all of this happened.
He wasn’t ready for this conversation.
He saw the sign for the truck stop on the large billboard, seeing it was three miles away. He didn’t want to lose more time, but he needed coffee and something more than beef jerky. His gums were bleeding from how much of the toughened meat he had eaten, and he thought he’d be sick if he ate any more.
“Did you hear me, Rodney?”
“What do you want from me, hun?” he asked, hearing the defeat in his own voice. He didn’t know what he could do and, right then, he really didn’t care. All of this, his life, just seemed to get more and more to the point of what did any of it matter? What was any of this for?
“I want you to be here for our daughter’s birthday.”
He closed his eyes, letting out a long sigh. The sound of the rumble strips on the side of the road were loud, echoing in the cab of the truck as he drifted off the road. He pulled it back with a quick jerk, keeping it from going past the shoulder.
His heart beat loudly in his own ears as he got the truck under control. When the exit for the truck stop came into view, he flipped on his turn signal. He needed that coffee more than he thought.
“Okay, hun. I’ll be there.”
“Okay. And babe.”
God, he loved her voice. How did she always burrow her way into his heart and soul? She was his calm.
“Be safe. We’ll make it though. Okay? We always do.”
“I love you.”
“Love you, too.”
He ended the call and put the phone in the little slot in the dashboard as he pulled into the small truck stop. He eased up to one of the empty stalls on the fuel island, listening to the hiss of the brakes as they released. Part of him was too tired to even get out of the seat, contemplating just sitting there and letting his body crash into exhaustion. The sun was setting, the orange fire stretching to the pink and red haze of the day escaping. He wished he could shut down, let his day be over like so many others did, but his day was just beginning. He had a long night of driving through the Rocky Mountains, which would be endless stretches of nothing, lost in canyons so deep, even the sky wouldn’t be visible.
He grabbed his thermos and emptied it as soon as he opened the door. This was a full thermos of coffee kind of night.
$ $ $ $
The truck stop was a dump, but it wasn’t like he didn’t expect that, being so far in the middle of nowhere and probably the last diesel stop for a hundred miles or more. You would think being the last stop for such a long distance would invite one of the big chains, but it was also so far from anywhere, it had to be hard to keep the shelves stocked. The crap he did see in there was all out of date and looked like it fell off the back of the truck. They had a pickle, one of those packaged monstrosities truck stops sold in their coolers, that was two years past expiration. He brought it to the cashier’s attention, but she just shrugged. Rodney saw her putting it back in the cooler as he walked out the door.
The place was nasty, and he wasn’t looking forward to the burger he had bought. It might end up putting him out of service somewhere in the mountains.
The day just keeps getting better, he thought as he walked around a tanker truck parked next to his. As he looked around, he could see it was the only other truck in the place. With the little light from the overhead, he saw what looked like mud coating it from front to back. It was one of those older Peterbuilts, or maybe a Kenworth. One of those long-nosed trucks the two companies kept copying from one another. It was odd, though, as it had a moose guard on the front, spikes sticking out about two inches. They looked sharp, too, and Rodney was sure that if the truck ever hit a deer or something, the creature would be ripped to shreds by this modification.
Whatever works, he thought, climbing into his own rig, tossing the bag containing the burgers onto the passenger seat. He put the coffee in the holder he specially made, then turned the key. The engine roared to life with much more energy than he felt. He took a few swigs of his thermos, feeling the hot liquid working its way down his throat. He knew it wasn’t going to do much for the headache pulsating in his temples, but it might help keep his lids open.
800 miles… That was all he had to go. It would be a day-and-a-half, then Rodney could find another load to get him north. Maybe he would be able to make it home before his little girl’s birthday. It would be a stretch, but it might be possible. He just needed to haul and get it done.
Rodney put the truck in gear and steered toward the exit. He had barely made it ten feet when he heard a loud air horn. His heart leapt into his throat as he slammed down on the clutch and brake. He slid another foot in the gravel and stopped just in time to see the tanker that had been next to him tear past, its horn blaring.
“What the hell, man? In a hurry much?”
He watched as the truck didn’t stop at the exit, tearing straight across and onto the interstate.
Rodney grabbed the mic and turned on his CB.
“Hey, man. In a hurry or what?”
The CB crackled in response, then he heard a loud rumbling through his truck. It shook the cab, then he felt it shaking him.
When the CB cut out, he was left in the relative silence of his idling truck.
Shaking his head, he put it into gear, easing it to the stop sign and stopping to check for any traffic. He looked all around him, not wanting to take the chance of cutting anyone else off. Then, as his heart tried to calm itself back into a normal rhythm, he eased onto the interstate.
Well, at least I’m awake now. Damn a-hole.
$ $ $ $
His stomach felt like acid and fire had combined and were twirling around while he tried to pay attention to the road. It wasn’t easy. Their movements and gurgling sounds kept threatening to take away most of his attention, although it was easy to get distracted.
It hadn’t taken long before he hit the first mountain, and was now chugging along up the steep slope. He had no idea how steep it was because that information was only at the top, meant as a warning for those going downhill who would have to stay in lower gears while riding their brakes. With him going up, there was no concern he would build up too much speed. As it was, he was in sixth gear, getting close to the need to drop to fifth as he slowed down to thirty miles per hour. He kept one eye on the road as he came up on a tight curve, and his other on the RPMs, waiting for it to drop low enough to downshift.
This was exhausting, and it was still early. Something about a truck chugging along at slow speeds, endlessly climbing, was tiring. It took so much out of him, but he never knew why. Maybe it was just the low, dull, endless rumble of the engine.
His head grew heavy and he felt his eyelids lower. It was so tempting to just nod off. Even just to pull over to the shoulder. He could set the brakes and take a quick nap.
Rodney heard the rumble strips, his eyes shooting open. He was on the shoulder, having very little space before the guardrail and then a wall. The road had curved, but he hadn’t. Pulling hard on the wheel to swerve back into his lane, he saw it. The tanker truck was just in front of him, going much slower than he was. It must be overweight because it was quickly dropping back in his lane as he worked to gain control of his own truck. The interstate was wide, consisting of three lanes to accommodate the right lane being reserved for the slow trucks like himself, but he was going faster than the tanker. He had to swerve more or they were both going to run into the mountain.
He pulled harder on the wheel, feeling everything shift in the truck. He had to lean into the turn, putting his weight into it. It was going to be close. The tanker had lost a lot of speed. The driver must have missed a gear because even if he were too heavy, he shouldn’t be dropping back this fast.
Rodney wasn’t sure if he was going to get over in time. He swerved hard, keeping a close eye on the red lights of the tanker as they drew closer. When a loud horn blasted, he barely had time to register the four-wheeler as it shot by him, barely missing the front of his truck. Rodney was nearly in the middle lane, but the car hadn’t even tried to get over. Instead, the driver had felt the need to blare the horn at him as he struggled to keep his rig from jackknifing, rolling, or colliding with the truck in front of him. If he made it through this, he might have to check his pants for crap or his back for angel’s wings.
He watched through his blindside mirror as his trailer cleared the back bumper of the tanker while he steadied out in the middle lane. His truck fell to such a low RPM for the gear, it lurched. He downshifted, eyeing the truck next to him. He made the gear, his truck slowly crawling past the tanker. It had to only be going a rough fifteen miles per hour, but Rodney was now down to just a little over twenty.
As he came cab to cab with the other truck, he looked over, trying to give the other driver a nod of acknowledgment, but he couldn’t see in the darkened cab.
He grabbed his CB, nodding to it, not sure if the driver could see him. There was the glow from the console in his cab, but it was faint. He might be nothing more than a shadow, as well.
“Hey, buddy. Sorry about that. Thanks for letting me by.”
The CB crackled with no response as Rodney crept on past.
He blew out a breath, letting his already frayed nerves calm. Maybe he could start to relax and have a decent night of driving.
Wondering if there was anything on the radio, he reached for the nob, jumping when there was a blast of an air horn. It howled through the night, and he couldn’t stop himself from jerking the wheel. He swerved to the right, remembering too late about the tanker. He looked in the side mirror and watched as he went into the tanker’s lane, cutting him off. The truck swerved with him, hitting the guardrail, sparks flying into the night as the tanker screeched to a stop.
Rodney swerved back into the middle lane, then signaled that he was moving to the right lane. There wasn’t much of a shoulder, but he had to stop and make sure the other driver was all right. He needed to report the accident. He needed to-
The voice seemed to echo in his cab, a deep rumble that shook through the speakers and carried a touch of ice with it. It took Rodney a moment to figure out that it had come from the CB.
“Hey, man. Sorry. You okay? I’m coming back to see if everything’s all right.”
He stopped the truck on the side of the road. He was still half in the right lane, but it was as far off the road as he could get. He put on his flashers and had started to climb out the driver’s door when he thought he heard heavy breathing coming through his speakers. The breathing grew in intensity, slowly forming into a primordial growl.
He thought about getting on the CB and calling back to the driver, but the sound frightened him. That was stupid. The driver was probably just shaken up or in shock. Rodney had to go back and make sure the man was all right, then report it.
There was definitely no way he would make it home for his daughter’s birthday now. He’d be lucky if he didn’t end up delayed by the cops for most the night. Worse yet, what if someone was really hurt and they decided to lock him up?
His shoes hit the loose gravel and rock that had fallen from the canyon walls around him, crunching as he started walking back. Damn curve of the road made it hard to see just where the tanker was, but he could hear the rumbling of the engine. It was getting closer…or was that just the echo from the walls around him? It was hard to tell.
Then he got blinded as the driver from the tanker turned every light on. The jerk didn’t just turn on his lights and brights, but had turned on his fog lights, as well. He also had a row of lights across the top of the truck, but they weren’t regular lights. They were spotlights, and Rodney was caught in their blinding intensity.
He felt like a deer, but it took a second for that thought to kick in. He heard the sound of the truck getting closer, but with so much light, he had just stopped there.
When he realized what was happening, he moved quickly, barely making it between his truck and trailer, hiding in that little gap as the tanker roared by. Its air horn blew, the closeness causing everything around him to shake. He heard something shatter, but held onto the air lines as he tried to catch his breath.
Even when everything quieted, Rodney was afraid to move. His vision danced with circles of light, and he had to count to thirty before the darkness settled around him. There were still purple and green spots swirling, but he felt he could see enough to poke his head out.
All he saw was dark interstate. No cars passed, and the other truck was gone.
He closed his eyes and leaned back, letting the air lines hold him up, focusing on his breathing.
What the hell is that guy’s problem?
Slowly, he eased out and kept a watchful eye for semis emerging out of nowhere to run him down. He started to think staying awake wouldn’t be an issue, but heart attacks? Those were becoming a growing concern. Damn…
$ $ $ $
Rodney eased his truck to the top of the hill, although in the darkness and with the mountain walls on each side, it was hard to tell he was at the top. If his truck hadn’t started to speed up and he quickly had to shift out of fifth gear, he might not have known. And maybe he wasn’t. Maybe this was just a brief respite before continuing to climb.
Then the wall on his passenger side fell away to a deeper darkness, his headlights no longer reflecting off the dull rock. Up ahead, he saw the sign warning that the was coming up on a 7% downgrade, then another sign telling all trucks to exit into the brake check area.
He hated pulling off. It was just more time wasted, and he knew he had a pretty light load…only thirty thousand pounds. His brakes weren’t worn, so there shouldn’t be anything to check.
But if he didn’t pull in and there was a bear hiding, it would take longer to get written up than just pulling in for a few minutes to check everything out. And it never hurt to check. Five minutes to check his brakes, then if something was wrong…
But nothing is ever wrong. This is such a waste of time.
He put on his turn signal and listened to the engine brake idle him down. He missed the days when it was an unmuffled roar. Now it sounded like a little whimper as it slowed him down.
He pulled into the little parking lot, his attention immediately focusing on the tanker truck.
“Yeah, I got you now, you son of…”
He could feel the heat rise as his heart pounded. The tanker was parked in the far stall, away from the one light hanging from a wire overhead. He was nearly hidden in the shadows, just sitting there. Rodney didn’t see anyone walking around, no light from a flashlight as if the driver was actually checking his brakes. Nothing. The whole area was still.
He set the brakes and climbed out of his rig. He hadn’t planned on doing anything more than just a quick walk around, checking his own trailer for any smoking brakes, not that there would be. He had been going uphill. The whole thing was pointless.
But when his shoes crunched on the gravel of the parking lot, the image of that truck rushing past him flashed in his memory. He could still see the inside flap on his semi, his heart leaping into his throat as he tried not to scream.
Before he knew it, he had his long-barreled flashlight in hand, walking toward the truck. This wasn’t him. He was not a fighter, but for that one brief moment as he gripped the flashlight, his knuckles going white, he couldn’t see himself being any other type of person. The anger was a rumbling pot of boiling water.
He reached the driver’s door and pounded on it, stepping back, waiting for the man to climb down.
The night was still around him. The light shining behind him was far enough away that he felt like he was on the edge of everything good in the world. He was near the shadows, on the verge of that darkness threatening to overtake him. He felt the chill of it, a coldness reaching up inside him.
His grip on the flashlight loosened as he faced a man he didn’t want to be. Already ashamed about missing her birthday, could he go home and tell his daughter how he had beaten a man senseless? He could see himself doing it, too. That anger was on the fringe, begging him for control.
He looked down at the flashlight. It wasn’t there to light his way and he hadn’t brought it to. He wasn’t even holding it right. He had gripped it more like a club, ready to bring that heavy barrel down on the man’s head.
He took a step back.
This wasn’t him.
He took another step away from the tanker.
He flicked the light on, letting the beam light the way back to his truck. He didn’t bother walking around to check his brakes. There weren’t any D.O.T. officers hiding up there, and he had enough. The night had turned into a nightmare and he just needed to get it over with. Getting down this hill was the first stretch in a long, exhausting run, and he just needed to do it.
He put the truck into gear and slowly drove past the other. The windshield was covered in dirt and grime, making it impossible see in, even if there were light to do so. Even still, he swore he could feel the glare, like someone was watching him.
Good. Let the jerk look all he wants. He’s not going to get the best of me.
Rodney had just turned on his blinker, preparing to merge back onto the interstate, when he heard the crackle and hiss of his CB. Then a low, rumbling laugh built until a deep, raspy voice said, “I’m coming for you, tough guy. You should have come in. We could have had a nice little conversation.”
Rodney shifted into another gear, not realizing he was accelerating faster than he should. He was already in fifth gear, but he wasn’t watching his speed, his focus locked on the lighted display of the CB.
“You were all big and bad with that flashlight. Why didn’t you open the door? I had it unlocked, waiting for you.”
Rob heard the whine of his engine and tore his eyes from the CB, looking at his gauges. His RPMs were high, nearing two thousand, and he was doing nearly sixty-five in eighth gear. He should be upshifting, but that wasn’t right. He was on that damn hill. He was losing it.
“Come on, man. Pay attention to what you’re doing,” he cursed to himself, slowly applying his brakes. It wasn’t like in a car. He couldn’t just push on the brake pedal and slow down to the speed he wanted to go. This was a thirty-five thousand pound vehicle with another thirty thousand pounds in his load. He had to slowly, gingerly push down on the brake pedal, bring it down five to ten miles per hour, then let off for a few seconds, hoping the engine brake would keep it from gaining too much more speed before he applied the brakes again. It was a process, and it wasn’t simple. This was where accidents happened. He had to keep paying attention or he would lose control.
“I told you, you’re a dead man,” the driver said, his voice barking out a vicious laugh as he said it. Again, Rodney felt like he could feel the driver’s eyes on him. He chanced a look back through his driver’s side mirrors.
What the hell is this guy’s problem? There’s road rage, but this guy is talking about killing me!
He didn’t see anything in the mirror, then narrowed his eyes. Was that a shape farther back? Could it be the tanker? If the truck were still parked at the brake check area, he should be getting out of CB range soon. There weren’t any lights on the interstate behind him, but was that a tanker truck with its lights off? It was so dark back there, but sometimes there was just a brief glint, like the moonlight shining on something metallic.
Rodney slowed to downshift into seventh gear. Releasing the clutch, the engine brake roared to life, now in such a low gear, it would slow the truck without much work. He could start to breathe a little easier, maybe even relax.
The CB crackled. “Peekaboo,” the voice rasped, back to that cold, flat menace that shook his cab.
Rodney looked in his side mirror just in time to see the bright lights fill the night, reflecting on the canyon walls, blinding in his mirror. He wanted to look away, but he couldn’t. The tanker was approaching fast.
Come on. There is no way this guy is actually going to hit me.
But he was coming faster, getting closer.
This only happens in movies. This isn’t possibly happening to me.
He took a chance and upshifted, not liking the idea that he was going to be speeding up on the downgrade. He took his eyes off the mirror. He had seen a sign just a second ago about an upcoming curve. He needed to watch for it before the other truck slammed him into it.
Rodney was glad he did as the lines turned to the left. He put his weight into the turn, his truck lurching forward from the shift, the engine brake straining at the high idle. It didn’t like the higher gear, and he tried to caress his foot on the brake to keep it manageable. He felt like he was fighting a losing battle, though. He knew it was getting away from him. He hoped like hell that his load wasn’t shifting in the back.
“Run, little mouse. Run.”
He reached up and fumbled to turn off the CB, but he wasn’t looking. He turned the wrong knob and the cab filled with static, hissing and popping as he kept his attention on the road.
He dared a glance back, seeing the tanker falling back.
He gasped in relief, letting it out in a long sigh as he made it through the curve of the road. When he felt his truck starting to slow, he knew he had made it to an incline. He took another breath, trying to slow his heart.
As the road straightened and he started climbing, he enjoyed the slowing of the truck. When it reached the point to downshift, he did, knowing the tanker behind him was going to fall farther back. Thank goodness for the heavier weight of whatever the other driver hauled.
He looked in his mirror and watched the driver behind him turn off all his lights.
Great. Now what is he doing?
“You can run, but you can’t hide from me, mouse.”
Rodney reached up to the CB, finding the right knob this time. He turned it off and sighed in relief as the light faded from the display.
The truck would keep falling back, so he had a few minutes, but that wouldn’t last. He had to call the authorities, but what was he going to tell them? There was another trucker making threats? When he thought about it, it seemed like a pretty weak reason to call the local police. If he called them, he would probably be pulled over, too, then put through a level one inspection, which could tie him up for another four to six hours.
Screw it. He reached forward and grabbed his phone from the cradle on the dash. He unlocked it, punched in 911, and brought it to his ear, not taking the time to connect his Bluetooth. Laws be damned. He took deep breaths as he checked his side mirrors again, trying to see if there was any sign of the other truck.
It seemed like the night just swallowed it up. There had been plenty of moonlight before, but now it was just darkness, a sea of black. He could barely see any of the canyon walls, his trailer only visible in the mirror by the small dot of light marking its end. Even that seemed far away.
He looked back at the miles of road stretching out before him, his lights shining into the endlessness, a yellow and white line disappearing into the night.
Suddenly, it hit him. His phone wasn’t ringing.
He pulled it away from his ear, using that hand to upshift, the screen lighting up in the dark cab. When he got the truck into gear, it lurched forward as he pulled his phone up to look at the now dark screen. Damned thing. He swiped it again and looked to see it was just as he feared. No signal. These damned mountains always played hell with cell reception. He didn’t think the cell companies even tried to expand their coverage out there because it was never there when he needed it.
Can you hear me now? No? Well, get out here and get me some service!
Suddenly, he was slammed forward. The phone flew out of his hand, hit the windshield, and disappeared on the other side of the cab. He hoped the screen would have some light, but once it was out of sight, there was no trace of it.
He didn’t try too hard to look for it as his gaze locked in on the road ahead of him. He took a second to glance in his mirror. He already knew who was there, but it was instinctive. However, just taking his eyes off the road made the truck jerk in that direction, his hands pulling with the motion. He fought it, keeping the truck straight, but before he managed to look back, the burst of speed diminished. He had the sudden feeling of being pulled back. His seat belt felt like it had tightened, but he knew that was impossible. The force that had been pushing him back against his seat now had him leaning forward against the restrictive belt.
He took a second to breathe. There was that shimmer of hope deep within him that tried to say everything was okay, but what had just happened? He thought he had heard the sound of screeching metal and two heavy objects slamming against each other. That couldn’t have been, could it?
As he tried to take a deep breath and think about what was going on, he became blinded by light. It was like the sun was speeding alongside his truck, coming from behind, quickly moving around to his left side. Then a sonic boom of sound echoed through the cab, rumbling into his skull.
The truck shook again, forcing him to jerk hard to the right. Rodney had to grip the steering wheel hard as it threatened to twist out of his hands. He fought with it, putting his weight into it. He ground his teeth, fighting to keep it from slamming into the rock wall.
Suddenly, the sound of screeching metal diminished and the force released him. The truck swayed under the new freedom, going left, then he compensated and it went back to the right. He could now hear the whining of the engine as he idled high, the truck going faster than he should.
He upshifted and flipped the switch for the engine brake. The engine roared, but he could feel the pull as it tried to slow him. He eased down the brakes, as well, but the weight kept shifting as he fought to gain control of the truck.
It was hard to see the speedometer or RPMs, but he still heard the whine. The light was so bright, the tanker truck staying on his left side, keeping pace. The light penetrated when he glanced to the left, shooting needles through his eyes.
He straightened the truck, gaining control as he slowed. Rodney realized it was slowing faster than the engine brake was able to. It got so low, he had to downshift.
He risked glancing out the driver’s side mirror. The tanker truck fell back when he started to go up another hill. Thank God.
Stars danced across his vision when the lights were no longer close enough to blind him. They were still annoying, but not something he couldn’t deal with.
That was it. This had to end. What the hell was this guy’s problem? Doing this kind of crap was going to get them both killed or, at the very least, hurt. No, both of them dying was almost a certainty. Semis were not toys. These rigs were meant to be driven by professionals, not testosterone driven jerks who were just big kids playing with powerful toys.
Rodney switched the CB back on. He had to downshift again as they continued to climb, the tanker falling further behind.
“What the hell’s your problem? It was an accident. I said I’m sorry. If you want to pull over, we can have words. You can kick my teeth in, do whatever to make you feel better, but if not, just let it go, man.”
Rodney clipped the mic back to the side of the CB and focused back on the road. The hill seemed to be longer than the previous two had been. He only had to downshift down to fifth gear, holding steady just below thirty miles per hour, the night seeming to drone on with the endless hum of the engine. Nothing responded on his CB, and his engine was a subtle rumble that threatened to put him to sleep. He had no idea how long he had been going up before he saw the yellow sign up ahead that marked another 7% downgrade coming up.
His chest grew tight. It was time to see if the driver was going to back off or not. He wished he had his cell phone. If he could get a call out to 911, maybe they could get someone out there. He didn’t care what problems it caused him. At least this psycho wouldn’t be after him and he would be alive.
He tried to scan the cab again to see where the phone might have landed, but it was no use. He couldn’t see much past the bright on-board company computer. The damn thing was always an annoyance during the night. Even if he dimmed it to the lowest setting, it would still be too bright. The glow made it too hard to see anything on the other side of the cab. What if he did see it? Was he going to try and reach across the truck and grab it?
“Do you know what they call this next hill?” The voice on the CB had lost some of the viciousness he had felt before. Maybe this guy had gotten all that crap out of his system.
Was Rodney really just going to let it go if he did? How would he explain the damage to the trailer? He could come up with a story about how a car sideswiped him, but it was so dark in the mountains, there was no way he could identify them. He couldn’t call it in because there was no cell reception, and he couldn’t send it in through the company computer because there was no safe place to pull over and type in a message.
The lie didn’t sit well with him, but if it meant he lived, it was worth it.
He was just grateful that he would see his wife and hold his daughter in his arms again, seeing their smiles.
He grabbed the mic and keyed it. “Not a clue.”
“Dead Man’s Drop.”
Rodney gave a nervous laugh. “Really? Who calls it that?”
“Locals. Unlike most the hills around here, this one doesn’t have a pull-off ramp. If you lose control, there is nowhere to go.”
“You get to the bottom, there’s a nasty curve. If you come down too fast, over the edge you go. It’s a straight drop. That guardrail isn’t going to do much more than buckle and break when you hit it.”
Rodney looked at his driver’s side mirror. He could see the tanker back there. He no longer had all the lights on, just the headlights, like a pair of eyes looking back at him, watching him.
He took a deep breath. “That sounds bad.”
“Yeah. It’s a rough way to go. Seeing yourself falling to your death, knowing there’s no way you can stop it.”
Rodney tried to swallow down the large lump in his throat. He suddenly felt very parched, reaching for the thermos of coffee. He wasn’t sure what to say, but it sure as hell felt like there was an underlying threat there.
“You ever have anyone ride with you, driver?”
Rodney looked at the CB, then in his mirror. He neared the top of the hill and had to upshift before he grabbed the mic.
“My wife’s been out with me a time or two. Sometimes we’d go out and use the truck to drive to some vacation getaway.”
“You ever have any pets?”
“Yeah, well, when you have no family at home, it gets lonely. Sometimes a dog is all the family you got.”
Rodney upshifted again, keeping an eye on his gauges, making sure the engine brake was on and keeping him from going too fast. He didn’t dare upshift another gear, and as the engine brake took hold, he let the semi glide down the hill, occasionally tapping the brake to keep it from going too fast.
This was how it should be. It was still a long, tedious process, but there was no rush or fight with it. Not when you knew what you were doing. It was all just a matter of paying attention.
He still kept a watchful eye on the tanker coming up behind him. It wasn’t charging, though. It stayed right behind him, steady. He wasn’t passing him, but he wasn’t slamming into him, either. It was almost like back in the day when drivers looked out for each other and ran in convoys to keep an eye on one another. That was back when the D.O.T would try to clamp down, and some places were out to get drivers for no reason. There had been a time when truck driving was like the Wild West. If you didn’t have a brother to watch your back, you could turn around and find a figurative knife stabbing you there.
Rodney waited for the driver to say more, but the seconds ticked away. He finally grabbed his mic, wanting to keep the driver talking, keep him calm.
“I can imagine.”
“It’s sometimes not easy having a pet out here. They get rambunctious. Sometimes you have to keep the window down and just let them hang their head out. They like that, feeling the wind blowing their ears back. You can almost see them smile.”
“Sounds like something really amazing.”
Light suddenly flooded around him, then came the angry roar of the tanker’s air horn. Rodney knew what was coming before he felt it. He heard the smashing and grinding of metal as he was slammed back against his seat. The truck suddenly became a missile racing down the side of the mountain.
“His name was Sampson, you son of a-” His horn blew, muffling the rest. “His corpse is on my passenger seat. You ran me into that mountain and said you’re sorry. You’re going to be sorry.”
Rodney fought with his own wheel as the truck tried to slip around him. The tanker pushed on his trailer, causing it to zigzag, the load swaying, making it nearly impossible for him to fight with it. When he turned left, the trailer tried to go right, the rear wanting to meet him on the left. If he gave in, he would jackknife, rolling both truck and trailer. So he would have to turn the truck back right in order to have the trailer push left, but the rear would still fight to meet him. Worse, he couldn’t hit the brake. If he did, the trailer would swing around and he’d be in an uncontrollable spin. He had to keep going faster, upshifting to dangerous speeds in an effort to do the only thing he could do to outrun the devil on his back.
They were going downhill, which made it easy to go faster than safety permitted. It worked. His truck started to straighten, his speed starting to build. He didn’t dare look down at the speedometer, riding the accelerator instead. The engine screamed at him, not liking the higher RPMs. He was already going faster than the speed limiter on his truck allowed. If he weren’t going downhill, he would have maxed out at sixty-five, no matter how hard he pounded on the throttle. There was just no more speed for him to give.
But the tanker truck was heavier. Even if it had a limiter, which he didn’t think it did, it had mass on its side, and Rodney could see the approaching lights in his side mirror. It was coming again.
He saw a yellow road sign on the right, but he couldn’t look at it. He was fixated on those headlights glaring at him. They came up behind him, crashing into his rear bumper.
It didn’t matter if he saw it or not. The other driver had already told him what was coming, and if he kept trying to outrun him, there was no way he was going to make it. He was sure to end up flying off the cliff, becoming a pancake on the ground below.
What could he do? If he slowed, the maniac would just continue to push him, making him spin and slide until he jackknifed, rolling off the cliff in a mangled mass of metal. If he sped up, he wouldn’t even see the curve. He would just break through the guardrail like it was paper.
There was no good option.
He wanted to just let his head fall to the steering wheel. Fighting was useless anyway. Why not just relax his shoulders, pound the wheel with his forehead, and let the tears pour down? He was never going to see his wife and child again.
And maybe he deserved it. If he had killed the man’s dog, took away his only companion, maybe this was his punishment. He definitely shouldn’t be behind the wheel. Not tonight, maybe never again. It was obvious he was too much of a danger on the road.
It was a long shot. No, the idea had no way of working. It was sure to kill them both, but it didn’t matter. It was something that, deep down, he always wanted to try. Some days, he thought about doing it just to see what would happen. It was like his last day bucket list kind of idea, like trying to drive a semi through a fast food drive-thru. Something so ludicrous that he knew he would never do it, no matter how much he’d like to try.
But now was the time.
He pulled on the lever toward the center of his dash. The handle was well-worn so that only a couple letters marked what it was for. ‘T L AK’, and even those were barely visible. It didn’t matter. He knew what it was for.
Air hissed, sounding like it exploded out from under his dash. He never knew why it sounded like there was air escaping from under there, even when there might be an air leak somewhere else, but it did, and it now rushed to escape from the trailer brakes. He barely had a chance to look in his mirror before he felt the heavy jolt pushing him into his seat belt. He felt the sting in his shoulder as it cut in, his body mass becoming heavy as the force pulling him back became stronger. The lever wanted to jump out of his hand, but he held firm, keeping it low.
Smoke now surrounded him. The truck slowed to the sound of squealing metal and screeching rubber. Then he heard the scream of an air horn and saw the tanker fly past him. He was quickly slowing, the tanker just beginning to slam on his brakes. Rodney didn’t have time to watch him as he fought for control of his own truck, although as it were his back brakes doing most the work, he didn’t have the wheel fighting against him.
He downshifted and the engine brake whined, slowing the truck. He let off the lever and pumped his brake. Now that the lever wasn’t pulled, all the brakes in the truck worked, not just the rear most trailer brakes.
He looked in his mirror, thankful to see that the trailer was still there, smoke billowing out from under the tires. Then he saw the flames.
“Crap!” he cursed, quickly letting off the brakes, the truck lunging forward. His brakes had caught fire, and his back tires would catch soon, as well.
He had to stop. He had been slowing, the trailer brake had slowed him considerably, but he was still going downhill. His only option was to keep braking, hoping the trailer brakes would hold for just a little longer.
His lungs burned. He hadn’t noticed he had started to hold his breath as he gently applied more pressure, easing it down to fifteen miles per hour. He quickly downshifted, the engine roaring as its brake bogged down in such a low gear. He eased down the air brakes again, keeping an eye on the driver’s side mirror, praying that the flames didn’t climb too high.
The truck eased to a stop. He had gotten it as far to the side of the road as possible, his hazards blinking on the canyon wall to his right. He didn’t wait for the truck to settle as he quickly released the air brakes and jumped out, grabbing the fire extinguisher from his side compartment.
He could hear the screeching of the hot brakes as they didn’t want to hold the truck. He ran up the steep road, fumbling with the extinguisher, never having used one before. He hoped he had it right as he extended the little hose and tried to find the base of the fire to aim at.
It didn’t take long for him to realize it wasn’t going to work. The fire continued to build and wrap around the tires. When the rubber started to melt, Rodney he was sure one of them would blow at any minute. He was too close to them, and he winced with every pop, sure that he was about to get hit by flying debris.
The extinguisher emptied and he heard air hissing out, the small canister having nothing more. He was done.
He backed away from the trailer, the flames following him, chasing after him. They would continue to chase him until he got to the front, then they would consume his truck. Well, the company’s truck, and he wasn’t too sure he cared enough about the company to care about the truck. Things would be a lot worse, though, if the cab caught fire.
Crap. He rushed towards the front and started lowering the landing gear. It crunched as one side hit the uneven ground, and he didn’t try to force the other. He leaned under the trailer and pulled the fifth wheel handle, then ran to the front, pulling on the air lines to get them free.
When the rig pulled out from under it, there was a loud crash as the trailer dropped the rest of the way to the ground. He continued on, getting a little distance between himself and the trailer. He went about fifty feet before he stopped the truck and started looking for the cell phone, keeping an eye out for the tanker truck. He wasn’t sure if the driver was going to come back. As his trailer was now ablaze, a beacon for anyone nearby, it wouldn’t be hard for the other driver to find him, and with the smoke trapped in the valley, Rodney wouldn’t see him until it was too late.
He grabbed his phone from the floorboard, glad to see it still had a charge, frustrated when he saw the “no signal” icon in the upper right corner. Didn’t matter. The phone would get signal somewhere. He had to try to contact authorities, which might mean leaving the scene until he could call.
He was exiting the truck when the first tire blew. It was a loud explosion that echoed in the canyon. Then the next tire, followed by another. He wasn’t sure when the fourth tire blew as a loud rumbling started to overshadow the sound. He had no idea what it was, but the echo was all around him. It sounded like the grating of stone, heavy masses of rock colliding.
Then he saw the first of the small rocks land on the trailer, pinging off the metal ceiling like hail in a strong fall storm.
He looked up, knowing it was impossible to see anything through the smoke, but he felt it when the ground around him started trembling. There were loud cracking sounds that he was sure came from above him.
He didn’t have time to secure anything. If he went back, he could be caught in the oncoming avalanche.
His life had never involved much physical activity. It had become worse once he started driving a truck, spending most his time either driving or sleeping in the back. Exercise was not a part of his daily routine, and as he tried to run down the road, he felt that mistake catching up to him. His lungs quickly burned with the demand for more air. With the smoke around him and the running, it was getting harder and harder to get any. He saw stars in the smoke and not the sky. His legs felt like they should be hurting, but he couldn’t tell because his knees were filled with so much pain, everything else could communicate with him later about how much they hated him.
When the first big rock fell, he didn’t look back. After the third rock, he chanced a quick look over his shoulder, thankful he had gone far enough that his truck was only a shape in the smoke and he couldn’t see any of the destruction.
When the haze lifted, he looked around at the dark interstate. The glowing fire behind him lit the night in such an odd way, he could see a little bit in front of him, seeing the curve. He hadn’t realized just how close to it he had been. Had he not slammed on the trailer brake when he did, he would have flown straight through the guardrail.
Like the tanker truck did.
Rodney looked at the stretch of missing guardrail, wide enough for a semi. He walked to it slowly, mesmerized. The driver had wanted to kill Rodney so much, his own life hadn’t mattered. And for what? Because of an accident? Because Rodney had accidentally slammed him against the wall? It wasn’t like he had done it on purpose, and the guy was partly to blame. He had blared his horn at him, making him look. Sure, if Rodney hadn’t been so tired, he probably wouldn’t have drifted over while looking, but still. The guy shouldn’t have…
Rodney remembered that the driver had told him something right before that last attack. He had been telling him a story, something about a companion. Rodney knew the road out there could get lonely. Even with his daily phone calls with his wife, he still felt the loneliness. There were nights when he sat in his bunk and all he wanted to do was hold her, feel her warmth beside him.
How would it be out on the road if there were no one waiting at home for him? He couldn’t imagine it.
So, if all a person had in the world was their dog… If someone took that away from him, how would he handle it? Well, he doubted he would go homicidal, but could he really be sure of that?
He stared out into the darkness.
He wasn’t sure about a lot of things. A man was dead, and it was partly his fault. Where did he go from here? The moment he called the authorities, he could end up in jail for vehicular manslaughter. Thirty years in jail, if he remembered correctly, although that was different from state to state. If he walked away, there was chance his truck would be lost in the fire and avalanche. He could try and make a clean break, go back to see his wife and daughter, but would he be able to look them in the eye?
No, not after all this.
He stared at that endless darkness below him. The nothingness was so inviting, he felt like he could lose himself in it. What would be left of his life? What was going to happen now? He took another step forward and sat down on the edge, debating if he should walk, wait, or just push himself over.