((A short story I wrote a few years ago in the space of a bored morning at work. It was inspired by a completely minor incident on my drive home the night before - a truck that seemed to be following my every move. As I drove, the idea for the story just came to me.))
'If something ever happened to me, you'd tell my wife I love her, wouldn't you?'
The words were out of Gary's mouth before he even knew he was going to say them. Ron looked at him from across the table, fork lifted halfway to his mouth.
'Ah man, why you gotta be like that? Nothing is gonna happen to you and you know it.'
Gary shrugged. 'I dunno, I don't even know why I said it. But... you would, right?' He looked at Ron intently, showing him he was serious.
'Hell, sure I would. Although if Irene sees my ass standing on your front porch she might chase me off. You know she don't like me. But yeah, man, sure thing. You bite the dust, I tell Irene you love her.' The waitress appeared and leaned over the table to pour coffee. Ron caught Gary's gaze wandering, and snorted. 'I'll tell her you love her just fine, man.'
They finished their meals and walked out of JC's Truck Stop and headed towards their respective trucks. Gary pulled his cap onto his head and clapped Ron on the back. 'See ya on the other side,' Ron said as he climbed into his truck. They had done this routine for so many years now, he couldn't remember when things had been different. Late breakfast at JC's, then on the road again for another four days. Then they'd meet back here, have dinner and head home. A line from a Talking Heads song drifted into his head... Same as it ever was, same as it ever was...
Irene had asked him once (once, when they were actually still having meaningful conversations) whether he actually liked driving. He had thought about this for a minute, realizing then that he had never actually thought about it before. He had done it his entire adulthood, had known he would do it since he was five. But did he like it? He supposed maybe he could give some poetic answer about it being just him and the open road, seeing miles and miles of this fine country but that was just bull. For one thing, the road was almost never 'open', you always had to share it with someone, whether it was a cop riding just behind you, making sure you didn't speed up, or some punk teenager thinking he's invincible as he clips in front of you for no good reason, or some mini-van driving soccer mom who is paying more attention to the clan of kids in the car than she is to the road. As for seeing the country, all he really ever saw was blacktop and loading bays and truck stops. He'd like to think that there was a hell of a lot more to this country than that. But did he like it? Finally, after a long moment's thought, he had nodded. 'Yeah. Don't ask me why, I ain't got a clue,' he'd told her, already thinking about how he should go about undoing her blouse, 'All's I know is, I do. Done it for too long not to, don't ya think?' She'd smiled at him, love still showing there, and ran her fingers along the nape of his neck; he decided on the perfect angle of attack, ending the conversation right there.
So now, this Saturday in April, with four days of driving still in front of him, and many years behind, he thought about it again. One thing about driving, it gave him plenty of time to think. And he supposed that was one of the things he liked about it. He could lose himself in thought, the roads and highways so etched into his mind he was pretty certain he could literally drive them blindfolded (and one hand tied behind his back, ha ha). It was predictable, and one thing Gary Tucker liked was predictable. He was not one for surprises, giving or receiving. He took comfort in knowing exactly how things would play out, what was waiting around the next turn. He spent a lot of time watching the other drivers, and every once in a while he'd pick one that was likely to be in front of him for a while (you could tell these things after a while, who was headed up the road for a grocery trip, and who was on their way across the country, even without being able to see into the car), single out someone that he could 'study on' for a bit. If he followed them for long enough, an hour or two, he could get a pretty good sense of their driving style. He could predict when they'd hit their brakes, when they'd back off from traffic, when they would pass. He'd use that to build himself an image of the person behind the wheel, what their personality was like, how they handled things. He did this all without really thinking about it. You spend 10 hours behind the wheel of a truck, you need something to fill your mind. And in the end, it all came down to the same: predictability. He had studied on one such car through three states before finally losing it at a rest stop, and by the time they had parted ways, he had become amazingly accurate in his predictions. Had even known that it was going to be pulling off at the rest stop. Ah, yes. Predictability.
He looked now at the picture of Irene that had been taped to the roof of the rig. It had been there so long that it had started to fade; he had put it up there to shield it from the sun as much as possible. An impossibly young Irene smiled down at him, sitting on a picnic table and holding a hotdog in one hand. How many years had it been since Irene had even thought of sitting on a picnic table, he wondered. When was the last time they had even seen a picnic table? Funny how life could change so much.
A car merged onto the highway in front of him, and his thoughts drifted away. He swatted the back of his neck; a low, tickling sensation had started there. He tried to rub it away, but it persisted. Probably the heat, he thought to himself, and rolled the window down a bit. He checked out the car in front of him. Small, sporty looking. Gary's experience put sports car drivers into two classes: the 'I am invincible because I drive a sports car and therefore can speed like there's no tomorrow' class, and the 'I spent way too much money on this car, and damned if I am going to take any risks in it' class. Strange, though, because this one didn't seem to fall into either. It held a steady, reasonable speed in front of him, keeping an even but not overly-cautious distance from the traffic in front of it. The crawling feeling persisted at the back of his neck, and he realized with something of a start that he was covered in goosebumps. He looked back up at the picture of Irene, and she continued smiling down at him. A voice in the back of his mind told him to get away from that car, just floor it and go, there's plenty of room, plenty of time, get the fuck out of Dodge good buddy, just GO! But another voice, less frantic, and much more commanding, simply said 'Stay right where you are.'
Stay he did, despite the ever-growing feeling of anxiety. He lit a cigarette, maybe that would help. He gave the car a good once over; Ford Probe with Pennsylvania plates, enough dirt and grime on them to show the car had been owned for a while, although the car itself didn't betray that. Its metallic blue coat gleamed in the sunlight, the mirrors and windows postively sparkled. His angle was too high to see inside, but he had a good feeling (a strong feeling) that it was a woman behind the wheel, a woman in her early thirties. She was listening to a classic rock station, he guessed, tapping out the beat against her steering wheel, smoking a cigarette. He squeezed the accelerator a little, wanting to close the distance between them without knowing why. As he moved forward, it struck them that it was almost a defensive move, not of him, but of her, as if he were moving forward to protect her. But protect her from what? There was little traffic on the road, nothing to be concerned about anyway, and traffic was keeping a pretty steady flow.
Nonetheless, he crept forward until there was two car lengths between them, enough space to not make her anxious (and as a truck driver, that was something he rarely took into consideration, he had driven this rig for God knows how many years, he knew exactly how to handle it, whether the car in front of him believed it or not); yet little enough space that he could close the rest of the gap if necessary. He pondered that thought wonderingly. Why on Earth was he thinking he would need to close that gap? What possessed him to feel protective of this one little car, one of the millions he had seen over the years, not at all remarkable, not looking in the least as if it needed defending. 'Stay right where you are,' that voice prodded again, and he listened. Craziness.
An image of Ron came to him suddenly, Ron, lying in the hospital after his heart attack. 'Thank God he wasn't behind the wheel when it happened.' That had become the mantra of everyone who spoke of the event. Ron had been driving, had been into day three of the work week when he decided to stop at McDonald's for lunch. 'That stuff'll kill you one day,' Gary had always told him. 'If something kills me, Gary, it ain't gonna be Mickey D's, it'll be that cholesterol stew they spoon up at JC's. Been eatin' that shit for what, 20 years now. They'll write it on my tombstone. Here lies Ron Mercer, killed by a greasy spoon.' And, as it turned out, Mickey D's hadn't killed him, it had saved his life. He'd pulled his truck off at a McDonald's / Mobile rest stop right off the highway (there were tons of them), climbed out of the cab and keeled over onto the ground, clutching his chest in true Hollywood style. Ron Mercer was no small man and the thud he made when hitting the pavement turned heads in a hurry, and off he went to the hospital for an emergency bypass.
He had recovered amazingly, and was back on the road in just a few months. Even when he wasn't driving, he'd met Gary at JC's every Saturday, although for several months, he only joined him in a cup of coffee and a muffin. 'God knocked, man, and damned if I am gonna ignore it,' he'd proclaim. A few months back onto the road, though, and God's knock had been forgotten in a sea of sausage gravy. But the image of Ron lying in the hospital bed, with wires and tubes and what-all poking and sticking every which way; big, beefy man looking somehow small and insignificant, that had never left Gary. Neither had the memory of walking in there the first time, Ron asleep and snoring as loud as ever. Gary had walked over, picked up his friend's hand and held it in his. 'I love ya, dumbass,' he had muttered down at him, and when he heard footsteps coming from down the corridor he had dropped Ron's hand in a hurry. He looked at the nurse and walked out of the room past her. 'I love ya, but not that much,' he thought to himself, both amused and ashamed for thinking it.
The car was, of course, still in front of him (who names a car 'Probe' anyway, for crying out loud?) and another image occured to him. This one was of the car pulling him along in a tractor beam, like in Star Trek. He was a faithful 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' viewer, although he wouldn't admit this to Ron, who thought TV was only good for football games and bass fishing tournaments (and the occasional swimsuit fashion show, of course). Most of Gary Tucker might have been rooted in reality, but every once in a while he gave flight to his imagination, and Star Trek seemed to fulfill that quite nicely. In his mind's eye, he could see the blue hazy light wedging backwards from the Probe towards his truck, sweeping him into its grasp, pulling him along, keeping him in tow. He wished the car would slow down, give him a reason to go around it. But it kept its steady speed and he knew that even if it had slowed, he would have stayed dutifully behind it, bringing up the rear. Maintaining his defensive stance. But what the hell was he defending? And from what?
He shook his head and turned his thoughts to Irene, and that crawling feeling intensified briefly. Hell, he was losing his mind he thought. He glanced over at the cell phone lying on the seat and thought briefly of calling Irene, but he knew she wouldn't be home. One thing he didn't envy that woman was being married to him. He would always boast loudly of having the best life; a woman waiting at home for him, and an excuse to get away from her. He loved her, from the very depths of his heart he did, but he very rarely told her, and he felt a little guilty for it. But hell, she had to know, right? He came home to her every week, and wandering eye or no, he had been dog-faithful to her the entire time. Ron had picked himself up a hussy or ten here or there, a lot of drivers did, but Gary never once did. Some things you only get once in a lifetime, and the feeling he got from being with Irene, making love to her every Friday night, there was no where else he was ever going to find that. And he knew if he went lying in another bed, even just once, those nights with Irene would never be the same. Just as he knew that, despite the odds, despite the fact that he couldn't blame her if she hadn't, she had been faithful to him the entire time too. Maybe the gleam of love wasn't quite there anymore, maybe they didn't say sappy, dopey things to each other anymore, but one thing he knew was that Irene was all he really had in the world, and he loved her more than he even realized. Without her, he thought to himself, shivering a little, I'd die too. There'd be no reason to go on.
There were no kids, no pitter patter of little feet. They had tried, as best they could when they only had one day a week to do the dance, but to no avail. But somehow this had been okay, a little bit sad, but nothing they couldn't deal with. Maybe it was better anwyay, hard enough being the wife of a driver, much less the child of one. Problem with the world today was that there were so many kids that didn't have their dads in their lives enough. Irene managed to find ways to fill her time, her morning job at Pricer's Supermarket, volunteering at the Fire Department ('Damn, Gary you trust that woman round all them sweaty firemen?' Ron had exclaimed), Bingo Nights and potluck dinners and Sunday night games of Canasta that lasted into the wee hours of the morning. And that woman could tend a garden, could grow the finest flowers that town had ever seen, and a vegetable garden that deserved ribbons, and oh what she could do with those trees. Bonsai she called it, these little trees, small and graceful and... well just peaceful in a way that Gary couldn't describe. So his heart was easy knowing that she was not sitting at home staring off the front porch, watching those trash tv shows that so many women spent their days watching, and she was not unhappy.
He did pick up the phone then, and punched in the number to the house, even knowing she wouldn't be there. He'd leave her a message, even if it would be a surprise, just to tell her he was alright. The phone rang twice, and the answering machine picked up, and beeped. Odd, no greeting, but the damned machine was so old he was probably lucky to even get a beep out of it.
'Baby it's me, I just wanted to call and see how you was doin'. See you when I get there, baby.'
As he pressed the 'End' button, he noticed with unexplained alarm that the Probe had now turned its turn signal on, it was going to move left to pass traffic, and what had been a crawling sensation at the base of his neck had now turned into a collar of ice. The voice was there again, the calm, commanding one, only now it didn't sound so calm. 'Move! Move! Move!' and before he could explain why, he turned on his own signal, and began merging left, just adding to the sensation that he was caught in some kind of tractor beam, and being pulled along by this car. He glanced in his mirrors as he moved over, and moved in behind the Probe. They sailed past the slow car that had been in front of the Probe, another sports car, and the Probe signalled right.
Gary followed suit, and as he began to return to the right lane, he checked his mirrors one last time. The Probe was in front of him to the right and the second sports car was well behind him. Just as he turned on his signal, the second car suddenly jerked, a quick motion to the right, then to the left, and Gary realized with alarm that the driver had just floored it, had just hit the gas pedal so hard that he could barely control the car. The feeling at the base of his neck was gone suddenly, and as Gary continued executing his return to the right lane, he was aware of sudden silence. He drifted into the path of the sports car, moving in behind the Probe one final time, and as he closed his eyes, he heard Irene whispering to him, saying 'Ya done good, baby.' He saw Ron, lifting his hand in a farewell wave, saying 'See ya on the other side', and he saw a man he didn't know, standing in front of a glass window, pointing out a bed with that unmistakable fatherly pride, pointing to a bassinet with a namecard on it. The namecard was the last thing Gary saw, the last thing he ever saw, and he smiled as he read his own name there, smiled as the silence broke and the world went bright.
Smithfield News-Herald, Sunday, April 21, 2002
Fatal Accident on Highway 7
Smithfield – A tractor trailer and a car were involved in a deadly accident yesterday afternoon on Highway 7. The car struck the truck from behind at what the police are calling 'an extremely high rate of speed'. Killed in the crash was James Harrison, 29, of Smithfield and another man, whose name has not been released pending notification of his family. There were no other passengers in either vehicle. Eyewitnesses say that the car, driven by Harrison, suddenly picked up speed just before the truck moved into the right lane in front of it. 'That truck driver must not have seen him coming, I mean, the car was suddenly just barreling forward and the truck just kept moving over,' one eyewitness reported. Both lanes of the highway were closed for nearly four hours last night as police crews investigated and cleared the roadway. They are not releasing any more information at this time, citing an ongoing investigation.
Woman Found Dead in Garden
Rocky Creek – A local woman was discovered dead in her garden late Saturday morning by a neighbour who stopped by for coffee. Very little information has been released at this time, pending notification of the next of kin, but sources say that the death was likely a natural one. Her death makes the second Rocky Creek casualty Saturday, leaving the tiny community shocked.
Smithfield News-Herald, Monday, April 22, 2002
Community Rocked by Bizarre Double Deaths
Rocky Creek – The death of a local couple here has rocked this small community, after a married couple died in separate incidents the same day. Irene Tucker, 47 was found dead Saturday morning by a neighbour, the victim of an apparent heart attack. Just hours later, her husband, truck driver Gary Tucker, 49, was killed in a freak accident on Highway 7 that left one other man dead. Long time friend and fellow truck driver Ron Mercer said 'He asked me Saturday morning if I would tell her that he loves her, if something were to happen to him. I guess he can tell her himself now.' A dual memorial service is planned for Wednesday night, with a potluck dinner to follow at the Bingo Hall located in Rocky Creek's Volunteer Fire Department.
Smithfield News-Herald, Wednesday, April 24, 2002
Woman Narrowly Escapes Disaster, Gives Birth to Healthy Baby Boy
Smithfield – Jenna Sullivan is counting her blessings. She gave birth to a 7 pound 4 ounce bouncing baby boy late Monday night, after going into labour two weeks early. She was an eye-witness to Saturday's fatal accident on Highway 7, and doctors believe the stress and trauma from that event may have triggered the early labour. 'Kenneth and I have tried so long to have a baby, we're so grateful that he is finally here. I am just counting my blessings, because it could have been me in that accident. I guess someone was looking out for me.' Jenna was driving just ahead of the vehicles involved in the accident, and saw it take place through her rear view mirror. 'I drive a small Ford Probe,' she said, tearfully, 'with barely enough room in it for me and my belly. If I had been the one hit by that car...' In a strange coincidence, Jenna and Kenneth named their son Gary, also the name of the truck driver involved in Saturday's accident.
While it's not one of my "best" pieces of writing, it is one of my favorites. It's completely outside my normal type of story - I don't even really know how to classify it. I just loved the way it came to me out of nowhere, just an idle thought that turned into an interesting story.
Wow. I know I already said that, but this story deserves it. That was incredible! I had my hand over my mouth for the last bit of story, and while I was reading the news reports I couldn't help but say 'woah!' several times. That was amazing. So sad, but so fantastically done... and I especially loved that it ended on a happier/more hopeful note. I'm not really sure how to word everything I'm thinking about it, so I'll just say it's a great story, you're a very talented writer, and I'm looking forward to reading more of your stuff at some point.
Gawd! That story held me in from start to finish. You are quite an incredible writer. At the start of the story when Gary felt and tingling feeling at the back of his neck, I thought that maybe it was one of those lazer guns with those reds dots to aim, and that as the story progressed it would turn into one of those freaky "car high-jacks". But as it turned out, there was a quite sad and beautiful ending. Continue what you're doing. ps. Great idea for a story.
Wow..i am speechless for the right words to say. You had me in the truck with him the entire time...like i was a fly watching it all unfold.. What an amazing story..very sad, yet so beautiful at the same time! Thanks for sharing it with us.