Dog-eared paperbacks covered the passenger seat of Frank’s 18-wheeler semi for those nights spent in motels or on the mattress in the back of the cab. During his eleven hours per day on the road, he listened to audiobook CDs. The novels were his main companions these days, helping the miles pass more quickly under the rig’s huge tires, erasing his hours left on earth.
He considered taking Exit 212, the one with the truck stop that had the friendly waitresses—not friendly in the way some drivers looked for, but just willing to chat for a few minutes about the latest Stephen King or the weather. He didn’t want anything more than a little break from the inane comments of the other drivers over the CB radio, which hardly counted as human interaction anyway. He had to keep the constant chattering on, though, because occasionally it would warn him of a wreck ahead or an especially ambitious police officer with a book full of tickets.
Rolling through Alabama was a pleasure—little traffic, good biscuits and gravy at the truck stops, and relaxed cops. He knew he could push the speed limit and enjoy the ride as he listened to the smoky voice of a semi-famous actor read in that slow, deliberate audiobook way.
He hadn’t chosen this life for the best reasons, but it was mostly okay. Ever since he was old enough to notice, he’d watched trucks roll through his hometown, a place so small that he’d attended school at the next highway exit. He’d always dreamed of leaving for somewhere with bookstores and movie theaters. But Bonny’s soft voice persuaded him to marry her right out of high school and he’d landed a job in the plant down the road. It paid well and kept him home, where she’d wanted him, at least in the beginning. Those were good years, he guessed. He tried not to think about them, though, because when he did, he couldn’t stop the tape from rolling all the way to when it went to hell.
He turned up the CD player, realizing he’d missed a few paragraphs of the book. The rig didn’t have a built-in player, so he’d plugged one into the cigarette lighter, which he didn’t use anyway.
He’d quit smoking when he married Bonny and he only lit up now in his mind. At least once a month, he dreamed that someone had invented a healthy cigarette. Before he started driving a rig, that was the extent of the fantasy. He’d be really happy in the dream world and then wake up disappointed. But when he’d started spending eleven hours a day on the road, trying not to think about anything, the dream changed so that there was no such thing as a healthy cigarette, and he knew that he was dreaming. Within the past year, though, he’d reach the doubting part of the dream, take a few puffs, and convince himself that he wasn’t really dreaming after all. Whenever he had the dream, he found himself brooding over it during the rest of his solitary day.
Crazy Jasper was passing him now in his purple cab hooked up to a Mondo Mart trailer. The guy drove like the speed-addled maniac he was, perfect for hauling produce to the retail giant. Frank preferred to handle less perishable items like the made-in-China clothing that filled his trailer now. Not that he drove slowly, but he didn’t do any drugs except caffeine and he never drove all night. His own life might not have much value, but rigs could do a lot of damage to other vehicles and property. He’d seen enough accidents like that in his five years on the road and he wanted no part of it.
“Bye, bye, Grandma,” Jasper cackled over the radio, as he gave Frank a taste of his tailpipe.
Frank didn’t bother to answer him. He seldom spoke into the CB, which had earned him the nickname “Silent Frank.” That was fine with him. The less said, the fewer possibilities for trouble.
He mentally reviewed the exits ahead, trying to decide where to get lunch. Fast food made him feel like he’d eaten sand and, anyway, most didn’t allow big rigs. Martha’s Truck Stop was at Exit 200, just outside the nothing town of Verbena and he decided that was his best bet. If he was lucky, he could get a chicken leg with white barbecue sauce and potato salad. It was pretty good with a dash of Tabasco sauce. That would hold him until seven at night, when he’d stop at another truck stop to read, sleep, and maybe dream.
A chapter on the audiobook later, Frank pulled into Martha’s parking lot, which was big enough for his rig and ten more. He topped off the tank before going inside.
Martha’s son Jax was behind the counter, ringing up a meal for a trucker with a pirate beard. Jax had buzz-cut black hair and a gold tooth and nothing about him resembled Frank’s daughter. Still, the teenage boy reminded Frank of Maria just because of his age, or maybe the hint of sweetness in his liquid, brown eyes. Frank clasped his paperback novel a little harder and headed for his favorite table in the corner near the checkered curtain-covered window.
Reluctantly, he turned, knowing that he would see Jasper with his buck teeth, bloodshot eyes, and jittery, long-fingered hands. Jasper always took a spot near the middle window and pulled the curtains open to keep an eye on his rig. Frank suspected he was less worried about someone stealing his truck than the bag of disgusting peanut butter speed hidden under the seat.
“Keep a body company,” Jasper said, indicating the chair in front of him.
“You’re so fast, you must be almost done eating already.” Frank hoped his conjecture was true.
Jasper wrapped his fingers around the handle of his coffee mug, picked it up, and then set it down again. How he sat in a truck for hours without jitterbugging right out the window was one of the great mysteries of the universe. “Not so, good buddy. Had a tire shred right before the exit. Got that mother changed and now I just placed my order. Always carry a spare.”
Frank sighed and took the seat, grabbing a menu from the holder. “What’s the special?”
“Tuna melt, but I ain’t touching no fish and risking an afternoon of the shits. I got me the chicken.” The coffee cup made it to Jasper’s lips this time and he drank.
“White barbecue sauce?” Frank said.
“That’s what I want.”
“Then, let’s get you some.” Jasper raised his hand. “Hey, Shirley! Another chicken and coffee too!”
From across the room, the limp-haired waitress nodded. Frank had to hand it to Jasper, he was efficient. Glancing around, Frank recognized a few of the other truckers–Milly, one of the few women driving alone, sat at a table with Big Henry and Mike, both of whom had steering wheel guts. Jeffrey hunched over a cup of coffee in the back corner, alone as usual. Frank found his unnaturally wide eyes creepy. He was a much worse speed freak than Jasper, maybe dangerous even. Jeffrey was one of those rare people able to take his own drug addiction in stride, acting as though it was just a feature like his mud-colored hair.
“I hear there’s a wreck outside Birmingham,” Jasper said.
Shirley brought a cup of coffee for Frank and he sipped before answering. “Good time to stop then, I guess. Maybe we’ll miss it.”
“Oh, no, it’s bad. Didn’t you hear on the CB? It was Randy. Plowed into a car. That car went into the back of another rig. Crushed it. Driver dead.”
“How’d I miss that?”
“Just happened. When you were filling up, I’m guessing. Mike told me when they came in. Shit, that’ll take hours to clear.”
“Jasper, someone’s dead.”
Frank put his coffee down. “Could have been any of us.”
“Not me, I got lightning reflexes.” Jasper tossed the saltshaker in the air, tried to catch it, and missed. The shaker dropped in front of his plate, a thin line of salt spilling onto the table.
“Doesn’t matter. Rigs don’t stop that fast and you know it.”
Jasper waved his empty mug in Shirley’s direction. “We gotta think it can’t happen. Else we’d have to stop driving.”
Frank stared at Jasper, who was still trying to get the waitress’s attention. He knew there was more to the guy than driving and speed. He had a family in Arkansas, he’d told Frank, and he’d once wanted to be a rock musician. But playing drums didn’t pay the rent, so he’d started driving. Jasper never admitted to reading, but a spark of recognition occasionally appeared in his eye when Frank mentioned his favorite authors. And once, he’d found a puppy by the side of the road and driven it all the way back to Arkansas to give to his daughter.
Shirley brought the coffee and the chicken and Jasper stopped talking to eat. The man devoured his food the way he drove–fast and reckless. Frank ate slower, savoring one of the few things he enjoyed in life anymore besides reading. He’d forgotten the Tabasco, but he didn’t bother asking Jasper to display his waitress-summoning skills again since it was fine without the hot sauce.
Jasper finished first, his chicken reduced to a pile of completely clean bones on the side of his plate. He’d sopped up the white sauce with one of the buttery rolls. “Gotta hit the road, man. See you on the other side.” He picked up his ticket and went over to the counter to pay.
A few hours after lunch, Frank reluctantly pulled into the Mississippi welcome center, which was styled to look like a miniature plantation house, and parked under a tree on the far side of the lot. He didn’t want to stop, but the coffee needed to exit his bladder. Anyway, the late afternoon sunlight made him sleepy; it was his least favorite time to drive. After using the restroom, he folded down the seat of his cab and crawled in the back to his mattress. Better to lose an hour than fall asleep on the road.
But he accidentally set his alarm for a.m. instead of p.m. and when he woke, only the lights from the welcome center illuminated the cab. He cursed and punched his flat pillow. He had only two hours in his legally allowed eleven left, which meant he’d be behind before he even started the next day. He folded the mattress back up and went to get a soda from the vending machine.
It was just after seven and the cheery volunteers who handed out coffee inside the welcome center had gone home. The restrooms were still open, but only for another thirty minutes. No rigs were in the lot, but Frank saw one car parked, a beat-up sedan with a door that was painted a lighter green than the other three. The back windows were tinted, a bubbly aftermarket job. Frank couldn’t tell if there was anyone in the car, but he wasn’t looking too closely. He was concentrating on waking up his fuzzy brain enough to get driving.
The vending machines were inside a three-walled shack off to the side of the building. After getting a Pepsi, he started back to his truck. Now, two people were standing by the car, a man wearing a baseball cap and a grease-stained T-shirt and a woman—a girl, really, not more than seventeen. The man had his hands on her shoulders. However, that wasn’t what attracted Frank’s attention, it was what he heard—the girl screaming. The sound erupted in his brain. Had Maria ever screamed like that? Did she make that noise when the blood ran out of her veins into the blank white tub?
Frank hesitated—for all he knew, the man and girl were playing some game or the girl was hurt and the man was helping her. He didn’t think so, though. Just when he was deciding that he should walk faster—get there and try to figure out exactly what was going on—the man glanced over and saw him.
Frank froze—his body literally stopped with seemingly no direction from his brain. What he saw terrified him, because in just one second, he saw that this man, this man who had just pushed a girl into his car, had absolutely no compassion. This man would not swerve to avoid hitting a dog in the road; this man would not jump into a pool to save a drowning child; this man did not believe in goodness, kindness, or altruism. Frank was afraid of him, and he knew as surely as that the drink in his hand was cold, ice cold, colder than it ought to be, that the man would do something bad to that girl.
Every morning, before climbing into his truck to begin the day’s drive, Frank ran at least three miles. He kept a pair of shorts and shoes in the cab of the truck, not because he was trying to stay healthy—What did he have to live for?—but just to avoid feeling horrible at the end of every day. Occasionally, he even ran after stopping for the evening, his feet pounding down unfamiliar streets in dying rural towns. His body needed to move—begged for it.
But when he ran for exercise, like a mouse on a wheel he sometimes thought, he didn’t race. So when he took off from the sidewalk, clutching the soda hard in his hand, his lungs caught fire and his breath came out in painful bursts. He wasn’t nearly fast enough. The man slammed the passenger side door shut, got in, and drove away before Frank reached the parking lot.
He almost admitted defeat, but she wouldn’t let him—the girl who was gone, but never really left him: Maria. Could he have saved her? He asked himself that question every day. He hated himself for not trying hard enough, for not paying attention, for being distracted by unimportant things—his job, his financial situation, even his wife—none of it mattered as much as her, his only daughter; he’d known that, yet he’d been complacent, and then it was too late.
He ignored the inferno in his lungs and continued to run until he reached his truck, jumping into the seat with agility that came from adrenaline. He ground the truck into gear and slammed the pedal to the floor. As he rounded the curve of the on-ramp to the highway, he grabbed the CB and growled, “Anyone on I-10 through Alabama see a car with one light green door, let me know, possible kidnapping, this is Frank, over.”
Silence. Most of the truckers had probably pulled in for the night and were scarfing down hamburgers or showering in moldy truck stops, preparing to sleep in cheap motels, truck stops, or their own cabs. Frank pushed the truck up to seventy-five miles per hour.
Maria had golden hair that she was always fussing with—brushing it and spritzing on hairspray. But one day, she stopped caring. She was seventeen and she wouldn’t talk to Frank or Bonny, though she spent hours on the phone with her friends. They figured it was a phase. Anyway, he was busy at the plant and Bonny was upset about her position at the car dealership too—someone had been promoted over her or some such. All of it was as unimportant as a momentary shift in the wind, but, of course, they couldn’t see that at the time. In their minds, Maria was still ten years old—innocent and simple with nothing more to worry about than her hair or grades in school. Neither of them anticipated the perils of the teen world—hormones, bullying, depression, anxiety. Or if they did, they thought their sweet, happy girl would somehow be immune.
How could they have been so clueless?
The girl in the car—how old was she? Sixteen? Eighteen? Frank knew that if he didn’t at least try to save her, he’d hear that scream in his dreams, just like he heard Maria’s voice telling Bonny that she didn’t see the point of anything. Bonny had tried to talk to her after that, but she’d just walked away. He’d written it off as teen angst. Nothing a little rebellion with bad poetry and sour looks wouldn’t solve, he’d thought. Teenagers were supposed to drive up and down Main Street playing music too loud and checking each other out from car windows, not end their lives. Except that she did.
The CB crackled to life. “Frank? Jasper here. What are you playing at, over?”
“This is not a joke. I saw a guy forcing a girl into a car. She was screaming, over.”
“Call the cops, over.”
Frank rolled his eyes, exasperated with himself. When had he become a vigilante? “Will do, over.” He grabbed his phone and pushed the emergency button. The dispatcher said something, but Frank didn’t hear it. He only heard himself say, “I saw a guy pushing a girl into a car at Exit Two. He was heading west on I-10.” He sensed that the dispatcher didn’t share his feeling of urgency. He could hear her popping her gum.
“Did you get the license number?” she asked. Pop, pop.
“No, but it’s a green car with one lighter door.”
The dispatcher sighed. “I’ll contact local law enforcement. Thank you for your time.”
“Can you have them call me?” Frank said.
Frank hung up and tossed the phone on the passenger seat. The cops would never find her. He knew it as sure as he’d known what had happened to Maria the day his wife had called, her voice dull with shock. He couldn’t let this girl disappear too.
Frank took the truck up to eighty miles per hour. Usually, he was careful about his speed. A few truckers, like Jasper, still used fuzzbusters, but the devices were illegal and if a cop did pull you over and see one, they could get mean real fast. Better to stay around the speed limit and not risk a big fine for a few extra minutes at a truck stop. But now, he didn’t care about that anymore. This was it. The final showdown. The time for caution was over.
Frank’s cell rang. “Frank, it’s Jasper. Did you call the cops?”
“I got your car in my sights. Two miles from Exit Sixteen,” Jasper said.
Frank straightened up and squinted out the front window, though he could never see that far. He was only at Exit 13. He pounded on the steering wheel. “This is serious.”
“Are you sure? I mean, this wasn’t just a lover’s quarrel?” Jasper said.
Frank shook his head, as though Jasper could see him. “This girl was in danger. I stake my life on it.”
“If you’re dead sure, I’ll stop ’em,” Jasper said.
Frank thought for a moment. Jasper was a little crazy. Mostly good crazy, he guessed. He didn’t know if he trusted him, but he did know that he had no choice. He also knew that the girl’s life, or at least her well-being, was dependent on two sleep-deprived truckers who had already logged almost all of their allotted eleven hours on the road. “I’m positive.”
“Get here as quick as you can.” Jasper hung up.
Frank nudged the accelerator up over eighty. Let the cops pull him over. He didn’t care anymore.
His now-ex-wife had been the one to find Maria. He wished it had been him because he was sure that moment would never give Bonny any peace. As it was, Frank had barely been able to look at his daughter’s lifeless body. His eyes wanted to examine everything else—the table she was lying on, the white tiled floor of the morgue, his wife’s sneakers. He couldn’t imagine having been the one to walk into that bathroom, the place where they’d given her baths when she was a baby, where he’d taught her how to brush her teeth, where she’d spent hours doing her hair and makeup or whatever teenage girls did. He used to get after her for spending so much time in there—”You’re wasting your life!” How ironic was that? Why couldn’t he have died instead?
He couldn’t let the tears blur his vision. He blinked hard and focused, watching the mile markers go by too slowly. Then, he saw it, Jasper’s truck jackknifed across the whole highway and that green car stopped in the middle of the road. The man stood outside his car, legs apart, as though he were planning to fight the truck.
Frank wanted to gun the engine, but he had to give himself time to stop. He gave it a bit more gas, pushing the limits of what he knew the truck could do. When he finally braked, he gritted his teeth nervously, but he stopped a few yards from the man.
He was so busy worrying about his brakes that he didn’t see that Jasper had gotten out of the truck, a mistake since the green car driver now had a gun. Frank didn’t have time to think. He grabbed his cell off the floor, dialed 911 again, and dropped it without talking to the dispatcher. After that, he reached under the seat for his own Glock G29. He jumped down from the cab, feeling like the last five years, all that infinite time since Maria died, peeling off of him like a snake’s skin.
Her wrists had been slit. Where she’d learned to do that, he couldn’t imagine. The internet, he supposed, since you could learn anything from there. When he was a teenager, a kid in his high school had killed herself but no one would say how. She’d had a memorial page in the yearbook, he remembered that, but he couldn’t picture her face. Quiet, everyone said. The girls who’d bullied her cried and cried when the teachers announced her death during homeroom.
No one picked on Maria that he knew of. As far as he knew, she had a good life. He didn’t know much, it seemed. He’d let the thing he loved the most disappear just because he wasn’t willing to see the truth. He couldn’t, wouldn’t see how badly she was hurting.
Frank and Jasper went to firing ranges together a few times, when they were in the same city and had a few hours to spare. So Frank knew Jasper had a gun, but he didn’t know where he kept it. Apparently not in easy reach because he had his hands up, begging the green car driver not to shoot.
Frank climbed out of the cab as quietly as he could. The man must have heard the truck pull up and maybe he’d turned to look and Frank had missed it. In any case, he wasn’t looking now. He was focused on Jasper. Frank was distracted for a moment by movement at the car. The girl was getting out, probably trying to be quiet too. He hoped she wouldn’t try to save Jasper. She glanced in Frank’s direction and he waved his hand, telling her to flee the other way. Thankfully, she listened. He prayed the cops would find her okay, a frightened, bedraggled girl by the side of the road. Living. He had to save his friend.
Frank didn’t much care if he ended up in prison. Even if he died. No one loved him anymore. No one waited for him at the end of the road. His wife had taken the house or, rather, he’d given it to her. He lived in his truck, splurging on cheap motels during his few days off between hauls. But Jasper mattered. He had a wife and kids, people to cry at his funeral. Frank crept out of the truck and inched toward the man threatening his friend.
Jasper and the man were arguing, but Frank couldn’t hear what they were saying, partly because of the highway noise and partly because of the buzzing in his ears. He heard something else, though, sirens. With the police cars approaching, the man might panic and shoot Jasper.
A little closer and a tiny flicker in Jasper’s eyes told him that he noticed Frank. Jasper was smart enough not to look over quickly and tip off his attacker. Jasper’s mouth kept moving, talking the man down, even as he nodded to Frank. Fire.
Frank thought he was close enough. He was a pretty good shot on the range. He flipped off the safety, aimed, and fired. The man dropped in a crumple of bones and flesh. Frank almost dropped too, felled by the kickback and the weight of what he’d done. It was over. He’d won. The victory made him feel sick.
He put the gun down and threw up on the highway where he’d spent the last five years of his life.
Emily Beck Cogburn is the author of Louisiana Saves the Library and Ava’s Place. Her short story “Going Down South” received honorable mention in the New Orleans Words and Music Contest and her fiction has recently appeared in Marathon and Miracle Monocle.