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Hershel King had been driving a big rig since the age of eighteen and that was nearly thirty years ago. He liked to tell people that he didn’t know how to do anything else but anyone that knew him worth a damn saw right through that. The truth was he loved the job, the hours on the road and everything that came with it. His was a nomadic spirit and he felt blessed to have been able to make his living with a job that satisfied that wanderlust while still providing his family with a comfortable life.
Sure there were bad days, just like with any job, like taking ten hours to travel twenty miles of northern Michigan in the dead of winter or having a deer carcass appear out of nowhere to serrate nine of eighteen tires; but even then it still beat the hell out of being stuck behind desk, pecking away on a keyboard and working the numbers while your spirit slowly wastes away. Hershel would take the Waffle House diet, weigh-stations and traffic jams seven days a week and twice on Sundays as long as it included golden sunsets in the Great Smoky Mountains and the deep blue Atlantic running next to the Carolina coastlines. There had been so much beauty experienced in his time on the road and so many unique situations retained in his memory banks that he wouldn’t have traded it for the world.
At the request and encouragement of his wife, Linda, and his two grown sons, Mick and Jay, Hershel had begun carrying a notebook with him to start recording his memoirs during his downtime. They had heard so many hilarious driving stories over the years that they were convinced it would make for an entertaining book. He wasn’t much of a writer though and held no misconceptions about that fact but all he really had to do was get the gist of the moments down as the boys agreed to do the actual writing. They already knew several of the stories by heart; having heard them so many times as children.
“Chicken-man” was definitely one of their favorites, about the time he passed a man in a full-length, yellow chicken suit at four-thirty in the morning, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere. This fool was walking next to the highway and waving at oncoming traffic like he was working the corner for a KFC. Hershel saw him smack-dab in the middle of a hundred-mile stretch of deserted Pennsylvania miles. It had been at least an hour since he’d seen any signs of civilization and was at least another hour after seeing him. At the time he had seriously doubted the veracity of the sighting, chalking it up to extreme fatigue, but when it was confirmed some time later by other drivers on the CB radio he had to question what kind of lunatic Chicken-man really was. It stayed with him. Did this guy have a house out there in the woods somewhere? Did he put on the chicken outfit every night…and, of course, the topper: why the hell was he doing it?
The last story Hershel jotted down a couple nights ago before bedding down in the cabin bed at a truck-stop in Ohio off I-75 was about the time he lost his battle with a soda machine at a rest-area in Kentucky. It had happened nearly a fifteen years before and during a period when Hershel was in a serious Mountain Dew faze. It was nearly all he drank in those days and the craving was at its height on that hot night in August when he shuffled up to the only working soda machine with a pocketful of change and a mouth-watering addiction for one…and only one…soft drink. It had been his plan to buy as many as he had the money for.
The first dollar entered and the Mountain Dew button pressed gave him an ice cold…RC Cola. Realizing that mistakes happen and shrugging it off, he put in more quarters and tried again…and again…and again. Three dollars got him a Pepsi, Diet Pepsi and the RC…all with the same button pressed. Irritation rising with each new quarter, Hershel pumped a total of twelve dollars into the soda dispenser, trying a variety of buttons and had a variety twelve-pack for his efforts…and no Mountain Dew. The rage that grew with each dark cola the damned machine spit at him was at an even boiling point when he banged his fist against the metal sign hanging next to the machine. It took a full minute for the red haze to subside enough to actually read the sign he’d been pounding: Vending Machines Maintained by the Kentucky Department for the Blind. Had the internet been then what it is now, it would have definitely made for a “viral” moment if he’d recorded it and all he could really do was laugh.
These were the types of thing that convinced his family that there was a best-selling book in his life and what he was thinking about as he maintained the speed-limit on a long, lonely, late-night stretch through New York state on his way to Florida. It was around two in the morning and, although he still had a few hours he could drive before he was required to stop and rest for the mandatory eight hours, Hershel was already exhausted…and hungry. There was a decent truck-stop on the border of New York and Pennsylvania that he had frequented before and it was less than twenty miles down the interstate. He knew for a fact that the Big-J Truck Stop would provide a great burger at any hour, plus the facility had clean bathrooms and showers so he would shut it down for the night when he got there. There were very little other options anyway as they had the market cornered on a very long expanse of rural nothingness.
An impending headache dancing at the fringes of his skull had kept the radio off despite his favorite overnight talk show “Coast to Coast AM with George Noory” being on and Hershel prayed the Tylenol he’d taken earlier would keep it at bay. Most people considered headaches nothing more than irritations but when you have lives hanging in the balance of your ability to remain constantly alert and aware, it can be so much more than that and Hershel had pulled over for them in the past. One didn’t stay on the road for three decades without a single accident if they didn’t show the job the respect it deserved. In addition to all the splendor and quirkiness he’d encountered in that time, Hershel had seen his fair share of blood on asphalt and twisted metal as well.
Flipping on the CB radio as he passed the seventeen-mile mile-marker came more out of habit than his desire to actually hear the signal squeal to life. It was Big Red Mama’s territory and he couldn’t go through the area without seeing if she was out on the job. Big Red Mama, whose real name was Julie Merchant, was, much like Hershel and a few others, an “old-timer” who had been behind the wheel of a Semi for even longer than he had. She used to run routes up and down the east coast with similar frequency to his and they had gotten to know each other quite well over the many, many years. They spent hundreds of late nights, driving miles apart, sharing their problems and psycho-analyzing one another and for someone that Hershel had only actually met in person a half-dozen times, she was perhaps one of his best friends.
For the last five years she’d been staying closer to her home just outside Pittsburg in order to spend more time with her new grandkids so the only time they really got to talk anymore was when he was in the state. It would have been rude if he hadn’t at least tried to say ‘hello’. Hershel turned the knob to the communal channel nineteen and sought a radio check.
“Breaker, breaker one-nine…can I get a radio check?” Hershel knew his Citizen’s Band Radio was working just fine, but years of conditioning dictated certain protocols that he was loathe to forgo. A moment later a deep voice verified his signal was being heard.
“Roger that, Good Buddy. I read you loud and clear. This is Dixie Whistler, Good Buddy…whom I talkin’ to? Over.” Nine times out of ten, when Hershel gave his handle it was recognized by the other driver. In the trucker-CB community, which his sons like to call the “stone-age Facebook”, the longer you stayed in the community the more your name or “friend-requests” grew and Hershel had been a stalwart since the days when the CB sat below his brand new eight-track tape player.
“Roger that Dixie Whistler…this is…” he paused for effect, always enjoying that particular moment more than he probably should. What the hell…he was the godfather of the east coast long-haulers…he earned the reputation. He deserved to enjoy it.
“The King-Wheeler. How are you getting along tonight? Over.”
“Holy-shit!” The excitement was obvious in the other man’s voice, much as Hershel was expecting. “I’m doing a whole hell of a lot better now that I’m talking to a friggin’ legend. I feel like I just met the Pope. Over.”
“Thanks Dixie, I don’t know about all that…” Hershel feigned coyness, “but that’s awful nice of you to say, Good Buddy. Over.”
“No man…you don’t understand. Like…wow, I can’t even begin to tell you. You used to talk to my old man all the time when I was a kid and he’d take me on the road with him. I remember thinking how cool you were when I was only ten years old. The miles you put in Sir…well…I just gotta say: it’s a real honor. Over.” It was surely meant as a compliment but moments like that couldn’t help but to make him feel his age. Being a living legend was cool but sometimes it loses its luster when the notoriety comes simply for being old.
“Thanks…I guess.” Hershel replied, suddenly a little more perturbed that he wanted to be. He didn’t like thinking about his age. No one likes to contemplate their mortality but for Hershel it was a particularly soft spot as he had lost a number of similarly-aged friends in the last few years and he tried to push it from his mind. “Who is your father? Over.”
“Big Dixie Donut is what everyone called him. Do you remember him? Over.” Surprisingly, despite having not heard the handle for twenty years, Hershel did remember the man’s father. It was weird how much trivially unimportant crap could stick in a person’s mind…and for so long. For some reason the nickname made him think of chili-dogs. Perhaps they had engaged in a deep and thoughtful conversation about chili-dogs at some point in the distant past? Whatever the reason, it made his stomach grumble a reminder that it was still thinking about that Big-J cheeseburger.
“Roger that, Good Buddy. I can’t hardly believe it, but I do remember Big Double-D. Always had a kind word and willing to shake the trees for bears. How is he doing these days? Over.” There was a slight pause which made Hershel wonder if he should have even asked. The kid did bring him up the first place though.
“Well…dad passed away last year actually. Over.” It was what Hershel was half expecting to hear.
“Oh man…I’m sorry to hear that, Dixie Whistler. My condolences. Over.”
“Thanks King-Wheeler. Means a lot coming from you. Speaking of bears…I’m headed north on eighty-one at the three-forty mile marker and there’s eighty miles of clean and green behind me. What’s your twenty, King-Wheeler and you got any news for me? Over.”
“I appreciate that Dixie Whistler but I’m gonna log some z’s at the Big-J. I’m southbound at the ten and you’re good for a while. There was a local-yokel some one-hundred miles back but they’re probably done for the night by now. By the way, Whistler, have you heard anything from Big Red Mama tonight? Or…if you got your ears on out there, Big Red, then kick it in and get back to me. Over.”
“Oh wow…there’s another legendary name. I can’t wait to tell the guys about this…but sorry, no I’ve never had the pleasure of talking to Big Red Mama and I’ve not heard her name any tonight. Other than just now, that is. If I hear anything, I’ll put the word out that you’re looking. In the meantime…keep the shiny side up and the greasy side down, Good Buddy. Over.” Hershel smiled in his cab; he could tell the young man came from a trucking family as he still used the old vernacular.
“Ten-four, Dixie Whistler. Keep it between the ditches yourself. Over and out.” He turned the CB off again without waiting to see if anyone else piped in. As innocuous as the conversation had been it still managed to nudge the headache he had been keeping at bay just a little closer to the front of his head and he regretted having switched it on in the first place. He had, at least, made a token effort at contacting Big Red and it was enough to alleviate any distress to his conscience. Sure he could have tried a little longer but with his temples beginning to throb and being this close to his stop, there was really no reason.
When the bright lights of the Big-J Truck Stop appeared on the horizon it was more than a welcome sight. The neon oasis brought a smile to his face and Hershel couldn’t remember the last time he had looked forward to a truck-stop this much. Food, a hot shower and seven hours of sleep was all he needed to feel better and once he had pulled his Peterbilt Semi into the short row of trucks and cut the rumbling engine he let out long involuntary sigh. He needed the break.
It had been six or seven months since his last visit to the Big-J but with the immense number of grungy rest-areas and shit-hole truck-stops that littered the Eastern Time Zone, the clean ones had a tendency to stick with him. Combine that with their juicy hamburgers and it became not only a good place to stop but rather a destination to seek out and even though they ran with a skeleton crew overnight they were still good people who made the truckers feel like welcome guests at any hour.
As Hershel climbed down out of the cab he marveled at how cold it had become. It had been in the mild mid-sixties all day and through the early evening but now, outside of the comfortable temperature in his cabin, it seemed to have dropped to nearly freezing. Rather than climbing back in and digging around for a coat, he decided to just hustle across the parking area to the front double-doors leaving a short trail of exhaled condensation behind him as he went.
Judging by the number of trucks in the lot, or rather the lack of, he was coming at a perfect time and should, for the most part, have the place to himself. It wasn’t that he minded sharing the facilities necessarily, but in recent years the environment around truck-stop shower rooms had become…sketchy. The progressive attitude regarding homosexuality that had arisen created a significant number of places where the showers were no longer utilized primarily for bathing purposes. Maybe sodomy among truckers was just as prevalent when he first started driving but the general social stigmas of that era kept it hidden away in the shadows and behind locked truck doors. Now he had to mark the locations on his GPS where no one asked him if he was up for a little “ass-play” or a “hand-job”.
Hershel tried not to judge; he was a very live and let live type of person but when a burly, beer-bellied guy with a ZZ Top beard approaches you with a glint in his eye while you undress for a shower…well…it could be as unnerving as it was unwanted. Such a thing had never happened at the Big-J but Hershel was still pleased to see the good odds of having a relatively private shower at 3 am. First things first, however…he had to see a man about a burger.
There was a welcome warmth in the restaurant but it still took several minutes for the shivering to subside and his body to return to its normal temperature. Hershel grabbed a booth in the corner and surveyed the room. It, much like the parking lot suggested, was deserted; he was the only customer. The clanking of dishes being washed echoed out from the kitchen and he could just make out a blonde bun in a hair-net passing back and forth through the little window of the stainless-steel swinging door. After a long moment, there was a face in the window and, finally, some eye-contact followed by a smile and a wave.
“I’ll be right there sweetie,” the waitress called out from across the room as she came into the dining room from the kitchen. She was an older woman, easily in her sixties, in a mustard-yellow uniform and a name-tag which read “Tammy” and she greeted Hershel with a menu, silverware, a glass of water and an oversized, yet seemingly genuine, smile.
“Hey there darling.” Tammy’s voice was thick with southern charm that seemed out of place this far north. “You look like you’ve been pulling a long one, sweetie-pie.” Normally that many cute nicknames in a row would have irritated him but Tammy somehow pulled it off with a sincerity and comfort that put him in a disarmed ease. “You want a cup of coffee, baby-doll…or maybe something a little stronger if you ain’t gotta get back at it any time soon?”
Coffee was his stand-by; he drank more coffee than water but he had no use for the caffeine right now and he hated to ask her to brew a pot of decaf when he’d probably only drink one cup. He was unaware that they served alcohol and when she brought it up his initial thought was that a beer would only make him too tired to take a shower, but his mind put the flavor of their burger together with a Coors and, with his tummy giving a roiling endorsement, he couldn’t think of anything else.
“Coors and a cheeseburger…and an ashtray.” Tammy nodded her approval and returned a moment later with the cold bottle and an ashtray.
“There you go, honey. Food will be ready in about fifteen minutes.” She headed back to give the order to the cook, calling out over her shoulder as she went. “Just holler at me if you need another beer before then.” Hershel gave a silent nod ‘yes’ that there was no way she would see and lit a filtered Camel. The fact that this was one of the few places where he could still smoke indoors was another selling point for the Big-J…not that it needed one. The beer was cold and damn good; and he killed half the bottle with one long pull.
The room was so still and the combination of the soft jazz piping through the speakers with the cook working his utensils muffled behind the kitchen doors created a hypnotic atmosphere and Hershel could feel his eyelids growing heavier. The thin line of smoke that rose from the cigarette and wavered in the air before him further lulled him into a trance-like state and before he was aware of it, Hershel was passing out cold, slouched against the wall. It wasn’t the first time the miles caught up with him while sitting at a dingy booth waiting for food…it happens; but it had been a while and Hershel’s last conscious though before fading into the black had something to do with getting his food to-go.
When he opened his eyes again he was relieved to find that the food had yet to come. It had only been a few minutes. Throat significantly dryer than it was when he fell asleep, Hershel took a big drink of his beer only to have to fight the urge to spit it back out. Shocked to find the Coors had become more than a little warm, he wondered how in the hell that was possible and then looked around the dining room for Tammy. She was nowhere to be seen and Hershel looked back at his watch; it was four thirty-five. Four thirty! He had been asleep for nearly two hours. It was understandable that the waitress might not have wanted to wake a sleeping trucker that hadn’t been particularly pleasant thus far, but his burger should have been dropped off at least. Maybe she’s keeping it warm in the kitchen or put it in a carry-out box? That would be what a good waitress would have done and it was pretty obvious that Tammy was a professional.
Hershel stood and stretched, feeling more refreshed than he would expected from the short nap in an uncomfortable position.
“Tammy?” He called out to the empty room, his voice the only noise competing with Muzak’s version of a Cole Porter classic. Walking to the breakfast counter in front of the kitchen and past the desserts elaborately displayed behind glass, Hershel found the cash register and threw his hand down on the little bell next to it. The ring, louder than he expected, echoed through the dining room and back into the kitchen but there was no immediate response. A full minute later, he rang it again, and then again, and then again.
“Hello?” he called out, significantly louder this time, “Is there anybody here? Tammy?” Still not receiving a response or even hearing movement of any type that might constitute an incoming truck-stop employee, Hershel made his way behind the counter and pushed his way through the silver doors into the kitchen. Normally he would have never invaded someone else’s workspace but given the circumstances…well…this was a little ridiculous. His opinion of the Big-J was rapidly declining.
“Hey! Is there anyone working back here?” His voice echoed off the white walls and stainless steel counters. Fully expected some pissy line-cook to jump out at him and demand to know what the hell he thought he was doing, he was already composing his excuse. I was just hoping to get the food I ordered two hours ago! Seemed good enough for him. As it happened, no excuse was needed as the kitchen appeared to be just as deserted as the dining room. Were they all taking a smoke break at the same time?
There was one stove burner lit at a low temperature with a shriveled rock of a burnt beef patty in a pan on top of it that resembled nothing someone would want to eat. Hershel passed the sizzling lump of coal while eyeing it with disdain and continued his search. The freezers, dry-stock room and dishwashing area were all empty as well and his hairs began to stand on end. It wasn’t as though anything sinister had occurred but the whole situation was weird and becoming more unnerving with each unoccupied space he passed.
The Big-J wasn’t an enormous facility and within ten minutes Hershel had gone from the restaurant to the locker rooms and showers to the lounge and game-room to finally ending up in the main store which included everything a trucker could ever imagine needing from a five-hundred dollar GPS to a three-dollar neck pillow to a quart of milk. During most afternoon shifts there were three or four employees working behind the large counter that separated the cash registers, cigarettes and trucker-speed from the rest of the store. Overnight that number was reduced to one, nocturnally inclined individual, with the night-manager acting as backup for those rare late rushes. On this particular night, however, that number seemed to have been reduced to none. What in the holy hell was going on here?
Hershel’s stomach grumbled a reminder that he’d yet to eaten and prompting him to grab a granola bar from one of the shelves next to him. It was only shoplifting if there was no one around to pay for it, he figured. Washing it down with a Coke from one of the coolers, he continued looking for any signs of life in the only area he had yet to search: an employee lounge and adjacent manager’s office. The lounge coffee pot was slowly singeing a thin bubbling layer of congealed black goo and Hershel turned off the burner and set the smoking pot aside, if for no other reason than to put an end to the unpleasant burnt smell that hung in the air.
Bewildered and feeling like he had woken into an episode of “The Twilight Zone”, he decided that the situation was weird enough to warrant a call to the authorities. Despite the embarrassment he was sure to feel trying to explain to the police that something other than employees playing hooky was going on but what else could he do? It wasn’t like he could, in good conscience, just jump back in his truck and go to sleep or drive away without knowing exactly what the hell was going on here…even if it was something as innocent in nature as the Big-J having a piss-poor night crew. As far as he knew, however, there could have been a gas leak or bomb threat which cleared the building while he was passed out in his booth and they had just overlooked his presence; but if that were the case wouldn’t there be blue and red lights flashing in the windows from all the emergency vehicles that would be parked outside?
There was a lime green rotary phone mounted to the wall, the kind millennials thought of as antiques, and Hershel lifted the handle from its cradle and dialed 911 before holding the receiver to his ear. It was a dead line. Perhaps it really was an antique. He hung it up again and hurried back to the main cashier station in the store where he found the cordless land-line he was looking for. It wasn’t exactly new itself but at least it was from the digital age. The receiver beeped as he, once again, tried 911…and once again it was to no avail. The phone had power but the phone-line itself must have been cut.
Hershel was suddenly gripped with a thought: I shouldn’t be here. Something was really wrong here. He didn’t know what it was…but it was something. His cellphone was in the truck and he could call the police once he was on the road and putting distance between himself and this freaky situation. Figuring it to be more than enough to cover the snack, soda and beer, he threw a twenty on the counter…he wasn’t a thief after all…and quickly hustled to the front set of doors, which was one of only two ways for the public to enter or exit the Big-J.
He hit the doors with full force, expecting to sprint across the parking lot, and bounced backwards to his ass when they refused to yield. Why the hell are they locked? This place was open twenty-four/seven and they were never locked. At this point legitimate fear began to set in. Jumping quickly back to his feet, Hershel surveyed the locks but there were no little knobs to turn and the only way to unlock them was with the key. The next ten minutes were spent sprinting the perimeter of the Big-J and trying every exit. There were the two main entrances, an employee entrance in a room with janitorial supplies, punch-clock with timecards, a couch, table, chairs and ashtrays, and another employee exit in the back of the kitchen. Every exit was locked tight despite the fact that the employee accesses were also fire exits which shouldn’t technically been able to be locked in the first place.
Each dead end jacked up his heartbeat a little bit more and when he found himself back in the center of the truck-stop, panting and slick with sweat, panic had taken complete control. Three decade on the road had provided enough harrowing experiences to mold Hershel into a man that didn’t panic easily. Even though nothing truly traumatic had actually happened yet, the sensation of being a rat in a trap triggered the claustrophobia that was on the other side of the coin that held his itchy feet.
Eyes wild and darting and trying not to hyperventilate, he took deep breaths and desperately searched his deepest parts for focus. There had to be some logical reason why he had been locked…alone…in a truck-stop that never closed, but the things his mind would come up with only succeeded in escalating his anxiety: viral outbreak, secret military experiment, trapped by a sadist who had seen too many “SAW” movies?
“Fuck it.” Hershel said to no one before picking up the three-foot, aluminum ashtray from the lobby. With the heavy metal base plate held away from him, he swung it like a shot-put before slinging it into the glass door with as much force as he could put behind it. He didn’t know what the ramifications of shattering the Big-J’s door would be at a later point and frankly…he didn’t care. If they didn’t want their door broken then they shouldn’t have trapped him inside. It was a moot point, however, as the ashtray clanged off the window producing a low vibratory tone and nothing else; not even a crack.
Not ready to be bested yet, he found a sledgehammer in the hardware aisle and gave it another shot. The end result of several overhanded swings was little more than a pair of aching hands, unfortunately. He didn’t know if it was bullet-proof glass but it was definitely Hershel-proof glass. After finally giving up on breaking through that way and killing a bottle of water to replenish some of the sweat that was pouring out, the next big idea was the keys. It might have been a long shot, but if there were locks that took keys then there had to be keys somewhere that fit the locks.
No longer concerned with showing respect to the environment, he tore through the drawers and areas behind the cashier counter, flinging items to the floor as he went. There were some interesting things back there including a handgun which he took and, for some reason, a dildo…which he didn’t take…but no keys. The next spot was the manager’s office, which he showed even less care for. The manager apparently had a fetish for tranny-magazines…which probably explained the dildo from up front and Hershel couldn’t help but wonder about “Mr. Chambers”, as his name-plate stated, and his desire to forgo the plethora of internet porn for printed paper. Every image he came up with was as equally distasteful as the last.
The search, much like before, was a bust and Hershel was feeling fairly certain that the keys were no longer in the building. Somehow he just knew it. Murphy had been busting his ass with that asinine law for a long enough time that Hershel could tell when the current was going against him. He was knee-deep in shit with nary a shovel and a dozen other cliché metaphors that said ‘you’re fucked’. Suddenly very exhausted, he fell back into Mr. Chambers’ black leather couch, drained from frantically bouncing off the walls. The adrenaline spike that had been fueling his frenzied search for freedom had reached its apex before dropping away entirely. It felt like he had just run a marathon.
Hershel allowed his eyes to close and for a moment…just a moment…he considered drifting away to sleep again. Some skewered logic from an unknown voice in his head insisted it was the smartest thing to do. You’re trapped, it said, but not in the way you think. You’re trapped inside a dream…and if you go to sleep in the dream…you’ll wake up. Of course the he knew that was ridiculous but at the same time, that little voice was saying, what if? When that part of his mind that he normally listened to told him to get the hell up…he did. That part…the one that kept him safe through he years…told him that if he fell asleep on that couch, in that place, at that time…he would never wake up again.
Deciding to side with the one that seemed closest to sanity, he pulled himself from the couch and made his way back to the store, slower now; the frenetic pace all but burned out of him. Pacing from aisle to aisle and looking at random items like he was doing his Sunday afternoon grocery trip to Walmart, Hershel’s mind was all but blank. He didn’t know what he was looking for and the only reason he was looking at anything at all was to keep from teetering into the dark place his mind kept wanting to go; his sanity attached by the thinnest of tendrils. Then he remembered the gun tucked into his waistband.
The 44 Magnum was an absolute hand-cannon but, with only three bullets in the chambers, he was wary to waste any on the windows. The sledgehammer had been wholly ineffective to the degree that he really didn’t think a bullet would do any better and if this situation he found himself in turned out to be…by design…well, he would want those bullets if the parties pulling the strings decided to reveal themselves later. As a compromise with himself, Hershel decided to use only one bullet to take aim at the lock itself. With what appeared to be an aluminum frame, a well-placed shot might be able to shatter the housing around the lock. It was sound logic and the only condition he failed to factor into the equation was the fact that he hadn’t fired a gun in fifteen years or more.
The bullet went wide right and did strike the obviously impenetrable glass pane, ricocheting straight back and zipping past his ear with an audible zing and exploded into a video poker machine at the far end of the lobby. Two inches appeared to be all that separated Hershel from ending the entire nightmare with a hole in his head and his brains on the wall. Hands now shaking uncontrollably, he re-applied the safety and slowly set the gun down on a bench next to the water fountain. His mouth was a dry paste and, after relieving himself of the weapon, he went back to the store in search of something else to drink…something a little harder than soda.
Going through the cabin amenities section on his way back to the beer cooler, his eyes made contact with an unopened box on the top shelf and it hit him. Why the hell didn’t he think of it sooner? He had to go tippy-toes to reach it with the tips of his fingers…he wasn’t exactly a tall man, but it eventually slid off the shelf and into his hands. Dropping straight to the floor, he ripped into the box with a four hundred-dollar price tag and tore through the packing materials before digging it out. Hershel eyed the CB radio with approval before getting to his feet and seeking out a power outlet.
Finding one behind the counter, he fired up the radio and put it on channel nine, the emergency services channel which, much like the 911 telephone line, is always monitored by local authorities.
“Breaker oh-nine,” he tried to keep his voice cool and steady even though it kept wanting to jump three octaves. “Mayday…mayday. I need help. Please…is there anyone listening? Over.” He depressed the lever that dictates when your able to talk and when your able to listen and waited for a reply. After a full minute of an unbroken hum he tried again.
“Please. I need the police. I need help. Over.” He gave it another minute before flipping through all the channels, one by one and sending out an S.O.S. With each cry for help answered by silence, he could feel what little hope there was fading further away. Feeling defeated, he unplugged the CB and tucked it under his arm, rather than smashing it on the ground like he wanted to. Sighing with the sad acceptance of a prisoner who has finally been broken, Hershel decided he was going to get that burger after all. He looked at his wrist for the time but the Casio he’d been wearing had come off at some point in the evenings events. It was still very dark outside but morning had to be coming soon.
Using an outlet beneath the breakfast counter in the diner, he plugged in the CB again. It was on the still-silent communal channel where it had been when he unplugged it and Hershel left it alone while he went back into the kitchen to hunt down the items he would need to prepare what felt like his last meal. In no time the delicious aroma of two beef patties searing on the grill wafted through the room. Mouthwatering as he cooked, he was surprised to find, given the dire situation, that he had an appetite at all but once the cheese, lettuce and tomato were applied to the lightly toasted bun he could hardly wait for the beef to finish. He had just about come to the decision that ‘rare’ was good enough when a different noise echoed through the doors…a voice.
“Breaker one-nine…” It was a woman’s voice…familiar. “I’m looking for my good buddy.” It was Big Red. “So c’mon now…don’t be bashful; if you’re still out there King-Wheeler, kick it in son. I ain’t got all day. Over.” Hershel nearly tripped over himself with the need to rush back to the CB, sending the plate with his freshly made cheeseburger tumbling to the floor. The split-second of utterly devastating disappointment in the loss of a second burger on the night, was quickly overcome by the elation of hearing his old friend out there. It was so loud and so clear…she had to be close.
He took several deep breaths before speaking in to the receiver.
“Big Red Mama…is that you? Oh please God tell me you can hear me. Over.” A painfully long number of seconds passed without a reply and Hershel could feel moisture gathering at the corners of his eyes. After the age of sixteen, Hershel King had cried exactly three times in his life. He cried when his father died, he cried when his mother died and he cried when Larry Bird retired. He wasn’t what you would call an emotional man, but in those tense seconds of silence there was a terrified child trying to break free and the only thing that kept him from breaking down completely was the saving grace of Big Red’s countrified voice; his rough-neck angel.
“Are you okay, King? Are you hurt?” There was no jovial greeting. Even though they hadn’t spoken in almost a year, she knew his voice immediately and from its tone that something was wrong. “Tell me what’s going on. Over.”
“Oh Geez, Red. I don’t even know where to start. I need for you to contact the police for me. Tell them I’m at the Big-J Truck Stop off eighty-one and I need help. Tell them to send someone. Tell them to send everyone. Over.”
“Hershel…dammit. Tell me what the hell’s going on.” The anxiousness could be heard in her voice now. She didn’t like not knowing what type of trouble her friend was in, especially when she thought of him as more of a son than a friend anyway. “I don’t like this. Over.”
“Please Julie…just call the police. Call them now. Hurry. Over.” She was back on only a moment later.
“I’ve got 911 on my cellphone now, Hershel. Now tell me what is happening so I can tell them. Over.” How exactly was he do go about doing that?
“Please Julie…just tell them to get to the Big-J as quickly as possible. I don’t know how much I can say right now. Over.” He meant that more literally than she would probably ever know. Julie didn’t push it, however, sensing his apprehension to elaborate.
“Listen King…I’m maybe twenty or thirty minutes out from the Big-J myself and I’ll be there as quickly as I can. The police say they’re on the way…along with an ambulance and the fire department so you should have a crowd there any minute. Over.” Part of him screamed internally to warn her; to make her stay away. There was a bigger part, however, that wanted to see Big Red Mama’s pink eighteen-wheeler roll into the parking lot like a Pepto-colored superhero. He wanted to see her face on the other side of the glass telling him that “they’d have him out in no time”. If he were being perfectly honest with himself, outside his wife and sons, there probably wasn’t anyone else he would have rather seen.
“Thank God for you, Julie. Just…thank God. I can’t even begin to tell you…you may have just saved my life.” Tears were beginning to pool in the corners of his blood-shot eyes. “Please just stay on the channel with me until you get here. Over.” Simultaneous to the word ‘over’ coming out of his mouth the power to the Big-J was cut and every bulb in the place went dark, smothering him with an instant envelope of darkness. He was completely blind. The re-chargeable battery in the CB had only retained the smallest of charges in its short time being plugged into an outlet but it was enough to broadcast Big Red Mama’s reply.
“I’m not going anywhere, King. I’m right here.” Hershel heard her words echoing out and it was the only thing that kept him from the insanity of being completely lost in an abyss. “I’ll always be here for you, you old fool.” Julie’s words filled the precious seconds until the emergency generator kicked in, bring the sporadically placed emergency lights to life. The Big-J had become an eerie, shadow-filled version of its former self; the dim lighting doing little more than giving a sense of shapes without definition. “So you just hold on…you’re the friggin’ King-Wheeler, for Pete’s sake. You’re gonna be okay and I want to hear you say it. Over.”
Hershel raised the receiver to his lips and depressed the lever. He was going to say, “I’m going to be okay”; had full intention of saying it…but the words were left frozen in his mouth. For the first time all night he looked outside…really looked outside. Of course, he had glanced that way and seen the windows in his periphery all evening but there was nothing to see. It was night…it was dark out; there had been too much going on inside this damn place to really think about it. Except now…now it was all he could think of.
It had been cold when he got out of his truck earlier, but also cloudless. It was nearly a full moon and Hershel had even marveled at the bright driving conditions while he was on the road. Even with the poor illumination of the exterior emergency lights which were just as sparsely placed, there should have been no issue seeing his truck parked less than a hundred yards away…or, for that matter, anything in the parking lot at all. There was no way of saying for certain that his truck was no longer there, but it sure as hell looked that way.
The pitch black that had just gripped his throat seconds before seemed to expand endlessly beyond the poorly lit walls of the truck-stop. It was an incomprehensible vision and Hershel, letting the CB receiver slide from his hand, walked to the closest window in a shell-shocked trance; unaware even, of smashing his hip into the corner of a table. Somewhere in his mind the fact that serious pain had occurred was being micro-managed to a location the conscious wouldn’t have to deal with as it was already fully engaged with trying to referee the battle between bewilderment and fear.
Hershel pressed his face up to the glass, getting his eyes as close to the window as possible without actually making contact. One of the pitiful, exterior emergency bulbs was mounted just above the window, casting its twenty-five watts of luminance with all the effectiveness of a flash-light in a black hole and he strained to make out anything beyond the small orb. Looking for anything…any shape or line or light…basically whatever he could use to differentiate the overwhelming blackness. Finding some kind of something in the darkness would, at very least, alleviate the sickening sensation that was overcoming him; the one that said the reason he couldn’t see shapes in the oppressive pall outside that window was because the darkness, itself, was…alive.
Adjusting his vision from far to near, he became aware of some movement. He had missed it at first because he was so absorbed with looking beyond the little portion of light provided. Drifting through the small ray were little black flakes which looked like fluffy snowflakes falling in an unexposed picture. Was that…ash? The little pieces flittered through the meager light so quickly it was impossible to fixate on one in particular. They weren’t gray, but nearly as dark and black as the abyss they came from. There were no indications of any piece having been something familiar that had burned away…something he might recognize. It was just black snow.
Overcome with dizziness, he gripped the window-frame with both hands to steady himself. It didn’t really help. There was a strong indication that he might have been experiencing ‘tunnel-vision’ but given the vast degree of darkness Hershel was peering into, it was impossible to tell. It could have been his own impending unconsciousness that ate away at his periphery…or it could have been the black hell he was staring down that was doing the eating. Either way, he could feel himself slipping away. Somewhere, at the end of a long corridor, he could hear Julie calling his name…at least, he thought it was his name. It was a troubling last thought before all light was vanquished: did he still have a name?
Julie was in a foul mood. Frankly…she had every right to be. She had made it damn clear to James a dozen times or more that she wasn’t working weekends anymore. She didn’t have to! Julie Merchant, the god-mother of the East-Coast Eighteen-Wheelers, had put enough tar on her tires to retire twice over if she felt so inclined. She definitely didn’t need to be pulling a Saturday-Sunday for a balding pencil-pusher half her age. Thing is…she would have retired already if she could get the highway out of her blood; it was worse than cancer.
Every time she told James Marigold that she was going to turn her keys in, the little man would beg…literally…on his hands and knees, for her to stay a little longer. He would promise her that she could set her own schedule and that probably would have been the case if the trusting fool didn’t keep hiring pot-head drivers who keep getting busted with weed at the ‘random’ weigh-station stops. She finally had to step in and put her foot down that no one else in a Bob Marley tee-shirt gets a shot behind the wheel. The driver, currently cooling their heels in the county jail, who should’ve been on this route had dreadlocks to his waist and a thick Rastafari accent; which might not have been a dead giveaway alone but combined with the fact that he was a white kid from the Jersey suburbs…well…James should have known better.
Julie couldn’t help but to wonder if his nativity was the result of hopeful good-heartedness or just plain stupidity. In the end however, major deficiencies and all, Julie actually really liked the man. He was honest to a fault and always did his best to treat all the drivers with the same respect and considerations for their requests. It was true that Julie had been dragged in to cover his ass on more than one occasion but there were also those times when he had covered hers. It wasn’t that she felt that she owed him in the ‘he did for me now I have to do for him’ sort of way, but rather the way you feel obligated to help a friend. Julie would never say it to his face, but yea…she thought of him as a friend.
This is what she was telling her daughter as she passed the one-eighty mile-marker. They shared a laugh before she, begrudgingly, let Jeri hang up the phone to put her girls to bed with a story but not before, however, she made little Sarah and Mary both say “goodnight” to Nana on speaker-phone first. What Julie really wanted was for Jeri to keep the speaker on so she could listen to the bed-time story as well, but her cell-phone was already notifying her of its ‘low battery’ status. Julie would have had to pull over to plug in her phone, which was another proper protocol that James’s chumps never seemed to grasp; one almost causing a three-car pile-up while reaching for his charger. Instead, she hung up the phone with several “Mwah, mwah, mwah’s” and made a mental note to get her charging base back from Jeri’s husband Mark in the near future.
She contemplated the radio momentarily but, for no reason she could justify, decided to flip on the CB radio instead. Big Red Mama was well beyond the days of speeding and she knew the hours and locations of every weigh-station in the tri-state area so there was no need of any informational input. In all honestly, there were apps for all those things now anyway. The only thing she could deduce was that the long conversation with her daughter had put her in the mood for more. Odds were against finding anyone with half a brain on the road this early in the morning, but…you never knew. Involuntarily, her mind went to King-Wheeler.
It had been months since she’d spoken to the man but, back in the day, they had some pretty deep conversations. There was a very good possibility the he knew her better than anyone else in her life did. The anonymity of the early days provided a sense of comfort and, much like one does with a priest in confessional, she shared things with him that never seemed appropriate to share with anyone else. He knew about her abortion…her affair…her disappointment with having never pursued a career in acting. When she was in the hospital with breast cancer, that crazy-fool drove four hundred miles to visit her…it was the first time they had met in person. Julie loved that other old timer and had she not been almost twenty years his senior she might have made a move on him. He always said he liked women with long, red hair.
The CB fizzed to life and before she could even break the line, it was crackling with a flurry of activity. Several men trying to speak over one another and seemingly having difficulty the simple concept the Citizen’s Band Radio provided. For a moment, it was too much…a cacophony of idiots…and she reached her hand forward to flip it off again. Were it not for a rare moment of clarity, when only one person was speaking, in which she heard both “King-Wheeler” and “Big Red Mama” one after the other. It was more than a little freaky given that she was just thinking about her old friend and she yanked the receiver from the cradle. With any luck, something as simple as the voice of a woman might get them to shut up long enough to figure out why they were talking about her.
“Breaker one-nine…breaker one-nine. I need you tar-puppies to shut it now.” She was taking command of the situation, much as she was ought to do. “This is Big Red Mama. No…I’m not shitting you and yes…this is for real. I heard my name and I heard ‘Big-Wheeler’. Whoever said that needs to come back at me and tell me why. Everyone else please shut the hell up for a second. Over.” There were a few actual seconds of silence before a somewhat timid voice finally replied.
“Wow Miss Big Red Mama…it’s a real honor. That was me. Over.” Julie shook her head in frustration.
“Great… ‘Me’…you want to tell me why? Over.” She hoped the frustration was evident in her voice even though she was making a concerted effort not to be more of a bitch.
“Yea…yea…sorry. This is Dixie Whistler, by the way…and, I don’t know if I said but…it’s a real honor. You’re the second living-legend I’ve talked to tonight. I can’t wait to tell my wife. Uh…but yea…it was King-Wheeler I talked to earlier and I was just kind of bragging about getting to talk to him. He was the one who brought up your name. I guess he was looking for you. Over.” Julie was uniformly disappointed with the other driver’s answer. Much like herself, King was looking for her as well…and now…she had probably just missed him.
“Did he say which way he was heading, Dixie Whistler? Over.” The radio was silent for so long, she began to wonder if he had gone out of reach.
Finally, “Yea…sorry…I dropped my cigarette and nearly burned a hole in my ass-cheek.” Lovely, Julie thought. “Anyway, I believe he said he was going to catch his eight hours at the Big-J on the border. Over.” That actually worked out well because she was only an hour away from the truck-stop herself. She hadn’t planned on stopping there but she was sure that Hershel would have a meal with her, even if she had to knock on his truck and wake him up to do it. One of the secrets she knew about him was the fact that he could awaken very easily and then fall back asleep even easier. He wouldn’t mind.
Fortunately, the channel went relatively quiet again with the conversationalists leaving for a private channel where they could exchange jokes too crude to tell while a lady was ‘present’. When she was about fifty miles from the truck-stop she took a stab at her friend again. He did promise to always have his radio on when he was in her neck of the woods. Jeri said they were both dinosaurs anyway for relying on such an archaic form of communication, but it had a certain romance to it. She liked it for the same reason that people enjoyed listening to vinyl records instead of CDs.
“Breaker one-nine…I’m looking for my good buddy.” This was going to be her last try anyway before just showing up. “So c’mon now…don’t be bashful; if you’re still out there King-Wheeler, kick it in son. I ain’t got all day. Over.” She was fairly certain that he was probably asleep in his cabin by now and, given his penchant for light-sleeping, the CB was probably turned off…promise or no promise. It was actually a bit of a surprise when she did hear his voice.
“Big Red Mama…is that you? Oh please God tell me you can hear me. Over.” There was something about the tone of his voice that caught her off-guard. Obviously the quality of the radio wasn’t such that he sounded like he was right next to her but…she still heard it. Julie had heard it in her daughter’s voice and even in her own…but never in Hershel’s. It was fear. It took her a moment to respond but when she did, it was all business.
“Are you okay, King? Are you hurt? Tell me what’s going on. Over.” She felt pin-pricks of anxiousness crawling down her spine. It was instinctual…primal; but she knew something was going to be very wrong.
“Oh Geez, Red. I don’t even know where to start. I need for you to contact the police for me. Tell them I’m at the Big-J Truck Stop off eighty-one and I need help. Tell them to send someone. Tell them to send everyone. Over.” Police? ‘Send everyone’? Knowing the man, the way she did, he was not inclined to crying wolf. If he needed the police, she would call the police.
“Hershel…dammit. Tell me what the hell’s going on.” Going very much against her personal ‘two-hand’ code, Julie picked up her dying cell phone with one hand while still holding the CB receiver in the other; all the while balancing the steering wheel between them. She dialed 911. “I don’t like this. Over.” She said as it rang twice.
“Please Julie…just call the police. Call them now. Hurry. Over.”
“I’m doing the best I can,” she said only to herself, having not pressed the speaking lever on the CB that time. An operator connected her an Officer Leeway who seemed to want more information than she had at the moment. “Hold on,” she told the cop so that she could put the cell on speaker phone.
“I’ve got 911 on my cellphone now, Hershel. Now tell me what is happening so I can tell them. Over.” This time for the cell-phone only, “can you hear us well enough?”
Officer Leeway had just enough time for a “just barely, ma’am” when Hershel broke back in.
“Please Julie…just tell them to get to the Big-J as quickly as possible. I don’t know how much I can say right now. Over.” The fact that Hershel had used her name instead of her handle shook her more than anything. That was something he just didn’t do, except perhaps an extremely rare circumstance and only on a private channel. She was suddenly scared to death for her old friend.
“Miss Merchant,” the officer spoke from his end. “Tell your friend that we are on the way. We understand that this might be a hostage situation of something just as fluid in nature so we are preparing for a number of scenarios. Tell you friend to hang tight…help is on the way.” Julie wanted to say thanks but the IPhone had just given its very last. Saying ‘screw it’ to the ‘two-hand’ rule altogether, she leaned over and rummaged through the glove-box for her charger while still trying to talk to Hershel.
“Listen King…I’m maybe twenty or thirty minutes out from the Big-J myself and I’ll be there as quickly as I can. The police say they’re on the way…along with an ambulance and the fire department so you should have a crowd there any minute. Over.” There was no way to verify how long it would take them in reality, since the 911 call had been cut short but she felt certain that they wouldn’t have treated it as a prank call simply because they got disconnected. To make matters worse, it seemed that she may have just forgotten her phone-charger after all.
“Thank God for you, Julie. Just…thank God. I can’t even begin to tell you…you may have just saved my life. Please just stay on the channel with me until you get here. Over.” The pain and vulnerability in Hershel’s voice literally made her sick. It was like a punch in the gut and she could not have been more afraid if it were a member of her own family on the other end of that radio frequency. She wanted, more than anything, to be able to reach out and put her hand on his.
“I’m not going anywhere, King. I’m right here.” She paused, not sure what the most comforting words she could come up with should be. “I’ll always be here for you, you old fool. So you just hold on…you’re the friggin’ King-Wheeler, for Pete’s sake. You’re gonna be okay and I want to hear you say it. Over.” It was quiet for a full thirty seconds and her heart began to pound a little harder with each one that passed. She tried again. “Hershel…what’s going on? Are you there? Over.” Thirty more seconds. “Hershel…dammit talk to me. Hershel! Say something! Over!” A minute later and the two-lane highway she was barreling down began to blur with the tears in her eyes.
“Hershel. Please. Hershel.” He was gone. It took another ten minutes for Big Red Mama to pull off the interstate and into the truck-stop parking lot with more speed than was safe. Her brakes squealed and tires smoked as she brought the rig to an awkward stop, several yards behind the fire-truck. She jumped out of her cab and was quickly met by an officer who verified that she was the one who placed the 911 call before leading her by the arm past the array of flashing police cars and ambulances. The cop handed her off to a different, female, officer once they were in the lobby of the Big-J; apparently thinking that she might become emotional to the degree that a male officer wouldn’t be able to handle it.
Officer Miranda Martinez, with as much care as she could muster, led Julie further into the dining room.
“What’s going on?” Julie asked, confused. The cop stopped and turned to her.
“I don’t understand,” now she was the one who seemed confused. “Did no one tell you why you’re in here?” Julie shook her head.
“He just brought me in to you.” Miranda joined her in the head shaking as well.
“Well shit. That’s just grand.” She put her hand on Julie’s shoulder. “You’re Miss…”
“Merchant,” Julie finished for her.
“Miss Merchant…I’m very sorry,” she motioned towards a booth in the corner and the body on the floor beneath the sheet. “But we need for you to identify the body if you can. You know…so we can set about to notifying the family.” The violent, heaving sobs came without notice in the instant she saw the familiar form lying under white linen and they gripped her entire body. Julie allowed herself to be lowered into a seat by the cop and a waitress who brought her a cup of coffee as well and called her “sweetheart” more than once with a thick, twangy accent.
It took a full twenty minutes for her breathing to return to normal and they were all very patient with her…given the circumstances. When it took another twenty minutes for her to work up the nerve to identify the body, several of “authorities” on site were show signs of having better things to do. Eventually she did look, however, and…it was Hershel. The body was removed and Julie stayed, comatose with the shock of having just lost her friend. How could this have happened? She had just spoken to him fifteen minutes ago.
Eventually, “Tammy” settled into a seat across from her with a piece of complimentary pie for her and a piece for herself, along with two fresh cups of coffee.
“You want to talk about it, Sweetheart?” she asked and Julie could tell that the woman was sincere; and…she did want to talk about it. Although the thought of pie revolted her in that moment. She sipped the coffee instead.
“Tammy,” she met the waitress’s eyes, “What happened? How did he…die?” Tammy took another bite before shaking her head and putting her hand on Julie’s.
“Oh Sweetie…he didn’t suffer none. It was about as peaceful as you could ask for really. He ordered some food…drank some beer.” She cleared the pie with a sip of java. “I went back a bit later to see if he wants another beer and he’s out cold. Sleeping. Snoring kind of…so I just leave him alone. Not the first time a driver’s crashed at my table. I usually let ‘em sleep till their foods up then I’ll wake ‘em. Which is what I tried to do with your friend…but when I got back with his food…” Tammy trailed off…tears starting to pool in her own bright, blue eyes.
“He was gone. I guess he just died in his sleep.” Julie grabbed the fork from the table and gripped it until her fist hurt. She wanted to reach across the table and jam it in the lying bitch’s forehead. For the life of her, she couldn’t figure out why this woman would want to mess with her like this but it was beyond bad taste. It was cruel. Tammy could feel the intensity of Julie’s glare and, suddenly becoming very uncomfortable, excused herself to some non-existent chore. After a few more minutes, Julie, full of fury and pain, forced herself from the table and stumbled back to her rig and the little bed in the cabin. It wasn’t her intention to fall asleep but the intense emotional drain had exhausted her to the point of being unable to fight it.
When she woke ten hours later, Hershel’s death was the top story on the local news and their version perfectly matched that of Tammy’s. Julie was forced to come to terms with the fact that, barring a major conspiracy involving the police, media and a country-fried waitress in the middle of nowhere, it wasn’t actually Hershel that she spoke to on the CB. Of course, she knew that was bullshit, but what would have been the point of pursuing that avenue further? The police had no interest in questioning her…not even to ask why she called 911 in the first place. As far as all parties were concerned it was just one of those things; an old trucker dies of natural causes. Just sweep it under the rug and move on.
For Julie, however, it was and always would be significantly more than that. It was, perhaps more than anything, the catalyst for the retirement of Big Red Mama; both the trucker and citizen’s band personality. She no longer had the desire to be on the road…and away from family. Life was too short.