09 Jan Long Haul
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"Long Haul"Written by
Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
You hear a lot of stories when you work in a truck shop. Sometimes it’s your fellow mechanics. They talk about that idiot driver who rolled in with half his brake chambers just dangling from their airlines, or the time they started a truck that had been sitting for a while and a whole family of possums flew out from under the hood, or maybe the old guy they used to work with who could turn a four hundred horse motor up to six with nothing but fifteen minutes and a screwdriver. You also hear from the drivers themselves, usually boasts or just silly stuff they’ve seen on the road. Occasionally they tell spook stories: Glowing eyes on the shoulder that didn’t look like they belonged to any animal, hitchhikers that disappeared from the passenger seat, weird lights in the sky. Silly stuff for the most part, tall tales told with a wink and a chuckle. With, of course, the one exception that I’m here writing about, and that exception was told to me by a trucker we’ll call Jim.
Jim brought his truck into the shop on a Tuesday morning in the middle of November. I’d never met him before, but he’d been coming to our shop for a while since before I was hired. Some other guys at work said he was a good man, though he always seemed to be down. They figured he’d lost a wife or child, and didn’t press him about it. His truck was a red and white International Eagle, CAT-powered, and he brought it in because it was starting hard and losing power. A couple new air and fuel filters later, and the rig was back in shape.
Jim’d shown up pretty early, and since it hadn’t taken me that long to get everything squared away, it was about time for my break. Jim didn’t seem to be leaving right that second, so I stayed out in the shop to make conversation. You don’t see too many of those 9300 Eagles, so I asked him if he liked his truck.
“Oh, it’s a nice rig,” he said. “’S’got a real nice cab, engine pulls hard, and it doesn’t spend an unreasonable amount of time in the shop. Not my favorite truck I’ve ever driven, but not the worst by a long shot.”
“Which one was your favorite?” I replied.
Jim thought a moment and said, “That was my old Superliner, the truck I had before I picked up this Eagle. Now that was a rig. I ordered it brand-new from the Mack dealer, with the 450-horse V8, the Maxitorque 12-speed, and Mack bogie rears. The old style, back when they still made them. Man, I loved that truck, from the first time I drove it, until…” A pained, almost haggard look clouded his face as he cut off. “…until I, ah, didn’t have it anymore.”
I assumed he’d been in a wreck bad enough to destroy the truck, and stayed quiet, not wanting to bring up any more bad memories than I already had. Jim, however, continued talking. He stared at the floor, talking so quietly I think he was only half speaking to me. “I always think about how I lost that truck this time of year. No matter what I do to forget, it’s always with me, you know, the knowledge that that thing is still out there. It’s too strong to die. I could tell that even only seeing it for a second.” His head snapped up, all of a sudden, and he looked at me. The look on his face was like nothing I’ve seen. It was almost the same expression a sick or hurt animal has, a look of painful bewilderment that says, “Why me?” He didn’t say anything, but there was a silent question on that face. Filled with anxious curiosity, I tentatively nodded for him to continue. At that, he began to tell his story, and I’ll relate it here, as clearly as I can.
None of it would have happened if it hadn’t been for my cousin wrecking his Harley. He drove truck too, and the job was supposed to have been his. I didn’t hear about it until he called me from his room at the hospital, where he was staying after skidding his Electra-Glide off the side of a mountain road and down a 200-foot rocky slope. He’d broke an arm, his foot, and a couple of ribs, and he called me from his bed. “Jim,” he said as soon as I picked up the phone, “have I ever got some news for you.” He told me he’d been contacted by a firm out of Yonkers, New York to haul a single load cross-country to the middle of nowhere in New Mexico. They’d only wanted owner-operators, and they hadn’t even bother to post ads, simply calling those whom they thought suited them. They called themselves Fordham-North Organized Research and Development, and my cousin’s questions about why he’d never heard of them were quickly silenced when they told him what they’d be paying him, and then sent a full third of that impressive sum to him up front. Fordham told him that they were providing everything but the truck and driver, and all he’d need to do was show up at their loading dock, hook up to their trailer, and drive it out to their “New Mexico office,” a location so remote its address was a mile marker on some barely-used state route.
My cousin’d managed to get this much out of the tight-lipped people at Fordham when he crashed his bike. It was only a week before he was scheduled to show up at their office, and (he said to me over the phone) he’d called them not only to report his inability to run their load, but also that he knew someone who could, that “someone” being me. And, to top it all off, he said that Fordham had agreed to hire me in his place, and that I’d be getting a call very soon.
Indeed, I only had to wait until the next day to get the call. “I am calling from Fordham-North Research and Development,” the voice on the other end of the phone said after I’d identified myself. “We have a trucking job to offer you.” The voice was deep and garbled such that I could barely understand it through the scratchy connection.
“Is this the same one you offered to my cousin”- Here I said his name- “a few weeks ago?”
“Yes,” the guy on the other end of the phone answered. “You’ll be carrying one load on a flatbed trailer, from our office in Yonkers to our facility in New Mexico. We will provide the trailer. You will be paid”-he named a number high enough I almost thought he was joking-“with one third to be sent up front as a check payable to you.”
This guy was talking like I’d already taken the job, and in my head I guess I had. I still had one question, though. “What is this load I’ll be carrying?”
There was a pause on the other end of the phone. “…Unfortunately, I’m unable to discuss that over the phone. For the purposes of corporate security, you understand.”
“Er…of course,” I said back. I supposed this unwillingness to talk about the cargo was why they were paying up front. “When and where should I show up?”
I hashed out the details with the voice on the line, and then hung up. Even with the promise of upfront payment, the whole thing felt a bit hinky, especially the refusal to discuss the cargo. However, a few days later a check for the promised amount appeared in the mail, and a few days after that, I made the trip to Yonkers to pick up my load.
Fordham’s office was on 2323 Atlantic Lane. Don’t bother trying to find it, I’ve already tried. According to all the sources I’ve checked, there never was such a building on such a street in Yonkers, but I assure you I was there that day. It was a low, nondescript building of cinderblock, with steel doors and few windows. It was set away from the surrounding properties, and was enclosed by a high fence topped with coiled razor wire. At the time I thought that this was because the place happened to be in a rough neighborhood, but I’ve become more and more convinced that this was just cover. I pulled my Mack into their driveway, and swung around back to what I assumed was the loading dock. What I found there was quite strange.
The first thing I noticed was the gleaming trailer parked in the middle of the gravel yard. The red paint was shiny and unblemished, and I was sure it had never seen any use beyond being delivered here. Sitting on it was my cargo, with a few guys just finishing up strapping a tarp down over it. Its silhouette was that of a cylinder cut in half lengthwise and resting on the flat part, similar to a Quonset hut. I managed to glimpse a dark steel surface with “AKASHA V” stenciled on it before it was obscured by the final corner of the tarp. Standing on the loading dock itself was a small man in a dark suit, and a couple of stocky guys wearing jeans, long shirts, and bulging jackets. I parked my truck off to the side and hopped out.
I was immediately greeted by the man in the suit. “I am Dr. Inire,” he said as he stuck out his hand, “and you must be Jim. A pleasure.” He sounded harried, and I noticed his hand shaking a little.
I shook it and replied, “That’s me.”
“Yes, thank you for taking this job,” Doctor Inire continued in the same rushed tone. “While I hate to be rude, time is really of the essence here. So, if you would, please, ah…” he waved a hand at the trailer.
“Of course, Doc,” I said soothingly. “I’ll get on the road in just a minute. But first, do you mind telling me what this thing is? Whoever I talked to on the phone didn’t say.”
At this, he looked even more nervous. Licking his lips, he told me “I-I’m afraid I cannot, sir. For the purposes of, ah, corporate security, yes. Our people have gotten it secured and covered for you already.”
Hearing this ticked me off. “I’m not going to haul it if I don’t know what it is. And while it looks like your guys did a good job with that tarp, I’m going to have to take it off to check the restraints on your-your whatever it is, anyway.” Silence followed this last part. The two bulky men up on the loading dock shifted and turned their heads to look at me.
Dr. Inire looked at me, and with a shock I realized that he was shaking. He quickly paced over to the trailer, and I turned and followed. “I assure you, sir that all precautions-every precaution-have been taken to make this cargo safe to transport. However, I must continue to insist that you get in your truck, hitch to this trailer, and go.”
“That-that’s completely unreasonable!” I spluttered. “No way am I hauling this thing when you won’t even let me check if it’s tied down right. I’ll hop back in my truck all right, but I’m heading straight home, not”- A heavy hand clapped down on my shoulder before I could turn around. It was one of the men that had been standing on the loading dock, and his grip was like a vise. The other one slid between Dr. Inire and I, saying nothing. This close I could see that the long shirt was concealing a kit belt, like one a policeman would wear. Judging by his bulky jacket, he had more accoutrements hidden under there as well.
“I implore you to reconsider, Jim,” said Dr. Inire from behind the goon. “I give you my word that the cargo is nothing illegal. Simply take it to its destination, receive your payment, and never think of us again. That will be easiest for all of us.”
I remained silent for a moment as I considered his words. This whole thing seemed too highbrow for a drug operation, it was true. Maybe I really had stumbled onto some kind of corporate crap, though that still didn’t seem like a good explanation. It was almost a moot point, though; I could tell that if I didn’t do as Dr. Inire said my visit to Yonkers would end badly. “Okay, Doc. I’ll take your cargo where it needs to go. No need for your friends here. Inire blinked and nodded to the goons, and they backed off. Without another word, I got into my Mack, hitched up to Fordham’s lowboy, and drove the hell out of there.
Until I hit Texas the trip was uneventful, if somber. A thousand times I thought about pulling over and looking at what the hell I was hauling, and a thousand times I thought about just dumping the thing somewhere and getting it out of my life. I never did either, though. The thought of the money waiting for me when I delivered the load was a factor, as well as the thought that Inire and his cronies might have something in place that would reveal any tampering I did. The whole thing was shady enough that I was also worried about watchers keeping tabs on me as I drove. And, finally, there was the thought that maybe I really didn’t want to know whatever it was I was carrying. The thought of Inire’s nervousness when I’d seen him made me nervous in turn.
So, I made my way into West Texas, the wide empty desert country where the road hardly turns, with my cargo still unknown and attached. It was late at night, almost two, and the stars were shining brightly when I heard something hit the back of the sleeper with a sound like a gunshot. I immediately slowed and pulled over. After turning on my flashers and grabbing a flashlight, I hopped out to see what was going on.
Sure enough, there was a sold dent in the back of my sleeper, about the size of a child’s fist. I looked for several minutes, but could find nothing that had let loose. I assumed a freak rock had been flung up from one of the tires, and got back in the cab. Maybe if the light had been better, I would have seen a small hole in the tarp, but it honestly wouldn’t have mattered.
It was about 45 minutes after I stopped that I noticed something was wrong. The radio lost signal and started hissing static, so I switched it off and tried to keep myself awake by looking for constellations. I’d known them ever since I was a little kid, but I was having no luck now. The stars were wrong, utterly wrong. Not even Venus, Jupiter, or the North Star showed. I stared at them as much as I could while I drove, but nothing changed. These were not the stars of earth I was looking at. It was about now that I realized the opposite lane of the interstate was gone, and no cars were visible in mine.
At first I thought I was just sleep-deprived, or forgetting how this area looked, but soon I knew there was no excuse for what I was seeing. There were no lines on the road anymore; it was just a strip of cracked asphalt. The terrain around me was flat and barren, with not even a scrub bush to be seen. The only landmarks were massive obelisks of basalt, roughly carved and standing upright in pairs along the road. Soon the stars were not stars anymore, but points of black surrounded by cruel coronas of dim light. The northern lights, or some form of them at least, appeared in front of me, colossal sheets of red and blue and green which hurt my eyes, as if they extended out of the spectrum I could see. There was a strong crosswind blowing, and it carried dust with it. The air coming in through my vent window smelled of alkali and electricity, and soon I closed it.
The road continued arrow-straight between the standing stones. I was terrified, locked in my seat. I didn’t want to keep driving, but I wanted to stop even less. The wind howled against the cab continuously, buffeting me this way and that, and its bitter chemical tang was in my nostrils. The basalt obelisks had grown taller and taller as I drove, and now I drove beneath a massive dolmen whose capstone hung over the road. It was at least a hundred feet high, and when I emerged from its shadow, I saw that the black stars were changing again. Their feeble coronas dimmed, but the black points at their center got darker and darker. I can’t describe how they looked. They were gone, yet I knew they were there, gleaming with un-light.
Still, I drove. I’ve no idea how long it was; when I tried to find out I saw that the clock was stopped. The aurora still shone ahead of me. I began to see shapes in it, and faces. Slowly, slowly, it dimmed as the stars had, until it disappeared completely. The only light in the world was coming out of the four headlights on my Superliner, but somehow I could still see the dust fields around me in that dark un-light from the stars. It confused the eye, but was hard not to look at, so hard that I almost lost control of the truck at one point.
Blinking rapidly, I looked in my mirrors and saw something that I still see when I try to fall asleep. The world itself was coming undone behind me. The landscape itself was changing, changing from regular matter to something else, something of the same nature as the painful darkness projected by the alien stars in the sky. This shocked of my mental lock, and I realized there was only one thing that could possibly help me; but first, I would have to stop.
Carefully coming to a stop, I put the truck in neutral, put on the parking brake, gulped, and stepped out of the cab. Immediately, the wind hit me in the face like a slap. It smelled like ozone and alkali chemicals, a smell that was the opposite of life as we think of it, and the ashy gray dust it carried was like sandpaper on my skin. Somehow, the lightless light from the stars was much more intense without the windshield to look through, and my head began to ache immediately. Head down, I ran towards the back of the truck, ready to get rid of whatever crime against existence I’d been paid to move. However, when I got back there, I stopped dead in my tracks. The front of the tarp had become unhooked.
Finally, I had a good look at my cargo. It was a heavy steel pressure vessel, with the flat semicircular end cap that faced me held on by bolts the size of my thumb. Or, at least, it had been. One of the bolts had stripped free completely, its empty hole lining up exactly with the dent in my sleeper. The ones that were left were all stretched or bent, and the seam in the vessel which resulted was seeping the same stuff as the world was rapidly becoming, the same undefinable, indescribable stuff (I sure won’t call it matter) which this place’s stars were made of. Even as I reached for the release lever that would decouple the trailer from my truck, I saw the end cap’s central feature: a viewport.
At first I couldn’t make out anything through it, but as the swirling darkness inside cleared I saw that the inside of the vessel was much smaller than it should have, or even could have been, only a few feet across. It was as if the space inside was compressed. Then, the un-light inside coalesced into a curled-up form, like a fetus colored darker than black.
It turned to me and opened its eyes.
I only saw it for a fraction of a second before I ripped my gaze away, but that instant was enough. It saw me, and saw through me, saw everything I was and had been and would me. I don’t think it perceives time as we do, is what I mean. Once, it had been human. I picked up that much. When I saw it though, it couldn’t have been farther from a person. It was something to whom the governing principles of our universe were of no consequence, and only the steel vessel its creators had built for it before it matured was keeping it in check. It told me all this, you know, shoved it straight into my brain like an ice pick. It told me it would end me if it was free, but I didn’t get a feeling of malice from it. I think that I was a fly to it, of perhaps more like a virus, barely alive compared to it. I see its face every night, and nothing will make it go away.
After I tore my eyes away from the god in the vessel, I yanked the trailer release, dashed back to the cab, and put the hammer down. As I drove farther and farther away from the thing, the un-light lessened in intensity and the standing stones grew smaller. Finally, I drove beneath a dolmen barely higher than my truck, and was nearly blinded by the dawn on the Texas prairie.
I frantically checked my mirrors, and when I saw nothing but regular old interstate flush with the pink light of sunrise, I pulled over, got out of my cab, and wept, sucking in the clean, cool air in gasps. After a few minutes I felt capable of driving, if nowhere near recovered, so I got back into my truck.
For some reason the final dolmen had spat me out facing east, though I’d entered that…place heading west and hadn’t turned around. I wasn’t about to find out what the criminals against reality at Fordham had waiting for me in in New Mexico. I was now sure that they were merely a front for the same type of government spooks that run Area 51 and Los Alamos, and I’d gotten caught up in their attempts to keep a low profile. I didn’t care if they were keeping tabs on me; I just wanted to be home, and so I bobtailed all the way back to Pennsylvania without resting, parked my truck, and slept for around two days straight.
When I got up, I was greeted by a sad sight. My truck, the truck that had carried me through and out of what I call in my head the Dark Place, was rusting into the ground, the fine steel of its construction flaking into rough gray powder and falling apart even as I watched. In the few hours after I woke, it had fallen almost completely apart. I think the radiation that the stars there put out did something to it, something that changed it so it couldn’t hold itself together. I worried for a while that I would fall apart too, and though I was quite sick for a few weeks after getting back I managed to recover.
I had some money saved, so I was able to buy a cheap old truck and keep doing my job. My cousin asked me about the Fordham job, and I told him to promise to never say anything about it again. He kept that promise until he died a few years ago.
I never heard anything from “Fordham,” whoever they really were, nor did any shadowy G-men show up at my door. I know, though, that the thing I carried across half the country still exists though, somewhere or when. I don’t think it’s capable of experiencing death, in fact. I’ve never seen it again, though, and for that I’m glad.
Jim finished his tale with that, and sighed. He stared at his shoes for a moment, muttered “I’m sorry,” then started his truck and left. I never saw him after that, and I heard a few weeks later that he’d died when a drunk driver swerved into his lane and hit him head-on. I’ve got no idea if his story is true or not, but it sure sounded like he believed it. I guess the lesson, if there is one, is that there are roads to dark places out there, and you never know where or whom they’ll lead to.
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