Miller’s Junction by Julian Grant

Miller’s Junction by Julian Grant

Ned Miller hated how the room still stank of her death. He’d forever think of the lavender air freshener she insisted he spray every hour to cut back on the smells from her bed. He didn’t care about any of that – but she wanted it. He’d watched her rot away in the living room, her hospital bed replacing the couch recliner set they’d still been paying for. He’d moved everything out to the garage once she couldn’t climb the stairs anymore and set up her hospice here in the front. She didn’t want to go anywhere else to finish up.

Not that he blamed her.

Ned and Pat Miller had been solitary people keeping mostly to themselves. She’d made a nice financial contribution every month selling jewelry she’d buy up cheap from estate sales nearby and he made enough to keep them comfortable anyway but Pat had insisted she do something. They maintained.

“I can’t give you children, let me at least contribute to the mortgage, okay?”

How do you argue with your wife after she says something like that? Ned had resigned himself to letting Pat set the terms at home, after all, at work, he was used to following orders as well, never being one to show enough initiative to rise about his rank of Sergeant even after pensioning out. He’d put in his twenty-five with Traffic and cashed in early never once firing his weapon in the line of duty. It didn’t stop Pat from worrying and packing his lunch every day so he could avoid the fast food places most cops seemed to live out of. “Heart attack from bad food is a killer too, hon,” she’d tell him and Ned would nod in agreement knowing not to poke the bear.

“My mother did this for my father and I‘m doing it for you. If I had a daughter, I would have shown her just how important it is to do things like this. It shows you how much I love you.”

The new guys who moved through his Shop would kid him about the lunch bag specials every day but he knew they were just jealous. He got his fresh boots out of the Academy and worked them through rotation showing them his patch of the Englewood and how to work a radio-car. Of course, his was one of the few white faces in a sea of angry black and brown – even with the cops that shared his ride. Not that he blamed anyone down here. Ned had seen a lot of pain from the front window of his cruiser and more than once felt that today was the day that he’d have to pull his weapon or end up dead – just another Englewood statistic.

But it just never happened.

Ned did his full tour, got his rubber chicken dinner care of the Benevolent Association and mustered out without a scratch only to spend the last six months closer to death than ever before.

Here, at home, he watched his wife die by inches every single day as her hair fell out in daisy-wisps collecting about her as she got smaller and smaller. By the time the end came, he swore she could have fit in the palm of his hand.

He was just thankful they’d never had kids.

His plumbing, not hers. They’d talked about adopting – but what with all the stuff Ned saw on the job and Pat’s own fears about raising someone else’s child, they never got around to it. It seemed silly now but twenty-five years had disappeared a blink. One minute they’d be at the Perrogi Fest, drinking and laughing and being young and in love and next, Pat was intubated, wearing a diaper as Ned sat hoping that she’d hang on one more day.

Of course, she didn’t.

He’d moved the empty bed out earlier this week, returning it to the hospital rental service and checked with Pat’s oncologist and doctor thanking them for everything they’d done. She’d wanted to donate her remains to a medical school for use as she’d have no use for what she’d leave behind and wanted to do something with herself. Ned lied to his wife this one time and told her that he would arrange for her remains to be disposed of properly and that he would donate her body to medical science.

Her urn sat on the mantlepiece now.

Ned hadn’t done the one thing his wife had asked, he couldn’t, the thought of her being cut up by those young kids learning how to doctor just didn’t sit right. Like hs job, they’d had twenty-five years together and he didn’t want to say goodbye yet.

He’d met Pat at the Academy boot mixer when her brother Brian introduced them. They’d both been through ETD together, signing up around the same time and had gotten on fine. He’d been gone twelve years now running into a Code 132 – wrong place, wrong time for a cop with three recidivists and two sawed-off shotguns. The closed coffin funeral had been the final nail for his Pat. She couldn’t see herself bringing any child into a world that would take a loving brother like hers off the board and Ned reluctantly agreed.

He’d have been okay with adopting but decided that a dog would be easier and probably about the right amount of grief his wife might be able to deal with when it passed too. The average lifespan of a domestic dog is 10-13 years and sure as shit, misery loves company as Ned had buried Copper a week after his Pat passed.

So, it was time for a change.

He didn’t need the house, hated the idea of kicking around it for another twenty-five years or so with all the ghost and shadows both his wife and the damn dog had left behind. At fifty-two, he’d got out early and still had a lot of living ahead of himself but he’d be damned if he knew where to start outside of finding a new place to begin again. He had his health, his pension and as far as he knew, the whole world ahead of him to explore.

He just didn’t have the first clue where to start.

The answer came for Ned on the back of a transport truck when he was driving back from Dunkin’. He’d done the run like he used to do regular (Medium Hot with cream and Splenda and a ten-pack of their donut holes they call Munchkin’s) as it was the one thing in his morning ritual he did look forward to. Everything else after that was reduced to filling time waiting for life to begin. He’d tried stamp collecting (too boring), woodworking (too dangerous, he had no affinity for machines) and had even contemplated painting classes. But the one attempt at a ‘Paint & Sip’ place that offered up glasses of cheap wine with a convivial (their word, not his) atmosphere was more of a drunk lady gabfest that he left early.

He’d just popped the top of his coffee, sipping carefully because Dunkin’ at least knew to serve it hot, when he saw the advertisement on the back of the big 18-wheel rig in front of him.

Drive for us, Call 1-800-Got-Trucks

And Ned thought, why not?

He’d always sort of admired truckers when he was a little kid, forever ago. His mother hadn’t taught him about making lunches but she had instilled in him a love of the open road and for the ‘knights of the highway’. She’d had a flat tire once and a trucker had pulled over and fixed it and she’d been forever enamored with the 18-wheeler Good Samaritans out there who would help a poor woman on the side of the road. Years later, of course, Ned would find out that most of those guys were speed freaks or looking for a quick turn from a hapless female motorist – but it didn’t dissuade him from the idea that maybe a life on the road might suit him. His career in Traffic had logged over a million miles in the broke-back Shops that he’d commandeered for a quarter century and he felt right at home behind the wheel. Even once he got his Sergeant bars, it seemed he pulled the worst rides on rotation and usually drove the unit with his green stick cops. But the more research he did on the idea of shipping off as an Over-The-Road OTR long distance driver, the more he could imagine himself downsizing his old life and riding off on the highways and byways of these good old United States. Pat and he had been homebodies and hadn’t really hadn’t traveled much. When they were younger, the theme park at Wisconsin Dell’s had been a hoot, and the House on the Rock had been the gee-whiz attraction they’d returned to again and again marveling over the eclectic (and to Ned’s eye downright strange collection of carnival memorabilia, circus junk and weird dolls and stuff that had been accumulated at the one-of-a-kind place) but Pat had liked it and that had been alright by him.

Ned lived a quiet life of calm observation, not making waves, following the guidebook and paying his dues moving up through the CPD based on attrition in the ranks more than anything. Guys rotating out after their twenty-five, the Southside unemployment agency (usually a Code 999 Officer Down Call Out) or from distraught cops eating their own service weapon. Pat had always worried about his gun in the house, Ned remembered, and even though he assured her that Mining, Construction and even Arts & Entertainment all had a higher incident of actual suicide than with police officers, she still fretted about him getting killed on the job or shooting himself.

His own service weapon found its way home after it had been gifted to Ned when he put in his ticket at his Benevolent dinner. “Cheaper than a watch,” Ned had groused, good-naturedly as he accepted it with a nod to his Captain who’d had to attend Ned’s send-off and the other ‘nearly-there’ old timers that had showed up for the free drinks and grub. The young cops today all carried 9mm Glock semi-auto’s and other smaller, plastic guns on their Sam Browne’s claiming the weight was the factor. Ned hadn’t worried about that with his ever-spreading butt seated in a cop car for the majority of his career. He rolled with a Colt M19-11, a workhouse weapon that had been good enough for the man who trained him and old-habits dies hard. Ned had maintained the weapon well, even making sure he tested out every year in the firing range to make sure he knew how to use it even though he never did in all the time he rolled. He never told Pat that some of the younger Boots had dubbed him ‘No-Gun Ned’ behind his back as he’d never once drawn his weapon. He was proud of the fact that he’d been able to de-escalate every single moment he’d had on the job without resulting in lethal force and the mountain of paperwork the more ‘gun-ho’ cops found out about the hard way. Ned was a patient man and he watched and listened and learned.

So, when the notion suddenly clicked for him that truck driving coast-to-coast might suit him as his next chapter, he started online at the local library finding out more about what a commercial driver’s license entailed and he swung by the BMV in Portage to pick up the manual for getting certified to drive one of the big Peterbilt, Kenworth and Mack trucks he’d see as he passed by the Flying J truck stop just south of his place. Apart from sometimes picking up sticky Cinnabon’s for Pat, and gassing up there, he’d maybe been aware that the stop was a hub for the big wheelers that dominated Highway 90 that rolled right by him, but he’d never really paid actual attention to the number of trucks, the infrastructure set up to accommodate the long-distance haulers or the sleazy ‘lot-lizards’ working the back parking lot selling the oldest game in the world. There was a whole jungle out there to be discovered and Ned felt his heart leap, just a little, in his chest as he pawed through the commercial trucking guide immersing himself in tractor and vehicle management systems, specialized rigs and the numerous driving techniques he’d need to learn to qualify as a long-distance over-the-road big rig driver.

The number one criteria seemed to be a month long school that he could go to that would teach him the basics and get him out on the road PDQ if he had half a brain in his head and the three thousand dollars needed for tuition.

Ned figured he had both.

Ned found two different truck schools in his neighborhood, not surprising considering where he lived. There was no shortage of jailbirds, lower income workers and white trash dirt bags in the surrounding neighborhood all looking for easy money. It seemed that truck driving had caught the eye of many a recidivist with the promise of easy cash and motivated employers willing to pay-to-learn attracting the less than desirable. Ned had years of experience navigating the lower levels of society and didn’t worry about contact with bottom feeders. Just as he thought, the majority of applicants to these classes dropped out within the first week once they realized that they’d actually have to pass written exams, clear a clean medical test plus show that they were responsible enough to navigate nationwide with an 80,000 pound behemoth.

Classes flew by as he spent two weeks on paperwork learning all about the specialized rigs with a trailer, it seemed, for every type of cargo. From double drop lowboys to reefers to tankers, the school he ended up boasted four dry-freight trailers coupled with both multi-geared manual and fully automatic transmission tractors. Unlike the gearheads who craved the feel of shifting through the multiple options available, Ned figured he had enough on his plate with the auto-tranny option and passed the preliminary quizzes on his bumper-to-bumper paperwork leaning into the relative ease of auto-shifting versus manual. Two weeks on the closed school course navigating various hazards plus then learning to back the big boy up was coupled with another final week of live driving in both residential and highway traffic before he was certified ready to take his BMV test. It was on these street and highway trials, he was partnered with Gus Taylor, a thirty-five year veteran who’d lost his left leg to diabetes and had found himself a new gig as a part-time instructor for the truck driving school to make ends meet.

“You’re a natural, kid,” Gus grunted as Ned navigated the switchback circuit taking him off US90 back onto the access road leading over to the truck hub at Mr. Gas.

Ned smiled, being called a kid at fifty-two wasn’t what he had expected, but he was still learning, and if Gus was happy, he was happy.

And that felt right. He hadn’t been happy for a long time, it seemed.

“You paid for this course, yourself, right? You ain’t hooked up with any one outfit already, right?”

“That’s right,” Ned said, finding out early on about the scam offering new drivers guaranteed employment by certain haulage companies in return for a year’s indebted work. The companies that signed up these drivers had them by the short and curlies sticking them on the runs that nobody wanted, working them seven days a week pushing them coast-to-coast as often as they could.

“Stupidest thing ever,” Gus grunted, hand rolling a cigarette as he head-bobbed towards the large filing station area for the rig they were riding in. “Pull over and fill ‘er up. We’ll head back to base and complete your log when we land.”

Ned pulled a wide, safe circuit in the large filing station and lined up for the big diesel pumps. As they waited to pull forward, Gus lit his cigarette and cracked the window to let the smoke drift out. Ned’s nostril’s twitched as the acrid smoke filled the cab but he knew better to say anything. I reminded him of when his Boots back in his cop Shop would smell one of Pat’s special egg salad sandwiches he’d eat while they hit their vectors down in Englewood. They couldn’t say shit to a senior officer and Ned figured it was the same in this world too.

Always one big dog and one little dog.

“What’chu wanna drive when you get Ok’d? You going OTR or you gonna pussy out and work short run only?”

Ned shrugged, keeping a watchful eye on the trucks ahead of him, as he moved up a spot.

“I’d like to travel. It’s just me now and there’s no reason I couldn’t go over-the-road.”

Gus nodded, picking the loose tobacco from his lips as he eyeballed Ned’s careful stop-and-go roll up to the pumps. Ned was impressed with his trainer’s constant observation, no flies on old Gus, as his eyes swept the dash instrument cluster for problems.

“Remember we got two tanks on this bad boy,” Gus said as Ned pulled up to the pump.

Ned engaged the parking brake for both the rig and the cab, shut down and nabbed the credit card Ned passed him as he clambered down from the high-riding front seat.

“Gotta proposition I want to talk to you about if interested?” Gus smiled as he flipped the plastic to Ned. “I think you might like it.”

Turned out the Ned liked it just fine.

As they filled up and headed back to class, Gus ran through the idea that he’d been mulling over ever since he first met Ned and had pegged him as a candidate to help him get his own rig on the road again. A one-legged long hauler has limited options out on the highway, just getting in and out was a monumental pain in the ass, and Gus was looking for a partner so he could team up with him and could start making real money again. He owned his own almost-new tractor plus the two trailers that he’d run for the past ten years prior to losing the pin. Like Ned, he was a widower who’d lost his to a fatal hit-and-run years back and he’d ate his grief in the highways of America rolling, rolling, rolling.

“We both work eleven straight,” Gus said, referring to the maximum amount of time DOT allowed drivers to be actively behind the wheel. “As a team, we can haul twenty-two hours a day making bank and be back home in half the time. I’ll work the loads and the bookings and after operating expenses, I’ll give you fifty percent minus my costs.”

They worked out the details with Ned making sure he understood what he was signing up for. He did.

By the time Ned graduated two weeks later with his freshly minted CDL, he was ready to get behind the wheel and start really learning with Gus as his co-pilot.

Ned was Boot now, riding bitch.

As they hunkered down at the Palamino, the restaurant that seemed to be a favorite for Gus, his new partner leaned over to Ned and waved him in close for a quiet word. The place was full of people, all talking loud, eating fast and Ned doubted anyone would hear them anyway – but he obliged, listening carefully.

“You gotta gun?” Gus asked.

According to Gus, twenty-nine percent of all truck hijacking happened in transit. Bandits didn’t give a damn about what they could steal – alcohol and tobacco products being the favored lift, but consumer goods, building supplies, even canned foodstuffs, depending on where they were, were all fair game.

“Rest stops and gas stations are where they hit. Guy walks up, pulls a piece, and rolls out with your rig while you’re standing there with your joint in your hand.”

Ned knew the stats, they’d covered them in class and the general rule for most bonded and insured freight companies was to let everything go without a complaint. The big box stores, the expedited shippers all had extensive insurance and didn’t want any damage done to their rigs. Most hijackers would dump the transport after they’d stripped it of its load. Plus, the larger rides were all low-jacked with surveillance hardware designed to relay position back to a main hub so the company knew where their trucks were at all times. Busting out the Sat/Nav was a start – but many of the bigger boys had mini-trackers installed as backup so it wasn’t hard to find the stolen truck.

“As an indie, I can’t afford to lose my ride,” Gus said, as he patted the 9mm Glock Ned knew well, strapped to his belt.

“You have a carry permit for that, right?” Ned asked, eyeballing the weapon as he waited carefully for Gus’ response. He had no intention of breaking the law now, not after twenty-five in service of.

“Course I do. I’m good for the state of Indiana. Which means I’m good for everywhere except New York, and the West Coast. So we don’t do runs there.”

Ned nodded and confirmed that he too had his carry ticket for Illinois, his original work location that also covered Indiana unlike Gus’s that didn’t work the other way.

“You sure?” Gus asked once Ned cited the stat, Gus quickly looking away in less-than-perfect cover. Clearly, Gus had rolled into their neighboring state under the assumption he was covered. “How come you know so much ‘bout this?”

This was the moment Ned dreaded. He’d been vague when he signed up at school listing his occupation as ‘retired’ and neglecting to fill in the past work details the one-page form had requested. The school, drawing from a healthy number of Cook and Lake County past penal guests of the State, didn’t really care what you did before you became a student and worried mostly about getting their fees. Ned hadn’t told anyone he’d been a cop for the full haul – but if he and Gus were going to work together twenty-two hours a day, he figured now was as good a time as any for him to come clean. If that meant Gus wanted to back out of the deal, Ned would find another job opportunity.

Like he had learned at school, there was no shortage of driving jobs for him now that he had his commercial driver’s license.

Gus was impressed though.

“A cop? For twenty-five years? That’s great.”

Ned breathed easy, letting it out, not realizing he’d been holding it in.

“We get pulled over, you got one of those badges, right. With your ID and stuff?”

Ned nodded, pulling his well-worn billfold that had rode his hip for the last ten years. Pat had had it made for him from one of her online friends and he traced the embossed hearts entwined on the ass-shined leather. He flipped it open, showing off the courtesy photocard and CPD insignia identifying his as a retired peace officer.

Gus looked at the picture carefully, Ned’s grim cop face staring out through the plastic window, flipping it back to Ned.

“That’s you, alright. Well, ain’t that a nice little bonus.”

Gus shared that, unfortunately, cop shakedowns on the road weren’t unknown by some of Ned’s less-than-honorable brotherhood operating further South.

“Statie’s got quotas just like us and they gotta make their book where they can. This is gonna come in real handy if we get pulled over for some Podunk beef.”

“That happen a lot?” Ned asked, knowing full well the power a badge had once out on the road. He’d never done it, keeping his nose clean throughout his tour, but he knew of a number of cops that had used their badge often to get cash and other favors for violations.

“It can,” Gus said, taking a long drink of the sweet tea he favored. One thing both Ned and Gus had agreed on was no alcohol at any time, ever. Gus had been working the AA Steps since after his Netty got taken home and Ned had seen alcohol cause way too many problems both on the job and off. Booze and driving don’t mix. And as he’d come to learn from the number of divorces on the job, drinking and being married often ended up in court too.

“But cops give each other a pass all the time, and you riding bitch with a badge will go a long way to helping us make our runs on time.”

Ned nodded, glad that he’d finally ‘fessed up about his former career. He liked Gus, a man that he had little in common with outside of their tea-totaling ways and affinity for the road. Gus was black, a lapsed-Baptist and had spent his life on the rigs. His shitty eating habits in fast food had cost him his leg and Ned was determined to not end up physically like his new driving partner.

“Won’t be bitch long,” Ned said, warming to the idea of going solo when Gus caught zzz’s in the back-sleeper compartment of the rig. They’d both agreed that they’d run OTR on the longest hauls possible with Gus’s trailers, one dry that was suitable for appliances, clothing, furniture – even potato chips as long as it didn’t need a precise temperature – and the other an insulated van that would maintain a certain temperature for foodstuffs from both heat or cold.

And for the next six months, Ned settled into his new job, learning the land as he shifted his perspective from roadside to high side, looming over the regular cages most people lived their life in. He and Gus logged the maximum time every week of sixty-hours each behind the wheel right up until the Gus’s final off-duty.

Ned was the only one at his funeral.

“Run that by me again,” Ned said as the day after Gus’s funeral he got a call on his home line from a man identifying himself as Mr. Taylor’s legal representative.

“As I said, Mr. Miller, I’ve been retained by Mr. Taylor to act as the executor of his estate and there is a matter of some business I have to attend to with you. Would you be available to come by my office to discuss it?”

Since Gus’s passing, Ned had found himself with nothing but time as he looked to what he would do with himself now. The last half year had raced by with the two men out more than in logging mucho-miles cross country. You spend that amount of time together sharing chili-farts and chopped egg sandwiches, which Ned made up almost as well as Pat would make – had made – for him and you get to know a man.

Or so Ned thought.

Gus had shared with him his life with Netty and their dreams of eventually moving down to Florida once he hung up driving. When she was t-boned on Broadway, three miles from home, it had sent him into a tailspin of alcohol and Benzedrine as he tried to cope with the loss. Without Netty, Gus found he had no real purpose and after running off the road somewhere in Idaho, he’d decided that he was alive only due to Netty’s appearance at the accident scene, shimmering in white, telling him to ‘get his’self right and stop all this foolishness’. Ned wasn’t sure of whether it was a concussion or an actual spiritual sighting, but he knew better than to challenge a man’s beliefs or besmirch the sanctity of his wife’s advice. After all, it had been his Pat that had made their house a home and Ned would have given up just about anything to have her back with him.

The lawyer gave Ned an address of E.15th street right across from the Speedway depot that Gus had an account for his tractor in a nondescript two story building that sat next to a hand wash car detailer, and a hair supplies wholesaler.

“He left his estate to you, Mr. Miller having no immediate family. After disbursements and my fees, it’s a considerable bequeath.”

Ned was now the proud owner of Gus’s tractor, the two trailers plus the plot of land he’d kept his doublewide on. It seemed that Gus had plowed pretty much everything back into living as debt-free as possible and prior to the diabetes taking his leg and after Netty passed, he’d paid of all loans and mortgages.

By most modern-day owner/operator trucking standards, it probably wasn’t much to look at – but to Ned’s eye, it was a helluva gift from a man he’d only known for less than a year.

“There’s a cassette as well,” the lawyer informed Ned as he passed over the deed and titles to the property and the rolling stock alongside the various keys to the windfall that still boggled Ned in its generosity.

“His will states that it’s for your ears only. Sign here, here and here and I’ll get you on the way. I’ve sorry for your loss, Mr. Miller.”

“Hey, Ned. Life’s a bitch and then you die, huh? I’m leaving everything to you ‘cause Uncle Sam don’t deserve squat and I figure you got the bug now and you’ll do alright in this game. I’d rather see you riding high and proud than not. Do me a favor and keep rolling, will ya? I like to think long as you on the road you ain’t in the ground. You remember me, hear?”

It had actually taken Ned a while to find a cassette recorder to playback the short and simple message that Gus had left him. He’d ended up at the trailer that Gus had lived in when they weren’t out, figuring he probably recorded it there. He had.

“My trailer, now” Ned thought as he pressed stop on the old cassette machine sitting on the coffee table. Gus’s home, now Ned’s, wasn’t much to look at. Fake wooden paneling throughout with a large screen TV being the only luxury he’d seen to indulge in. Everything else was older, prefab fixtures with a few pictures scattered throughout of Gus and Netty in happier times. The 80’s had been good to them, their faces shining out in optimism, squinting in the bright sun. Ned had no idea of who took the faded photograph of them eating ice-cream at the DQ, but they looked happy, young, with their whole lives ahead of them.

Ned knew full well how tough life could be, his own loss notwithstanding, and as he cleaned up the refrigerator and bundled up Gus’s clothes and crutches for the Salvation Army, he kept the DQ photo in memory of his benefactor. Not that he needed the money or the trucks, but Gus had given him a new lease on life teaching him the rules of the road and the trucker’s code.

“Always do right by people who need it,” Gus told Ned once as he dragged his butt out of the sleeper when they’d been OTR through Oklahoma. They’d delivered a load of stereo and car speaker components into dusty Amarillo, Texas and were now homeward bound high-balling with a load of hot sauces back to Chicago when Ned spotted the crying woman standing by the side of the interstate. He’d yelled back to Gus who was taking four hours down in the back he was pulling over. It was 98 degrees out, both of the men sweating in the cab due to a fault in the AC and Ned figured it had to be 100+ out on the heat shimmering roadway.

It took all of fifteen minutes for Ned to change the tire and get the woman back on the road, a mousy thing with a new baby, who thanked both him and Gus up and down for their assistance. They both refused any money for the help, her car half held together by Bondo a dead giveaway that cash was in short supply.

“There ain’t much right in the world today, Ned. Killings and shootings and all kinds of monsters out there taking advantage of the poor and unlucky. We gotta do our part when we can to help those that need it.”

Ned nodded along as Gus took the wheel for the homeward leg of the run. He didn’t disagree. He’d seen more than his share of ugly from his cruiser. So far, on the road, they’d not bumped up against anything like he saw in the inner city but Ned figured it was just a matter of time before both he and Gus might actually need to use their carry weapons.

It was in the small rest stop alongside the Allegheny National Forest deep off US62 that Ned ended up having to decide.

He’d been on his way back from Buffalo, NY having dropped off a load of last-minute promotional supplies to the Niagara Convention Center. Five-hundred and one mile on the intestate that had been a time-sensitive rush delivery paying a premium to him if he could get it all there in under seven hours. It meant him driving fast and hard with no stops and Ned had made it with minutes to spare. For once, he was rolling back empty unable to catch a bid out of town for a load back even when though he had learned how to work the ‘Keep on Trucking’ online boards and snap up loads in and out running his new business off his mobile phone. He had to admit, they made it easy for an owner-operator like himself to snap up as many loads as he wanted.

But the run to Buffalo hadn’t been that easy and he’d decided to treat himself and swing by the Allegheny Forest on US666 laughing at the ‘spooky’ highway markers all the way in. He and Pat had enjoyed the woods a long time ago and he’d never seen this one or the Kinzua Dam there. Ned wasn’t prone to spoiling himself, but he figured that a brief stopover wouldn’t hurt much.

He woke up inside his sleeper, disoriented when he heard knocking at the side of his tractor’s driver-side door. It was full dark as far as he could see and the rest area he’d pulled over in was deserted outside of a patched and road-weary GMC panel van sitting alone with him in the woods.

Ned hadn’t had a bad roadside moment yet – but there was always a first time. His M19-11, resting safe alongside his console, felt cold to the touch as he slid it out of its holster as he called out.

“Yeah, whataya want?”

Glancing at his watch, seeing that it was past eleven at night, his manner purposely gruff, he had no idea who was on the other side of the door so he used the cop voice he honed over the years that had been the one weapon he’d actually used frequently.

“Lemme in, Mister. It’s cold out here.”

From outside, the sound of a young girl’s voice threw Ned as he pushed his gun back down, scooting over to the front seat and peering out the window, down at the kid outside his door.

She had to be all of fourteen, Ned figured. A skinny, white girl, wrapped up in a dirty fluffy jacket in a short skirt and big boot combination that instantly reminded Ned of the lot-lizards he and Gus encountered alongside the way.

Hooking in the trucking business is pretty common with lots of ladies and men working the rest stops and truck depots. They’d cruise the back-parking lots and sleeping areas looking for trade giving the driver’s whatever they wanted in the comfort of their sleeper cabs. Security at the more respectable stops would chase them out, the local cops usually too busy to deal with them, but at rest stops and smaller, less populated depots, the broken and brittle sex workers proliferated.

“What you doing out there, girl?” Ned called down, cranking down his window, his head swiveling from her to the van sitting across from him.

The GMC was dark. No lights. No motor. Nothing.

“You looking for company, mister?”

Ned sighed. He’d hoped that maybe the girl was just lost or got locked out of her ride or her parents were sleeping and didn’t know she got out of the van – but he knew in his heart that she was working.

Her black-eye gave it away, too.

Ned had seen and busted kid hookers in Englewood and on the Southside throughout his run as a cop. If they worked cars, they ended up in his Shop if he caught them and he’d tried to steel his heart from the battered and broken children he’d seen bought and sold every week. Why would it be any different out here in the sticks?

“C’mon mister, I’m cold and hungry. You got anything to eat?”

“You alright, girl?”

“You gotta candy, bar, mister? I’m starving…”

Despite his promise to Pat that he’d eat right and that he’d stay off the junk food, Gus had introduced him to the king-sized chocolate covered Payday bars that were available at discount on most of their runs across the US.

“Some idiot thought it was a good idea to mess up a perfectly good nut bar with mint chocolate all over it and jumbo-size it. Stupidest idea ever. Their loss is our gain, though.” They were available at every stop they hit for .50 cents apiece marked down from $2. How could they say no?

Despite the leg, the diabetes and the weight, the nut chocolate snack packed on, Gus had been a devotee of the sweet candy and it didn’t take Ned long to agree that, once you got used to it, it was a fine snack.

Ned pulled a bar from the dash, holding it up to the girl who had climbed spider-monkey quick up to his window. She tore off the wrapper and inhaled the candy as Ned got a closer look at her.

Rail thin with dark shadows under her eyes, the one bruised, the other skitter-scared as she shoveled in the candy. Ned flashed back to Copper and the way his little dog would gulp down his food as if someone was going to snatch it from him at any time. He’d been a rescue.

Ned sighed, watching the girl gobble down the food, wondering about his next step.

The tapping besides him, across on the passenger’s side, a thin tick-tick-tick of metal on glass snapped his head right as he looked straight into the barrel of a grip-taped Saturday Night Special he’d seen countless times before. Tonight, it was in the hands of a brown-toothed Meth head sporting jail ink tattoos on his face.

It was time for Ned’s first robbery.

“Goddamn it to hell, there ain’t nothing there!”

Ned stood next to the back of his trailer, both doors thrown open as the headlights of the GMC van illuminated the empty rig.

“I told you, I’m empty,” Ned said, keeping a watchful eye on the human skeleton pinballing back and forth on his feet, his gun waving from side to side.

Ned looked about, shaking his head in disbelief as the cold wind sighed in the thick tree cover. By day, this route had been beautiful, a lush canopy of forest leading to the dam and then the roadside stop that had seemed an ideal place to catch a quick snooze before heading back. But he’d been more tired than he thought and had slept right through into night.

Right now, it was cold, black and empty. And judging from the erratic behavior of the skinhead punk dancing in front of him, it could go one of two ways.

One was that the man and the girl would go on after they realized there was slim pickings here for them.

The other would end with him dead with a bullet in the head or bleeding out from being gut shot. He didn’t think that the skell had the ability to drive his rig but who knew? It was an automatic.

“Get inside there, angel. Check his stuff. Get his stuff.”

Ned chanced a glance at the girl.

She shivered in the cold, her toe’s pigeon’d in, looking down at the cracked tarmac, reluctant to take part in the robbery.

This was not lost on the man with the gun.

“Get in there girl! Don’t make me tell you again.”

The man lurched forward towards the scared girl, stomping on the pavement, skittering her back in terror.

“Yes, Daddy. I’m going, I’m going…”

Ned tracked the girl clambering up into the tractor as the man waved his blue-steel gun in Ned’s face.

“Wallet, phone and keys. Gimme.”

“You don’t want to do this. Take your daughter and go. I got nothing for you to steal. I got maybe fifty bucks in my wallet. Plastic is for gas only.”

Ned didn’t see the gun as it whipsawed across his face, the metal hit rocking his head to the side as he slipped sideways.

“Goddamnit, do what I say. Gimme your stuff…”

The hard, penny metal taste of blood in Ned’s mouth snapped him back into focus as he spat a mouthful onto the cement, two of his teeth loose in his mouth from the slap. He hard cop-eyed the man in front of him as he pulled his billfold from his jean’s pocket.

One handed, the man flipped open the billfold, keeping his eyes on Ned.

“Hands behind your back. Don’t move…”

“Some role model for your daughter,” Ned muttered, figuring the second option, of him dying alone in the middle of nowhere was probably more of a reality than ever, and he might as well get in his last shots in while he could.

“She ain’t my real kin,” the man drawled, some South creeping back into his voice. “She just meat I bought back in Cinncy. I make her call me that…”

As the man flipped through his wallet, pulling the cash (fifty dollars was all he had, just like he said), Ned’s heart ached for the young girl rifling his tractor for spoils. He’d seen it too many times before in Chicago. Young women and men sold by parents for drugs or money. Forced into a life of crime and prostitution, repeating the cycle endlessly. Ned’s guts squirmed in distaste.

“You-a-goddamn-C-O-P!?” The man exclaimed finding Ned’s CPD ID inside the wallet.

“Retired…” Ned said, knowing full well now that it was going to be Option Two. Dead in a ditch.

“I-hate-COPS,” the man said, his gun up again, swinging round as he shook the revolver in Ned’s face.

Ned could see the finger curled inside the trigger guard already pulling as he closed his eyes and thought of Pat.

He’d be seeing her soon enough.

“Daddy!” the girl screamed for the open cab door. “Look what I got, look what I got.”

Greed is a great motivator.

So is revenge.

As the girl clambered down with Ned’s backpack held in front of her, she raced towards the man, tripping and falling into Ned, slipping him his Colt M19-11.

“Lemme see, clumsy idiot…” the man yelled, all thoughts of shooting Ned forgotten.

Ned put three rounds into the man before he even got Ned’s backpack open.

The girl threw her hands over her ears as the long thunder of the shots rolled out through the night.

Twenty-five years without using his weapon. And now, this.

Ned kicked the guy’s handgun away from the dead man, glancing down at the girl who sat on the cold cement looking up at him.

“You okay?” Ned asked, his heart jack hammering.

“Am now,” the girl said. “Can I get up?”

“Yeah, sure. Don’t look.”

“I seen dead before,” she said, walking over to the corpse.

Ned watched as she kicked the man again and again as her tears burst.

It was decision time.

Call it in and turn the girl over to the local authorities? Or get in the truck and drive? Leave the lost girl here and make an anonymous call from the next truck stop on the payphone there?

The cold night echoed with the animal cries of the broken girl, her fury spent, as she spun in snapped-wing panic, her arms aching for comfort.

Ned hugged her.

He had to.

Nobody had hugged this girl in a long time. She wept into his arms and Ned thought he knew what he was going to do.

“What’s your name, honey?”

The girl, snorting back snot, wiped her face with her sleeve, streaking her face, looking up at Ned with wet doe eyes.

“Patricia… I go by Pat…”

Ned knew for sure, then.

“You got anything in that van you need?”

Pat nodded, her head bobbing up and down quickly as she side-stepped around the bleeding body racing to the van.

As Ned policed his brass, picking up the shells ejected from his gun, he waited for her to run back. He closed the doors to the trailer as he waited.

Within a minute, Pat was back alongside him, a teddy-bear backpack over her shoulder as Ned pointed to his tractor trailer.

“Get in. We gotta lot of miles to go before it gets light.”

He didn’t have to tell the girl twice. With long colt-like strides, she raced to the tractor and pulled herself up into the cabin as Ned looked up to the night sky.

Hoping that he was making the right decision.

Knowing in his heart, it was the only one.

THE END

Copyright Julian Grant 2021

About the Author: Julian Grant is a filmmaker, educator, and author of strange short stories plus full-length novels, non-fiction texts and comics. A tenured Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago, his work has been published widely. Learn more about him at www.juliangrant.com

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