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Susannah Carlson

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Member Since: Dec, 2002

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Jack
By Susannah Carlson
Monday, February 15, 2010

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Written for a contest. I am not a trucker and I don't write ghost stories, so it was a bit of a challenge.

I got in late to the Flying J.  It was deep blue dusk, coming on full dark.  The first stars were out above the vast, dry nothingness that is Barstow.  I was headed home to San Jose, and the house I’d left dark and shuttered three weeks before.  This had been a long run, and I was tired.  Not sleepy tired.  Just tired of the road.  Trucking is a lonely job - something I’d never noticed before Jack died, but going tandem with Jack was never lonely. 

It’s a little frightening, too, as a woman alone.  Truck stops teem with men, sometimes with wives or girlfriends, but mostly solo, and horny.  Men, and prostitutes.  Freakin’ lot lizards have even come on to me a couple of times.  With Jack I felt safe no matter where we were or what time it was.  Not anymore.  I have been followed back out to my rig far too many times for the simple gesture of saying, “Hello.”  This night I went inside long enough to pee and get a piece of pizza.  Even so, it was dark by the time I got back in my rig.  I drew the curtains and turned on the light.  I ate my pizza in the driver’s seat, listening to nonsense burbling over the CB, trying not to think about everything I’d lost.  Failing that, I cried.  Chewed and cried.

Six months ago Jack and I pulled into this same rest stop.  He waited in the cab while I went inside to shower up and get us some dinner, and when we were finished eating we played catch in the parking lot until it was too dark to see the ball, then we curled up in our warm, perfect bed, to read and snuggle, and just love each other.  Life on the road then was seventh heaven.

After the accident I thought hard about hanging it up.  Maybe getting an office job, or simply retiring, but Jack’s medical bills were huge.  I knew I had to get back on the road to pay them off before even considering a change.  It seemed so unfair to be saddled with those bills for a failed attempt to save him, but that’s how it goes.  Every time I paid a bill it felt like this was my debt for what?  My grief?

I’d taken to really locking things down when I went to bed.  I had a chain I would run between both doors, pull tight, and lock.  An invader would have to smash a window to get in, and that would give me plenty of time to mace him. I locked myself in, grabbed a beer from the fridge and my book from the passenger seat, and climbing into bed.  The passenger seat, like an empty pillow, was a constant source of pain.  A big grey leather reminder that I was completely alone.

Something odd had been happening since I got back on the road.  When I got into bed, or shortly thereafter.  Something I couldn’t explain.  A faint ticking, so faint I knew I couldn’t really hear it, but still there.  At first I’d thought it was the engine cooling, the heater, or something wrong with the rig, but I checked it out and it wasn’t.  That night it returned.  I ignored it and went on reading.  The sound continued for what seemed like a very long time.  Sometimes a quick staccato, sometimes sad and slow.  I decided a trip to a mechanic wouldn’t be a bad idea when I got home and had some downtime

But this night was different.  As I settled into bed and turned out the light, the ticking stopped.  Even though I knew I couldn’t hear it, I could.  I heard it stop.  It stopped just by the passenger door.  I had the distinct feeling something was waiting there.  I got my flashlight and pulled back the curtain to look, but there was nothing there but grey pavement.

I lay in my bed that night feeling that thing standing out there, and the accident seeped through.  I had tried to erase it, but it always came back, clear as day.  The sound of the impact, the smear that had been Jack, long and red and lumpy with bits of him, and him there near the rear tire of the truck that hit him, just a lump of raw meat, silent and steaming in the Sierra cold.  It’s not a memory I want to keep, but memories are more stubborn than photographs, you can’t burn them, you can’t throw them away.

I woke up around 2:00 am, needing to pee.  Regretting that pre-bed beer, I rolled over and tried to sleep despite the pressure building in my bladder.  Some folks may be content to squat over a jar, but I’m not that kind.  I’m also not the kind of person who can hold her water, or in this case beer, for long.  I finally had to give up, put some pants on, unchain my doors and run, in that silly I-have-to-pee crouch, across the silent parking lot to the restrooms.  I made it just in time.

Sitting there on the cold commode, I had the strange sense that I was not alone.  I reached for my pepper spray and realized I’d left it in the rig.  Even though I had claimed the closest space to the bathrooms that I could, it was a long way across the lot back to my truck.  Telling myself I was imagining things, I washed up and left the bathroom.  The ladies room was down a long hallway from the door and there was a bank of phones near the door.  There was a man standing beside them.  Just standing there, staring at me.  I had no choice but to walk past him.  He moved to the middle of the hallway as I padded toward him.  “Hey baby,” he said, and I could hear the booze in his voice.  I kept walking, determined to push past him and out into the night, planning to run as soon as I got out the door.  “I said, hi, baby,” he slurred, moving to block my path.  I went to get past him and he grabbed my arm.

I knew anything I said would be taken as a come on so I didn’t say anything.  I yanked my arm out of his grasp and was headed for the door when he came at me from behind, wrapping his arms around me. Pinning my arms to my sides.  “Come on,” he breathed into my ear.  “Let’s have some fun.”

What happened next took us both by surprise.  It was as if some great guardian spirit welled up inside of me and took control.  I felt as if I was standing aside to give something else room to fight for me.  A low threatening growl welled up in my throat and my head snapped sideways, my teeth catching my assailant’s cheek, drawing blood.  I snarled, thrashing in the drunkard’s grip, snapping my teeth on the air, and on him when I could get him.  It seemed like hours passed but the entire scene couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds.  He let me go and put his hand to his face where my teeth had torn a bloody gash.  I could tell by the look in his eyes that he was terrified.  I snarled at him and ran out into the parking lot. 

I didn’t want that guy to see where my truck was, so I circled the lot, willing my breathing to slow, my heart to return to a normal rate.  I was oddly unafraid, and stranger still, I was not alone.  The presence that had welled with such force inside of me was still with me, I could feel it beside me.  I whispered, “Jack?”  There was no response, of course.  There was nothing to see but cold blue darkness laying a thin layer of dew on row after row of trailers and flat beds.  But there was something else, I knew it, something unseen.  It had to be Jack, and the knowledge that he never left me gave me a sense of security I hadn’t had since that awful night on Donner Pass.

I got back in my truck and started to lock it down, but then I stopped.  I set the chain down, opened the passenger side door, and whistled softly into the night.  Nothing happened, though I felt the air shift.  I wasn’t alone.  Never had been.  I felt him in the cab with me, I felt him beside me on the bed.  I felt the bed shifting as he circled three times and curled up in the crook of my leg, and even though I knew I couldn’t, I heard his contented sigh.


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