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(State Highway 59)
Eighteen wheels rolled over broken, sun-baked asphalt, growling like a death factory, diesel engine crackle of broken bones, dinosaur roar of a diesel engine, plumes of white smoke into a black sky. Chevalier Worke's foot held the accelerator flat, pinning a few candy bar wrappers to the rubber floor mat, and bobbed his head along with Booker T. He glanced down at the radio and shook his head. They don't make music like this any more. It's all just a bunch of punk kids swearing and fake drums. They lost heart somewhere along the way.
The cell phone chirped and Chev grumbled as he swiped it off the dash. The company had taken away his CB radio and handed him this tiny piece of plastic. It didn't even work most of the time and when it did, it usually dropped the call a minute or so in. Too many long patches of isolated highway across the heartland fell outside the reach of cell towers. It was a text message from home. It read: mrry chrstmz daddy.
He grinned. Maybe the cell phone wasn't that bad, after all. Anything capable of bringing a smile to a father's face a couple thousand miles away from his kids on Christmas Eve couldn't be completely evil. Still, he didn't gently set it back on the dash; he tossed it up there. With the old CB, he could have talked to his kids until they passed out waiting for Santa, for free. If Mr. Tom, the office manager, saw a personal call had been made on the cell phone, there would be hell to pay. That man had microscopes for eyes and ears equipped with sonar. If a company penny landed heads-down and an employee didn't pick it up, he knew.
An empty two-lane state highwaystretched out to the edge of his vision, bordered on both sides by untilled cornfields. Chev remembered this highway without center lines or guardrails. Not long ago there were no concrete sound barriers or curbside rumble strips. He supposed all the additions made travel safer, but the road had lost something, something that tickled at the back of his mind, something that told him he was growing older and he soon wouldn't recognize the landscape at all. The songs on the hip radio stations were different, his CB radio was gone, and America was changing under his wheels.
Change would take his girls off to college and leave the house empty. Change would continue to deteriorate his knees and add girth to his belt. Change would--
A shadow darted out of the cornfields and flurried into the headlights, an animal on all fours, long and limber, swinging its body--
Chev's foot released the gas pedal; he mashed down on the brake. The truck shrieked. A bucking rumble traveled down the chassis and the image of his rig jackknifing flashed into his head. And its rear did shift, swaying out into the left lane, but he could feel it slowing enough that--
The animal struck the grill. Hard.
The engine coughed and the scream of metal-on-metal friction echoed up to a distant line of treetops. The truck lurched twice. The engine died. Something hissed.
Chev unlatched his seatbelt, breathed out, and flicked on his hazard lights. He glanced at the driver's side rear view mirror and saw the roadway behind him lit by the blinking red lights. The trailer blocked the entire roadway, but he'd been lucky. If it had drifted another foot it would have capsized, pulling the cab over with it. Seen from the sky, the wreck would have twisted the truck into the shape of a hockey stick--a broken hockey stick.
If he was a younger man, the word that came out of his mouth would have been short and barbed and nasty. Age had dulled that out of him, however, so instead he muttered, "Sweet sarsaparilla soda pops."
The animal lay on the broken yellow line a few feet beyond the cargo trailer's first set of duel tires. Face down on the blacktop, the animal was a mass of twisted gray fur and broken legs. What exactly it was, Chev couldn't tell, not through the rear view mirror. It could have been a large dog, a wolf, or even a young bear.
He waited for his racing heart to relax. He told himself he was overreacting. It was only an unfortunate animal crossing the road at night, something that happened every night on every road, nothing to--
The animal leapt off the road, stumbled, then collapsed. It turned its face towards him, looked right into the mirror's pane, and released a stream of red-tinted steam from its unhinged jaw. It bellowed up at the sky, a voice filled with agony and rage, and tried again to stand. It fell and as it hit the asphalt, its body shape blurred. In a single flash of the red hazard lights, Chev saw another body out on the roadway instead of the animal, a naked, grizzly old man with bony, splintered arms and legs, gray chest hair matted to sagging skin by a glistening sheen of blood.
And in the next flash, the animal returned.
It was no hallucination. A decade earlier, he had suffered from insomnia, fought for weeks to get even a few hours of sound sleep. He had hallucinations then, bad enough to take him off the road for eight weeks. The old man wasn't the same as those whispering houseplants or visits from dead relatives. The old man had been real, if only for a moment.
The animal slumped down on the road and went rigid.
He watched it for a moment in the blinking red lights, waited to see it change again, almost hoping it would so he could be sure of what he saw, but also dreading it. Things like that just didn't happen, not in his life.
When nothing happened, Chev turned the key in the ignition. It rumbled like a metal box full of nails, but refused to turn over. He tried again. And again.
He searched the cab for the cell phone. It had flown off the dash when he hit the brakes. His fingertips found it tucked into the legroom on the passenger side. The screen was lit but cracked down the center. He pressed the menu button to bring up his contacts. The screen remained a bright block of white pixels. No contact list. He grunted, closed his eyes, and commanded his fingers to dial the home office. His mind couldn't remember the number enough for his lips to recite it, but his fingers knew the sequence. He put the phone to his ear and listened to it ring.
When the office machine answered, he dialed Mr. Tom's extension and hit the star button followed by three nines, the code for the call to be forwarded to the manager's cell. It rang.
Mr. Tom usually answered by the second ring. Five rings and the voice mail would pick up. Chev glanced at his watch: it was 11:30 p.m.
The phone rang a second time.
It was Christmas Eve. Mr. Tom was probably digesting a family feast at his in-laws, maybe singing a carol in his crackling, chain-smoking voice, maybe a few fingers of scotch over the line. That was exactly where Chev would have been if he weren't on an overnight run.
He wondered if his own mother-in-law had at last managed to bake the last stubborn drop of moisture out of the holiday bird, an annual ambition, or whether she had finally given in and let her sister cook the turkey. He wondered if Neva and Tawny, his daughters, had remembered to smile when they opened the gifts from their grandparents, those perennially out-of-touch presents destined to be returned for store credit.
And he realized that he was thinking about home because he didn't want to think about what he had seen on the road. And that, of course, brought the old man's bloody face back into his head. A long, haggard face full of wiry facial hair and deep folds of wrinkles. As the old man yowled at the sky, his mouth had opened and Chev had seen a rotten picket fence of sharp black teeth.
It took a second for Chev's lips to move. "Mr. Tom?"
He heard a deep exhale. "Chev? Man, it's Christmas Eve. This had better be an emergency. And I mean a full blown emergency. If you're just lost--"
"I had an accident, Tom."
The sound muffled. Mr. Tom had put a hand over the phone, probably to let his wife know who was calling. The line cleared and his voice returned. "Anyone hurt out there?"
The old man, screaming, flashed in his head.
"No," Chev said. "I hit..."
"You hit what?" Mr. Tom asked.
Chev groaned. "An animal. I don't know, it's not a deer, more like a big dog. I'm from Jackson Heights; I don't know what it is. I don't even watch Animal Planet."
"Okay. So why call me? You know the safety drill."
"The engine won't turn over. I'm stranded out here."
Chev searched the roadway for signs but found none. "Indiana. I remember a sign for Connersville back a few hours east. Can't say where I am now."
Mr. Tom sighed. "We have a GPS locater in the truck. We can find you at any time, anywhere you go. But I can't do that from here. I'll have to go in to the office, boot up the whole system, call someone to come get you ... what I'm telling you is that it'll take a while."
"Sorry for the trouble, man. I know if I was home--"
"Save it. I'm not home."
"In-laws?" Chev asked.
"No. Tina and the boys went upstate alone." A voice in the background mumbled. "No, wait. Look, I have company here, and it's complicated. No, this is just something I need to take care of, baby. Chev, I'll call you back--"
But Mr. Tom was already gone. Chev dropped the phone on the dash. Truck drivers could be as full of gossip as housewives at laundromats. He had heard plenty of talk about Mr. Tom's affairs, both before and after wife number three. Tina was number four.
Chev opened the driver's door and jumped out of the cab. He pulled a red metal box out from behind the seat, opened it, and removed a handful of road flares. He had to light four around his truck, one at each corner, otherwise he would be legally responsible if some yahoo with more adrenalin than common sense careened in and made a bigger mess. He struck the magnesium tip on the first flare and tossed it onto the roadway at the nose of the truck's grill. He lit a second and threw it into the other lane.
Walking, his eyes were drawn to the dead animal. As he got closer and his eyes adjusted to the blinking lights, the sprawling body became a distinct figure. It was not like any animal he'd ever seen. It was too large to be a dog and too canine to be a bear. Beads of blood speckled its gray fur. He stepped over its body and ducked under his trailer. Lighting the third and fourth flares, he dropped them at each end of the roadway.
When he turned back, he saw the first two flares dancing in the air at the head of the truck. He ran towards the streaking lights, jumping over the dead animal, but skidded to a stop when his eyes were able to focus on the dark shapes in the flares' light.
Two naked old men stood in the roadway. They juggled the flares between them, tossing and catching, giggling.
"Hey!" Chev yelled.
They let the flares drop and turned to face him, flashing wide, insane grins on their sagging faces. They sneered from behind veils of long, knotted hair and scraggly beards. One tapped his open hand against his hairy chest like a primate. His fingernails were long and black, sharp as knife points and as thick as wedding reception silverware.
A towering shape emerged from the dried corn stalks on the roadside. Chev didn't take his eyes off the two men; in his peripheral, a half dozen more old men filed out of the fields. Like the first two, they were unclothed and unkempt, filthy creatures with wild eyes and uneven grins.
Chev back-pedaled to the open door of the cab. They lunged towards him, teeth gnashing. He pulled himself inside and slammed the door. The old men chattered and circled the cab, laughing and snorting, plainly amused by his panic.
One of the old men shouted and the others quieted. Chev watched in the mirror as they assembled over the dead animal, turned their heads to the sky, and bayed. Their voices blended together into a wailing song of sorrow. Four old men crouched down low, sniffed the corpse, then lifted it off the road and carried it into the cornfields. The others followed, their glistening eyes returning to the truck. As he disappeared into the wall of dry corn stalks, the last old man released an angry roar.
Chev slid a hand over the dashboard but didn't find the cell phone. Had it fallen again? He scanned the seat beside him and the floor. He sank down across the seat and ran his hands underneath. No phone.
He felt eyes watching him. He sat up.
A beast sat on the cab's hood, teeth bared centimeters from the windshield, its breath fogging the glass. It was the same type of creature as the one he'd hit, but larger, less gray, and alive. For a creature of such massive size, it hadn't made a sound when it had jumped onto the hood. It stared at him through the glass with furious eyes.
It clenched his cell phone in its mouth and growled.
Chev reached up and pulled on the horn. The sound blasted out at full volume, as loud as a seafaring barge entering a marina. The animal didn't flinch. Instead, its long tail wagged.
You're amusing it, he thought.
A fierce pounding shot his attention to the driver's side window. An old man with a long mane of rust-red and wiry white hair stood outside, hand still pressed against the glass. He gestured for Chev to roll down the window.
That wasn't going to happen.
He cracked the window a half inch and yelled, "What do you want?"
The old man grinned. He bared a mouthful of jagged black teeth and red gums, the same as the other old men, the same as the beasts. "We have a funeral to attend to just now, so we don't want nothing right now. Right now. But it don't take long to bury our dead. We're good diggers. After that, though..."
"I have a gun," Chev said.
The old man laughed. "No, you don't. If you had one, you would be waving it around already. There's no such thing as modesty with firearms."
"I already called for help."
"That I don't doubt," he said. Three more beasts trotted out of the cornfield and sat at the old man's side. "And so did Lewis Daudelin."
Chev wondered if he could get his hands on the remaining flares in the box. "Who is Lewis Daudelin?"
"Lew was the man you hit with your truck."
He shook his head. "Wasn't a man."
"Not at that moment. But things change."
The old man turned and walked to the guardrail on the edge of the road. He whistled and the animals followed. The one on the cab's hood winked, jumped down, and carried the cell phone into the cornfield.
"I'll give you a head start before we call out the pack," the old man shouted over his shoulder. "They won't come for you until we've buried Lew. But you should get a move on. The younger Brothers are excellent trackers."
They were gone, disappeared into the field. There were a few barks and what might have been human voices, but it was difficult to separate the two. He didn't wait. He rustled up the remaining three flares, opened the door, and ran.