Despite deep misgivings, and without any hint of who this child is or the grave danger he’s facing, Ben takes the child with him in his truck and sets out into an environment that is as dangerous as it is beautiful and silent. From that moment forward, nothing will ever be the same. Not for Ben. Not for the child. And not for anyone along the seemingly empty stretch of road known as Route 117.
|Publisher:||Crown Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.14(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
and others. He currently divides his time between Colorado and Oregon.
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A momentary silence was all that marked the passing of summer into winter. After living most of my almost forty years in the high desert of Utah, twenty driving a truck, I had come to the conclusion there were really only two seasons: hot and windy and cold and windy. Everything else was just a variation on those two.
Late in the evening I lay half-awake in my single bed and knew the silence meant the season had changed. I like to think maybe I know a thing or two about silence. Real silence is more than the absence of sound: it is something you feel. A few heartbeats earlier a steady wind scattered the leftover sounds from evening—a car passing, neighbors talking from behind closed doors, somewhere a dog barking—all the usual muffled racket of nearby lives. Then there was nothing, nothing at all, as if the desert and everyone in it had vanished and left nothing behind but an indifferent starless light.
By four a.m., when I begin my workday, winter was on its hind legs and waiting. It took longer than usual to get to the transfer station and load my truck. The time was well after five o’clock when I finally got under way, driving cautiously through the light snow and ice in the predawn darkness. My heater was blowing full blast and the bitter, dry cold hijacked the warmth from my body and cracked my skin into something akin to a hardpan lakebed. My last routine stop was to take on diesel. I had missed the morning fueling rush, if there had been one, by being either a few minutes early or a few minutes late. All of the pump islands were empty.
Cecil Boone was the manager of the Stop ‘n’ Gone Truck Stop on US 191 just outside of Price, Utah. The Stop ‘n’ Gone was a cheapo independent, stuck out alone in a patch of sand and broken rock, with the rundown look of a place that must have low prices because it didn’t have much of anything else. Cecil was a stubby, sour man in his fifties. We were inside the small convenience store and Cecil was behind the register. In the eight or so years I had been buying my diesel there, nearly every weekday, I had never seen the man smile before that snowy October morning.
There are probably lots of reasons to smile. Most folks do it every day. In my line of work I don’t see many smiles and I probably don’t give many, not even to myself. That was the way it should be. No one wants to glance up and see a truck driver grinning. My sense is that such a sight is bound to have an unsettling effect on the ordinary driver. I was quickly sorting through the reasons people smile—humor, warmth, trivial annoyance—and coming up short. It was just Cecil and me—and Cecil’s smile.
I paid for my diesel.
“Someone left something for you on Island Eight,” he said.
I asked him what.
“None of my business. Just make sure you take it with you when you leave.”
Cecil walked back toward the door of his cluttered office. “Eight,” he said over his shoulder. I thought I heard a small laugh before he closed the door. It might have been gas.
My tractor-trailer rig was parked at Island 2. Eight was on the far west side of the truck stop. I stood for a minute and looked out the window at the blowing snow. Not much accumulation. Ice beneath a thin dusting of white. The fine flakes eddied around the high arc lights of the truck stop like a scene from a low-rent snow globe. Outside I paused and glanced in the direction of Island 8. Nothing I could see.
The inside of my cab was warming up. I was in favor of getting on the road and starting my day. Who would leave something for me at a truck stop? It couldn’t be that important or valuable or it wouldn’t have been left outside. Maybe this was a joke. I could take a joke. Anytime. Later. Cecil’s smile floated in and out of the restless snow beyond my windshield. That smile, if that’s what you wanted to call it, seemed to dare me to swing by Island 8 and take a peek. No matter what Cecil said, I felt no obligation to take it with me.
I jockeyed my twenty-eight-foot tractor-trailer rig in a wide turn and slowly approached Island 8. What looked like a short pile of clothes was stacked against a battered trash can—nothing that couldn’t wait, or be ignored entirely. I began to pull through the cluster of canopied fuel pumps and kept an eye on my side mirror to be sure I cleared the concrete stanchions that protected the pumps from idiots in motorhomes and U-Hauls and once, years ago, when I was hungover, me. The clothes stirred and launched a small wisp of snow into the wind.
I set the brakes and jogged back toward the island, slipping on the ice a couple times and barely managing to stay upright. A large white dog was tightly curled into itself and raised its long nose up an inch or two as I approached. Its pink eyes followed me and then settled intently between my shoulders and head—my neck. No growl or bared teeth. This was a dog that meant business—and it knew its business well. I stopped several feet away and the two of us discussed the situation in silence.
Our conversation ended when the dog uncurled and stood, stretched, and shook the powdery snow off its fur. Its thick coat was still white. Not just white, an impossible luminous white that made the animal almost a blurred white shadow floating inside the blowing snow. The dog was also larger than I first thought, an indeterminate mix of husky and German shepherd, with maybe a little timber wolf thrown in for good measure.
A pair of black, almond-shaped eyes rose like timid fish to the surface of the furry white lake. They stared at me from behind the dog’s back. A small child.
I fell twice in my hurried march back to the building. The soles of my old Ariat roper boots were as thin as paper and just as smooth. Leaving a little kid out in a snowstorm was just the sort of thing that would draw a smile from Cecil. This was his idea of
a joke. A five-car pile-up on the interstate or a grisly hit-and-run might give him laughing fits. I was limping badly when I reached the door. It was locked.
A hastily written sign was taped at eye-level, my eye-level, about six foot four in boots. back in ten minutes. Somehow I doubted Cecil would be back until I was well down the road. I had a schedule to keep. He knew I wouldn’t wait, not ten minutes. Not even five.
After pounding on the door and yelling Cecil’s name, I kicked at the bottom of the heavy glass. My reward was another fall. If Cecil was inside he was determined not to show himself. I walked carefully back to Island 8. The dog hadn’t moved; the kid still huddled behind it. The dog moved aside and fully revealed the child, a young boy. This was permission to move closer.
I guessed the boy’s age at five or six, brown complexion and straight, black hair cut in the shape of a bowl. He was dressed only in jeans and a short-sleeved white collared shirt. His tennis shoes looked new, the kind with blinking red lights in the heels. A piece of paper was pinned to his shirt.
I took a step closer without taking my eyes off either the dog or the boy. Neither seemed afraid, though they keenly gauged my progress. The boy never took his dark eyes from mine, not even when I reached down and gently unpinned what I assumed was a note.
PLEASE BEN. BAD TROUBLE. MY SON. TAKE HIM TODAY. HIS NAME IS JUAN. TRUST YOU ONLY. TELL NO ONE. PEDRO.
The note was printed in block letters with a black marker that had bled through the flimsy paper. It was a cash register receipt. There was no mention of the dog, without which the boy might well have frozen to death. I read through it several times.
Pedro was the tire man at the truck stop. The tire shop was in an old metal building hunched behind the truck stop where the crumbling concrete turned to gravel. We were friendly in the way strangers who infrequently came in contact with each other were friendly: I knew his name and he knew mine. Not much else.
The month before I had bought new tires. They gave me a hell of a deal on brand-name rubber. Pedro and I engaged in the usual bullshit banter. He had never mentioned he had a son. I hadn’t felt shortchanged by not knowing much about him. Why he would turn to me when he was in trouble, any kind of trouble, especially entrusting me with his son, didn’t make any sense. I did not feel particularly honored by his trust.
My options were limited. Call the local cops or take him with me. If I called the police I’d have to wait for them to arrive. When they arrived there would be questions, most of which I wouldn’t be able to answer and Cecil wouldn’t be much help, if he showed up at all. When you tell cops “I don’t know,” all they ever hear is “I won’t tell you,” which in my experience always made for long and frustrating conversations.
Leaving the boy with Cecil was not an option. My guess was that Pedro had left him inside and Cecil, the sick asshole, put the kid and his dog outside in a snowstorm just for giggles. The second option had only a single downside, and it was a big one—I just didn’t want to babysit a damned little kid in my truck all day—or his dog, which I wasn’t going to take under any circumstances.
I jerked a long-handled squeegee out of its canister and flung it through the snow in the general direction of the office. It was
a pathetic gesture. The squeegee fell way short of hitting the side of the building. The icy apron of Island 6 took it without a sound. The expressions on the face of the boy and the dog did not change.
I cautiously picked up the boy and carried him to my cab and opened the door. The dog scampered past me and quickly made itself comfortable on the warm floorboard. I sat the boy on my passenger seat and grabbed two big handfuls of white fur and readied myself to yank the animal out of my cab. I would have done just that if not for those pink eyes. Those eyes asked me one simple question: How badly do you want to keep your hands? I answered by letting loose of the fur and slamming the door.
Excerpted from "Lullaby Road"
Copyright © 2018 James Anderson.
Excerpted by permission of Crown/Archetype.
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