Friday, November 22, 2019

The Shiny Side by M. C. Tuggle

Trucker Travis enlists a friend's help to carry a particularly unusual load; by M. C. Tuggle.

"All right, Wanda June, brace yourself."

I gave Travis a look, and he gave me a grin right back. He slid the hatch, turned the handle, and pulled the creaky metal door open.

"Damn." I scratched my chin and just stared.

The setting Texas sun reached deep into the trailer of Travis' articulated truck, illuminating strange, otherworldly stuff you'd expect to see in an Indiana Jones movie. Among dozens of odd-sized wooden crates stood golden columns topped by silver crescents, altars of blue stone with metal inlays, and big-mouthed brass urns.

"Whatcha think, Wanda?"

"What is this?"

"The owner says it's for his temple."

"Temple?"

"That's what he said. Name's Vakil. Calls himself a magus."

"What's that?"

"I didn't wanna ask. You shoulda seen him. Skinny, bug-eyed, all dressed up in black."

"Right." I glanced outside. No one else in the truck stop paid any attention to us. Then I eyeballed the inside of Travis's trailer again. Nice, balanced job. Household contents are a pain to load, and it looked like Travis had done everything right. "Hard to believe you're overweight."

"I didn't think I was either. A buddy of mine working the Amarillo weigh station let me slide by, but he told me I'm over by nine hundred pounds. He said they're cracking down on the independent 18 wheelers, and the first checkpoint I hit on the other side of the Mississippi, I'm in trouble. I can't afford another fine, and that magus dude's expecting me by Tuesday morning. Can you help me out?"

I gave the load another once-over. "We can put your excess in my trailer, but you don't have to give me $500. We'll meet at Purgason's outside of Charlotte and offload back to your trailer. You buy me lunch, and we're good."

Travis slapped his hands together. "Hey, Wanda, I can't thank you enough. I owe you."

"No. I owed you after what you did for me at that bar in Dayton last August."

"I didn't do nothin'."

"If you hadn't stood beside me when those three goons got in my face, I don't think I'd be here. I might've taken two of them, but not three."

"Guess they didn't like the odds."

"Right." I couldn't stifle a smile, so I turned and ducked out of the trailer. "Let's hit it."

Travis pulled his Freightliner up to my rig and the two of us toted a couple dozen crates from his trailer to mine. In forty-five minutes, we had two tight loads.

I climbed into my cab. "See you at Purgason's."

"See ya, Wanda June." He touched the bill of his cap. "Keep the shiny side up."

"You too."

We cranked our engines. Travis rumbled ahead of me, and I followed.

With blue skies, light traffic, and two balanced loads, the odds of avoiding a rollover looked good. No matter where they're headed, a trucker's goal is to end their ride with cab tops facing up, so that's what friends wish each other when they say good-bye.

Five miles outside of Oklahoma City, traffic picked up. We crossed the Canadian River, Travis about six or seven lengths ahead of me. The setting sun was a red blur on the horizon, and most of the four-wheelers had their lights on.

All of a sudden, Travis's Freightliner jerked into the middle lane. I squinted into the traffic ahead, wondering what he might've seen. Nothing. I couldn't move over, but figured I could swap lanes in a mile or two. Then Travis nosed into the granny lane, full speed. While I tried to figure out what was going on, he swerved left, then back into the granny lane, and onto the shoulder. And he kept going.

A car hauler sat parked a hundred yards directly ahead of him.

A wave of adrenaline raced through me. I tried to yell, but my throat went dry.

Travis's rear lights lit up.

The rat-a-tat of straining air brakes drowned out the noise of all the other vehicles on I-40.

His trailer shivered, weaved.

He slowed down, but not enough. Travis's rig screeched into the hauler's upper ramps, ripping sheet metal from the Freightliner's hood and wind deflector.

Stuck in the fast lane, I stared as I passed the wreck. No sign of Travis in the cab.

Hands shaking, stomach muscles in knots, I downshifted to fifth gear and searched for a gap in traffic. I finally managed to change lanes and pull onto the shoulder, where I called 911. The operator informed me emergency vehicles had already been dispatched. I flipped on my emergency blinkers, jumped out of my rig, and started running.

Travis and the car hauler were over a half-mile away. As I ran, Oklahoma state troopers pulled in beside them and closed off the granny lane. Minutes later, an ambulance rolled up beside Travis's rig, but I had to stop and catch my breath. Gasping for air, I watched the driver of the car hauler step out of his cab and trudge toward the officers. So he was all right.

Tired as I was, I kept running. And running.

The ambulance heaved onto the highway, accelerated, and cruised past me, lights flashing. Still huffing, I turned and watched it shrink toward the horizon.

"Good luck, Travis."

I kept plodding toward the accident. The distance between me and the riot of lights and uniformed troopers ahead didn't seem to change, like in a dream. But the thick stench of hot grease in the air from smoking brake shoes made it all too real.

I strode toward a trooper. She peered at me from under the brim of her hat with a look that made me stop at least 20 feet away from her.

She studied me a long moment, tilted her head toward me, and asked, "Are you Wanda June Vincent?"



At 10:30 that night, I sprawled on the bunk in the back of my cab answering emails and updating my e-log. A bunch of folks have told me I'm so good at computers, I ought to go into IT work. Truth is, my computer skills give me an edge in this crazy business.

And I love the road. And the friends I've made.

My back ached, my feet hurt, but I had work to do. The recovery vehicle had towed Travis's trailer to the same truck stop where I'd parked my rig ten miles east of Oklahoma City. I'd agreed to hold his keys and keep an eye on his trailer until a substitute tractor and driver arrived next morning.

Then, after all the crap I'd gone through that day, I got what looked like a computer virus. Some punk must've thought sticking a blurry face over my email program would be funny. I wanted - needed - to punch something, and made a fist.

But tensing up made my laptop jiggle, and the image moved. I relaxed my arm and the strange face reappeared. It wasn't a digital image. It was a reflection.

I twisted around and faced a shiny, black creature with anime eyes and ears like fish fins staring back at me from the driver's seat.

My entire body went numb.

It held up its hand. "You are Wanda June Vincent."

I couldn't say anything.

"We must talk."

I had to swallow before I could speak. "Okay."

"My name is Azi. I am a Daeva, a servant of Magus Vakil, and I need your help."

Vakil? That was the dude who'd hired Travis. I managed a nod.

"My master has another servant named Aeshma. Aeshma is my brother. I was instructed to keep watch over him during my master's journey to Charlotte."

He frowned, and his entire face puckered. The finny ears perked up.

"Do you understand what I am saying?"

"Yes."

"Good. It is normally forbidden that you should see or hear me, but someone moved my hasiera into your vehicle, and an accident occurred."

Azi must've seen the confusion in my face. He fixed his huge eyes on me and frowned, which made his skin glisten like black silk. "A hasiera is a home, a place of safekeeping our master built and enchanted for us. We can venture short distances from our hasiera, but only for brief periods. My brother is impulsive, a bit mischievous, though the word my master uses is - evil."

"Did you say evil?"

"Yes. My master always keeps my hasiera near Aeshma's so I can watch him. But when we were separated, Aeshma clearly did something impetuous, and I was not there to stop him. Please tell me, was anyone injured or killed in this accident?"

I sat up, blinked a couple of times. "My friend Travis broke his leg and got a concussion, but he'll be all right."

"And what of my master's property?"

"Travis slowed down before he hit. The trailer's mostly okay. One of those fancy columns with the moon on top cracked in half."

Azi winced. "Tell me what happened."

"You don't know?"

"I could sense Aeshma and I had been separated, but did not know what to do."

"Right. The state trooper -"

"What is that?"

"A police officer. She questioned my friend before the ambulance picked him up. She knows he and I were driving to Charlotte together, and asked me if he was on drugs. That means the police think my friend is at fault. He could lose his job, maybe face jail time."

Azi lowered his head, and the fishy ears drooped. "This is very bad."

"Yeah, it is. The officer took me to the hospital, where I talked to Travis. When I asked why he weaved all over the road and hit a parked truck, he said a black monster came out of nowhere and grabbed his steering wheel."

The giant eyes bulged and Azi gripped the top of my seat with long claws, wrinkling it.

"I told him not to repeat that story to anyone else. Good thing we were alone, or the trooper would've thought he was nuts."

Azi cocked his head.

"That means insane."

"I see."

"Hell, I thought my friend was nuts. But when you popped in, I realized he wasn't." I leaned back, crossed my arms. "So what are you going to do about this?"

"There is nothing I can do. Do you know where Aeshma is?"

"He must still be in Travis's trailer."

"You must take my hasiera to that place. I cannot move it."

I stared at Azi until an idea sent a warm tingle up my back. "Okay. But there's something you'll have to do for me."

Azi smiled back, revealing spiky teeth. "Ah, yes. What riches do you require?"

I told him.

The smile vanished and the round eyes narrowed into ovals. "That is what you want?"

"Can you do it?"

"Yes, but this task will take some time."

"We're spitting distance from a major highway. Things get run over every day. You just have to look."

"Who knows what Aeshma may do while I am not there to watch him?"

"Then I guess you better hurry back."

He flashed a toothy scowl at me and dissolved into the air.

I stared at the now empty space and blew out a chestful of nervous energy. It took a few moments to convince myself I'd just had a conversation with a little devil.

Yeah, a devil. And we both had work to do.

I turned to my laptop, ran a couple of searches, and keyed data into a document which I beamed to my phone.

Fifteen minutes later, Azi returned with a lumpy garbage bag. I took it, peeked inside, wadded it shut to keep the stomach-turning odor out of my cab.

"This should do."

Azi studied me. "If I may ask, what sorcery are you going to work with this?"

"I'm going to get my friend out of trouble with the law."

"I see. But now you must fulfill your part of the bargain."

"You got it." I set the bag on the floor board. After a quick look around the lot, I climbed down and made my way to the back of my rig, where I opened the door to my trailer.

An inky cloud drifted in the darkness. Velvety strands shimmered in the dim light and churned until Azi's face emerged. He hovered over a wooden crate, then flowed into it like a silent vacuum was sucking him in.

I hoisted the crate onto my shoulder and locked the door. Anyone still awake at that hour would've seen a lady trucker in the shadows lugging a crate past a row of big rigs. I unlocked Travis's trailer, climbed in, and nestled the crate in tight.

"Take care, Azi."

No reply. I climbed down and grabbed the handle. Just before the door shut, Azi's glossy face floated toward another crate and seeped in. It seemed like a good idea to let these brothers have a little privacy, so I locked the door.

I returned to my rig, where I cranked my trailer's landing gear into place, pulled the release arm, and disconnected the electrical pigtail. With the trailer unhitched, I started the tractor's engine and drove to the tow yard.

Double chain-link fences topped with razor ribbons surrounded the yard. I stopped at the gate arm, where an unsmiling guard peered at me from behind a plexiglass enclosure.

I punched a couple of buttons on my phone and transmitted the form I'd created earlier. The guard pressed his nose close to his computer screen and stared at it so long my neck band and armpits turned slick with sweat. He swung his glare my way. I nodded back.

The dampness around my neck trickled down my spine.

The guard reached across his console and the gate arm lifted. I waved thanks, shifted gears, and my tractor lurched into the lot.

My tractor rumbled down long rows of crumpled wrecks, and I kept pushing the panic button on Travis's remote key. Finally, I heard the yip from Travis's tractor and parked behind it. I grabbed the garbage bag, climbed out, and unlocked the door. My hand gripped the handle, and I paused to search the yard. I wasn't alone. Distant voices muffled by wrecked vans and tractors swirled and blended with the whines of faraway sirens. It had been a hot day, but the crisp Oklahoma night made my damp shirt feel icy.

Once inside the cab, I shook out the contents of the garbage bag and nudged the turkey vulture carcass under the passenger seat. Azi had found me a fresh one, but it still smelled like an ugly bird that eats road kill. One black-and-white wing curled onto the floor board, and the feathers glistened in the pole light.

As I drove back to the truck stop, I made a mental checklist and decided I could have a beer or two and call it a night. With a little luck, no one would connect me with a lady named Tonya Sylvester who checked on her wrecked Jeep late at night. In the morning, I'd call the Oklahoma State Highway Patrol and tell them I'd forgotten to mention the big black bird that flew into Travis's cab and caused the accident.

Hey, panic makes you forget things.

Later, I'd visit Travis at the hospital and convince him about what had really happened. He trusted me. And I could be real convincing.

I exited I-40 and waited at the stop sign for traffic to pass. As four wheelers crawled in front of me, the crescent moon gleamed on the hood of my tractor. Looking up to the night sky, I wondered what some folks might say about my actions. Did I go too far and risk too much for a friend?

No way. Despite appearances, no one really rides alone out here.

Others might say I acted unethically, even unlawfully.

Maybe. But I did what I had to. The magus knew something all experienced truckers live by: Before you take off down the highway, you have to balance your load.

Heavy and light. Good and bad.

That's how we ride.

3 comments:

  1. Great Story. A couple of different instances of someone looking out for their "brother". Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Entertaining on the road story about truckers n aliens. Flows well, kept me interested throughout

    ReplyDelete
  3. Mischief and cover-ups, always a recipe for fun! Poor Azi has a tough job chasing after his brother. Wonder what that temple looks like...

    ReplyDelete