Today I’m sharing with you chapter three of Mile Marker 139.
Read chapter one here and chapter two here.
Chapter Three: Russ Jacobs
His eyelids are growing heavy. He’s used to lengthy stretches of road and long hours. When it’s been nearly eleven hours of driving with only two thirty-minute breaks, Russ knows it’s time to turn in. It doesn’t help that it’s taken him longer than usual to drive the route from New York City. Between holiday traffic and road construction, it’s added a couple of hours to his route. He’s always pushing the limits of what’s allowed, but balancing what’s permitted by regulations and getting to his next destination on schedule is an act Russ has been managing for the past fifteen years.
He squints at the road sign. Twenty-some miles till the next rest stop. He knows he ought to fit in an eye exam some time between all the road trips, but it’s starting to snow as well. Visibility would be compromised for anyone. Damn, he was hoping to beat the snow before stopping. Every report on the radio stations and chatter from other drivers ahead of him on the road over the CB radio warned him a storm was coming. He really should know better by now.
Just stop sooner, Russ. It’s not that hard, you old idiot.
Russ reaches for the long-cold mug of coffee in the holder, careful to keep his other hand on the wheel. The truck lurches slightly. Damn black ice. Still, he needs something to keep him awake. The jerking of the cabin is more effective than the ounce of caffeinated beverage left.
As he plants both hands firmly on the wheel, he wonders if he really does have a death wish.
Concentrate. You’ll be taking a break for good if you get in an accident and die.
His boss would get on his case if he knew he was driving like this. On the back of every Todamax Freight truck reads: “How am I driving? Please call 1-555-TODAMAX.”
Russ knows he’s got deadlines to make, and the weather isn’t helping. He wants to push through, but his thirty-nine-year-old body is failing. He grimaces, thinking about his age. Brandy is insisting on throwing a party for him. As much as he loves his younger sister, he hates the idea of that “over the hill” logic that “it’s all downhill from here.”
“You’re halfway to death,” Russ’s lifelong buddy, Ed, joked last time they were together.
If Brandy doesn’t throw the damn party, Ed and his pals will. Being born on New Year’s Eve is everyone’s excuse to celebrate your birthday.
Maybe I really do have a death wish, he thinks wryly. I’m no spring chicken. Mom always said I had a morbid sense of humor.
Lost in his thoughts, those twenty miles pass like an eighteen-wheeler running over roadkill: easy. So Russ almost misses his stop. Snapping out of his woe-is-me-I’m-becoming-an-old-man mentality, Russ takes the exit to the rest area. As he applies pressure to the brake, the truck slides and wavers on the slush and ice. Where are the damn road crews when you need them? Just as he’s about to stop, he sees her too late. He swears and wills the truck to please stop in time. It halts. He releases his white-knuckled grip on the wheel and is out of his cabin in a second.
Expecting to find a body on the ground, Russ breathes a sigh of relief when he sees her standing not five feet from the front of the truck.
“Hey, what the hell do you think you were doin’, lady?” he shouts. He doesn’t mean to frighten her, but he’s shaken up.
So is she, clearly. “I-I’m s-sorry,” she mumbles and takes a step, only to lose her balance and fall into the slush.
Russ swears under his breath and comes to her aide. “It’s not safe out here, lady. C’mon, in the truck.”
As he helps her us, she tries to pull away. “No, I’m fine. Sorry, I–”
“At least let me get you somewhere safe.” Russ is a big guy — six foot three and two hundred twenty pounds of pure muscle. He is as gentle as he can be with this waif of a woman, but insistent that she come with him. As he guides her to the truck, he says, “Don’t worry, lady. I ain’t gonna hurt you or abduct you if that’s what you’re worried about.”
He opens the passenger door and helps her step up into the cab. After slamming it shut, Russ gets back in and manoeuvres the semi to the truck rest area in the back. Once he turns off the engine, he looks her up and down. Sure that she’s homeless, he asks, “Where are you headed?”
It’s as he suspected. She’s probably trying to sleep inside the rest stop. It’s open 24-7 after all, is warm, and has bathrooms.
The snow picks up outside.
“And I need to go.” She tries to open the door, but Russ stills her hand.
“Wait, are you crazy? There’s a blizzard out there. Look, I swear on my grandma’s grave I ain’t gonna hurt you. I’m not going anywhere anytime soon, not only ‘cause of the weather, but I’m due for a break. A long break. At least ten hours, lady. And in case you’re worried, look around you. We ain’t exactly alone.” He motions toward trucks parked on either side of him.
“Well, you could still–” She shrinks back in her seat, pressed against the window. “How would they know you aren’t, um, doing something to me in here?”
“Guess you’ll just have to trust me then, lady. I nearly hit you and am damn glad I didn’t. What makes you think the first thing I’d do is turn around and rape the woman I practically saved from bein’ made flat as a pancake on the asphalt?”
The woman winces and claws at the handle to open the door. Russ sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Look, lady, at least tell me your name. I’m tired and cranky. Been a long day, and, look, sorry about my tone. Like I said, long day.”
“I’m, um, Shelley.” Her voice is scratchy and quiet, like she hardly uses it. Shelley’s haunted eyes roam the interior of the cabin. “Won’t it get cold just sitting in here?” she finally asks.
Russ chuckles. “Nope. Auxiliary power keeps the cab heated when the engine’s off.”
“It’s, uh…nicer than I’d expect in here.”
Russ can’t help but be amused by her fascination. He takes off his cap and runs his hands through his thick, dark hair, and replaces it. “Most don’t really know much about cabs, but it’s fine for what it is. I spend plenty of time in here. The bed’s not the same of mine back in New York, but I’m used to it. Got a fridge, microwave, TV, and Internet. No bad for a few square feet.”
Shelley seems to relax a bit as she looks around the cabin. “Do you, um, spend lots of time on the road?”
Russ smiles, then yawns. “Pretty much my life. Hey, sorry…just ready to go to sleep. This storm doesn’t look like it’s gonna let up anytime soon. You can wait it out in here if you like.”
“Thanks, but I can go inside the center.”
“You kidding me? You’re not even wearing a hat, gloves, nothing. You’ll freeze out there.”
“It’s not a far walk.”
Russ scrutinizes her. “You weren’t headed for the building, were you?”
Shelley avoids his gaze, stares at her thin fingers as she picks at a hole in her jeans.
“Sorry. But you” — he yawns — “you weren’t headed in that direction when I damn near hit you. You were crossin’ from the car lot to the open area.”
“What’s it matter?”
“It’s after 3:00 in the morning. There’s a blizzard outside, and you’re hardly dressed to be out in even forty degree weather. Something don’t add up.”
Shelley frowns, glares. “I thought you were tired.”
Russ can’t help the big yawn that follows. “Yeah, I am. Anyone in their right mind would be beat at this hour.” He gives her a meaningful look as he takes off his hat and moves to the bed. Russ lies down, turns on his side away from her. “Fine. Do what you want, but I’m getting some shuteye. Close the door on your way out if you’re crazy enough to leave.”
As sleep claims Russ, his worn-out mind knows Shelley is either insane or dead depressed. No one roams around outside at this time of night in a snowstorm at a rest stop.
When he wakes at daybreak, Shelley is gone. But the door is closed.
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