The Friday night Reba walked out on Daniel, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and stars were scattered about like fat, yellow jewels, fighting with the nearly full moon for dominance over the blackness. It was the new pickup that did it. She’d worked overtime at the hospital--weeks and weeks of it--to make the down payment on a new trailer. And then he’d gone out and bought a new Chevy pickup! It was the last straw.
“I didn’t sign on that thing,” she told him as she packed. “You can pay for it yourself.”
“No problem, Babe,” he answered right back. But she knew he was bluffing. He didn’t really think she’d stay away for good. They’d only been married two years and mostly they still liked each other pretty much.
And, she told herself, as she drove off in her beat-up Honda, he was probably right. She might come back. But not right off.
She stopped at a diner and called her sister in El Paso. Told Melanie she was on her way, invited herself for the weekend. She didn’t want to give up her job as an aide. Not for Daniel’s sake.
It was some drive from Roswell, where she had lived these past two years, and she was too mad to check the gas tank. She was thinking about her things she had packed--more than one weekend’s worth--and what Daniel was doing right now--probably drinking and driving around in the new pickup. Maybe he’d get a DUI. She thought about that, smiling a fierce little smile and, about six miles from Carlesbad, she ran out of gas.
She said a word her mother wouldn’t have liked, and coasted the car to the side of the road. She checked her cell phone, found it dead, too, and said a few more words. She’d have to wait for a cop or something, she guessed, and reached back to make sure all the doors were locked.
But no cop came. The moon shone steady and without concern and, no doubt, the constellations moved on their busy way across the sky, but only a couple cars went by and nobody stopped. She wasn’t sure she wanted them to.
She was just resolving to get a car charger for her cell phone as soon as she got to her sister’s when a semi pulled up behind her. Weird. She hadn’t seen the lights in her mirror, hadn’t heard a thing. But it had lights. She saw them for a moment before they were turned off.
Her father had been a truck driver and she had no illusions about knights of the road stuff. He had beat her mom, cussed at the neighbors and finally jackknifed a semi in the middle of Atlanta, killing himself and doing in a load of chickens along with a sports car and part of a street sign.
Still, maybe this guy would be okay. After all, he worked for a company and he would want to keep his job. He wouldn’t try anything funny--or if he did, it would be the sort of funny stuff she could handle. In fact, she thought, maybe a bit of funny stuff was just what she needed. She waited for her rescuer to get out of the truck.
But nothing happened. The semi sat there, seemingly parked for the night, lights off, black against the radiant sky, like a big rectangle cut out of the world.
She grew more and more impatient. If only someone else would drive along! But no one did and she was growing downright chilly in her shorts and belly shirt. It’d been hot earlier that day and she’d been--well, that didn’t much matter now. At least Daniel’d gotten a hint of what he’d be missing out on. Tentatively, she opened her door, wincing as the dome light came on. Surely the driver could see it from the truck. He would know that someone was in the car.
Of course that was why he had not come out to check on her, she thought with a surge of relief. He probably thought it was an abandoned car. But now--she stepped out onto the gravel, hearing for the first time how loud the crickets sang. She smelled the strong scent of the cooling air. Too early for snow. Too warm, still anyway, though she cursed herself for not thinking to put on jeans before making her big exit. She peered at the cab, but nothing moved.
“Hello!” she called, moving closer. She could not make out a logo on the truck. It was dark, dark paint. She had an impression that the shape was--not wrong exactly, but not usual. It was an older model, she decided. An old truck.
She had reached the door.
“Anyone there?” she called, hesitating to step up and look inside. What if something had happened to the driver? What if he were dead? What if she opened the door and a body spilled out onto the road?
But that was silly. He had just pulled up. Probably he was rummaging around in his berth for some tools.
But what if he was dead? What if she took hold of the door and--and what if he was right there, watching her?
She had almost decided to go back to her own car. But the thought of the semi parked behind her, silently cutting its chunk from the sky, was in some strange way even more frightening than opening the door. She reached up for the handle and pulled herself up level with the window.
The handle turned in her hand.
It was then she knew she had done the wrong thing. If only someone else had come--she prayed for someone else. A cop. Even a car full of good old boys. Anyone.
The crickets fairly screamed their shrill and mindless song, the scent of the Russian knapweed was overpowering. But it wasn’t strong enough to hide another smell, a dark earthy smell. A smell of death mellowed by long usage.
The door opened.
Reba froze, clutching the handle, balancing there with the driver’s seat in front of her. She tried to speak, to call, but nothing would come out. She hung there, thinking of death, while the night passed and the stars moved and the moon looked in over her shoulder. Finally, she climbed into the truck.
“Daniel,” she whimpered. She was ready to forgive the new pickup, but it was too late. Something moved in the back and she turned in the driver’s seat and saw a pale face, caught in the moonlight, eyes gleaming. She had an impression of lank hair, grizzled beard. And then two hands reached up to take her shoulders and she saw the mouth open.
She screamed at last, drowning the noise of the crickets, drowning the beating of her heart, the wrenching sounds of her own dislocating joints as something drank its fill, savaging its prey, ripping--
When she knew she was dying, she ceased to scream. For one awful moment, she looked into eternity and then, remembering some scraps of childhood religion, she tried to pray. With a final snarling rip, the thing tore out her throat and cast her body out onto the road.