“Route Vaudoise,” oil on canvas, by Jean Arcelin, 2011.

by Michael Wade

His cramped right foot hurts. From holding the pedal way down where it’s never been before. He can’t let it up. He can’t let it up because if he does it means he believes this has happened.

He’d expected to smell brakes. You always do if you’re going to make any kind of time descending. But he’d smelled them too soon. He’d smelled them not a half-mile down, just when he got an inkling they weren’t holding like they ought to, and understood even the truck speed limit was too fast for this unweighed load.

Not three seconds later the pedal had plunged to where he still holds it and the mirror showed him filthy burned-brake smoke, already trailing far up the hill behind him.

He’d watched this smoke boil from under the hauler in the mirror while his left foot mashed the clutch and the right let the slack brake pedal back up and he’d pumped it fast ten or fifteen times and each time it went unbelievably all the way down here to the floor. While the transmission’s refusals to accept a lower gear, then any gear, ground through his ears and up into his throat.

He’d looked at the frantic hand on the stickshift like it belonged to somebody else. Nightmare gear music, some escaping part of his mind said through the grinding. Blown-downshift songs.

Stupid. He knew this was stupid, soon as he thought it. Stupid like the way he still holds down the brake pedal, like he’s waiting for some kind of magic to erase his mistakes. His brain has done this to him since the first test he remembers from school. Not adding up the apples in Polly’s baskets, but clogging with stupid stories about how Polly got so many apples. While smart kids’ pencils scratched.

Signs, black letters on diesel-grimed yellow, come urgent one-two-three to the windshield like moth-splatters in the summer.

TRUCK SPEED LIMIT 30
8% GRADE CONTINUES 3 1/2 MILES
RUNAWAY TRUCK RAMP 1/2 MILE

A better man would let the brake pedal go. Would call up that sharp but peaceful feeling he’d had cruise-controlling Montana interstate on Adderall, in the middle of the night and hours ahead of schedule. Would be peaceful now, knowing the ramp’s all there is, that this is like that night in Montana, not much to do but ride until his exit slides up.

The speedometer’s old-fashioned blaze-orange needle touches 55 as a silver BMW tucks into the right lane ahead. Greek-letter decal on the glass, two pairs of hot pink skis in racks on top. Blonde manes. Rich girls who’ve skipped morning classes at Duke or UNC because the slopeside party went late. Girls from a world foreign to him as Zanzibar or Kathmandu.

Where’d his brain find these names? Are they even real places?

Taylor would know. He’s probably been, if they’re real. For sure he could talk to the girls all about skiing. Takes his family to their condo in Vail, every year.

Don’t think about Taylor. Not ’til this is over and then there will be a discussion of some things, for sure starting with the load, which he promised calculations showed would not exceed 80,000 in any case. He will goddam see to it Taylor makes this right. Goddam more than right.

Can’t see the runaway ramp yet. Has to be just past the shallow curve.

First one he really noticed was the closest he’ll ever get to Vail’s slopes, come to think of it. Coming down Vail Pass with El, during the Kenworth’s checkout run. What would you do, he’d asked. Never thought about it much, El’d said. Guess you’d make sure your harness is tight (Torrey scoots back, tugs on his) and you’re lined up straight and even with the first pile.

Torrey had brought it up again when they were fishing. El had steered his bass boat straight into the little swell.

“See how it pops up, glides over? That’s what you’d want. The whole rig to stay a unit. The steel under the trailer hits the first ridge, glides up and pushes the cab that’s already bounced up in front of it.

“I could tell you a sad story about if the load gets loose. But I won’t. You’d never be fool enough to have to hit a ramp in the first place. Anybody makes that many mistakes in a row ought not to be driving.”

The sad story El told anyway is another thing he won’t think about. And he damn sure won’t think about what’s behind him. The tanks, the pigs, the laughable racks and hardware and straps and who knows what else. The weight.

Climbing the shallow slope a hundred feet from the dock at the “facility” he’d thought godamighty I better baby that grade down from Boone, feels like the worst I ever pulled, feels like 90,000 but couldn’t be that heavy, and damn you brother, and damn your money.

He sees it. Ridges of ashy-brown sand, receding up a path hacked through roadside pines. A yellow light flashing above an arrow and letters he can’t read yet that will say RUNAWAY TRUCK RAMP.

He ought to focus on that first ridge, nothing else. Instead, he thinks how pathetic the flashing light is. Like anybody would believe in that crappy little bulb.

He’ll tell everybody that’s what his mind chose, the last minute. Lottie, Deddy, El. I thought about that bulb and I thought about you. I thought how you’d say too bad this is the only way you ever learn anything Torrey, but thank God it came out all right.

The rear of the BMW fills his windshield. The ski girls gesture, jabbering.

He reaches for the lanyard of the 140-decibel two-trumpet air-horn El talked him into buying. Before its BWAAAAAAAHHH is even finished, the passenger whirls and holds up her middle finger, red-lipsticked mouth working.

The driver—no, no, no, no, NO! he hears himself say—accelerates and pulls right into the ramp entrance, her middle finger also up as he locks eyes with her through the side window.

Her face—clear as in one of Lottie’s magazines on the kitchen table—is soft-focused, like the pictures, because of the thin fog. But not pretty. It holds hard mean outrage, mouth open and eyes narrowed between blonde wings.

The last instant, before the cab’s sheet metal closes on it like a curtain, before Torrey jerks his gaze back down the hill where he’s going now, her arched eyebrows drop and her mouth shuts to a satisfied smirk, above the finger.

Because the filthy trucker looks scared! That’s what the smirk is. She doesn’t know what’s happening. Thinks the world is all about her. Thinks the trucker’s scared she’s going to report his dangerous driving, his tailgating, and won’t that fix him.

The needle moves to one o’clock on the speedometer’s round dial, crossing 60.

The whine of the tires pitches higher, like when he’s cruising easy, but now it reminds him of the squeals the pigs made during loading. Maybe the pigs are squealing again. Pigs are smart. Maybe these super-pigs sense something.

Signs appear and enlarge. Air begins whistling around the window seals El has been after him to replace for two years, ever since the checkout trip.

TRUCK SPEED LIMIT 30
8% GRADE CONTINUES 3 MILES
RUNAWAY TRUCK RAMP #2
2½ MILES

No bad window seals, bud. You don’t need to hear that all day long. You take care of Number One on the road.

That was El.

Torrey’s mind is still running loose. Faster and faster. Like he botched a downshift in his head, too.

I love you El old bud, but now I got to do better than tighten the harness and hit the first pile square. Godamighty. This load, what this load is, that won’t cut it.

The sneaky air judders. The tires whine, higher. The CB radio he keeps on low volume, no reason to touch it now, too late for that, static-crackles. These constant sounds, now too clear with the motor idling quiet and useless, work into his gut, worse than that gear-grinding did. Because holding back a load going downhill or driving this fast on flat road, either way, the Kenworth’s good motor ought to be thrumming deep. He ought to be hearing it, feeling it through the floor and the seat.

He read somewhere about an airliner that lost power, glided a hundred miles to a last-chance runway in the Azores. Weird silence. Strapped-in passengers waiting. He’s never flown, but he’d been able to imagine that situation. How often in his life has he been down to one last shitty so-called option?

He’s descended out of the fog. Hint of morning sun in front, behind the gray layer. Down the grade, three vehicles disappear around the next gentle curve, too late to register their shape or color.

The lone vehicle coming up in the opposite lanes is another tractor-trailer, a beautiful rig freshly painted in red and white.

If you’re not a hundred percent sure what you’re doing, go down a grade in the same gear you’d climb it, El’d said during Torrey’s ride-along. Even if it’s crawl gear. You’re gonna hurry, hurry somewhere else. Not in the mountains.

Torrey sure hadn’t needed crawl gear to climb this grade a few hours ago. Unlike the red-and-white rig, he’d sailed up in just the tractor, unloaded. Taylor had cut him such a crazy deal—ten thousand flat for a three-and-a-half-hour run, from the “facility” outside Boone to the XenoSpire labs in Research Triangle Park—that he hadn’t bothered to find an outgoing load, unlikely anyway given the short notice.

I saw coming up it was four miles of eight percent, so I didn’t give a thought to coming down loaded.

That’s how he’ll tell it.

And he’s going to. He’s going to tell it.

Because just like that, the clearing of the fog—the revelation of the light traffic below—shows him a second option, an option better than Runaway Ramp #2, an option he already knows he’s going to try the instant he thinks of it.

He’s got a chance. He’s got a real chance to get out of this.

A hint of that Montana interstate feeling, blasting right through scheduled sleep for the pure middle-of-the-night hell of it, drives out the intolerable sounds in the cab. A warmth that could become peace settles into his gut.

Because his brain, working right for once, for just one second, remembers—he must have glanced at the map posted near the summit brake-check pull-off nobody uses—that there are just two more curves in the remaining grade. There’s the one just below, where the three vehicles just disappeared, then a last long sweeper that ends not far above Ramp #2.

He’ll fly right past that ramp. He’ll get his money’s worth out of the big air horn, flash his lights if he needs to, to clear the traffic below. And ride it out. Coast to a stop who knows how far past the bottom, test what’s left of the brakes on the shoulder, maybe even put off the work on them one more day. Maybe let them cool all the way and test them again and then limp the flat interstate through Winston-Salem and Greensboro, and deliver this goddam giant load almost on time.

Beauty is, nobody’ll know how bad he fucked up. He’ll have his own fine version of the cautionary tale he’s heard at plenty of truck stops.

Tell you what, I won’t put off no maintenance nor run unweighed no more. But anyhow the notion just come out of nowhere: Ride the sumbitch out! And fellas, soon as it come into my head—you can say from the Good Lord if you want to—but wherever it come from, to me it was the call from the governor while they tighten the straps on the Chair.

That’s good, and he can’t quite believe it when he feels his face relax into a smile as he imagines the telling.

He’s ashamed, now, of the smell of the sweat crawling down his ribs, of where his mind was trying to go. To that story El told eventually about the driver who hit a runaway ramp in the Sierras with a load of composite decking. El’d said video from a chopper showed that decking must have gone right through him, it hadn’t stopped until it hit his Peterbilt’s engine block.

Well. That story was somebody else’s. Here’s how his was going to end:

Hell, when all was said and done, I near about got back on schedule. Though I wouldn’t normally recommend four miles of eight percent with no brakes as the way to make up time.

End of the day? Schedule-wise, at least, you could say them dumbass ski girls done me a favor.

The speedometer needle touches 80. But it’s all right. It’s all right.

This free-fall ride down a mountain’s shoulder, after the clearing of the fog has shown him the way—the highway almost magically clear, in both directions—this ride is something he’ll still be telling when he’s Deddy’s age. He thinks of another good bit.

Downhill thrills, fellas! I was thinkin’, I bet them girls in the Beemer, or my brother with his fancy condo in Vail, none of them never skied no mountain eighty miles an hour.

The long version, the whole thing, will start with Taylor. How he’d called out of the blue Tuesday afternoon. Hard to believe that was just two days ago. He’d asked if Torrey’s rig was in “good working order.” Then whether he might be interested in “a super-high-end one-day job” Thursday.

“You’d really be doing me a solid, bro,” he said.

Must have called from his Tesla. Ten minutes later he stepped out of it, wearing probably five grand worth of suit, a fat shrink-wrapped bundle and a thin envelope in his hands.

Taylor Hibbits, M.D., Ph.D., C.E.O., etc., etc., his own brother, hadn’t even looked real, standing next to the Kenworth on its pad in Torrey’s muddy side yard.

Right away Taylor opened the envelope, showed Torrey the check for $5,000, said he’d get the other half in Research Triangle Park after he’d unhitched at the lab.

Then Taylor had talked for 20 minutes. After the first few seconds, Torrey understood that his brother was as stressed-out as he’d ever seen him.

It had to do with the pigs.

Everybody with a pulse knew XenoSpire, the company Taylor founded, had worked ten years or more on gene-engineered pigs to provide lungs for human transplants. The gene stuff would keep patients from rejecting the pig lungs.

Torrey and Lottie always enjoyed the way Taylor got in some version of his favorite sound-bite when he was interviewed.

“Imagine,” he’d say, giving the exact same confident smile to every reporter. “No one dying on the transplant list. In fact, how about no transplant list at all?”

But as they’d talked in Torrey’s shop, feeling the wood stove’s good dry heat, Taylor had seemed anything but confident. His eyes wandered over the tools on Torrey’s pegboards as he talked.

“The facility outside of Boone?” he’d said. “That’s where we’ve bred the pigs for years. It’s run by a partnership between Appalachian State and a company out of Roanoke we control. They’ve lost a grant, and the animal rights people have been snooping around, and anyway we’ve been killing ourselves to get our own facility ready. Because with this crisper technology—never mind, anyway, the competition’s catching up. We’ve got to work faster, and I mean yesterday.

“What I need—what I’m asking you to do, Torrey, is go up there and bring about a billion dollars worth of pigs to XenoSpire.”

Torrey had popped off a good one.

“Brother, even if it wasn’t you? Ten grand for less than a day’s work? I’d haul a load of zombies and vampires. And say thanks.”

Taylor hadn’t cracked a smile.

“You need to hear the rest of it,” he said.

“Right in the front of the hauler you’ll see a rig—and it’s just that, it’s jury-rigged—that looks like the wine racks in my basement, you remember that.”

“Yeah. Lottie’s still talking about the last bottle you sent home with us.”

“I’ll bring her a case when this is done, Torrey. Anyway, the guys at the facility spent last weekend making those racks.

“Behind it will be chambers for baby pigs, some just weaned. They’re ten times more valuable to XenoSpire than the rest of your load, which is a hundred and eighty adult animals. The piglets are the first generations born with the key pieces of a new kind of what we call genome-editing. They’re fragile, and it’s a terrible time to move them, but like I told you we have no choice.

“See, they need to breathe special atmospheres for a few more weeks, until their lungs mature. That’s what the tanks in the racks are for, mixed gases and medications and so on.

“Like I said, it’s—awkward, to need to move everything all at once like this.”

“Don’t tell me any more, Taylor. I got it. You’re in a hurry. I’ve hauled livestock and I’ve hauled gas and hazmat plenty of times. I know how the paperwork is. Let alone what must be involved with transporting gene-engineered, whatever…”

“I wouldn’t want you to have the idea we’re cutting corners. That’s not—”

“What’s in the shrink-wrap? That for me, too?”

“What? Oh—yeah. It’s a really good winter coat we give everybody up there in the mountains. See, it’s got the XenoSpire logo. Thought you might want to wear it on the trip.”

“Nice. Thanks.”

Torrey’d waved as the Tesla glided away, silent, like a movie spaceship.

Have to admit, enjoyed watching you sweat for once in your life, golden bro.

But I should’ve let you keep talking.

Should not have let you wave me off about the load weight they “calculated,” neither.

And what else aren’t you telling me?

Not just you don’t want baby brother hanging around your loading dock in his own ratty coat.

“It’s weird all right,” El’d said on the phone ten minutes later.

“But like you told him, who cares? That’s once-in-a-lifetime money, and when it’s said and done you trust your kin.

“And I’ll tell you what else. You remember your poor ol’ buddy if bro ever needs a second hauler.”

That was El. Proud for him. Not one bit jealous.

Lottie had been proud, too. Last night they’d watched a little TV. When she disappeared for a few minutes he’d muted the sound long enough to hear her murmuring on her phone, bragging to Sherry, her best friend since junior high.

And after they’d gotten under the covers she’d acted like twenty years ago. Even wanted a second go when the alarm went off—when was the last time that happened? Sent him shaking his head into the cold and dark at five-thirty, behind schedule and without breakfast, and who gave a damn?

Breakfast, that was one more reason he’d paid no attention during the unloaded climb up the grade to Boone. He was starving, thinking about the truck-friendly Bojangles a sign said was just outside town.

They’d been snotty at the “facility,” though. Wolfing his sausage biscuits, he’d ignored a couple of texts—answering them was a pain on his old flip phone—and he’d showed up forty minutes late at the guard shack. As both the guard and then Dr. Fortis, the harassed-looking supervisor, had been quick to point out.

After he backed in, Torrey’d leaned back with a cigarette in the cab, comfortable with the window cracked in his XenoSpire coat, hearing muted squeals, smelling pigshit over the tobacco, feeling heavy thumps and scrapes through the seat.

He’d thought about the night in the Fresno Valley ten days into the ride-along with El, when he made up his mind to accept the offer from Taylor and Deddy to lend him the down payment on the used Kenworth El had found.

This was after nineteen months of unemployment and odd jobs, a period he and Lottie still wouldn’t talk about. Now here he was forty-six and finally, maybe, sort of somebody. Sitting in his own rig. Well, not his, not by a long shot. But this was a ten-grand payday, and what else might happen? He was ready for it.

He’d shaken another smoke out of the pack, Winstons, like Deddy smoked, and remembered taking Deddy on one of his first long trips, into the Dakotas and Illinois. They’d even driven the cab all the way to Mount Rushmore. In East Chicago, the night before the run home, Deddy joked: “You ain’t gon’ need me to drive tomorrow, are you?” Then ordered a boilermaker.

“Never seen nobody drink one before,” he’d said. “But hell, why not? Didn’t think I’d live to see Mount Rushmore, neither.”

Deddy’d ordered a second one, dropped the shot in and slurped foam, and then got to talking. Said he’d always felt bad for Torrey the first day of school, knowing the teachers would ask was he Taylor’s brother, tell him Taylor was the best student they ever had.

“Your mama told me right before she died, she figured Taylor studied genetics so he could understand why he was so different. What kinda mutation he was.”

Deddy’d paused, let out some smoke.

“I’ll swear you’re lying, you ever tell Taylor this. But mutation sounds right to me.

“You’ve seen it, too, Torrey. Look him in the eye, he’s always figuring, never says what’s really on his mind, never just turns off and acts like folks.

“Cold, you want to know the truth. Living in that pile of bricks above Lord knows how many dollars worth of damn wine. None of it fit to drink, you ask me. Married that cold kind, too. Raising my grandkids that same way.”

Torrey feels new vibrations. The load is swaying. The hauler, at this speed, has developed a shimmy. But there are no alarming sounds behind him. There’s nothing new he can hear above the whine of the tires and the roar from the bad window seals. Those sounds aren’t changing much now.

The speedometer needle is on 85.

Time is stretching out. Another set of three signs, speed limit-grade-runaway ramp, and then a fourth with the symbol for the last curve, these seem to stand still for minutes, then grow huge in the windshield.

Speed does things to time and space. Skydivers reach terminal velocity. Notions that appear and pass, like the signs.

His thoughts still are not right – but maybe not wrong, either.

That lone red-and-white rig, climbing the hill. Seems like he passed it hours ago. It was so bright and new and, somehow, important.

The sweetness of a little thing: the way his boots now lay easy on the cab floor, the hard tight pain in his foot finally easing.

The brake lights blooming on two sedans and an SUV he’s catching, now that he’s in the long sweeper, so funny that the drivers need to touch their brakes, while he’s swinging wide, setting up to stick the inside groove like he’s racing Daytona, knowing his overweight brakeless rig will make the curve easily.

After that, nearing that last ramp he won’t need, he’ll start sounding the air-horn, flashing his lights.

Out of the way folks, professional driver, bit of trouble, move over quickly and calmly please, thanks.

Driscoll’s. That was the bar in East Chicago. Deddy had clammed up after he mentioned his grandkids. They’d smoked quiet, looking around at drunks and beer neon.

Deddy eventually said a few more things. Maybe without actually speaking.

I know we always end up talking about Taylor. Like everybody else does.

But both my boys’re all right. Finally. And it was you took me to Mount Rushmore. You. In your own rig.

Seems the one I care to drink with ain’t the one gets talked about.

When Fortis had finally brought the stack of paperwork, Torrey was looking into the hauler through the window at the back of his cab. They’d hung a work-light, and he could see the steel tanks, maybe five dozen of them nestled floor-to-roof in what really did look like giant cheap aluminum wine racks.

Regulators stuck off the narrow ends of the tanks that faced Torrey. Hoses snaked back into the hauler. It was dim, but through gaps he could see movement back there. Maybe piglets or technicians or both.

Jury-rigged, Taylor had said. Boy. Hardware store strap around each tank, looped through little hooks screwed to the racks. Racks themselves half-ass bolted to the floor and sides of the tarp-covered hauler.

No. This shit you did not want inspected.

Amazing how people supposed to be smart were stupid about the simplest things. Just before the work-light switched off, he’d wished he had a smart phone so he could take a picture. Deddy and El would have thought this was funny as hell.

Before he’d pulled out, he flipped through the paperwork. This brought another head-shake from Fortis, who looked at his watch. It was gobbledygook, but Torrey shrugged and flipped anyway. Just to show who was in charge of the truck.

*

The whole truth nestles snug all at once around Torrey. Complete, perfect and natural, the way his favorite rawhide work gloves, warmed by the wood stove, fit every inch of his hands.

The three vehicles in front of him weren’t braking for the curve, but for a mass of stopped traffic down below the runaway truck ramp entrance. He figures the cars must have stopped for rubberneckers below them, looking at whatever has happened in the westbound lanes. Because nothing at all is moving up the hill.

That sweet gleaming rig, the red-and-white, must have been the last vehicle to get through.

That’s his most likely theory.

The point is, he’ll go into Runaway Truck Ramp #2 at something over 90, the number at the bottom, at five-o’clock. The blaze-orange needle, pinned there, bounces a little, like keeping time to music.

Ramp #2 is longer, and he can see—the gray layer has parted to let the sun through—that these ridges are higher, and made of gravel, not sand.

The way he babies his rig across two lanes and dead-center down the ramp entrance, that is a pretty thing.

Time isn’t stretched out anymore, and he has just enough that he doesn’t feel hurried. There’s nothing more in the world to think about.

He passes the blinking yellow light, and hauls down on the lanyard.

carriage.2
Michael Wade has worked as a journalist, editor, and critic, and as a research scientist and pharmaceutical executive. He has published editorials, columns, reviews and stories in several newspapers, as well as peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals. Currently he is revising a short story collection and a novel. Find him on Twitter @michael_mwade.