by bj max
Joe Bob down shifted the thirteen speed Road Ranger and carefully made the turn into the Sugar Tree Truck Stop. Watching his right mirror carefully to make sure his tandems (trailer tires) cleared the drop-off in the narrow entranceway. It was two AM and he was dog tired after six straight hours behind the wheel. With its turbos whistling like a taxiing jet, Joe Bob let the big Cat crawl slowly through the lot as he searched for a parking space. Finding a spot, he maneuvered his mammoth rig into a tight semi-circle and backed in.
Hundreds of amber lights glowing through a veil of diesel smoke mark the outline of eighteen wheelers with their sleeping drivers and engines idling away the night. The time of day is meaningless at truck stops and at two in the morning Sugar Tree is as busy as a Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve with trucks constantly lumbering in and out, engines straining, gears grinding.
Joe Bob stepped down from the cab and zig-zagged his way through the canyons of sheet metal to the restaurant. Inside, the round table reserved for truckers was full as usual with east bound drivers yapping with the west bound hands, swapping lies, information on road conditions and speed cop hideouts.
As Joe Bob pulls up a chair, Charley Jones is spinning another one of his wild yarns. “What’s ‘ol Slop Bucket lying about now?” He asks as he sits down and signals the waitress for coffee. “ I ain’t lying” replies Charley in mock anger. Reefer Red Ryder chimes in from across the table, “Check his lips, Joe Bob. If they’re movin’, he’s lying.” The truckers laugh nodding their heads. Hillbilly holds up his hand, quieting the table and says, “Go ahead with your story Slop Bucket and start from the beginning. You got to hear this one, Joe Bob.
The table’s attention is focused on Charley as he leans in close and begins again. “Well, you remember that young girl that got run off in the river by that stick hauler up there at Skullbone, doncha’ Joe Bob?”
“Yeah, sure I remember. What about it?”
“Well,” continued Charley. “I was runnin’ up that same crooked little road the other morning, ‘bout four o’clock I guess, and when I went through Skullbone there was this young girl hitchhiking at the very spot where that girl got drowned. Now that’s unusual for anybody to be hitchhiking on that old road, especially a sweet thang like that. And she was soaked from head to foot, her hair all wet and stringy. And get this Joe Bob. She was wearin’ blue jeans, jogging shoes and a Braves baseball jacket. How ‘bout that?”
As the waitress poured coffee, Joe Bob leaned back out of her way, winked at Hillbilly and asked, “So what are you getting at, Charley?”
“What am I getting’ at? Shoot far’ Joe Bob, don’t you know nothin’?” That’s exactly what that poor girl that dumb stick hauler run off in the river was wearin’. That musta’ been her ghost up there. Hitchiking.” The table roared and Joe Bob shook his head.
“C’mon Charley, you don’t believe in ghosts, do you?”
Well, naw, not really. But how else do you explain it?”
“Too much coffee and too many miles.” said Red Ryder. “You need to slow down some boy. This job’s getting to ya.”
“A fig newton of your imagination.” said Hillbilly.
“Well, I know what I saw,” said Charley “and it wooden’ no fig Newton of my imagination either.”
Hillbilly changed the subject and asked Joe Bob if he had been riding his scooter lately. “Not lately, but I’m meeting a couple of buddies here at Sugar Tree tonight and we’re heading out for the Smokies. Gonna’ do Deal’s Gap. Why don’t you just pack your hot roll and go with us?”
“Man, I wish I could.” Hillbilly sighed “but duty calls. I gotta’ work.”
“Yeah, I copied dat.” replied Joe Bob.
Charley, knowing where Joe Bob lived, grinned and asked, “And just how do you plan on gettin’ from that old cabin of yours to Sugar Tree Joe Bob?”
“The old Walker-Ferry Road. How else?” answered Joe Bob. Charley looked down at his coffee, stirred slowly, then looked back up at Joe Bob and said, “Um-hmm. That means for you to get here by ten tonight you’re gonna’ have to go through Skullbone after dark. Don’t it?”
Joe Bob snorted, “You know dang well I will Charley and I’ll tell ya’ what. If I see your hitchhiking baby doll I’ll offer her a lift on my bike. And you know what else? I’m gonna’ tell her to keep a sharp lookout for you ‘cause you’re an old stick hauler yourself and probably the one who run her off in the river in the first place. The next time you go hi-ballin’ through there she’s gonna’ be waitin’ on you Charley and she’s gonna’ jump outta’ one of them trees down there and scare your drawers off.”
The round table roared again as Charley pointed at Joe Bob and yelled over the laughter, “You’re the one better keep a sharp lookout, Joe Bob Benton. It don’t pay to make light of the dead and you just might end up eatin’ dem words.”
Later, after Joe Bob had finished his coffee and left for home, the gossip started. “Has ‘ol Joe Bob ever been married?” Red Ryder asked of no one in particular. “Naw.” answered Charley. “He’ll never get married. Won’t nobody have ‘ol Joe Bob. Lives up there in that old cabin all by his self like some kinda’ mountain man or something. Women are scared of him with that scraggly old beard and that crazy look in his eye. Call him spooky old Joe…”
Tomcat butted in, “Aw I don’t know Charley. You know what they say. There’s a man for every woman and a woman for every man. Some day when Joe Bob ain’t lookin’, some gal will come along and ambush ‘ol Joe and he won’t know what hit him.”
Six PM Sunday evening found Joe Bob refreshed, packed and ready to roll. He took a last look around, then checked his gear. Satisfied, he locked up and hit the road.
It was a sultry evening, the temperature in the eighties. Scattered showers were around and the cool rain on the warm asphalt caused thick patchy fog to form amongst the hills and hollers. From Joe Bob’s cabin in the country it was just a short ride to the old Walker-Ferry Road and he was soon enjoying the twisty up and down two-lane with its canopy of oaks.
In a neat little two bedroom clapboard house on a hill overlooking the highway, Mr. Woodrow and his wife of fifty years, Annie Lee, sat in the swing on the front porch, shelling peas, enjoying the early evening. Their old dog, Plowboy, lay curled up near the steps. The sun had gone down but they lingered in the dusk, listening to the Katydids singing and enjoying the cool breeze blowing in off the river just beyond the road.
Suddenly, a motorcycle came rumbling around the curve below the house. Without raising his head Plowboy gave a grumbling, half hearted bark. The old couple interrupted their shelling long enough to wave and watched as the bike descended the hill to the crossing, half a mile away. Mr. Woodrow was just about to comment on the bike when he noticed its lights go out down near the crossroads.
As they watched, a dim white light popped on and Mr. Woodrow decided that the young man had broken down and clicked on a flashlight. “Looks like that feller’s having trouble Wood,” said Ann Lee. “Reckon you ought to go see “bout him?” “Aw, I don’t think so. Not just yet anyway. If he’s having trouble he knows we’re up here and he can walk up here easier than I can walk down there. Let’s just wait and see.”
Down at the crossroads, thick fog drifting in from the river enveloped the four way stop.But Joe Bob traveled this road often and knew exactly where he was. As he braked for the crossroads his bike had just suddenly died. He coasted to the shoulder, parked and removed his helmet and gloves.
His first thought was the main fuse. It must have blown. He got his flashlight from the saddlebag, snapped it on, kneeled beside the bike and popped the fuse cover. As he worked to get at the fuse, a sound of faint footsteps broke the silence. Turning the light towards the noise he asked, “Who’s there?” He couldn’t see a thing. The fog had become increasingly thick diffusing the beam from his flashlight, making it useless beyond a few feet. “Is anybody there?”
Nothing, he thought. He turned back to the fuse. Blown alright. He was about to pop open the little storage compartment that carried the spare when a series of quick steps broke the silence. Squish…pause…squish… squish. He cocked his ear toward the sound and froze. Listening. Nothing. “Dog gone that Charley. His stupid story has got me hearing things.” he said aloud. Despite his skepticism, he worked faster trying to get the spare fuse with one hand and hold the flashlight with the other….
Squish. Another footstep? Startled, he dropped the flashlight. It rolled under the bike to the other side. Kneeling lower with his cheek pressed against the carb cover he stretched his arm under the motorcycle, but couldn’t reach the flashlight. He scrambled around to the other side and in his haste he accidentally kicked the flashlight and it rolled under the guard rail and off the edge of the road, fell twenty feet into the kudzu vines below and went out.
He looked dumbly into the void for a moment, then cussed his clumsiness. Turning back to the bike he worked hurriedly by feel and managed to get the fuse under its screws. Then, suddenly, a breath of perfume and a whisper of a sigh. Joe Bob’s heart jumped. Terrified, his natural defensive reflex to run was so powerful he trembled and it took all the discipline he could muster to maintain control.
He slapped the pavement blindly, found the screwdriver, and tightened the screws. A squish and a wisp of movement in the corner of his eye. He whirled and stared into the fog. “Who’s there?” Petrified, he could feel his heart pounding. His voice climbed an octave and cracked. “I’m armed,” he bluffed “and I’ll blow your head of if you come any closer.” Silence.
He quickly finished and stood. He looked around nervously as he fumbled to insert the key and in his haste he dropped it. Instinctively, he pressed his leg against the bike, got lucky and pinched the key between his thigh and the seat. He took a deep breath. “Calm down,” he told himself. “Your mind is playing tricks on you.”
He retrieved the key, inserted it into the ignition and prayed aloud, “Oh Lord, let there be light.” He turned it and the bike lit up like the Fourth of July. Elated he yelled, “Alright!” and punched the starter. The power plant roared to life. He quickly mounted, stomped into low and the engine died. A footstep, just aft of the bike. On the verge of panic, Joe Bob tried to think. What’s wrong now? Think. Think. Then it came to him. The kickstand, stupid. It’s down and the safety switch has killed the engine. He flipped up the kickstand, found neutral, fired the bike and dropped the hammer. Fishtailing and slinging gravel, he accelerated away leaving his helmet and gloves behind.
Shaking as he powered through the gears, he breathed a sigh of relief and cussed Charley and his stupid story. He had never been so scared in all his life. Then, at that moment, he sensed another’s presence. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as cold moist lips brushed against his ear and a soft, sensual female voice whispered, “Go faster truck driver.” He looked over his shoulder and gasped. His eyes widened in horror as he stared into the slate gray face of what once was a beautiful young girl, her long blond hair matted and tangled, her baseball jacket dripping wet. She smiled at him but there was no sparkle, no light in her eyes. Joe Bob screamed a blood curdling scream that echoed through the hills. Now crazed with fear he pushed and kicked furiously, trying to distance himself from the bike and the terrible, beautiful thing on the seat behind him.
His efforts to dismount shifted his weight and the bike banked left, crossed the center line and crashed into the guard rail, flipped up and over and plummeted fifty feet into the river below.
Up at the little house, Mr. Woodrow sat at the kitchen table peeling an apple while Mrs. Annie Lee stood at the sink prattling away and washing and bagging the freshly shelled peas. She suddenly stopped in mid sentence. “Did you hear that?” “Hear what?” he asked. “I don’t know.” She said as she peered out the open window above the sink. “Sounded like somebody screaming down near the crossing.” Mr. Woodrow looked up from his apple, “Maybe it was a panther.” He said. “They sound just like somebody screaming. Then, answering his own question, he continued, “Naw, not likely. They ain’t been no panthers around these parts in years.” He hesitated for a moment, rubbed his chin and pondered, “You don’t suppose that young feller’ saw Jennie do you?”
Joe Bob hit the water at seventy miles an hour. The impact broke his back, crushing vertebra and pushing bone fragments into his spinal cord, severing nerves and paralyzing him from the waist down. Unable to save himself, he sank to the bottom of the Caney Fork and drowned. His body was never found.
Six months later, Charley Jones hustles his rig around the bend that passes beneath the neat little clapboard house and descends the hill to Skullbone crossing. Its two AM and pouring down rain. Lightening spits angrily across the night sky and thunder rumbles. The windshield wipers fight a loosing battle as they work to keep pace with the deluge. Charley strains to see the stop sign, downshifts and with a hissing of air, brings the truck to a halt.
Suddenly, from out of the storm, a motorcycle appears and roars through the crossing. The rider and a beautiful girl wave and in a flash of lightning the riders face is momentarily illuminated as he twists in the saddle and smiles. Charley gapes in terror and whispers, “Joe Bob”.
But the true terror was yet to come. As the bike whips over and into the beam of his headlights, Charley’s heart bucks and tries to tear itself from his chest as something even more terrible than the ghoulish riders is revealed. His jaw drops and the blood drains from his face. Lightning splits the sky and his horrified reflection stares back at him from the windshield. Thunder explodes. Charley lets out a howling shrike as he looks wild eyed upon the awful, dreadful thing scrawled across the bottom of the girl’s helmet. A thing so terrible it makes even the hardiest of men tremble with fear. Smeared on with white shoe polish was the horror of all horrors, the sign of the doomed. Just Married.