by Ian McGaughey
It’s funny when it happens, when you’re on a long stretch of road and you pass the same car four or five times. Terry had been drinking a lot of coffee and found himself stopping often at rest areas and pull-offs. He’d sometimes see the older blue Ford pickup go on past as he made his way to the SaniCan, only to catch up with it later. Each time he passed, Terry would look over to try and catch the driver’s eye, an older, gray-faced man holding the wheel at 10 and two, but grayface never took his eyes off the road in front of him. He never moved.
Terry was making the two-hour trip from Tok to Delta Junction on a stretch of the Alaska Highway that roughly followed the path of the Tanana River, snaking its way through the snow-covered Alaska Range. He’d planned on making the trip a few weeks earlier, but the weather had been unusually mild for October, and he and his crew stayed in Tok to take in as much construction cash as they could before the long winter. Now into December, he couldn’t put it off any more.
He’d done this drive dozens of times, and never stopped marveling at the incredible beauty surrounding him, the high-reaching cliffs, crystal blue lakes and miles of black spruce. There’d been times when he’d have to wait for a herd of buffalo to amble across the road. Sometimes they would just stop in the middle, planted like big brown furry barriers oblivious to his need to get going, looking a him like a visitor from another dimension. Other times he wouldn’t see a single animal, and he’d clip along the vein cracked highway, fast under the pearl blue sky.
Terry liked these trips to Delta Junction. He wasn’t much of an outdoorsman, and his lifelong tendency toward tunnel vision kept him focused on the close and immediate. Hitting the road forced him to open his eyes and expand his view. He’d often ride in silence, forgoing music or talk radio in favor of taking in the expansive beauty around him.
And he would think, letting his mind wander, and remember.
“It’s time,” his father would say every Sunday morning without variation, sticking his large head into Terry’s bedroom, “let’s go.” Terry would roll over with the pillow on his head, trying to stay in dreamland just a little longer, dreading the weekly pilgrimage to the Tok Bible Chapel.
It was when his father died that he started going to church again as an adult, at first to comfort his mother, but later to comfort himself. His father’s death had been a shock, dropping dead in the lumber mill of a heart attack at 49. Terry’s mother followed less than two years later, but by her own hand. Her intense life-long depression raged after her husband’s death, and the accompanying financial woes led her to mix the grim cocktail of twenty-plus Valium and a quart of Yukon Jack.
Now, five years later, Terry was grateful his parents hadn’t been alive to witness the drama of his last couple years. The divorce, his ex getting custody of Meghan, his DUI—the result of his increased partying with the guys after (and sometimes during) work. His younger brother had done well in financial services in Seattle, and urged his brother to get out of Tok and come south. But Terry liked it where he was, he liked his friends, the guys on the crew, he liked the small-town simple life, he had just turned 30 and he wasn’t going anywhere.
But today he was going to Delta Junction, and he relished in the freedom and contentment only a road trip can bring. He shook off the thoughts of his parents and the troubles of the past few years and stared out the windshield. The sky was darkening and the temperature dropping. There was talk of more snow and cold weather coming, but it didn’t sound bad, and he figured he’d probably beat it anyway.
Besides, it had been months since he’d seen his daughter. He’d made so many false promises of a visit that he could hear his ex-wife was telling her, “See Meghan? Haven’t I told you not to get your hopes up about your father?” Terry loved his daughter, of course, but he hated seeing his ex and having to succumb to her rigid rules (remember, she doesn’t get any soda or sugar) and disapproving comments (you know, you’re getting a beer belly). Worse than that was her boyfriend, Alan the bodybuilder, who spoke little but wore a hostile, threatening look. Terry couldn’t believe this jerk was raising his daughter.
“So, you grow up around here?” Terry asked him one day, trying to make conversation.
He turned on his headlights. The glare of the piled up snow on the roadsides contrasted with the dull black blur of the pavement. He was making good time and would be in Delta Junction by 5:30 or so.
There was a chill and he reached down to turn the heat up a bit more. The temperature was already minus 15. There was a movement outside.
He saw it as soon as he lifted his eyes from the dash. Oh no. The moose was big and running in a diagonal across the road toward him. No!
Instinct took over. He swung the wheel hard to the right. He saw the matted hair and black eyes. His truck screamed onto the shoulder. He missed the moose by a foot, but plowed into the high snowbank and lost control, getting airborne for a moment over the slight incline, landing with a hard crunch underneath and stopping some 100 feet off the road, half buried in a snowy depression.
His entire windshield was cracked. His hands still held tight to the wheel. He caught his breath and felt pain in his wrists, but was otherwise fine. The fine-grained snow was up over the hood, blowing in mists around his truck. The engine still chugged away, impervious to the situation. He knew there was no way of getting the truck unstuck on his own, but tried anyway, gunning the gas and twisting the wheel.
Something about the lack of motion made him feel colder. He grabbed his heavy jacket off the passenger seat, jabbed his right arm into the sleeve and maneuvered it over his shoulders. He pulled on his ski cap and gloves, leaned hard on the door to push away the deep, light snow and stepped out into the cold.
Through the wind he heard a distant vehicle approaching. The snow was over his waist, making walking a challenge. The sound got closer and he pushed harder, making his way up the incline toward the road. It was the blue Ford. He started waving his arms. “Hey … hey!” He was still some 30 feet off the side of the road but could see the man’s outline in the cab of the truck. The ghostly, gray-faced man stared straight ahead. “Hey!!!” The man never looked, and disappeared into the darkening night.
Terry looked back at his half-covered vehicle. The white exterior of the protruding cab blended in evenly with the snow. He traced the path it made back to the road and saw the moose, standing on a knoll looking directly at him. “Hey, look what you made me do!” The moose stood motionless, offering no reaction. Terry worked his way back toward his truck, turning once to give the moose the finger..
He cleared snow from the tailpipe and got back in the warm cab. Cool blue lights of the instrument panel reported an outside temperature of minus 19. He shivered as he turned the heat up to max, noticing that he managed to get snow inside his left boot. He opened the window slightly to listen for oncoming traffic. Nothing. He checked his phone in case by miracle there was a signal, even though he knew it was at least another half hour of driving until it would crackle to life. Again, nothing.
And then something. A growing sound from the highway. He blasted his door open and retraced his steps up through the snow toward the road. It was an SUV coming from the opposite direction, a deep roar increasing in pitch as it drew nearer. This time Terry reached the shoulder, waving his arms high over his head. The vehicle slowed and the driver pulled across the road to Terry, rolling down his window. “You all right, buddy?”
“Yeah, just got forced off the road by a moose. I’m stuck down the hill.”
The driver looked behind Terry. He was in his early 20s with thumping, bassy rap music coming form the car. “Oh yeah. Wow.”
“Can you call me some help when you get to Tok?”
“Yeah, sure. I’ll probably have a signal if 30 or 40 minutes.” He looked at Terry. “You gonna be all right out here? It’s cold as hell.”
Terry agreed, assured him he’d be fine and thanked the man as he drove off. He turned to look for the moose. It was gone.
Back in the truck, the heat wrapped around his body as he thawed the deep chill from his short time outside. A couple other vehicles went by, neither seeming to notice him. No worries, he thought. That guy will be in cell range in about 20 minutes.
He looked at his fuel gauge. Wait—hadn’t it been around half a tank when he left? Why was it down to a quarter? Maybe he wasn’t remembering right, he thought. He wondered what his wife would think, now that he’s going to easily be a couple hours late. “Just typical, Terry,” he heard her saying. “Typical.”
It was funny and tragic to him how far apart they had grown. He had once been enthralled with her every move, every word she said, every gesture. Now he was filled with dread at the thought of seeing her for five minutes. He asked her once, “What happened to us?” expecting to provoke a sentimental response. Instead she berated him, “What happened to us? You fucked other girls while we were married, that’s what happened to us!”
It was true, of course. He slept with Monica twice, the girl in the construction office, as well as a stripper at a buddy’s bachelor party in Anchorage. She’d found out about Monica (they always find out, he’d been warned, especially in a small town like this), and in a moment of total honesty while pleading for forgiveness, he added the stripper to his confession.
“But that was it. It was stupid. I was drunk. It didn’t mean anything.”
His marriage to Diane had been far from ideal, though its beginning sparked many happy moments. The small wedding reception at the seafood restaurant in Seward, their parents and close friends drawn together by their shared joy. Their first apartment, sleeping on the floor that first night, too tired to unload the U-Haul, holding each other for warmth. The night Meghan was born, looking at each other with disbelief at the beautiful life they’d created.
Yet there had been cracks in the foundation along the way. Her extreme jealousy, his excessive drinking, the arguments about all kinds of things, stupid little things that always became so huge. Still, they’d usually make up with passionate sex, making him wonder if their fighting wasn’t a kind of foreplay.
As good as their sex was, it also represented one of their greatest tragedies. Sometime after Meghan was born, he began shutting his eyes tight, fantasizing that he was with the two college girls in the apartment down the hall.
A tractor trailer roared by on the road above him. The thermometer reported 25 below. It had been an hour since that guy had driven off. Should only be about another 20 to 30 minutes or so until helped arrived. The night had become dark, with no moon and thick clouds covering the sky. The wind was steady.
What the hell? His heart pounded. Why is the gas tank nearly empty? He couldn’t believe it. There must be a leak. Damn it! He thought he saw the gauge move. This is not good.
He started to brace himself for the push outside to investigate, but stopped. What would I do out there? If it’s leaking, it’s leaking. I’ll freeze trying to dig under the car to find it. He opened up the glove compartment, pulled out a mini flashlight and turned it on to see the dim glow from weak, old batteries.
He looked behind him in the cab to gather blankets just in case. He pushed aside yesterday’s newspaper, some cans, an old shirt. Where are they?
The realization that he removed his emergency blankets two weeks ago while helping a friend move hit him hard. You’ve gotta be kidding me! He pounded the wheel with his fist.
The gas gauge slipped to the wrong side of E.
60 miles away, his daughter was dancing, or maybe she was coloring, or maybe watching TV. Meghan had just turned six and this visit was going to be his belated celebration with her. He’d planned to take her to Fairbanks for the day, getting ice cream and going to a movie. He marveled at how much she changed each time he saw her, at times making him feel like a stranger.
Still, Meghan was always so excited when he pulled up. She’d be running down the steps before he even got out of his car, like she’d been watching from the window. It broke his heart to think that she’ll give up waiting tonight, that Diane was likely trash-talking him again, and he was helpless to do anything about it.
The engine sputtered. “Come on. Come on!” He shook the wheel as the comforting purr knocked to a stop. With it, the warmth pushing out of the vents was replaced by stillness. The temperature in the cab immediately began to drop. Terry zippered his coat up past his chin and pulled his cap down past his ears. “I’ll be fine. They’ll be here any minute now.”
But he was starting to think maybe something was wrong. It had been nearly two hours since the young man had driven off, promising to send help. A truck should have arrived at least half an hour ago. The road above had been eerily quiet, and now with his engine gone he could hear the wind race through the valley. He felt a deep chill seep through his truck.
Sometimes he thought he heard something coming up the road, but it was the deep cry of the wind. Terry was cold. The insulation in his old jacket wasn’t what it used to be. The sweatshirt he had underneath was thin. His jeans had gotten wet from his earlier excursions and were still damp. An occasional shiver gripped his body. He rocked back and forth to stay warm. Come on, any minute now. Come on.
He heard it. It was a big truck, maybe a wrecker. He forced himself into the cold, shutting the door behind him to preserve the little warmth still left in the cab. Yes, thank God! He started up the hill, but something caught his left foot and sent him sprawling face-first into the snow. The flashlight slipped out of his glove and deep into the powder. Bright headlights appeared, filling the black spruce with a twisting luminescence. He pulled himself up. “Hey!” The truck was going too fast, he thought. He resumed his climb. Hey!
The oil tanker never saw him, disappearing around a distant curve, its roar replaced by the unforgiving wind.
I’ve got to make myself to stay out here close to the road, he thought. He was maybe only 30 feet from his truck. Under the snow, the blue glow of his dying flashlight beckoned like a fire. He stumbled over and stared. The light made a perfect circle. In the darkness, it reminded him of photos of earth from space, a blue orb perched in pure blackness.
The wind blasted his face. He placed the flashlight into a pocket and worked his way up the hill, chin tucked into his chest. He had to be ready to flag down the next vehicle. The cold seemed to come from deep within him, radiating out from his core. He shivered hard, uncontrollably. He held himself in a tight embrace. His teeth were chattering with such violence he was sure they would break.
Come on. Please.
It had been an hour since the engine has sputtered to a stop. He figured the temperature was minus 30. He tried the old tricks, imagining a tropical beach and a brilliant, hot sun, or pretending to drink hot soup from a thermos, the wet heat falling into his body. Nothing helped. He could barely stand due to the convulsions, growing stronger and more frequent. He was weak and exhausted. He sat down to rest.
He was 15 feet from the edge of the road, down the slight incline but still able to see the barren stretch in either direction. He forced himself into a ball, trying to conserve any heat he still had. The wind pounded him. No matter how small he tried to make himself, it found him and tore into him with unrelenting power.
Minutes passed. He had to get out of this wind. He couldn’t believe how hard he was shaking. He looked back to the truck, the outline of the cab barely visible in the dark. Before the thought fully formed in his mind, he was in motion, half rolling and half crawling, making his way back toward the shelter of the truck.
When he got the the door he noticed he’d somehow lost a glove, the bloated white form of his hand grossly swollen, barely able to grab the handle. It took all the strength he had to push himself into the cab. He pulled the door hard and shut out the wind, laying across the seat, arms pulled tight against his chest.
Fire. Fire! He would build a fire. Why didn’t he think of this before? He’d pile the newspapers on the seat and start a small fire. He reached for the glove compartment, fumbling with the mechanism, trying to compel his fingers to cooperate to push open the release. The compartment door popped open and he reached in, pulling everything onto the seat, desperately looking for matches. Maps, aspirin, Band-aids, vehicle service manuals, oil change receipts. No matches.
He fumbled through the mess again. Come on. Come on! He slammed his bare hand onto the seat. It was then that he felt the weight of despair crash over him. He lay on the seat, muttering “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it.”
A pale blue envelope on the seat caught his eye, one side torn where it had been opened. He turned on the flashlight to read the return address. It was from his daughter, addressed to Daddy Nichols. He pulled out the card with the words “Thank You” in silver swirly lettering across the top. Inside the card was a photo. Meghan was standing in a bright, green field holding the red plastic boomerang he had given her for her birthday the previous June, showing it to the camera, beaming with excitement.
There was no preprinted message inside the card, just Meghan’s blocky handwriting. I can’t wait to play boomerang with you Daddy. Love, Meghan.
The flashlight was all but dead. He let it fall to the floor. As it hit he began to feel a raw surge of heat. He got warmer. Uncomfortably warm. He unzipped his jacket to get relief. Not enough. He took it off and pushed it behind him. He ripped off his cap, pulled off his remaining glove. He felt like someone had lit a fire in his chest, like he was burning.
He pushed out into the wind and fell onto the snow for relief. Just then, a blinding light hit him squarely. The sound of a large vehicle rose above the gale. He crawled toward it through the snow, still sweltering in intense inner heat. The vehicle roared closer, its beam getting brighter. The engine slowed and it pulled over directly in front of him on the shoulder. It was a heavy duty tow truck, bright and white with lights dancing in orange and blue.
Terry pulled closer, snow clasped tightly in both hands. The doors opened. He saw the figure emerging from the passenger side first. It was a woman, a woman in a simple white dress, radiant in the barrage of light. A man came around the front of the truck toward him in simple overalls, the glow of a cigar lighting his face.
Though it had been years, in an instant he had recognized the pair. Mom and Dad. “Let’s go,” his father said. “It’s time.”
Ian McGaughey was born in Virginia and grew up in upstate New York. He’s held elected office, lived in Alaska and currently works in government administration in Arizona. He plays the electric bass, and once considered dropping out of high school to join an Elvis impersonator’s backing band.