Leaving Fort Smith
Jake looked forward to driving his truck again. He supposed there might be a few tough conversations with the paint company about their merchandise on the trailer he had dropped. According to Denny, the load remained intact at the truck stop near Rolla, and he figured if he offered to haul it the rest of the way to Dallas for free they might be willing to use him again sometime.
Mostly he looked forward to time by himself, time to sort through all the crazy things that had happened the last week.
He could not let himself think about Tina until he could be alone at the ranch. He knew that when it all hit him he’d need to go down by the river where he could run bawling into the sky like a calf taken away from his mother.
He might not even have time for that, though. From what Faye Waters told him, by the end of next week he might be out there with his kids.
Now who in the world could step in and take care of them while he was out on the road?
He didn’t know how to do much besides trucking. He didn’t know anything about ranching, and he didn’t know what to think about staying home with the kids full time. How were they going to react to him, anyway? He looked over at Denny.
“Hey, Turco. You like kids; you certainly knew how to deal with Austin. Looking for a job?”
“Don’t even think about it,” Denny growled. “I don’t help with homework and I don’t look good in an apron,” he chuckled, “not that we wouldn’t make a cute couple.”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do. If Faye is right and I don’t go to prison and Barb goes to jail, I could have custody of my kids by the end of next week.” It didn’t seem real to him yet.
“I’d say that if you can manage financially,” Denny said, chewing on the inside of his thumb, “you should plan to spend at least a couple of months making a home for the kids. At least. Maybe through the summer and then by the time school starts in the fall you’ll have a better idea of how it’s going and who might be able to help.”
“Pretty much how I have it figured.”
Jake thought how good it felt to be on the road with Denny again, under more relaxed circumstances this time. He didn’t like to think of himself as a loner, but his relationship with Denny made him realize how much he’d been missing by not having a friend. The past two years seemed to him like a long, narrow, dark tunnel from which he was only now emerging. Not sure if he felt more excited than scared or the other way around. Either way he found it enormously reassuring to have the big man in his corner.
“By the end of summer Christina might come to her senses and decide she wants a home down by the river,” Denny chuff-chuckled. “You never know.”
“You’ve known her longer than I have, Turco. What are the odds of that happening?”
“Like I said, you never know.” Denny exited the highway and pulled the Humvee off to the side, reached back and pulled a map out from under the tarp, dislodging the camera. He handed the camera to Jake.
“Remind me to take this film into Wal-Mart. There might be pictures on there for you.” He smoothed the map on the seat between them.
“Thought you knew your way around these hills,” Jake said.
“Yep. I do. This is for your benefit, Bubba. What we’re gonna do is take that road there, see? That’ll take us up to Poppy and Kate’s place so you can pick up your truck. Eventually. It’ll take just a little longer.”
At Jake’s murmur of objection, Denny explained, “It’ll take a little longer—not a lot—but I want to take you over the road Emily Grace got killed on. No way you could drive your fancy wheels up there.”
He pulled back onto the road. “But this thing, now, if this goes over the edge it’s no great loss.” He chuckled at his own joke.
“So if I yell ‘bail,’ don’t ask questions, just jump. If I were you, I’d try to jump out of the way of the truck. In other words, you’d better jump over top of me.”
Jake kept quiet. He figured Denny’s amusement covered it for both of them.
So far, considering his experience, he had to believe that no matter how crazy Denny appeared to be, he wouldn’t risk his neck or his vehicle just to show off a mountain road.
Before they had gone far on Hogsback, Jake had cause to re-think his opinion.
Denny cranked the steering wheel sharply left to avoid large rocks that had broken loose from the limestone cliff on the passenger’s side. Jake held his breath as the truck stopped abruptly, the driver’s side front wheel suspended in midair above at least a 150-foot drop. He backed up slowly and re-negotiated his way around the rocks, scraping Jake’s door in the process.
It occurred to Jake that he probably wasn’t helping much by gasping and stomping on a phantom brake pedal at every tight spot. He risked taking his eyes off the road for a quick glance at Denny who, tongue between his teeth, kept his head thrust forward, anticipating the next turn.
All at once they came to a wider place. The drop-off on the left stayed about the same, but the limestone wall on the right gave way to a clearing, and perhaps a quarter mile behind that, a poor little farmstead with its barely-red barn, no larger than a two-car garage, missing shingles on its sagging roof.
Just ahead of where they had stopped the truck, about 100 feet from the road, stood a 1950’s trailer house on cinder blocks, cloudy windows duct-taped into place. A screen door hung outward, flopping wearily back and forth. Chained a few feet from the door, an emaciated Rottweiler lay on his side, flopping his tail hopelessly.
Denny shut off the engine and sat chewing his thumb.
“Is this what you were looking for?” Jake asked. “Is that a meth lab, do you think?”
Denny nodded but continued to stare. Jake followed his gaze. What was that? What were they seeing?
Something black and white fluttered in the doorway, an inside door half-closing and opening repeatedly.
“Something’s off, Jake. Something’s way off here.”
They both rolled down their windows.
“I’m getting a real funny smell,” Jake said. “What is that? I recognize it from somewhere.”
“We gotta get outa here.” He moved to turn the key. “Ether. You’re smelling ether. That’s a for-sure sign of a leaky meth lab; when you smell ether, it’s ready to blow.”
Suddenly the something black and white jumped down and ran in frenzied circles, barking frantically, then just as suddenly went back through the door.
“A kid!” Jake jumped down from the truck before he could think. He saw what the little dog had been trying to do.
“Wait! Jake! You don’t know what’s going on there. Wait up! You’re gonna get yourself shot, man! Stop!”
Denny’s actions belied his words as he, too, ran toward the trailer. “Aaargh!” Denny stumbled and fell, his knees slamming painfully onto rocks.
Jake heard, looked back and saw what happened, but knew he couldn’t stop. Denny could take care of himself.
The smell grew more pronounced as Jake neared the trailer. God, help me! Please keep me from getting killed! Joey and Annie need me, but I can’t leave this little tyke, either.
Then he, like Denny, stumbled on the rocky ground but he stayed on his feet. He wondered as he ran how anybody managed to haul a trailer way up here. When he reached the door, he understood why the dog couldn’t pull the child free.
The little boy, maybe four years old, had fallen in the doorway, likely knocked out by ether fumes. When the dog pulled on the boy’s foot, his body—unconscious or maybe even dead, Jake couldn’t tell—half-closed the door and made it impossible to slide the child all the way out.
“Jake, this thing is gonna blow any second! Grab the kid and let’s get outa here. Hurry!”
Out of the corner of his eye, Jake saw Denny regain his footing and run over to the Rottweiler, clip the chain with wire cutters he carried in his pocket and start back to the truck, the dog unprotesting in his arms.
Just as he reached in to pick up the little boy, Jake heard a low whoosh, like the sound made by a cheap fake-leather couch when a person flops on it. He carried the child toward the truck and the bellowing Denny, the little black and white dog at his heels.
“Didn’t you hear that? We gotta get outa here. It’s starting to explode right now. It’s going to blow sky-high, man, Let’s go!” He had already started the engine and shifted into low by the time Jake laid the boy on the back seat.
“This one’s alive. He’s still breathing, he’ll come to,” Jake said. “I gotta go back. There’s another one.”
“It’s blowin’! The explosion’s already started! It’s too late, Jake, it’s too late, Listen to me!”
“We can’t leave a child in there,” he screamed as he ran, “You stay here with this one.”
He ran back, careful to avoid rocks this time, entered the trailer, grabbed another child, this one a slightly larger girl, also unconscious, lifted her up on his shoulder, and had just stepped out of the door when he heard the end of the world.