I drove a truck in life. My den wall, red with orange trim, screamed with safe driving awards. My worn leather jacket sagged with service mementos. As truck drivers go, I was a good one—not good in the sense of morality, but good in the sense of ability. I hauled the most hazardous cargos across the most treacherous roads. I made the runs others would not, and I earned more than the ordinary driver. That’s how I came to own my own rig.
A lot of good it did me. I dozed for a second or two, and drove the new Peterbilt off a narrow Nevada highway into a dry creek bed that lay two hundred feet below the road.
So, now I’m here, driving for Management. I’ve driven this same truck for fifteen years, or so they tell me. Only nine hundred eighty-five years until I get my first recognition coin.
Today has been a bit slow. I don’t think they loaded more than sixty, hardly worth the trip. I usually carry a hundred or more at a time, but who am I to question Management?
I might stop at the diner on the way back; give ‘em time to pile up for the next load.
I like to tell myself I’ll stop. I’d like to see Sally, but sure as hell, she’d offer me a glass of water. I only get one per year, and it’s barely been eight months, according to the log.
I reckon I’m fortunate to get the one glass. Most don’t. Only drivers, loaders and sorters get water, and of course Sally. She gets a portion, I’m told, of every gallon served. A sixteenth, I think. If one hundred twenty-eight ounces makes a gallon, a sixteenth of that would be . . . hell, I don’t know, but it adds up, and that’s why she’s so eager to see the drivers. She’s all smiles when they come in. She knows she’s pretty, and she knows how to move her hips and eyes to weaken drivers. But I’m a hard case; she has to put more into her persuasion tactics. I like that.
Maybe I will stop.
* * *
The depot is busy, as always. A sorter, a Muslim by his dress, points out an empty bin. I look across the smoking pavement, make a distance judgment, turn and back in. I’ve backed in here so many times I don’t even need the mirrors. I glance at the counter mounted on the side of the bin, and I pull the lever. The corpses roll out. Sixty-three.
As I pull away, the sorter steps in and begins checking tags. The dead will ride a spider web of conveyor belts until they arrive “home.”
Funny thing about souls: before I got here, I thought a soul separated from the body at the moment of death. Nope. As mutilated or burned as they might have been when they died, they arrive here intact and as one entity. Some time ago, I hauled Fred Reynolds, whom I knew in life. He died beneath a corn thrasher, but when he arrived here, he didn’t have a scratch. Weird.
I remember when I awakened here. A sorter pushed me off the ever-moving conveyor belt for driver’s orientation. Others arriving at the same destination woke up and screamed for a do-over. Someone had made a horrible mistake, they said.
“Where’s the Manager?” someone asked.
One poor soul demanded a phone call. “They always give me a phone call,” he whined. That was funny. He didn’t last long as a driver. I heard that Management finally put him in the Main Hole. No more water for him.
That’s how it is here. You do your job and you don’t ask for stuff you can’t have, or you end up in the Main Hole. Most folks go directly there anyway. Bill told me that only about one in ten thousand gets to be a loader or a driver or a sorter, and Bill ought to know. He used to be a sorter and he saw the tags.
Nobody knows who puts the tags on. They come off the loader with barbed wire threaded through their right wrist. The steel tags are attached to the wire and color-coded: blue for driver, green for loader, orange for sorter, pink for the Main Hole and a sort of chartreuse for the lesser holes out on the plains.
Oh, and there’s one white tag. Sally’s. Fifteen years has not been long enough for me to figure that out. She won’t talk about it. I used to think Management screwed up, and she came off the loader by mistake, that she shouldn’t be here at all, because white represents Heaven, doesn’t it? But having gotten to know her, I recognize her character flaws. I know for a fact she’s stolen water from some of the drivers. The water glasses have a mark near the rim and Sally is supposed to fill beyond that mark. I’ve seen her serve water at the mark and several times just below it. All the drivers are in love with yellow-haired Sally, which makes it easy for her to get away with it. She belongs here—just like the rest of us.
But I can’t figure the white tag. Maybe Hell has only one water server. She was here several hundred years before I arrived. Still, you’d think that someone here, one of the sorters maybe, would be as old as she, and might have known her in life. But then I don’t suppose there’s much chance of that, considering most souls go the Main Hole.
* * *
I’m headed back for another load. I meet a truck en route to the depot. The driver waves. How sweet.
The trip is measured in neither time nor distance. The scenery on both sides of the steaming cinder and gravel road is the same all the way out and back. Well, not exactly the same. The only variable is the size of the fires. To the horizons, I see (and have never seen anything else) endless acres of rocky landscape ablaze with unnumbered fires feeding on an unknown fuel. Some of the infernos are no bigger than a truck; others are high enough to scorch the featureless sky and wide enough to contain all the sins ever committed.
Bill told me a driver stopped on the road once and walked out there. He’d been here a long time. He had two millennium coins. (That’s the only way the condemned can measure elapsed time.) I suppose he’d driven toward eternity for as long as he could stand it. He’s in the Main Hole now, of course, because of his transgression. The thing is, Management didn’t find him for quite a while, at least not before he had a chance to say what he saw. He walked miles (or what he figured was miles) before he started seeing signs of “life.” Venomous serpents slithered among the rocks and through the fires, he said. Huge fanged spiders hissed at him as he stepped around them. Jumping scorpions sprang at him from any place they could wait in ambush. Swarms of psychotic bees hovered in the places where the acidic smoke was thinnest. The driver suffered countless bites and stings. He saw souls, singly and in groups, wandering without purpose or direction, their flesh burned, torn and bitten, and hanging in ragged shreds from scarred bones.
That pitiful man’s experience stands as a reminder to all drivers: don’t get out of the truck! The cost of a short diversion within the viciousness of the open landscape is eternity in the Main Hole, the horrors of which cannot be imagined.
I remember a religious freak in life. He stood on a street corner in San Diego and yelled, “Repent, repent! Come to Jesus who has gone to prepare a place for those who love Him. You can have your place with Him in Heaven.” I reckon Management was simultaneously preparing a place for the likes of me.
So, I’ll keep driving, looking forward to nothing but an occasional glimpse of Sally and my annual drink of water, although I’d trade that drink for some kind of marker on this damn road. A curve, a stump, anything to serve as an indicator of mileage or time. As it is, I just drive until I arrive . . .
No, it can’t be.
A woman lying in the road. Unmoving.
I stop the truck and stare across the hood. She must have fallen from the truck I passed earlier. That driver’s numbers won’t jive at the depot and he’ll be demoted. If he’s lucky, they’ll make him a sorter.
I see the pink tag wired to her wrist. The Main Hole.
She lies on her side, her face turned away. She’s slender with thick brown hair. Not old.
What should I do? Anything? Nothing? New arrivals are on a timer, scheduled to awaken about the time they fall from the conveyor belt. This one, late for her destination, might become aware at any moment.
I should drive around her and report to the loader. Management couldn’t fault me for that. No way am I getting out of the truck. No way in hell am I getting out.
What if she wanders off after I leave? Why do I care? How come I’m not driving off right now?
I sit and stare. I think about putting her in my truck. I could load her, turn around and take her to the sorters. No, I’d be late at the loader.
What if I keep her? What a joy to have a companion through eternity. Even if she turns out to be a bitch, I’d have someone to talk to. I could always kick her out alongside the road.
I consider the risk. I’d go to the Main Hole for sure if Management knew I was even thinking about this. But how would they know? I could keep her in the cab. No one ever looks in the cab. She could hide on the floor at my two stops.
I climb out of the truck. I’ve never been out except at the diner. My boots touch the road for the first time in fifteen years. I go to her and turn her face toward me. Her features startle me. A round face as smooth as honey. Brown hair, long and sleek. A perfect nose, pouting lips and dark eyes. Young, perhaps thirty. She’s wearing a long formal dress of red silk. High heels. She must have been at some high society shindig when she died.
The gown is torn or cut just below her breast—a stab wound maybe. What a shame. I lift the dress to see her legs. I really ought to see her legs before I commit.
Oh, yes, not too thick or too skinny. I’m keeping her and to hell with Management.
I carry her to the passenger door, which has never been opened, and place her on the seat.
It’s done. She’s mine. I’ll explain the situation to her as soon as she wakes. That will be the time of greatest risk. If she goes nuts when she learns where she is, all hell could break lose and we’d both get chucked into the Main Hole.
To make up for lost time, I push the truck a little faster than my usual speed. Since I have no sense of distance, I can only hope she wakes up before we get to the loader, or she stays dead until we’re away from it. If she comes to while I’m loading . . .
“No. It’s Steve. My name is Steve.”
“What’s going on? I don’t know you. Where are you taking me?” She looked out. “What is this place?”
I reduce speed. “Stay calm. Everything’s okay. Try to remember.”
She stares at me with her mouth open. “Stop this truck!”
“I can’t stop. Management won’t allow it. I already stopped once to pick you up.”
“Pick me up? Where? When?” Her eyes widen as she remembers. “I was at a dinner with Charles.”
“And something happened to you, right?”
“Yes, we fought. He . . .” She looks at the front of her gown. “He stabbed me.” She places a warm hand on my arm. “I heard someone say I was dying.”
“What’s your name?”
Her voice is strained as she looks across the landscape. “Ellie. I’m in . . . in Hell, aren’t I?”
“Not the worst part of Hell, Ellie. I’ll see to that.”
“You’ll see to it? Who are you? Satan?”
“I’m nobody. Just a driver. I found you on the road. You were bound for the Main Hole, the worst place here.”
“How do you know?”
“Your tag. It’s pink.”
She lifts her arm as if noticing the tag for the first time. Her voice is low, almost a whisper. “I’m a whore and a thief and a lot of other bad things. I knew about Hell. My parents told me. But I had time. I thought I had plenty of time.”
“Don’t fret about it now. What’s done is done. You’re with me now. I’ll keep you in the truck with me and we’ll be fine. Okay?”
A whore! Hot damn! All the perverted sex I want. Maybe I can trade her off occasionally to another driver for water. I’ll have to be careful though; I don’t want to take too many risks. No, sir, I’m not going to the Main Hole over a skirt. I’d sure like to show her off to Sally, though. Sally thinks she’s the only good-looking girl outside of the Main Hole. Well, she ain’t. Ellie’s might not be as pretty as Sally, but she’s close, and about ten years younger.
I reach a hand over and put in on her knee. She pushes it away. That’s okay. It’ll take a little time for her to adjust.
I can wait.
* * *
Ellie learns to hide herself in the floor at the loader and the depot. She sits beside me on the countless trips, talking very little about her life. For a whore, she isn’t all that friendly. Maybe because whores are only friendly when they’re about to be paid. But I don’t want to give her water every time we have sex. I don’t have any now anyway. I ought to stop at the diner today and get it. Four months early, but who’s counting?
“You stay in the floor, Ellie. I’m going into the diner for a minute. Maybe I’ll bring you something. If anyone sees you, I don’t have to tell you what will happen.”
“I know, I know. The Main Hole.”
There are two trucks already parked outside the diner. Inside, two old men sit on stools at the counter and stare at Sally. Neither one has a drink. Sally looks tired. She has no doubt been trying to get the drivers to accept their annual ration in advance of their time.
Her eyes flash when she sees me. “Steve! Where you been? I haven’t seen you for ages. Want a drink?”
“As a matter of fact, I do.” I take a stool at the end of the counter, as far away from the old men as possible. They both stare at me, surprised that I want my ration. They want to watch me drink it even more than they want to watch Sally.
“That’ll be to go.”
Sally puts an empty glass on the counter. “To go? No, you sit down and visit awhile, Steve.” She pours from a red plastic pitcher. She filled it to just below the mark on the rim.
“Nope, I got to be going. Top that glass off and then pour it into a bottle. Do it on the counter where I can watch.”
I see the controlled anger in her tightened facial muscles. She acts hurt. “Steve, don’t you trust me? I though we were friends. More than friends.”
“Well, we ain’t.” Lordy, it feels good to say that to Sally. If not for having Ellie to look at, I wouldn’t have the nerve to call her bluff. Sally has teased me for too long. Now I don’t need her.
She uses a funnel to transfer the water from glass to bottle. She hands it to me, her face a mask. “Put it in the book,” I say, and walk out.
I hide the bottle under my shirt before I climb in the truck. I’ll get it out when the time is right.
* * *
I’ve tried numerous times to get in Ellie’s britches. She won’t have me. I ask her why.
“You’re too old,” she says.
“I’ve had too many old men.”
“You ain’t had the likes of me, I’ll wager.”
“You’d lose. I’ve had hundreds. All of them thought they were something special. Besides, there’s no incentive.”
This is the right time. “How’d you like a drink of water?”
She doesn’t even look at me. “Yeah, right.”
Now she’s looking. “Pull over.”
The thrill of potential sex mingles with panic when I realize I’ve not once thought of how to overcome the problems associated with sex in the truck. Not that I couldn’t do it, but I’ve have to stop the truck. How would I account for the time? The records clearly show my stops at the diner, and no other stops are authorized. And what if another truck comes by?
Maybe I can drive off the road far enough to hide behind the rocks.
No, too risky.
Ellie sees my indecision. She pulls her dress up above her knees—way above her knees. Someone once told me that men have a toggle switch in their brain, which when flipped to the “on” position by a female, removes their capability for rational thought. The smoke of burning desire obscures all consequences.
But that statement was made when I was alive and the consequences of immoral behavior seemed way the hell down the road. Now, punishment is immediate. The Main Whole is in the here and now, which negates the toggle switch theory to some extent. Still, the sight of firm flesh and red panties is too much for me. I turn the truck off the road. I’m trying to look at rocks and fire pits and legs all at the same time. Can’t be done. I concentrate on driving. Ellie giggles and I’m reminded I never hear Sally giggle and I sure as hell never see her legs. That thought takes me to another.
What if Sally had the pink tag and Ellie the white one? An idea flames in my brain. I turn around and go back to the road, turn right toward the loader and push the accelerator hard.
“Steve, honey, I thought we were going to . . .”
I reach under the seat, retrieve the bottle and hand it to Ellie. She accepts it suspiciously.
“That can be your last drink forever, or the first of many.”
She takes the cap off, throws her pretty head back and gurgles greedily. Even as she drinks, she cuts her eyes to me. She’s wondering if she’ll get it all down before I snatch it back. I let her finish.
“I’m a bit confused,” she says.
I lay out my plan, and she readily agrees.
* * *
The trip from loader to sorter seems shorter with someone to talk to. Ellie and I discuss how best to manage our eternity.
“How will you re-attach the wire?” she asks.
“With a new piece.” I open the glove box and shove tools aside to show her the small roll of barbed wire. “The difficulty will be cutting it. I’ve got pliers, but no cutter. I think I can bend the wire back and forth ‘till it breaks.”
“Will it hurt?”
“Is Hell hot? Of course, it’ll hurt. You should probably get started on it as soon as we leave the depot. Flatten the barbs with the pliers to lessen the amount of flesh you tear when you jerk it through.”
She grunts as if already in pain. “What about the new one?”
“That’ll be worse. I’ll do that. It has to look right. I’ll have to yank it hard to get the barbs through. Can you bear it?”
“I’ve no choice, do I? Temporary pain is easy when I think of riding in this truck for eons on end.”
Her cooperative spirit thrills me. I’ll have an eternal spring of water and sex.
She slides off the seat into the floor as we approach the depot. I back up and dump—one hundred twenty-six according to the counter. I catch a glimpse of pink tags on the flailing corpses as they roll to a stop. Then we’re away.
“You understand, of course, that we can’t stop if another driver is there,” I tell her. “We might have to make several trips before we catch the lot empty. I’m not permitted to stop with corpses, so it’ll have to be done on the way to the loader.”
“Think positive,” she says without looking up from her task. She has enough slack in the wire to work the pliers back and forth.
She screams, and the shrill, sustained note of pain reverberates in the cab. The bloody tag and wire lie on the seat between us; the pliers are still in her trembling hand. In that moment, I know I can’t let her go to the Main Hole. Her threshold for pain is obviously low, and nothing can approach the levels of torment inside, or so I’m told.
We approach the diner as her whimpering subsides. No trucks in the lot, there were none at the depot, and I’ve met none since leaving. Considering that drivers can’t stop at Sally’s when loaded, this is as good a chance as I’ll ever have.
I take the pliers and the roll of new wire inside the diner while Ellie waits in the truck. Sally is in the back. When she hears the door, she comes out wiping her hands on a towel. Her sweet smile is absent.
“Steve, you know you can’t have a drink this soon.”
“Don’t want a drink.”
She frowns. I jump the counter and smash the pliers against the left side of her head. She falls. Fresh blood mats her hair, making me hate what I’m doing. Her eyes are open and alert. Nowhere in Hell is a resident allowed to escape into unconsciousness. I’m on top of her quickly, one hand on her neck to hold her down, and the other working at the wire securing the white tag to her wrist. It takes longer than I thought. Her screams and curses are more from anger than pain.
“Hold still,” I tell her. “You’re just making it worse.”
She doesn’t hold still. She kicks and thrashes with more strength than her slender form suggests she has. The sound of shattering water glasses is unreal. Finally, the wire parts and I pull it through.
“No!” she screams.
The linoleum floor is awash with blood. I must have severed the radial artery. No matter—a dead person can’t die, but she is considerably weakened, which makes attaching the new wire and Ellie’s pink tag much easier than removing the white one. I use the remainder of the roll to secure her hands and feet. Dragging her to the truck is no small chore, but despite her curses and attempts to escape, I get her loaded in the back.
Ellie hasn’t moved. I go to her door and open it. “It’s time, Ellie,” I tell her.
Inside the diner, I sit her on a stool and place her right arm on the counter. “The less you move, the less it’ll hurt.”
Her resignation is pitiful. “Okay.”
I do it. It looks good. I explain to her the little I know about a water server’s function. Then, “You’re out of the truck like you wanted, and you’re not in the Main Hole as Management intended. That’s what I’ve done for you, Ellie.”
“Sex and water whenever I feel like stopping in.”
* * *
Rather than climbing into the back, I pull the dump lever. Sally rolls onto the road. I step out on the hot surface for the second time since my damnation. Sally looks hideous covered with smeared soot and blood and cinders. All the better. Less chance of someone recognizing her. I take the wire from her hands and feet. She tries to stand. I knock her flat and run to the driver’s door. As I accelerate away, I see her in my mirror, running after me.
At the loader, I make my report. “I saw a pink tag on the road. A female. Probably awake by now. Did one of the driver’s lose one?”
“You didn’t pick her up?” The loader is a big man with a southern U.S. accent.
“Hell, no. Driver’s ain’t allowed to stop. You know that.”
“Wait,” he says.
I don’t like being told to wait by a loader. Who is he? Certainly not superior to a driver.
The loading area is the geographical entrance to Hell. The road I drive begins here in darkness. The eternal twilight in all of Hell actually meets the total darkness at the loader, which consists of an unknown number of identical machines resembling oversize earthmovers without wheels. The yellow machines hover several feet above the ground and turn on their own axis. When the bucket portion of a loader (the front) is visible in twilight, it holds the corpses it will dump into waiting trucks. Then it turns and the bucket rises and moves into the strange blackness. It apparently collects souls from whatever works in the darkness, which may be nothing at all. Maybe, even probably, this meeting of light and darkness is where the unforgiven dead gather to await transportation.
The rear of the machine turns away into that other place and the bucket end comes back. The big guy yells down at me.
“Stop and get her on your way back. You are permitted the extra time to get it done. Tie her up or whatever you need to do. Her name is Ellie. She’ll be figured into your count for this load—a total of eighty-four.”
Whom did he check with in the dark place? Obviously, he has contact with someone close to Management. I drive beneath the bucket to receive the load, eighty-four carcasses. Then, I’m headed back toward the depot.
It worked! The only risk now is Sally not staying on the road. If she runs off, someone else will pick her up, who knows when. That driver might believe her, or at least get suspicious. I don’t need an investigation.
I needn’t have worried. I find her walking in the road toward the diner. She turns to face me as I stop and get out, her usual pale complexion flushed with anger.
“Get away from me!” she screams. “You’re bound for the Main Hole as soon as I can tell . . .”
I hit her and she falls hard. She sits up with cinders ground into her blackened face. Her lips are bleeding. I bind her as before, put her in the cab and secure her with the seatbelt.
As we pass the diner, she says, “Steve, this is your last chance. You let me out here, get my white tag back, and I won’t tell anyone. Otherwise . . .”
“Shut up.” I look in my mirror at the diner. Ellie has probably cleaned it up by now, and figured out how the place works. I decide to make a few more trips before stopping in; I don’t want to appear overly anxious.
At the depot, the sorters already know about “Ellie,” the pink tag that fell off Larry’s truck. I back in, dump, and wait for someone to take Sally. She screams like an enraged demon when two sorters open the door and jerk her out of the truck. They don’t heed her objections and accusations as they tie her to the conveyor belt. She’s yelling that I took her from the diner, that the pink tag is not hers. I fake trouble getting the truck in gear to give me time to watch her ride the belt out of sight. Next stop for her, the Main Hole.
* * *
My subsequent trips are routine except I see more trucks than usual at the diner. The word is out among the drivers—new girl behind the counter. I smile, thinking of all the sex and water that is forever mine.
I make six trips before stopping to visit. With no trucks in the lot, it’s a good time for a drink and a quickie. I back my truck in leisurely.
Inside, behind the counter with Ellie, is a clean-shaven young man in a white suit, white shoes. Even his tie is white.
Ellie’s voice trembles. “Steve, this is Management.”
I’m stunned into immobility. The man smiles and shows teeth as white as his attire.
“I believe you know Sally?” His politeness drips venom.
Sally steps out from the back room, her clean yellow hair falling onto lace-enshrouded shoulders. The long white dress fits her perfectly. I try to speak. I can’t. How . . .?
“I must admit neglect,” Management says. His words pour out of his mouth like smooth water. “I failed to get a memo out concerning white tags, didn’t I? Most forgetful of me. I am sorry. The few choice girls wearing them belong to me exclusively. Sort of like a harem. One of my vices, I’m afraid.” His smile is genuine.
I turn and run. He doesn’t stop me. I fling the truck door open and scramble into the seat, my one thought is to get the hell away.
Start the engine. Shove the shifter into low gear, and accelerate toward the road, which opens to receive me like a shark’s mouth.
I know before the ground closes above me that I’m falling into…well, hell, you know where.