Gerrit was already griping to himself about the icy darkness he was rolling toward, his truck loaded with flowers, of all things. They’d been flown in from Bolivia and stacked in his trailer for the three-day haul from his Rotterdam base to Moscow, where somebody would cough up the money to buy them. Gerrit couldn’t see how it all added up, delicate flowers traveling so far across the surface of the earth, but maybe the dark and forlorn Russian winter made such things of beauty even more valuable.
As he passed from Holland into Germany he slid the Doors into the CD player to help him through the long hours of highway creep before he would hit Poland, where the road would break open again—less crowded, bumpier, and lined with ragged fields. Alenka, his girlfriend, had finally started to warm up to the Doors on Gerrit’s last run through Tallinn in Estonia, where she lived. But she still found it strange that a guy her own age, twenty-five, loved such ancient music. She was Russian, she said, but born and raised there in Estonia. How she could call herself Russian when she’d been born in a different country where she’d lived all of her life—it was the seed of just one of their many arguments. They saw each other for no more than three days at a stretch in Tallinn and either fought or fornicated the whole time, even when they were eating. It was easy in the cab of his truck. A bed was wedged behind the seats, and he could pull a portable gas stove out of the wide dashboard. In the tight space of the cab he hit her sometimes, and sometimes he regretted it.
Alenka the witch, Alenka the itch. Hours later, as he rumbled through Poland’s midsection, he still hadn’t shaken her out of his mind. If it hadn’t been for the customs fiasco that almost landed him in jail, he wouldn’t have met her. Fertilized chicken eggs had taken him to Tallinn that time, incubating in the warmth from the trailer’s heater as they formed little hearts and bones and beaks. He had imagined seeing them inside their shells, sprouting organs from nowhere. One million four hundred twenty thousand incubating baby birds. Why had he worried about them cooling off and dying when they were just going to get chopped up a few weeks later anyway? “Desperate for company,” was all he could answer to himself. When he arrived in Tallinn, the customs agent found a cache of high-end stereos behind the egg crates, which Gerrit swore he knew nothing about. It took five days and plenty of bills for the Estonian authorities to sort it out, and it was during that time that he’d met Alenka, one of a clutch of girls he’d glued himself to in a basement pub.
The truck barreled on, through the elongating tunnel made by its headlights in the frigid night of eastern Poland. Gerrit scoffed to himself about how absurd it was that people would live and could live in winter lands like these that were perpetually gray and, even worse, had only a few hours of daytime somewhere there above the blanket of clouds.
When he was beyond the Polish border, with twelve more hours to Moscow, he pulled over at one of the overnight stations to get some sleep among the other rigs huddled together like vulnerable sheep. Here in Belarus and in Russia, even with other trucks around, when Gerrit took a piss he did it from his driver’s seat out the open door, instead of standing out there in the frozen mud. Another driver had told him of standing for a pee on the route outside Petersburg when he’d felt a pistol barrel jabbing his neck. “While I’ve got both my hands busy with the big gun down below!” he had joked. But the driver had lost his truck to the hijackers. Gerrit threw an extra blanket on his bed, set the engine to run all night at a low idle, and got his sleep.
The next day it all went without a fight—the border check near Smolensk, the short spat over his transporter’s visa, the timid stalling of the customs weasels, the tedious unloading—it all went smoothly because they all knew who owned the flower trade. The depot outside of Moscow was a maze of concrete warehouses, loading docks, and crowded trailers on a tract of cracked asphalt and blackened snow. After the unloading and the obligatory round of jollies with the bull-shaped men who controlled the paperwork, Gerrit got paid in cash. He was eager to stash it and get on. Snowflakes as big as thumbprints were starting to fall.
He walked through the corridors between trailers back to his truck, leery of all the blind corners. He pulled out his keys.
“Misss-ter!” The voice sounded like a hissing snake. It came from somewhere near the ground. Gerrit jerked his head around and scanned the underbellies of the surrounding trailers. He saw only a small plume of vapor coming from behind a double set of wheels on the rig next to his own. Gerrit swung his eyes in a full circle, worried he was being set up by a team. He wedged his key into the frozen lock.
“Misss-ter! I pay you!” Gerrit turned around slowly, like a bear on hind legs, sniffing. This time a hooded head and an oversized green coat emerged from behind the black tires. It’s a goddam Chinese, thought Gerrit.
“Misss-ter! Put me in your truck. Take me to next place after Germany. I give you eight thousands German mark halfway. Eight more when I am there.”
Gerrit’s eyes caught those on the nearly hidden face, then he turned his head, pulled the key out of the lock, and started to walk toward the alley formed by the two trucks ahead of his. He whirled around when he heard a quick mashing of footsteps; the Chinese couldn’t stop before slamming into Gerrit. Gerrit shoved hard and the green coat went down. A hand poked out from it, clutching a thick wad of marks.
“Please! I give you cash. Take me!”
“Shut up.” Gerrit’s voice was low. “Shut up and follow me. Behind me.” After several paces, he turned.
It was a woman’s face under the hood, almost a girl’s. If it hadn’t been, he would have grabbed the steel pipe he kept in his cab and chased away the bulky green coat. Instead he motioned for her to come around to the front of his truck, in the narrow gap between it and the next trailer, to keep her out of view.
“You speak English?”
“Yes I can, speak English. I going to Europe. To Engaland. Or Brussels. You take me.”
“If you make any trouble, I’ll throw you on the road and keep the money. Those are the rules for roaches like you. Let me see it.”
She squinted and thrust the wad toward him, gripping the half-payment with both hands. He glanced at it, took it, then brusquely patted his gloved hands all over the lumpy coat, searching for anything hard and lethal. Her petite body resisted the pressure of his hands with a strength that surprised him.
“And if they catch you, I don’t know you. You’re just a roach. A friend of mine is locked up thanks to roaches like you. Get in and climb up to the top bunk. When we’re out of here on the road, you have to go in the back, in the trailer.”
The top bed was a metal frame with a cross-weave of elastic bands; it folded down from the wall, and once the girl was in it, he pushed it partway back up. It looked like it held no more than a stray sleeping bag.
She said nothing. The truck crept through the maze of the depot yard and emerged from the barbed wire gates onto a road whose icy glaze was quickly collecting a snowy coat. The girl stayed tucked away above Gerrit. He wanted to be well clear of the city before letting her down.
“Why do you speak English?” Gerrit’s voice boomed in the privacy of the cab.
“I studied in school.”
“Huh. A smarty Chinese on the rough road to riches.” She didn’t answer; Gerrit read it as shrewdness. “You’re betting a stack of money that you’ll win big in England or somewhere. If you don’t get killed on the way. What’s wrong with China, anyway? No room left?”
“No work and no money.”
“No money? That’s a bunch of marks you have. Enough to buy a car.”
“People borrow it to me.”
Gerrit braked lightly as a truck in front of him recovered from a skid. He could see that it was going to be an ugly night of rutted snow and cigarettes, and he decided it was a better idea in this weather not to stop to toss her in the trailer; he’d figure something out before the Estonian border. If she made it as far as Tallinn with him, the girl would have to find her own good times while Gerrit was busy with Alenka.
“What about boyfriends? Any boyfriend?” Gerrit heard only a muffled breath from above. Then she spoke.
“Why do you drive a truck?”
“Because I can make good money. I like being on the road.” He sucked deeply on a cigarette.
“Your father drive a truck?”
“My father? Yeah, he’s always been driving. Can’t stay home more than a week without a big fight with my mama.”
“That why you drive a truck.”
Her tone was so steady and matter-of-fact that Gerrit decided there wasn’t an insult in what she said. He shoved his hand into a bin beneath his seat to pull out a candy bar. As soon as he stretched his arm upward, she plucked it from his fingers. She bit into it quickly.
“You sure make enough noise when you eat.”
The girl kept chewing. Headlights from a string of a dozen trucks were in Gerrit’s eyes; he squinted as they trundled past, leaving him to adjust again to the darkness of the road.
“So you are Chinese but you want to live in England. Will you still be Chinese when you live there?”
“What kind of question? I am Chinese. Chinese always.”
“And what do your mama and papa think about you jumping into trucks?”
“Father love Falun Dafa, Falun Gong.” She was still smacking at the candy bar. “You know them? Crazy. Crazy sit like that and move strange. Police take him. My mother not so stupid. She not likes Falun Dafa. She look for him. But she not so sad. Maybe he dead. Father and Mother, not so close. Maybe she…is happy now.”
“You mean that sect.”
“So crazy, those people. Even they know government come get them. Maybe kill them.”
“So, Mr. China took your father, maybe killed him, and you are proud to be Chinese. Maybe if they kill your mother, too, you will be Chinese Chinese. Extra Chinese.” Gerrit glanced into the rearview mirror, trying to catch a glimpse of her face, but he only saw the metal frame of the hanging bed as it reflected the lights of another passing truck.
“I be Chinese till I die. Look at me. Chinese.”
“When I look at you, you could be Japanese. Or Korean. Or Mongolian, I don’t know. You think your face makes you something?”
“China is great country. Great history.” The girl paused. “What are you?”
“Sure, great history. Mao killing all those Chinese peasants. Starving them to death.”
“You politic man? What are you? What country?” She leaned over the metal rim of the bunk and looked down at him.
“I am Dutch. Holland. Great trading nation.” Gerrit laughed.
“You are white.”
Gerrit dragged on a cigarette and stared at the straight and empty road. “I am white plus extra. A grandmother from Indonesia. She looked Chinese to me in the pictures. I never met her. Her name sounded Chinese. Something like Wang,” said Gerrit.
“You are lucky if you part Chinese.”
“Woo-ha! So lucky. I’ll go take your place in China. Can your mother cook? Kung Pao chicken. I like that.”
“You too big. Eat too much. More Snickers. You have some?”
“Hah! Who eats too much?” Gerrit reached into his bin and handed another snack up to her. He tried to snare her fingers in his, but she avoided it, snatching away the candy bar.
“I pay you. Cash. No funny business.” She peeled away the wrapper.
“But we same race. Make good Chinese babies,” Gerrit replied. He chuckled, but he stopped abruptly when he heard a scraping sound above him, from the roof of the cab. Maybe it was just a shard of hardened snow sliding off.
“Did you hear that?”
“All I hear is the truck and bad music. You have Titanic?”
“For a roach you sure are pushy.”
“Roadge. What is that?”
“An ugly bug. Crawls around everywhere where people live.”
“I am ugly?”
“I don’t even know what you look like under that army coat. But a roach is not all bad. It survives. When all the humans have cooked themselves with nukes, the roaches will still be there, helping themselves to the kitchens.”
Gerrit tensed his hands on the wheel. He’d heard the sound again, above his head. He surveyed the snow-laden track spanning ahead of his headlights, searching for enough of a shoulder to pull over.
“We’re going to stop.”
He pressed the brakes lightly at first, then strongly. The behemoth machine jolted as it hit the mounds of snow and ice along the edge of the highway. There were no other vehicles behind or ahead. The road was like a small canyon, with walls of black forest. The truck finally stopped, throwing light forward into the chasm; the red of the rear lights was absorbed by the heavy branches of the pine trees funneling away into darkness.
Gerrit clamped the brake, opened the door, and stood on the edge of the cab, gripping the vertical bar mounted outside. He reached up with one arm and placed it on the roof, feeling with his bare hand. He heard a rustling sound. Gerrit stifled a curse and crouched back into the cab to pull out the steel pipe from beneath his seat. He heard the rustling sound again. A chunk of snow fell outside the open door.
“What the problem?”
Gerrit rose again outside the cab and slammed the pipe across the top, hitting the airfoil. He swung again and hit something soft. There was another sound, a frantic scraping. Gerrit swung again and again, jumping up from the sill of the doorway with every blow. There was a yelp at last.
A beam of headlights approached, and Gerrit retreated into the cab. A van passed without slowing. He pulled himself out of the cab again and reached higher with the pipe, slamming it down with wide arcs of his long arm. Then there were shouts. Gerrit put his foot on a metal step and pressed his leg to rise above the roof, his pipe raised. He could barely make out a huddled mass, which he beat again. Legs extended from the lump and it slid off the opposite side of the cab.
Gerrit pulled himself back into the truck and slammed the door. He jammed the gearshift and thrust his foot against the throttle pedal. The truck lurched, then faltered, its headlights dimming momentarily; Gerrit had to put the hiccupping engine back in neutral. A small upright body appeared in the glare of the headlights. It scrambled through the chunks of snow around to the driver’s door, where the orange running lights illuminated a face below the window. Gerrit revved the engine again as he pressed his foot against the clutch.
“Stop. I know him. Stop!” The girl reached down and grabbed Gerrit’s hair.
The body outside pounded on the base of the door. Gerrit put the truck into gear, but it rumbled forward slowly, jarred by the small mountains of hardened snow.
“Stop!” the voice above him barked again. “I know him. He my brother!”
“Your brother, hah. This is no bus. No one’s going to use me!” Gerrit revved the engine and the truck ground slowly through the mounds of ice.
The bundled body outside ran alongside the truck, banging a hand on the fender. Then it ran ahead, with its hooded head tucked down, and appeared in the headlights ten yards beyond the slowly accelerating truck-beast. The bundle stood there with its arms hanging down and a pair of eyes staring at Gerrit’s windshield.
The girl swung down from the bunk as if it were a trapeze, pulling at Gerrit’s right arm. “Stop! His name is Wang Li! My brother!”
Gerrit’s foot released the throttle pedal, but it was too late. There was a dull thump as he jammed his foot on the brake. The girl screamed.
“I’ll shoot all you roaches!” Gerrit hit her again and shoved his door open. He reached beneath the seat to grab his pistol. “Brother. Hah. Brother you leave to freeze up there.” The girl was silent.
A piercing cold gust hit Gerrit as he jumped down into the snow, the pipe in his hand. He had to shield his eyes from the glare of the headlights to make out the mound with legs sticking out at odd angles. The legs moved. It pulled its knees beneath it and its torso rose. The bulky green coat looked the same as the girl’s. Gerrit raised the pipe and slugged it sideways against the coat. The torso fell, leaving the face upturned. It spoke. The words were unintelligible. It gasped for breath. The vapor came out of its mouth in little puffs made white by the headlights.
Gerrit reached down and pulled up on the hood of the coat. The legs planted themselves. There was snot running down from the nose. Gerrit yelled at it in Dutch, then in English.
“You fuckin’ little animal! Use me? Trying to use me?”
He patted it down the same way he had done to the girl, but this one wobbled with every slap of his hand, and Gerrit had to keep it standing by holding on to its hood. It cried out when Gerrit’s hand hit its chest.
“You little bugger. All you got is a busted rib or two.” Gerrit jerked the coat again, but before he could slam the head into the engine grille, the girl flung herself into the back of Gerrit’s legs. His knees folded and he toppled over as the girl screamed in Chinese and scrambled onto the injured young man, who had crumpled with Gerrit’s fall.
Gerrit dragged himself away, his bare hands raking razors of ice, then stumbled to his feet and pulled out the pistol. He pointed it at the pile of two people, his chest heaving. Gerrit thought they suddenly looked very small. He shifted the muzzle upward and fired. The shot hit the ice not far from the girl’s head. She screamed and crawled to Gerrit’s feet and pounded his legs with her fists.
“My brother! My brother!”
Gerrit kicked her with his left foot, then his right, then his left again. He put a foot on her back and stepped on it, then walked around to the door of the cab and hoisted himself up. He put his face into the triangle between the open door and the windshield. “Get out of the way or I’ll drive over you.”
“Our name is Wang, like you! My brother is hurt. You so rich, white man.”
“You can fucking sleep here with your boyfriend, forever.”
“No boyfriend. Little brother. Little brother.”
The girl ran to the door and climbed up to grab one of Gerrit’s ankles. He shook his leg, trying to free himself of her.
“You make us die here? You murder us?” She slipped and her chin banged against the steel step, but she kept her clasp on Gerrit’s ankle and remained dangling above the ground.
A glint of light caught Gerrit’s attention as he glared down at her. It was far away, but in a moment it divided into two little white eyes.
“Get in. Quick! Get him in too.”
Gerrit switched off the headlights. The girl stumbled to the front and groped for the injured youth, lifting him to his feet and hauling him to the cab.
“Up to the bed. Now.”
The girl pulled the groaning body and Gerrit pushed it upward. Gerrit slammed the door shut as the approaching truck slowed down. He lit a cigarette and turned up the CD player. The truck slowed to a creep as it neared. Gerrit’s eyes met those of the other driver, who veered close and stopped an arm’s length away. The driver had fleshy jowls that barely moved as he spoke, in Russian. Gerrit shrugged and flicked cigarette ashes, saying “I’m OK, just resting.” The driver looked into the cab, his eyeballs catching the orange color of the running lights as he probed with his stare.
“Bad night for the road.” Gerrit half-smiled. “Time for a smoke.”
The driver raised two fingers to his mouth as if they held a cigarette. Gerrit reached for the pack on the dashboard and held it out the window. The driver took it with a mitt of a hand and grunted. Gerrit waved at him to keep the pack and took a long drag on his cigarette. The other truck’s engine roared and the gears caught. The hulk rumbled away into the darkness.
Gerrit switched off the music and set his own truck rolling. The labored breathing coming from above was occasionally audible over the mechanical crescendo as the truck gained speed.
Gerrit’s grip was hard on the wheel. “Thank you for what? Beating your brother? Stepping on you?” There was no answer, only the soft growling of the truck. He lit another cigarette. “You can thank me when I dump you both at the next stop. How is he?”
There was a staccato exchange of Chinese above Gerrit’s head.
Gerrit grunted and fumbled for a candy bar. “Can he eat?”
She took the raised sweet. Gerrit heard the wrapper snap open. He lifted up a bottle of water as well. The snow was falling heavily. The truck and the three travelers slid by a half-dozen dimly lit towns in the night. Two hours passed before she spoke.
“You want more money.”
Gerrit didn’t answer.
“I give you more money. For my brother.”
“The brother you put on top to freeze to death?”
“I don’t know he on top.”
“Hah! And my mother is a virgin.” Gerrit exploded in angry laughter. The truck swerved briefly, swiping a snowbank before he brought it back straight.
“I don’t know he on top. I go away from him. Where the trucks, all the trucks. OK, not my brother. My cousin. But same as brother.”
“So with a hundred trucks you both ended up with me. By luck. What luck! I almost shot you. Yeah, you are lucky.”
“I pay you more.”
Gerrit loaded his Brazilian music and started singing to it, as best he could. When it was over he thought about Alenka in Tallinn, the next stop, where he’d take on a load of fish and screw her in the cab for one night, maybe two, depending on how much he would have to pay the depot operators for the extra parking time. There was one fuel stop between here and Estonia. And then the border control. Sometimes they inspected, even at night.
“How much?” he said. “I come from a great trading nation. Great history.” Gerrit tried to catch a glimpse of her through the rearview mirror.
“Engaland. I give you two times money.”
“I’m not going to England. I will drop you in Germany, after going down from Tallinn.”
“Tow win. What is that?”
“The next stop after fueling up, in a few hours. I will stop there for a night. Then to Germany. Germany is very good for Chinese.”
Gerrit wanted to return her deceit with some of his own. At Tallinn he would load up and drive onto a ferry that would take him and the fish to Kiel in Germany, but he would shake off the freeloaders in Tallinn, well before the port inspectors would find them. He’d be doing the two roaches a favor, saving them from being captured and jailed or deported. And she wouldn’t have to pay the second half. But he had to shake them off before Alenka showed up.
The windshield wipers were scraping off the plastering snow, barely keeping up, as the truck approached the fuel stop—a slushy line of rigs casting shadows beneath sparse fluorescent lights suspended from aluminum wings. Gerrit told his passengers they’d have to squeeze tighter so he could push up the hinged bunk as far as possible.
When the tanks were full, Gerrit pulled ahead to a wide space beyond the pumps to quickly check the tires and knock the ice out of the wheel wells with his pipe. As he banged the last set of wheels, just behind the cab on the left side, his flashlight caught a piece of ice-caked fabric hanging like a rag. Gerrit looked back at the glow around the pumps to be sure no one was watching. He went down on his knees and saw what looked like a gunnysack wedged between the axle and the chassis above it. There was a cord wrapped around the icy sack, securing it to the axle and the brake lines running near it. His light shone upon two legs strapped to the axle struts. Gerrit could see that the fabric of the sack was partly torn away and had been caught in the joint between the axle and the wheel. He reached up and pushed his fist against the sack. It didn’t move. A truck leaving the pumps approached and flashed its headlights. Gerrit stood up and waved at it with a thumbs-up. The passing truck gnashed into a higher gear and Gerrit jumped into his cab.
“Fuck you. You have a fucking big family.”
Gerrit started up the truck and rolled onto the road. After half an hour at the highest speed he could manage, he veered to the shoulder and yanked the brake, yelling at the girl to get out. She tumbled down and Gerrit pulled her along, pushed her down, and shoved her head behind the trailer’s front wheels. He pointed the flashlight at the body strapped to the undercarriage.
“Another brother?” The girl struggled beneath Gerrit’s grip. “Look! Another cousin? Another cousin you leave to die?”
Gerrit pulled on her coat, ramming her head against the steel chassis, then he let go of her. He crawled behind the tires and pulled out a switchblade. He cut the cords.
“Now, you. You pull it down.”
The girl resisted. Gerrit shook her in the crowded space beneath the rig, the flashlight beam dancing crazily with his movement. She put a hand to the bundle of gray fabric and pulled. It fell down like a log, but the part with the head remained partially suspended by the wheel-trapped fabric. Gerrit cut through the fabric with his knife and the head fell.
“You know him too?”
“No. He is dead.”
“How do you know he’s dead?”
With one hand Gerrit dragged the body halfway out from under the trailer. He pointed the flashlight at the Chinese face and pressed two fingers against an artery. Faint plumes of frozen breath came out of the mouth. The eyes were closed.
“You see? He’s not dead.” Gerrit swiveled the head, trying to wake it up.
“Almost dead.” The girl crawled away and stood up. “We go now.” She looked up and down the empty and lightless road, hands in her coat pockets.
Gerrit stayed on his hands and knees in the snow, thinking. The flashlight under his palm shone down the length of the body. Gerrit rose and pointed the light at the girl.
“Yes. We leave him. We leave him with your brother.”
“Get your brother. Get him out.”
Gerrit pulled the gun out of his vest and let it hang at his side.
“OK, you kill me.” She leaned backward against the open door, hands still in her pockets. Her face in the bright light was motionless except for the twitching of her eyelids against the sharpness of the light beam. For an instant Gerrit thought she was beautiful.
“Get him down.” He stepped toward her and grabbed her wrist, pushing her toward the step up to the cab. Her arm was strong and she twisted it away from his hand, but she vaulted into the seat anyway.
Gerrit saw the pipe in her hand a moment too late. She jabbed it into his temple, stunning him. He fell backward onto the road. The door banged shut. The engine had been left running and now it began to scream. Gerrit could hear the transmission grinding as he struggled to get up from the packed ruts of snow. The truck heaved forward and stopped, the engine choking. It pounced again, then it halted. If it had gone a yard further, the rear wheels would have crushed the frozen man lying beneath the trailer.
Gerrit got up and opened the door, pointing the gun at her. He reached beyond the wheel and switched off the ignition. He could feel his temple swelling up and throbbing, but a calmness had come over him.
“You can stop now. Get him down. We’ll put them in the back together. Give me the pipe.”
She handed it to him slowly, speaking tersely in Chinese, first toward Gerrit and then upward toward her compatriot. Gerrit kept his distance as she helped the injured young man out of the bunk and walked him to the back of the trailer. Once the young man was lying in the empty bay, Gerrit made the girl drag the other freeloader to the rear, and together they hoisted the groaning stiff body over the metal cusp and laid him next to the cousin.
“It’s cold back here. Tie them together. They’ll keep each other warm.” He meant it, for their survival. And he meant it as a test, a punishment for her. Gerrit stepped forward into the bay to pick up two rolls of canvas straps. He handed them to the girl.
“Around their chests and their legs. Arms too. Together. Close.”
The cousin tried to twist away as the girl followed instructions, but Gerrit pinned him with his knee while keeping the gun on the girl. She put the straps around the two young men, back-to-back.
“Make it tighter. Put another around them.”
The girl snarled but did not speak. She did what he said.
“Now we’ll get blankets.”
Gerrit let her jump down from the bay first; he followed her, the gun in one hand, the pipe in the other, and the flashlight tucked in his armpit. She pulled two thick blankets out of the cab and they walked back toward the rear.
“Maybe that man have money,” she said. “You take it. You take him. You leave us here. We go back to the other trucks.”
Gerrit stopped in midstep. He thought of the distance back to the fuel stop and whether the man with the broken ribs could make it.
“That’s a good idea. So you can freeze too. Like your cousin and the man on the axle.”
The girl looked at the gun. “Maybe I stay with you, you shoot me. Better the cold. A new truck.”
Gerrit thought of all the kind drivers he knew. Not a one. Not even his father. They were all men who liked the battles of the road because they relieved the monotony of the road. Men who beat their prostitutes with delight and delighted in telling their comrades about it at fuel stops. All of them older than he was, with jocular malice in their eyes. Maybe he would turn into one of them after a few more years of this. He thought of the inconvenience, maybe danger, of having the girl with him in the cab for the next few hours until they reached the border around dawn.
He watched her watching him.
Gerrit pushed her to the high open doors at the rear and told her to get in. As soon as her feet had cleared the edge of the bay, he slammed the steel doors shut. When he slid the bolt lock, he heard her shouting in Chinese. Then she shouted something in English, but he couldn’t make it out because he was already stepping around to the cab. Yes, it would be cold back there. If she had sense she’d huddle with the other two under the blankets. What a sight that would be—the girl lying next to the man, one of her tribe, that she had wanted to leave to die. She would probably untie him from her “cousin.” Probably she had done it already.
Gerrit played the Doors as he drove. A trickle of blood found its way to the corner of his mouth, and he licked it instinctively before wiping it away. His temple was pulsing. For a while he faintly heard a pounding sound from behind, but then it went away. In a day or two that bay would be full of frozen fish, from top to bottom. He was dying to feel Alenka’s body. He had made it with her once back there in the trailer, standing up, when it was warmer a few months earlier.
Gerrit’s palms moistened as he thought of the risks at the border and the possible delays. The Estonian customs police were tougher these days. A little cash didn’t go as far. And Alenka would give up on him. Alenka and her long legs.
A few hours later Gerrit slowed the truck when the border station’s lights appeared in the distance. In his vibrating side mirror there was a horizon of clouded gray light. Gusts were smacking the ice-rimmed windows, but there was no snow falling. He pulled the truck onto the shoulder of the road, brushing the trees of the sparse woods. He left the engine running and the music of an Estonian acid rock group playing loudly. Alenka had given it to him, and he didn’t like it.
When he released the lock-bar at the rear and swung the doors open, he saw three separate lumps. Gerrit climbed into the bay with his gun ahead of him. He pushed a foot against the closest one and reached down to turn the face so he could see it. He did the same with the next nearest. He didn’t need to check for a pulse or breath, but he did anyway. He saw that both their coats were unzipped. The third lump was the girl, in a fetal position under both blankets at a far front corner of the dark space. She moved groggily when he nudged her with his foot, then she started shivering and her eyes opened. He pulled her up to her feet and her shivering turned into shaking.
“They’re dead. You have to get out of here. I’m sorry about your cousin. You can walk through the forest to get around the border patrol. Get to the other side. Find another truck. I’ll give you your money back.”
Gerrit held one of her arms to help her walk. As he led her around the two dead young men, he saw papers protruding from their unbuttoned pockets. A strong gust from the open doors pushed the girl into Gerrit’s chest and scattered some of the papers. When they reached the edge of the bay, he jumped out first. She was too wobbly to make it out on her own. Gerrit lifted her down and pointed toward the forest.
“You go here, to the right, through the trees…”
“Give me my money,” she said.
“Okay. I’ll get it. I’m sorry about your cousin.” He turned and started toward the cab to get the money. When he heard her call after him, he ignored her.
Gerrit was pulling the wad of money from the underside of the dashboard before he absorbed what she had said. Not my cousin. I do not know him. He switched off the banging music and stepped quickly to the rear of the trailer.
She was gone. For a split second he saw a green coat darting between the trees. Gerrit started to shout, but stopped himself. The cold air filled his open mouth.
He heaved himself up into the bay and stuffed the identification papers back into the young men’s otherwise empty pockets. Their bodies were already stiff, and as he pulled them out, he held them by their armpits so their heads wouldn’t crash against the ground. He dragged each one into the trees, laying them next to each other, arranging their arms and legs. He kicked snow over them, extra snow over the faces, and bent down to sweep away his footprints as he stepped backward to the truck.
Gerrit slammed the steel doors shut. He was tired, and relieved. She, too, was heartless. Brutal, and a thief. He told himself she was even more brutal than he had become. He looked over his shoulder at the two mounds. Only now that they were dead did he think of them as people. He turned and trudged to the front of the truck; his feet were heavy and block-like in the cold, and it made walking in the deep snow difficult. Awkwardly, he climbed back into the cab and tried hard to think of Alenka as he put the idling engine into gear.
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First Published in West Branch Literary Magazine