Mark Taylor ground his teeth in irritation. He’d watched the green Mazda in his mirrors for at least a quarter of a mile, until it disappeared in the blind spot behind his trailer. He changed lanes – still no view of the Mazda. It was drafting, and tailed him like it had been attached to his rig with a Reese hitch.
For the first time, Mark anticipated a weigh station with something other than anxiety. He doubted the Mazda would follow him into the coop. But so much for that idea – the I-85 southbound scales were closed. He blew past them with the green car still hugging his bumper.
Stuck in New England for days, unable to get a load headed south, he had watched the calendar with a nervous eye. Each sunrise brought him one square closer to the date circled in orange crayon – his youngest daughter’s birthday. Every night when he called he promised he’d be home for her party, but dispatch had other priorities. Then a load of laundry detergent turned up headed for Costco in Riviera Beach, Fla. It delivered two days after the orange circle. The timing couldn’t have been better. To Mark it seemed like a miracle of the highest order.
Movement in his mirrors caught his eye. He saw the Mazda swing from behind his trailer into the hammer lane. In front of him, a Covenant truck accelerated after negotiating the hairpin on-ramp from I-185. Mark backed off.
A silver Lincoln blocked the left lane, keeping pace with both trucks. There was just enough room for the Mazda to weave around it. So close Mark couldn’t see its taillights, the little green car zipped into the space between his Freightliner and the back end of Covenant.
The combination of fear and anger jangled his nerves, leaving him numb with shock. He stabbed the brake and started gearing down. But 42,000 pounds of laundry detergent wouldn’t be stopped so easily. Its weight pushed him down the road, nearly on top of the little green Mazda.
Mark muttered a few choice phrases under his breath. Crazy four-wheeler. Road hazard.
The driver of the Lincoln slowed so the Mazda could dart in front of it. The danger past,
Mark pressed his shoulders against the seat and rubbed his face with one hand. Another close call. Any more like that and he’d need surgery to remove his heart from his mouth.
“That was low down, wasn’t it, Driver?” Sympathy from Covenant, who most likely had watched the ordeal in his mirrors.
Mark grabbed his CB mike. “More like he had a death wish. Did you see how close he cut in font of me?”
“Wish folks would realize you can’t stop these things on a dime.”
Mark keyed his mike. “I almost stopped this one on a Mazda.”
A chuckle from Covenant. “Where you headed?”
“Home. Been out three weeks. One more exit and I’m there.”
“Your old lady gonna be glad to see you?” Covenant’s grin transmitted over the airwaves along with his voice.
“Yeah. My girls too.”
“Eleven and eight.” Mark smiled as he pictured them. Sarah, the older, looked like her mother. Tall, with long blonde hair and hazel eyes. The baby, Whitney, had his dark hair and olive complexion. He couldn’t deny her if he tried.
“They’ll be grown before you know it,” Covenant assured him.
Mark agreed. “Seems like yesterday I was burping them on my shoulder.”
“I hear you, Driver. And I see your exit coming up. You have a good weekend, okay?”
“Ten-four, Covenant. You do the same.” Mark returned the mike to its hook, feeling warm for the first time in miles.
Ahead, traffic congealed. Road construction – orange cones and “people work here, give them a brake” signs flashed on the shoulder. Covenant changed lanes but got caught in the bottleneck anyway. He threw up a hand as Mark rolled by. Mark hit the interrupt switch and blinked his markers.
From nowhere, the green Mazda reappeared. It broke from a stalled line of cars and traveled down the shoulder of the interstate, directly in front of Mark. He jerked his foot off the accelerator and let the Jakes roar.
This time, however, disaster could not be avoided. The Mazda skidded out of control and careened into the flow of traffic. Screeching tires and a sickening crunch of metal that Mark heard over the Freightliner’s engine – within seconds a minivan shot off the side of the interstate. It flipped twice when it hit the median.
Mark stood on the brake and braced his arms against the steering wheel. He sensed the shifting payload behind him before he felt it – 42,000 pounds of laundry detergent slammed against the walls of the trailer. Tires bounded sideways on the pavement as the back end of his rig swung into the other lane. The frame of the truck moaned in distress. The cab jerked violently as momentum slung it nose-first into the grass. Mark had a vision of cars sliding underneath his trailer as it followed the truck around and shuddered to a stop.
He looked up, trying to reorient himself. What he saw turned him cold inside. The minivan had landed upright in the median. Mangled from its impact with the earth, its body sat crooked on the chassis. Black smoke boiled from underneath it. As Mark watched in horror, the face of a child appeared in one of its shattered side windows.
Adrenaline surged in his veins. He locked down the differential and rocked the truck backward. The rear tires grabbed traction and hauled him back onto the pavement. He crept forward until his rig straightened in the emergency lane. Compressed air popped like a gunshot when he engaged the parking brake.
Wrestling his door open, he leapt to the ground and took off at a dead run. With the brawn of an offensive tackle, he shouldered bystanders out of the way and approached the minivan. Glass fragments dug into he heels on his hands as he leaned through its window. The driver, a woman, slumped over the steering wheel. Five children lay dazed and crying, buckled in place, covered in blood.
Obscured by the dense smoke, hair matted to their heads, they weren’t immediately recognizable as boys or girls.
Panicked, Mark tugged on the side door. It wouldn’t budge.
“That things on fire!”
The voice got his attention. Mark glanced over his shoulder and saw the Covenant driver barreling toward him through the grass.
When Covenant reached the minivan he and Mark exchanged a look. Without saying anything they grabbed the door and pulled with their combined strength.
No use. The door’s hinges had been smashed into the body of the minivan.
“Crowbar! This guy’s got a crowbar! Let him through!”
Mark didn’t know who spoke the words or who produced the crowbar, but when he looked up Covenant had taken the tool and gripped it in his hand. He pried the door open and held it back so Mark could force his way into the minivan.
At first Mark saw only smoke. He heard flames crackle and smelled the distinct odor of gasoline as it poured from the ruined tank into the dirt below. When his eyes adjusted he noticed the fire under the hood had grown so hot the vinyl on the dashboard had begun to curl.
Mark crawled past the kids and grabbed the driver. Nearest the flames, she was in the most imminent peril. She moaned when he hooked his hands beneath her arms and dragged her from the driver’s seat. Her foot had been caught in the twisted metal on the floorboard, and it bled profusely when he ripped it free. No matter – he’d rather she lose a foot than her life.
As he passed the woman off to Covenant, the biggest child crawled to safety under her own power. Onlookers formed a human chain, and one by one they arranged the victims on the grass at least a hundred feet from the burning vehicle.
Flames broke through the firewall and hissed angrily at Mark as he reduced their spoils one child at a time. The carpeting of the minivan blazed and melted at an alarming rate. Its stench filled the inside of the vehicle. The steering column warped and began to drip in the direction of the ground. Exposed wiring shriveled and turned black underneath the crumpled dashboard.
Two more of the children unlocked their seat belts and assisted in their own rescues. But an infant posed the biggest challenge. Strapped in a car seat that had become wedged against the side of the van, the baby howled as noxious smoke burned its lungs. Mark tugged so hard on the car seat that the skin on his fingers ripped off in layers. No luck. He finally kicked the side of the van with enough force to bend the metal. That gave him enough room to maneuver the car seat sideways. Mark tugged the crying baby from its deathtrap seconds before the minivan’s console went up in flames.
Mark gave the baby to Covenant and grabbed the last child on his way out of the van. Limp, she collapsed face first over his arm. Dark hair and a Winnie the Pooh T-shirt like the one he’d bought for Whitney. He dropped her into the grass a safe distance from the minivan and collapsed beside her.
He opened his eyes. His daughter Sarah knelt beside him, her blonde hair pink and her face smeared with blood.
“Are you OK, Daddy?”
Mark couldn’t speak. He couldn’t breathe. He stared at the minivan, and every hair on the back of his neck prickled.
Unimaginable that he’d been so bent on freeing its occupants that he hadn’t given the minivan a second look. Now he stared at it – the same minivan that carried his children back and forth to school every day – his sister-in-law’s vehicle, with the luggage rack on top and Honor Roll bumper sticker clinging to its shattered back window.
He rolled the child in the Pooh shirt to face him. Whitney’s brown eyes opened, and she blinked up at him in confusion. “Daddy?” she asked in her little-girl voice. “What happened?”
Unable to answer, Mark looked at his wife’s sister as she regained consciousness a few feet away. His two nieces gathered around her and his nephew wailed lustily from the arms of a compassionate stranger. They would be fine, Mark knew, and so would his girls.
Mark climbed shakily to his feet and looked around for the other truck driver. If Covenant hadn’t been on the scene, Mark would never have freed all the children – possibly he wouldn’t have freed any of them.
But the Covenant driver was nowhere to be found. The crowbar he’d used lay in the grass, approximately where he’d been standing. A scan of the I-85 southbound lane revealed a
more startling reality. No Covenant truck parked anywhere in the line of traffic. The spot where Mark had seen it last was filled with gridlocked four-wheelers, and the only rig on the highway was his own.
He felt a tug on his pants leg.
Whitney looked up at him with velvety dark eyes. “Daddy, what happened?”
Speechless, he knelt beside her. Sarah threw her arms around him, too, and the three of them huddled together as the minivan blazed in the median.
Mark looked at the sky and wiped a tear from his face. “A miracle,” he whispered against his little girl’s dark hair, his heart bursting with gratitude. “Of the highest order.”
About the Author
I’m 32 and have lived in Troup County, Ga., all my life. I have two children; my son is 8 and my daughter is 10. My husband and I own 43 acres near West Point Ga., where we hope to someday operate a small farm. Currently, my husband and I are team drivers for Covenant Transport. Before I became a truck driver, I drove a school bus for five years. I am a songwriter and have completed my first novel, though it has not yet been published. I have another novel in the works that involves the trucking industry.