It was 8:06 p.m., and Joe was making good time. So when he saw the woman on the side of the road, holding her pants up by the waist and squinting at the setting sun, he pulled over and rolled the window down.
“Need a ride, ma’am?”
She turned to squint at him, and after judging him safe enough, hopped onto the passenger-side foothold and drug herself into the seat. “I’m coming from Baxley Correctional. Got let out early.”
She gave him a wary look, but Joe just smiled. “I can take you as far as the Red Rock truck stop. There’s a pay phone to call your family, and if you tell ‘em that Big Joe sent you, they’ll put you up for the night.”
The hardness in her eyes relaxed somewhat, although she was still looking at him a bit funny. “You’ve still got pay phones?”
Having no idea what she meant by that, Joe ignored her. “You got a name?”
“Keisha.” She kicked her feet up on the dash and started inspecting her fingernails.
Well, if she didn’t want to talk, Joe wouldn’t force her. He whistled as he drove, enjoying the sun on his face. Not often he got such a nice day as this, even if the heat was a bit much.
Keisha seemed startled when he came to a stop. “I’m off in the other direction,” he said apologetically, “but the truck stop’s just up there.”
“Thanks,” she said, giving him her first smile of the afternoon.
He tipped his baseball cap at her. “No problem. ”
It was 8:06 p.m., and Joe was making good time. A miracle, that, considering how hard the rain was coming down. The downpour was so thick that he barely saw the car pulled off to the side of the road where the interstate met 8 th . But the blinking of the hazards caught his eye with just enough time to pull off to the side.
“Need a ride?”
A young man stepped out of the car and ducked into the semi cab as quick as he could, still ending up soaked through. “Thank you, sir.”
“No need for that. You can call me Joe.”
He smiled. “I’m Dwayne. And I’m just back from Afghanistan, it’s a habit at this point.”
“I can take you as far as the Red Rock truck stop. There’s a pay phone to call for a tow, and if you tell ‘em that Big Joe sent you, they’ll put you up until the rain lets up.”
“It’s a dead zone out here, and with the weather, I was worried I’d be stuck on the side of the road overnight. Sure am glad you drove by.”
“I like to think that something out there puts me on the roads where I’m needed.”
The rain had lightened up by the time they got to the truck stop. He let Dwayne out a bit down the road, then went off on his route, hoping the man found a mechanic and got home sooner instead of later. He wished he could’ve taken him as far as the next town, but that was no good. The passenger always had to get off at the truck stop, no matter what. Joe couldn’t say why, but it felt downright wrong to drive them any farther down the highway. Besides, he knew the workers, and they were good people. Dwayne would be well taken care of there.
It was 8:06 p.m., and Joe was making good time. So he didn’t feel too bad about pulling off to the side of the road when he saw the dog curled up on the edge of a cornfield.
She had no problem hopping into Joe’s truck, curling up in the passenger seat and shutting her eyes contentedly when he scratched her ears. According to her collar, her name was Babe, and if lost, she should be returned to a vet a few towns away from the truck stop.
It was nice, having a passenger, even if she wasn’t much for conversation. It got lonely out here—sometimes Joe felt like he’d driven this same stretch of road hundreds of times. He reached over to pat her head every so often, and she licked his hand in return. All too soon, he reached his turn, and had to let her go. He couldn’t keep a dog, and she had a family looking for her. Joe lifted her out of the truck and gave her a nudge in the direction of the truck stop, smiling as she ran off.
It was 8:06 p.m., and Joe was making good time. When he saw the young woman sitting at the crossroad, head in her hands, he had the feeling he’d soon be running late.
“Need a ride, miss?”
She looked up, appraising him, and he got a good view of a nasty bruise on her cheek. “I’m headed to the Greyhound station. Can you get me there?”
It was off his route, but something told him this girl needed him more than his boss. “I’m headed that way.”
She hopped in, leaning her head against the window. “Thanks, man. I was going to walk from Rockport, but…”
“Long ways from Rockport to the Greyhound station,” Joe said.
The girl shrugged. “I almost died back there, you know. When I was a kid. It was raining real hard, and this truck came outta nowhere. But the driver ran himself off the road to keep from hitting us.”
Joe blinked, remembering screeching brakes, and a ringing in his head drowning out the pounding rain.
“I thought to myself today, the man went and died for me, and it would be a shame for me to throw that away. So I walked right outta town.” She laughed. “Wish I’d thought to bring more than my wallet and my phone, but at least I’m going somewhere.”
“That you are.”
“Would’ve been nice to tell Joe what he did for me. I could’ve stopped by his grave, if I hadn’t been in a hurry to leave.”
The name sent memories racing through him, of a crash that had been hovering at the back of his mind and of a thousand drives down this same road, all coming to an end on a deserted stretch of highway and starting again the next night. “I think, somewhere out there, he knows.”
She smiled. “I hope so.”
Joe knew, when she got out at the station, that this would be his last run. “Be careful out there.”
“Will do. Hey—” She squinted at him. “I never told you, my name’s Darla. How about you?”
He tipped his baseball cap at her. “They call me Big Joe.”