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Secrets of a December Night

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The most vivid memory I can recall from all of my years as a truck driver was one lonely December morning, all alone on the outback – well, that's what I called it anyhow – with the wind whistling through the trees and the snow all falling around me, chains on the tires, windshield frosted over: and then her, popping out of the fog like she was an angel, lips streaked with violet, golden hair whipping around her face, and dressed like July had just begun. But let me start at the beginning.

***

Pablo was a cool guy. That's the first thing anyone ever said about him. You ask them who Pablo de Vincent was, they'd say "Pablo? Oh, he's a cool guy." That's 'cause there wasn't a better way to describe him. Maybe you think that old family friend who you've know since forever, who is at your dinner table more than he is at his own, maybe you think "cool" isn't the right word. But Pablo was the epitome of cool. He wore the same beat up leather jacket all through my childhood, bomber jacket from the '40s, and he ran a mechanic store down by Main. Best store in town, if you ask me, because he always used to give out candies to the kids who behaved nicely while their parents were dropping coins into his tip jar and he was lifting his hat to all the ladies - if you sat by nice and quiet, you could be sure Pablo would bring you a little lollipop from his never ending jar and pat you on the head.

I wanted to be just like him.

It didn't turn out that way.

I wasn't cut out for school life, not much, and I did well considering the abysmal teaching they provided at my school. But I never really felt comfortable in the school's walls. My parents always hoped I'd go to college and get myself a good job, since my brother never managed to pull himself out of drink long enough to hold one down, so they were pouring money into an outlet that long should've stopped accepting it. 

I was very firm in the position though that after I turned 18, they weren't to give me any money, and if they did, then I would never forgive them.

That's how I came across Pablo, again, barely old enough to grow my own beard but needing cash.

See, the thing about Pablo nobody knew except until you did - well, Pablo didn't make his fortune out of the small mechanic store. Who could make that kind of a fortune in a town where nobody stopped by long enough to need repairs? No, Pablo made his fortune by driving a truck from New York to California, carting secrets and messages and things nobody ever really talked about, 'cause nobody, not even Pablo, knew what was in the crates he drove all around the country. 

But the point was, it paid well, and no matter how cool Pablo was, the fact of the matter is that he was getting old and he needed help. Help that I could provide. 

That's how I found myself, December 15, driving down an icy interstate, alone except for the vocals of Stevie Wonder and all the secrets in the back of the truck.

That's how I found her.

That's how I found you.

***

It was icy cold, here in the middle of nowhere, and I reached out to turn up the heater a bit. I had plenty of gas, a warm bacon sandwich in the passenger seat, and 865 miles to go. Alone.

"Ten days 'til Christmas," I said aloud, to nobody in particular. I was very excited to return home for the first time in nearly a half a year, and hoped my parents had gotten my letters of what I wanted for Christmas. 'Course, they weren't to spend any of their own money - I'd made that very clear - and I had provided about $400 for them to pick out whatever presents they deemed fit. Many thought I was out of my mind for doing so, but my brother still refused to go to AA meetings, and my parents still poured money they didn't have into him, so what was $400, one way or another? For 18 years they had fed me, clothed me, bathed me, given me education and love and support and I was not about to let them suffer because the other one they had supported had been a bad investment. 

But there I was, the tendrils of mist curling around my truck, the chilly air squirming in through all the cracks in my truck only to dissipate in the warm, steamy interior.

"Nine days, now," I added as an afterthought, rubbing my thumb over the LED display of the clock and realizing it was past midnight. I didn't have to drive through the night, but I was eager to return, and the thing I would never admit to anybody was that I was scared, scared of the things that went bump in the back. I was afraid of human nature, of what those crates might contain. I wanted to get rid of them, and fast.

No matter, however, I thought as I pushed the idea from my head, instead calmly concentrating on the road. I could see nothing but mist ahead of me.

I turned on the radio, its comforting frequency calming me even further to the point where I felt almost at ease, until I made out what the radio was saying.

"Accident on Interstate 880, blocking all traffic from Woodside onwards, reports of black ice–" the radio garbled and was still. Huh, that was strange. I fiddled with the knob, but was unable to get anything. But the mention of black ice frightened me.

Almost reflexively, I glanced up at the road... and saw her.

Standing in the middle of a puddle of melted ice, no doubt liquified by her body heat, though there couldn't have been much of that. She was dressed to the nines with a summer dress that barely passed her knees, a thin shawl that covered her shaking shoulders, and sandals that had seen better days. She looked up and saw me. Our eyes locked as I slammed on the brakes, pumping the emergency handle up and down in a desperate attempt to stop before I hit her.

I swerved to the next lane, into oncoming traffic had there been any, barely missed her, and skidded to stop, panting, a few feet in front of where she still stood.

"Goddamn–!" I swore, yanking open the door and marching over to where she stood, still as a statue.

"Crazy woman! You could've gotten killed! Are you all right?" I asked, furious but worried at the same time. She nodded ever so slightly, pivoting around to face me. "Look, you've got to be freezing in that," I said, slightly softer. "Why don't you come into my truck - I think I've got a coat - and we can wait until you warm up a bit. What's your name?"

"Jane," she whispered, huddling even closer into herself, her violet tinged lips barely moving. I gently guided her up into my warm, comfortable truck, started it, and pulled over to the side of the road to let others pass by me, not that there were any, of course.

I reached into the back of the truck, pulled out my duffle, and offered her a pair of clean sweatpants, a t-shirt, and the warm winter coat I'd promised. I also dragged out my slippers.

"Thank you," she murmured softly.

I averted my eyes as she dressed, and gave her all the courtesy I could. Her milky white skin hovered in the corner of my eye as she pulled on the clothes.

Once she was dressed, I decided, then I should offer to drive her where she needed to go even though she was perfect and I was a mess–up who couldn't even make it through college, with a dysfunctional family and a secret nobody could ever know.

"Jane?" I asked softly, because she still wore the deer-in-headlights look upon her face.

"Yes?" she replied.

"Where are you headed to? Do you need a ride?" 

At this her face feel inwards and crumpled up with tears, and I'm sorry to say my first thought was: "she's beautiful even when she's crying." I believed I had done something wrong, and waited for her soft hiccups to subside.

"I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I'm going to Applewood, California. I was supposed to take a train... but... I don't know. What's the date?"

"It's December 15, 1984."

"What?!" she exclaimed, her eyes widening. "That can't be right."

"Well, it's December 16 now, it's about half-past one."

"But... yesterday... But yesterday it was July 6, 1980, I know it was."

"No, it wasn't," I replied, worried, because she seemed very sure of herself.

"Who's the president?"

"Ronald Reagan."

"No, it's Jimmy Carter."

I shook my head sadly. "Jane, Jimmy Carter left office almost four years ago."

"Who are you?" she asked immediately, changing the topic. I could see the distress in her eyes.

"I'm–" I cleared my throat. "Jason Dauer. Pleased to meet you."

"Jason," Jane said slowly, quietly, afraid to move her lips too much. 

"Yes?" I asked.

"Don't look now, but ahead of us..." she did not complete her sentence before I looked up and saw what she could not, or would not, have said. It was a long, long stretch of black ice, I was going 120 miles an hour, and the radio had just come back on.

"–warnings for all drivers on Interstate 40 in between from Kansas, do not exceed 60 miles an hour. There is a notorious build-up of black ice on a stretch, the exact location undetermined. If you see black ice, please call 1 (800)–"

I did not hear the rest of the number as my truck skidded unbelievably fast on the ice, smashed the barrier between the roads, and I heard someone scream. I think it was me.

The crates shattered on the truck's metal holdings, the straps I had placed barely able to hold them down. Love letters and jars of pickled fish and photographs tumbled out. But as they each passed by me, and as I saw people's secrets, I realized not everything was all it was cracked up to me. Letters to lovers who took the place of husbands stationed overseas: jars not of pickled fish but of various human appendages: photographs of people sleeping or mutilated bodies all came crashing down on me, and the second to last thing I thought for some time was: "If these are the secrets, then what are the promises?"

And the last thing I thought before the world faded into oblivion, before blackness surrounded my soul? The last thing I thought... was Jane.

You.

to be continued

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