Skip to main content
18 Wheels and no Roses - cover



18 Wheels and no Roses - Road like a River (Chapter One - Red Light)

The guy up ahead was yellin’. Yellin’ an’ dancin’, an’ not a stitch on. Charlie sighed. He jammed up a gear and the rig picked up speed. Damn suicides. Get in bed, pop some pills. And wake up. On the Road. On the Road, and their wallet in the pants they didn’t have on.

No penny, no ride. That was the rule. They got to walk. A hundred years of walkin’, gettin’ nowheres but sorry-ass. Then he’d drive by again, and this time he’d stop. That was the way it was. Way it allus had been. The penny, or the walkin’. Once, weren’t nobody didn’t know. Charlie spat out of the side window. Bloody schools these days. Didn’t teach a damn thing worth knowin’.

In the mirror Charlie saw the guy stick one finger in the air. Charlie looked again to make sure he remembered the face. Two hundred years.

The wheels ate some more of what should be—Charlie checked his schedule—I-65. He concentrated on the blacktop for a moment, and that’s what it was. I-65. Philadelphia behind him and lots of nothin’ much ‘til Brentwood. The radio crackled. As he reached for it to find some station as could at least spell Waylon, he saw them. The lights. One red, one white, slowly spinnin’ up ahead on the Road.

Charlie cursed every Smokie from here to hell an’ gone. He wrenched at the wheel, tossed an extra curse at the blacktop and dragged the rig onto I-39. Haulin’ the bends at San Rafael, he swore again. There they were, right ahead. One red, one white. I-15, 27, 89…it was no good. The lights were always there.

“Kharon!” The voices spoke loud in his head. Two voices, One dark and hard, one bright and sweet. And not a gnat’s wing between them as they spoke the old name. Both lights and both voices wasn’t any kind of good. And what they really meant was–Charlie looked hard at the road. Then he was there. No signs, no numbers. Just there. The Road. The only one there was. He jammed down the gears, the rig slowing to a stop as it neared the lights. Charlie scowled at them. A bad day was getting’ worse, an’ he didn’t see why all the bad should be his. He reached behind him and grabbed the wheel hammer. He swore sometimes he could still feel his old oar when he picked the hammer up. Charlie popped the door and swung down. Not a star in the sky, ‘cos there weren’t no sky. He couldn’t see a thing, apart from the lights. Not because of the dark. There just weren’t nothin’ there to see.

That was the Road. It weren’t ever anywhere. Just always where you was.

Charlie slung the hammer over his shoulder and walked the short ways down to the lights. This was the Road, and they weren’t pretendin’ no more. The red one. Suit sharp enough to make the wind bleed. If there’d been a wind. And the other one. All glow and white robes. Charlie shook his head. Some things never changed.

“You’re in my way, boys.”

Charlie was an Independent. Suits and robes, he didn’t care. The Road and the pennies. They was what was important.

“You will show respect!” A wall of fire rolled from Red. But this was the Road, and the Night. The fire rolled past.

“Boys. You’re in my way. You’re slowin’ me down.” Charlie unshipped the hammer from his shoulder.

“Even you will come to the Gates one day, Kharon. Even you!” A bolt of lightning spat from a white robed hand. But this was the Road and the Dark that wasn’t Night swallowed it whole.

Charlie shook his head again. Lightnin’. Damn right, some things never changed. He raised the hammer. “Boys.” Slam—the hammer hit the Road. “My daddy was Darkness.” Slam. “My momma was Night.” Slam. At each strike, the whole Road shook. “Granddaddy was here a-fore there was here to be.” Slam. “And you...” Slam. “Are in…” Slam. “MY DAMN WAY!” Slam—Slam—Slam—Slam.

Charlie looked at I-89. At the two empty Vermont Highway patrol cars. They was messes, crushed and dented by hammer marks. The bridge over the Connecticut River weren’t looking much better, a huge hole in the middle of the span. He shook his head. Some days…

“Freeze, mister.” The man wore the uniform of the Highway Patrol. A little non-standard, but that was the way of things. “I said freeze, mister! And lose the hammer!” The officer dropped into a perfect Weaver stance, his gun ready.

Charlie sighed. “Double-0 Buck? Yup, that’ll do it every time.”

“I said freeze, mister!”

Charlie shook his head. “See, that’s not how you do it, boy. You call for backup. That how it happened? You didn’t call?”

“I said freeze!” The sound of the patrol man’s pistol echoed off the hills. The echoes rolled and rolled as the patrolman emptied his gun.

Charlie stepped close and reached through the gaping hole in the patrolman’s chest, down to the uniform back pocket. He took out the penny waiting there and waved it in the man’s face. “Right. You’ve paid. Now get in the damn truck!”

The officer looked at his weapon. He looked at the penny. He looked at Charlie. But there it was. Some things never changed. “I said free…!”

He wasn’t worth the hammer. Charlie smacked the delivery one handed and picked up the unconscious body to sling in the cab. He’d been right. It was a bad day. Now Charlie had to work out who it was going to be worse for. Someone was goin’ to pay for slowin’ him down, and it weren’t goin’ to be no damn penny either. He fired up the rig and stared at I-89. In a moment, he was on the Road. Charlie jammed up the gears. Yup. Someone was goin’ to pay.

The truck’s lights speared the night.