The night air sliced through Kyle’s jacket with ease. He shivered, hunching his shoulders and digging his hands deep into his pockets in an effort to conserve what little body heat he had left. He had been hanging around the truck stop for over an hour, lingering in the shadows, waiting for a chance to escape the miserable weather and get as far away from Baltimore as he could.
Hitchhiking was the only way; he couldn’t risk exposure in Maryland by using his credit card. Besides, he only had a few dollars on him and needed them for food. If he could just get some breathing space, he was sure he could clear his head and think things through, figure out where to go, and decide if he had the guts to ruin his family’s life.
January in Maryland was always miserable. Rain turned to ice and snow, while temperatures fluctuated somewhere between holy-fuck-it’s-cold and I-can’t-feel-my-nads-anymore. It was the type of weather where nose hair froze. Kyle had run thoughtlessly and keeping warm had been the last thing on his mind, but now, unfortunately, he was kicking himself for not grabbing his coat. A thin vinyl jacket wasn’t cutting it.
Kyle kept his eyes glued on the big 18-wheelers coming and going at the busy truck stop. He knew if he was patient long enough, he’d have the perfect opportunity to sneak into one. In the meantime, at least in the alcove he stood protected from the biting cut of the wind.
About ten minutes later, he watched a dark truck pull into the parking lot and circle around till it came to a stop farther away from the other trucks. Large silver pipes were piled and secured tightly on the flatbed. The driver hopped down and circled around, inspecting his cargo and making sure everything was in order before turning to walk toward the restaurant. For a moment, the overhead parking lot lights struck his face, and Kyle’s breath caught in his throat. The man had sharp, angled planes on his face, bold strokes prominently displayed by the washed-out light trickling down from the overhead posts. A short beard angled from midcheek to neck, while the disheveled hair on his head curled slightly over his coat collar. It softened him just a little.
Kyle watched until the man disappeared into the warmth of the restaurant, and then he turned back to the truck. Hiding in exposed pipes wasn’t the best idea, especially in the middle of January, but it might be the only opportunity he would get that night. And he had to get out of Maryland as soon as possible. With one more cautious look toward the restaurant to make sure the driver wasn’t watching or coming back, Kyle walked toward the bed, keeping to the shadows and avoiding the areas where the overhead lights shone.
Kyle walked to the passenger side and started looking at the pipes. They were huge, large enough for him to fit in, but the ends were completely open. Air would rush through them the entire way, and Kyle did not want to end up as an icicle. Had it been July, he would have taken the chance, but not in the dead of winter.
He’d have to wait and hope that another opportunity came soon. Out of curiosity, he went to the passenger door and tried opening it, not surprised to find it locked. He leaned his forehead against the side, letting it bang once in frustration. He sighed and reminded himself that he couldn’t give up, not now.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
Kyle whirled, surprise widening his eyes as he pressed against the truck. The driver stood there with a cup of hot coffee steaming the air. The first thing Kyle thought was that he was tall; the second was that the man was so good-looking he could give angels a run for their money. Dark eyebrows slashed over intense, dark eyes. His nose sloped down, neatly, without any bumps to mar it. Lips full, ideal for kissing. High cheekbones gave an illusion of aristocracy. A beard lay flush to his skin. His face was heart shaped, the chin a blunted point, but there was no way this man would be called pretty. He was all strength and solid mass.
“I asked what the fuck you think you were doing to my truck?”
Kyle swallowed thickly. “Nothing,” he answered softly. The last thing he wanted to do was appear weak and guilty, but there wasn’t much wiggle room.
The man cocked his head. “Liar,” he said.
Kyle looked around, half wondering if he could outrun the trucker.
But the man interrupted his thoughts, slamming his palm against the truck’s side, trapping Kyle. And all of a sudden, Kyle’s heart hammered against his rib cage for an entirely different reason.
The position brought the man’s head in closer. Kyle couldn’t help himself; his gaze flickered down to lips that remained unsmiling, and the urge to bite and suck on the lower one almost brought him to his knees. Never before had desire slammed into him so powerfully it overwhelmed him.
Kyle blinked and forced his gaze away from his lips. He looked into the dark eyes that seemed to glow with amusement rather than anger.
“I need a ride,” Kyle whispered.
“I don’t do hitchhikers.”
That sentence had a wealth of implication behind it. Or so Kyle imagined.
“Please. Just take me as far as the state line.”
“How do I know you’re not an ax-wielding murderer?”
Kyle recoiled. He felt all the blood drain from his face. The man instantly lost his interrogating air and grabbed Kyle’s arm to steady him.
“Hey, I was kidding,” the trucker said.
“I wouldn’t hurt anyone,” Kyle replied firmly.
The stranger didn’t say anything as he studied Kyle’s eyes. Whatever he saw, it must have satisfied him, because he gave a brief nod and stepped back. “All right,” he said, surprising Kyle. “My name’s Delaney Vance. You can call me Del. My next stop is Richmond. That all right with you?”
For a moment dizziness swam through Kyle’s head. He wasn’t sure if it was because of the invitation or because he suddenly felt bereft without the closeness of Del’s body.
“You okay?” Del asked.
Kyle took a deep breath. “Yeah. My name is Kyle. Kyle...Smith. Thanks, thank you so much.”
At Kyle’s hesitation over his name, Del raised an eyebrow, but didn’t pursue the matter. “Sure.” He reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a set of keys, and hit the Unlock button. “Climb in.”
* * * * *
Del wondered what on earth had possessed him to invite the scrawny kid into his cab. He never, ever, picked up hitchhikers. But there had been something raw, something wounded in the kid’s vivid blue eyes that drew him in, and before he realized what he was saying, he had invited the kid aboard.
Del hoped that his impulsive gesture didn’t come back to bite him in the ass later.
He walked around to the driver’s side and hoisted himself up effortlessly. He watched Kyle out of the corner of his eye, noticing how the kid shivered a bit in the thin jacket. It made him wonder just how long he’d been waiting outside to stow away.
He had shaggy blond hair parted down the side and bangs combed over. Del could tell that the kid ran his fingers through it often. His intelligent eyes flared under the dull cabin light. He had a young body, defined but on the lean side. As Kyle sat down, he let out a long, admiring whistle. He stared behind the seats at the sleepaway cab area, which had been transformed from a regular rig into a minihome.
“Wow,” Kyle murmured, sounding impressed.
Behind the driver’s plush leather reclining seat, a shower and toilet had been added, completely tiled in with a drain reservoir under it. Behind the passenger seat, a tiny kitchen had been built, complete with a sink, microwave, minifridge and a hotplate. In the back was a table with bench seats and a bed above the dining area secured on steel lifts. Drawers and cabinets had been built into the wall, while a flat screen was mounted eye level with the bed.
“This is like your home,” Kyle finally said. “No wonder you don’t do hitchhikers.”
“It’s called a sleeper berth,” Del said, setting his coffee carefully in a holder. “One thing I can’t really stand is using facilities that are so...public.”
Kyle nodded. “I get it. I was in a dorm for a while and hated it. This is really cool!”
“A lot of truckers are converting their rigs, especially if they own it. I’m a contractor, so I really needed to feel comfortable.”
“Did you do the design?”
“I gave my input into what I wanted.”
He turned on the rig and let the engine rumble a few minutes to warm up.
“So, you’re like what, seventeen? Eighteen?”
“I’m twenty-four,” Kyle answered.
The surprise must have shown on Del’s face, because Kyle chuckled.
“Yeah, I get that a lot,” Kyle continued. “Sucks right now, but I suppose I’ll be glad of my youthful appearance when I’m fifty. You know, I was at a bar once and the bouncer told me that I could call the cops if my license was real.”
“Of course. My uncle--”
Kyle stopped suddenly, clamming up. He turned his head and stared out of the side window.
“Your uncle what?” Del probed, hoping to get Kyle talking again.
Kyle shrugged and cleared his throat. When he turned back to face Del, Kyle’s expressive eyes were blank. “How far is Richmond?”
Del studied Kyle for a moment. He wanted to press the issue because he had a suspicion that whatever was forcing Kyle to run had to do with this uncle. But sanity returned, reminding Del that he didn’t know Kyle and at Richmond the two of them would be parting ways. Did he really want to get involved with some type of family dispute?
So Del started his truck, leaving Kyle to his secrets.
“Just under three hours,” Del answered.
“Great,” Kyle replied. “Just super.”
Del shifted into gear and after a look in his mirrors, rolled out of the truck stop.
“Do you like music?” he asked.
Kyle shrugged. “Most all, I suppose. Whatever you want is fine.”
Del turned on the stereo and flipped through the CDs until he found what he wanted.
“Muse?” Kyle asked.
“Yeah,” Kyle admitted with a chuckle. “I guess I thought all truckers listened to country or, you know, Lynyrd Skynyrd.”
“Nothing wrong with Skynyrd.”
“I agree. Come on, ‘Free Bird’ and ‘Sweet Home Alabama’? Pure musical genius.”
Del shot him a quick, appraising look. “True, but man, that was one unlucky band.”
“One tragedy after another, but you know, sometimes tragedy brings out the creativity. Look at Rick Allen.”
It took Del a moment to place the name. “The drummer from Def Leppard?”
Kyle nodded. “Adversity. But genius.”
“Haven’t met many twenty-four-year-olds who could talk knowledgeably about old rock bands.”
They fell into an easy silence. The road thrummed along, vibrating the cab in a peaceful way. The lights from the road were calm. Kyle snuggled deeper into the chair.
“I see why people want to become truckers,” he murmured while yawning at the same time, which caused his words to slur together.
“There’s something soothing about this.”
Del shifted as he came behind another truck. “Soothing about what? Driving?”
“Not just driving. The lights reflecting back at you. The vibration of the cab. The glitter of stars looking down on you. It’s like...like being in your own world.”
“It’s sitting on your ass all day, trying not to get bored silly.”
Kyle laughed. “Yeah, I suppose it’s that too. Better than me, I guess. All I do is ring up CDs and books and stock shelves.”
“Is that where you got your knowledge of music?”
“Guilty. Sometimes working nights is so boring all you do is Google the info on bands.”
“Are you in college?” Del asked as he flipped on his signal to go around the truck in front of him.
“I graduated with an associate’s in business.”
“You want to go into business?”
“Hell no. I want to take pictures.”
Del shot him a surprised look. “A photographer?”
“I got this great idea. It’s called Oddities in Nature
“What sort of oddities?”
“You know, batteries in grass. A soda can in a tree. That type of stuff.”
“A pictorial book?”
“Yeah, something for the coffee table.”
“You got a camera?” Del asked.
“Yeah,” Kyle replied and pulled out his digital camera and stared at it.
Del shot a quick glance at him and saw the kid’s face bleed of all color, twisting his handsome features into something fearful and haunted. It was like seeing him turn into a ghost before his eyes.
“Kyle? You okay?”
Kyle licked his lips. Del watched as he carefully slid the camera back into his pocket and rubbed his temple. “Yeah. Just a little headache. My, ah, camera is nothing expensive, but it’s small and handy and I can capture some great shots. Nowadays the pixel resolution is so high that I don’t mind going to auto instead of using manual. Plus, it’s easy to retouch with Photoshop if I need to.”
“I have no idea what you said.”
“I admit I’m not tech savvy. I even still have a cell phone that has buttons to push.”
“That’s okay. A lot of older folks find smartphones a bit too much for them.”
“Who are you calling old?” Del said with a growl in his voice. “I’ll have you know I’m only thirty-seven.”
Kyle chuckled, and for a moment, he took Del’s breath away. His pale features lit up, draining away the pinched, scared look and transforming him into a very handsome man with dimples. Del’s mouth went dry, and he shifted in his seat.
What the hell?
Kyle Smith was a kid! Well, technically, he wasn’t jailbait, but still...way too young for him. But his body didn’t seem to be listening to his rational thinking, because his hard-on refused to go away.
Great. Just fucking great.
“Got any aspirin?”
“Sure,” Del said and flicked a hand at the console between them. “In there somewhere.
Kyle rooted around and came up with a bottle. He shook out two tablets and popped them in his mouth, chewing.
“Where are you headed after Richmond?” the kid asked after he swallowed.
“I’m picking up a load and heading off to California.”
“Do you ever get lonely?”
“Most people ask if I ever get bored.”
“Boredom can be fixed. Loneliness is like depression; it lingers too long and sucks the soul out of you.”
“Is that bit of wisdom from firsthand knowledge or a fortune cookie?”
Kyle grunted and yawned again. “Think I can get a job in writing them?”
“You do that often, I noticed.”
“Answer a question with a question, at least to the questions you don’t want to answer.”
Kyle shrugged, then leaned his head back. His eyes drooped, then opened, then drooped again. “Have no idea what you’re talking about,” he murmured drowsily, and a second later he said no more.
Del sighed but kept his mouth shut. He heard Kyle’s deep, even breathing. Why was he bothering to talk to him? He didn’t need distraction, especially from a gorgeous kid.
Del shook his head.
Shut up! he told himself.
Beth D. Carter