This story is by Robert Lee Dixon and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
The two-lane highway cracked straight through the valley under wide flat clouds as heavy as slate.
Gary gripped the steering wheel with pudgy hands. He leaned forward, squinting to see the gravel crossroad in the dusk. He almost missed it.
This new tanker truck felt sluggish in the turns. Four thousand gallons of wastewater really weighed it down.
He missed his old big rig, the one he’d sold to buy the house. He’d worked that rig coast to coast, independent, living in the sleeper cab. No romance in this straight truck, though. He slogged this same old run four or five times a day.
After ten minutes bumping along a washboard gravel road the truck crested a low hill. Gary saw the disposal site a quarter-mile below. A short cyclone fence enclosed two tall silo tanks, a long wastewater pool, and Fat Red’s beat-up RV.
Gary downshifted and drove toward the open gate in the fence. He hoped the muddy road hadn’t iced up yet.
Something darted out from low bushes on the left. A huge white dog, like a wolf, sprinted into the road and turned to face him.
Gary slammed the brake pedal, felt the truck shift left into a slow inevitable slide. Time slowed.
He turned the wheel toward the slide to halt the spin. The tires bumped sideways over mounds of mud. He felt the truck tip. Then the brakes held and the tires thumped to earth. The truck stopped sideways by the fence, missing it by inches.
Gary looked back but the wolf was gone. He looked inside the fence and there was Fat Red in the open door of his RV, cussing.
Fat Red was nearly round. His graying red beard looked like iron gone to rust. His bulk filled most of the RV. He wrote in a checkbook on a tiny kitchen table swamped with papers.
Another driver, Chris, tall and lean with a brown ponytail and a billy-goat beard, leaned against cabinets. Gary felt like Chris’ opposite: old, short and bald.
“I didn’t see no dog,” said Red.
“A wolf!” said Gary. “Big white one. Right there in the road.”
“And you hit the brakes. Policy says drive right through ‘em. Better to flatten some dog or deer than crash our truck.”
“There’s no wolves around here anymore,” said Chris.
“You should know,” said Red. “Montana boy.”
Red tore off the check and held it up for Chris to grab. Red looked at Gary. “Better start dumping. They’re expecting you over at Melstone.”
Gary said, “I’ve been running twelve hours already.”
“Just one more run.”
Gary glanced at Chris. Chris shook his head, “I’ve got to get home.”
“You’ve got the big truck,” Red said to Gary. “Just one more run.”
Brackish green frackwater sluiced from the tanker’s hose into the wastewater pit. It smelled like low tide, all salt and oil and chemicals. They’d sucked it up from a half-mile down, and now they’d pump it deeper here and just hope it never cut loose.
While the truck drained Gary climbed a ladder to the top of its tank.
The sun dropped below the leaden clouds on its way to setting. A sliver of light brightened snow-dusted foothills and turned the wastewater pit into a sea-green lake with a rainbow sheen.
Gary called his old home number. He hoped Sara wouldn’t answer but she did.
“Why are you calling?” she said.
“You’re home early,” said Gary.
“No work. It’s Veteran’s Day.”
“Sorry, it’s all the same out here. Can I talk to Jaden?”
She hesitated. “I don’t like you calling him when I’m not here.”
“Good thing you’re there. Just let me talk to him.”
“No. There’s rules. You have next Saturday. Call him then if you’re still on the road.”
She hung up.
The sun fell below the hills and the frackwater pit looked dark and deep and mean.
Chris stood by the gate and waved at Gary to stop the truck.
“Catch a ride back to town?” Chris asked.
Gary shrugged. He moved empty Red Bull cans and protein bar wrappers so Chris could sit in the passenger seat.
Chris examined a wrapper while Gary drove. “800 calories,” said Chris. “You’ll be Fat Gary if you keep pounding this stuff.”
Gary laughed. “Just staying alive.”
Gary said, “My son’ll be as tall as you one day.”
“Yeah? How old?”
“Only eight,” said Gary, “but he’s taller than I was at eight. He’s why I’m doing this. Another year and I’ll get a new rig of my own.”
Chris gazed out the window.
“You really saw a wolf?” Chris asked.
“Heard about the Ghost Wolf?”
“Montana legend. A huge white wolf terrorized the ranches around here in the 1920’s. They raised posses and hunted that guy for decades. Cows and sheep kept dying, but not the Ghost Wolf.”
“Ha!” Gary laughed, “That was him!”
“No, they finally got him. Being hunted all those years wore him down.”
After a silence, Gary said, “Maybe this one’s his son.”
Hours later, the truck crested the low hill above the disposal site. It was dark except for the yellow windows of Red’s RV.
The tank seemed heavier this run, or maybe Gary was just punchy. It felt like those tons of frackwater were strapped on his back.
The truck gained momentum down the hill.
A pale shape moved in the corner of his eye. The wolf leapt into view, somehow lighter than the darkness, hit by a sliver of moonlight cutting through the clouds.
It ran to the road and turned to face him.
“Policy says drive right through ‘em,” Gary muttered. He accelerated.
The wolf sat down in the road, unafraid.
Gary couldn’t do it. He slammed on the brakes. The tires slid left on frozen mud. Time slowed.
The truck spun free, gliding, almost floating, and when it tipped Gary let loose a howl.