Haul

Haul

In Short Story by Alex Nichols

Haul

Interstate 70 was lousy with ghosts. It had been for a while. In fact, on one recent haul, Nathan didn’t see a single living truck driver except himself. Every time he glanced over into another cab, there was nothing there. Just another ghost, invisibly shifting gears, changing lanes, lugging cargo. It creeped him out every time.
Of course, Nathan knew these ghosts were actually just robots — not that this made it any less creepy to see an unmanned 80,000 pound vehicle barrel down the highway at seventy miles per hour. Hell, he reckoned, robots might be even creepier than ghosts. He’d seen a movie or two. He knew robots had a tendency to become self-aware, go rogue, kill all humans, etc. If one of those trucks turned Terminator, they’d probably smell Nathan’s meaty body and mow him over with terrifying ease.
These robots never went rogue, though. They did exactly what they had been programmed to do. Which was almost worse, because what they’d been programmed to do was the exact same job Nathan had been doing for the last thirty years, only better. Unlike Nathan, robots didn’t need to eat or sleep or piss or shit or jerk off when they got lonely. Most importantly, they didn’t need money. They weren’t even aware of the concept, which made him a little jealous if he thought about it.
On some unconscious level, Nathan related to the robots. His existence, not unlike theirs, was a series of subroutines. He’d driven the same route for the same company for decades, stopping at the same truck stops every time, always buying the same snacks (unshelled David sunflower seeds and Cherry Coke). He was regular down to the minute. When some part of his life changed — when one of his favored truck stops closed, when his wife left him, things like that — it usually shook him up for a while, but soon enough he’d adjust. He just had to subconsciously change a few lines of code and start the routine again.
On this particular day, Nathan was cruising westbound on ghost-infested I-70 with the usual twenty-three tons of synthetic meat in his trailer. He had reached the gently rolling Flint Hills, and today they glowed green thanks to a bright sun and a cloudless sky. Even as everything else about the world seemed to change, this part of the route felt the same as it had when he started driving decades earlier. There were none of those digital billboards that somehow knew his shopping habits, no massive server farms housed in bizarre glass structures that looked like they landed from outer space. It was all miraculously untouched by the future.
Nathan avoided looking into the haunted cabs of passing trucks, choosing instead to soak in the scenery, which was just as devoid of humanity, but much prettier. He imagined somebody who’d never driven through Kansas sitting next to him with a pleasantly dumb look on their face, remarking with genuine awe that they were expecting an endless flat expanse of sepia tone dust, not something that could almost pass for Ireland, like if you were shooting a movie that took place in Ireland but couldn’t afford to actually go to Ireland.
“Yeah, it ain’t too bad to look at, is it,” Nathan replied.
His attention was abruptly pulled away from this imaginary human to the unexpected presence of some real ones. They were packed into a severely rusted pickup truck, which was emerging rapidly from Nathan’s blind spot. Before the robo-ghosts started to take over the highway a few years earlier, Nathan had seen civilian vehicles as nuisances, reckless little bugs begging to be squished. These days, they were welcome sights. Still bugs, to be sure, but less like pests and more like bees pollinating his brain so that a modest flower, Ohyeahum otherpeopleexisttoois, would bloom. He liked to imagine who they were, where they were from, where they were going. He wondered if they felt as alone as he did.
As the pickup truck attempted to overtake his rig, Nathan realized that somebody was leaning halfway out of the passenger side window. It was a skinny shirtless kid, no older than fifteen, with a real, non-electronic cigarette dangling improbably from his lip. Most of the other people Nathan noticed on the highway sat in the backseat, hidden behind tinted windows, as the car did most of the work. But these kids, who were years younger than the truck they drove, had no desire to hide. They were defiant. They made Nathan wish he could be defiant. They made him wish he knew what to defy.
Nathan’s fascination quickly turned to panic. The pickup was nearly straddling the dashed line, and the smoking kid was too distracted by the playful taunts of the other three hooligans crammed into their two-seater to realize that he was very close to having his brains splattered all over Nathan’s oversized side mirror. Nathan placed his hand on the horn, but it was too late to honk; this would only startle the other driver, maybe even cause him to veer suddenly into the side of the semi. Nathan had no choice but to glide over onto the shoulder, where smooth pavement gave way to the sudden violent crunch of gravel.
The pickup truck passed and quickly shrunk ahead of Nathan, who anxiously slowed to a stop. He killed the engine and took a moment to contemplate the disaster he had just barely averted. The last thing Nathan needed was any sort of accident, even if it wasn’t his fault. The company he drove for, as stubbornly traditional as it was, would finally realize that there was less risk (and more profit) with the robo-ghosts. His three decades of work experience would be rendered completely useless. His only options would be to sign up for a coding bootcamp or go on unemployment, which nowadays mostly consisted of vouchers for coding bootcamps. When he tried to picture what his life would look like without the only job he ever knew, all he could see was oblivion.
Nathan took a deep breath (breath, another thing the robo-ghosts didn’t have to bother with) and turned the key again. He started to shift into gear when he noticed an amber glow among the intricate tapestry of circles and numbers and multi-colored lights that made up his dashboard. The icon came into focus: Tire pressure low. A screw or some scrap metal must have been lurking among the gravel.
He looked at the clock above his radio. He was falling behind schedule, and fast. He could either risk a blowout by pushing ahead to his programmed stop in Colby, where a machine could change the tire for him, or change the tire manually and risk having to use an unfamiliar toilet in an unfamiliar stall in the unfamiliar restroom of an unfamiliar truck stop. The former risk seemed to outweigh the latter in terms of severity, albeit only slightly, and so he switched on the hazard lights, grabbed a pair of crowbars from beneath his seat, hopped down from the cab, and got to work.
Nathan hadn’t been much for manual tire changes even when he was in relatively good shape, but now his pronounced gut and weakened knees proved especially cumbersome. The grueling April heat didn’t help, either. It took him nearly half an hour to pry off the flat tire, pull the spare tire rack out from under the chassis, roll the spare over to the naked wheel rim, and force the spare over and onto the rim with a series of kicks and grunts and frustrated crowbar yanks. He reached for his phone to check the time, but before his hand had a chance to dip into his jeans pocket, his bowels gave him the answer: it was time to go to the bathroom. Nathan grabbed his crowbars, climbed into the cab, and shifted into gear faster than he ever had in his life.
This was the downside of being so regular: if you weren’t near a toilet when it was time to go, loud internal alarms would start blaring, with only one way of getting them to stop. As he sped ahead, weaving around other semis and the occasional civilian vehicle in a desperate search for the next exit with a rest stop, he recalled the time, years ago, when he had tried to resolve a similar situation on the side of the road, resulting in an incredibly awkward interaction with a bemused highway patrolman. “Just don’t do a dookie on my highway again,” the patrolman had muttered between stifled chuckles and exaggerated dry heaves. In that moment, he would have preferred jail.
Eventually, Nathan saw a small wooden billboard advertising a truck stop in Ogallah. He staved off the sinking pressure in his gut, gritted his teeth, and made his way over to the Ogallah exit. It occurred to him that he must have driven past this exit a thousand times without once taking it. It was like he was discovering a strange and foreign land just off the highway.
When Nathan pulled into the truck stop parking lot, he thought he might be in the wrong place. There were no electric charging stations, no automated tire changing machines, none of the amenities one would expect from a modern truck stop. There were just four old gas pumps, one of them covered in decaying duct tape. The store was a squat white building with fading red trim and a hand-painted sign above the opaque glass door that said OGALLAH PUMP ‘N’ SNACK. Nathan prayed that they had a functional toilet and pushed through the door, which rang an actual, physical bell as he entered.
Between the jangling of the bell and the constant stream of hold it, hold it blaring in his head, Nathan almost didn’t hear a woman’s voice say “Welcome, stranger.”
The sound of it stuck his boots to the grungy tile floor. Even the most rundown side-of-the-road dumps in rural Kansas were fully automated by now, reducing them to walk-in vending machines. Could it be that this one actually had a human at the register? He turned slowly, as if moving too fast would make her dissolve into the air.
“Let me know if you need help finding anything,” she said when Nathan finally made eye contact. She was indeed an actual human, with sun-beaten skin and frayed brown hair down to her shoulders. Her face was creased with remnants of every emotion she’d ever felt, and her teeth were blinding white but jumbled like a smashed piano. She was either a pretty good sixty years old or an extremely rough thirty. Her nametag said GAIL.
It took what felt like a long while for Nathan to process what Gail had said. All he could hear in his head was a faint buzz. It occurred to him that he hadn’t spoken directly to another person in six months. Could that be possible? His routine allowed for it: leave his dark empty house, drive across the country, drop off cargo in an automated warehouse, pick up more cargo, drive back across the country, drop off cargo in another automated warehouse, go back to his dark empty home. No friends, no bowling league, no social life. No family that was both alive and willing to spend time with him. Six months. Six months!
Suddenly, his gut punched him in the throat. He realized he did, in fact, need help finding something. He refocused on Gail, still smiling her cubist smile, and opened his mouth. The word flopped out like a fish.
“Shitter.”
Gail laughed. Nathan hadn’t heard another person laugh in at least nine months. She pointed to a little hallway tucked away next to a wall of soda fridges.
“Right over there, hon.”
Nathan tried to say thanks but accidentally bowed. Then he waddled as quickly as he could to the men’s room. He burst into the handicap stall, not even bothering to close the door behind him. The instant his ass hit the toilet seat, he unloaded.
When it was over, he washed his hands and looked in the mirror. Somebody had etched the word FUCK in the corner with a pocketknife. He noticed his own face, how he looked like a pubescent mountain man, his long, scraggly, patchy beard covering up his two chins, neither of which was particularly well-defined. His beat-up light blue Royals cap matted down his thinning grey-black hair, which snuck out over his ears and blended with the hair that poked out of them. His nose hair was untrimmed, his pores were huge, his skin was red and splotchy. In high school, he’d been the skinniest kid in class, but now, after decades of sitting for a living, he looked and felt heavy.
He removed his hands from the sink and the water shut off. He put his hands into the dryer and the air turned on. Small act of vandalism aside, the restroom was spotless. Next to the dryer was a laminated sheet of paper — a log of who had cleaned the bathroom and when, written in dry erase marker. For each entry, the name was the same:
GAIL
GAIL
GAIL
GAIL
GAIL
Nathan walked out of the restroom, unburdened by intestinal discomfort but painfully aware of Gail’s presence. He looked at her out of the corner of his eye and saw that she was just standing there, smiling, looking at nothing in particular. Did she stand all day long? How many people came in on a daily basis? Even if the entire town of Ogallah stopped by regularly, it couldn’t be a very high number. Nathan quickly found his Cherry Coke in the fridge, grabbed his sunflower seeds, and walked to the register. Gail smiled. Nathan winced.
“Did you find everything ok?” she asked.
It took Nathan a second to realize he was supposed to say something. “Yeah, sure.”
Gail punched a few keys on the rickety register. The gun-shaped barcode scanner lay broken and lifeless on the counter. She read out the total and Nathan handed her a ten dollar bill. She paused and looked at it, bemused, like he’d tried to pay with a wet leaf.
Gail hit another key and the cash drawer sprung open. She deposited the bill, scrounged together some coins, and poured them into Nathan’s hand. Her callused finger briefly brushed Nathan’s sweaty palm. First human touch in at least twelve months. He grunted.
“What’s that, hon?” Gail leaned in.
Nathan looked up, horrified that Gail had heard his bizarre reflex. He mumbled goodbye and got back to his truck as fast as he could. His heart felt like it was trying to bust through his sternum, tear open his rib cage, escape his chest and run away. But it stayed in its place. It just kept beating, and beating, and beating…

Once, when he was thirteen, Nathan asked his dad if he could tag along on one of his routes. Reluctantly, his dad said yes, on one condition: “Don’t bitch when it gets boring.”
It got boring, but Nathan didn’t bitch. He talked to his dad about school until the conversation ran dry. He listened to the radio until the songs started to repeat. He looked out the window at the looping landscape.
“So this is it, huh,” Nathan said.
“Yep,” his dad said.
When they finally got to their first stop of the route, Nathan’s dad came alive. He chatted up cashiers and slapped fellow truckers on the back. He made jokes. He laughed.
“That’s what keeps me sane,” his dad said as they walked back to the truck. “Uh, and coming home to you and your mom, of course.”
When it came time to figure out what to do with his life, Nathan realized he didn’t have many options. He liked sports, but he was bad at them. He was better at school, but not good enough to do much more than graduate it. And so, he took a job with his dad’s old company and settled into the familiar, bearable mundanity of truck driving.
The job was boring, but Nathan still didn’t bitch. The road was lonely, but the impromptu truck stop get-togethers that had always kept his dad sane did the same for him. He met a woman, got married, tried to start a family, couldn’t. His life was functional and adequate.
But then the truck stop cashiers were replaced with virtual kiosks, and before long the truckers were replaced, too. At first, they were replaced with college kids in school-logo hoodies and plaid pajama pants, who earned credit hours and built their resumes by sitting in trucks as the robots drove, ready to perform an emergency debugging if necessary. At the newly automated truck stops, they’d huddle together in diner booths, hunched over their company-issued laptops, an impenetrable mass from another world.
Nathan tried to be sociable. He’d sidle up and remark on the storm clouds rolling in, or ask about their rigs, but he was never met with much more than a pursed-lip smile, the sort of smile you smile at someone when you don’t know why they’re talking to you but you don’t want to be an asshole. After the briefest acknowledgement of his existence, they’d return their attention to the apps they were developing or the computer game they were silently playing together.
Eventually, even the college kids disappeared, taking their Ivy League degrees to shiny tech campuses and leaving the truck stops even emptier than before. There was no longer any respite from the loneliness, no oasis of humanity. Nathan’s company cut pay to keep up with their high-tech competitors, forcing him to go on more routes with less downtime. When he was home, he was irritable and rude, lashing out at his wife for the smallest of things. One day, he returned home to find that she hadn’t gone grocery shopping yet, and he malfunctioned. He pulled out all the food that was still in the fridge and threw it across the kitchen as she sobbed in the backyard. The next day, she was gone.

This rush of memory may have led Nathan to some sort of grand realization if his mind weren’t subsequently numbed by the tedium of the rest of his route. As Kansas flattened out and bled imperceptibly into eastern Colorado, his heart rate slowed. The intense familiarity of his surroundings, the unending hours of sameness, and the brief nap he took outside Denver conspired to push the Gail incident far away by the time he got to the warehouse in Provo. And then it was back east, back to his dark, empty house. Back to normal.

It was his next time west when the subconscious shift in Nathan’s routine became apparent. He made it most of the way across Kansas without incident and was right on target to take his usual break in Colby when he noticed himself looking for the Ogallah exit. He had only the faintest understanding of why he was letting himself abandon his schedule with no regard for logic, comfort, or regularity — until he pushed through the front door of the PUMP ‘N’ SNACK and heard the bell jingle. Suddenly, he felt gravity trying to pull his insides out through his ill-fitting jeans. Gail’s voice made the same shape as before: “Welcome, stranger!”
It was like coming-to after blacking out. Nathan turned around, and this time, he managed a smile.
“Oh, now weren’t you in here not too long ago?” Gail asked.
“Sure was,” Nathan somehow said. “Gail, right?”
Gail looked exactly as she had the first time, right down to the way her split ends rested on her slightly hunched shoulders. Even her baggy red and white polo shirt seemed to be wrinkled in the same places.
“That’s right,” she said. This was, suddenly, a rapport. Nathan didn’t even have a guess as to how many months it’d been since he’d had anything close to a rapport with anyone. “And what was your name again, hon?”
“I don’t think I ever said,” Nathan said. “I kinda was in a rush.”
“Oh yeah,” Gail said. “Shitter.” She threw her head back and laughed. Nathan could see every one of her bright teeth and how they leaned against each other consolingly. He tried to laugh too, but he coughed instead.
“Yeah, sorry about that,” he said. “Pretty rude of me, I guess.”
“Oh, I’ve heard much worse, believe me,” Gail said. “Mostly from my kids, but still.”
Nathan couldn’t think of a response fast enough. He wanted to ask her about her kids, her job, her life, but his brain couldn’t come up with the words.
Instead, he went back to the shitter. He sat on the toilet for what felt like a reasonable amount of time, and then he got up, flushed, and washed his hands. The bathroom cleaning log was another long list of nothing but GAILs.
He attempted a casual walk out of the restroom and pretended to browse the aisles for a minute or so before grabbing his seeds and soda. He built up enough confidence to perform a full-on mosey to the counter and even made eye contact with Gail as he handed over the goods. They completed the transaction, and this time he barely made a sound when her finger glanced his palm.
“Alright, well,” Nathan said.
“Yep, drive safe,” Gail said.
Nathan made his way to the door. As the bell above jingled, Gail leaned over the counter and called out: “Is that your truck out there?”
Nathan stopped. He straddled the threshold between outside and in, elbowing the heavy glass door open. Did she say something?
“Did you say something?” Nathan said.
“That’s your truck, yeah?”
Nathan looked outside as if he needed visual confirmation.
“Oh. Uh, yeah. Sure is.”
“We don’t see a lot of truckers here anymore,” Gail said.
Nathan waited for Gail to say more, but she didn’t.
“Ah. Yeah.”
Gail re-smiled, prompting Nathan to nod vaguely. Then he started walking toward his truck, letting the door swing shut behind him. The parking lot was empty except for dust, and seemed to expand to the horizon in every direction.
“Nice lady,” he said.
He climbed into the cab and made his way west. Somewhere between Kanorado and Arriba, he noticed how his protruding belly jiggled along with the road. He pulled his seat belt up in an effort to keep his stomach still, but it slipped right back down to his abdomen. The ride to Provo smoothed out his mind again, and the hum of the engine replaced his thoughts.

Soon, as per the routine, Nathan was home, sprawled out on his couch, watching baseball. It was nighttime, and his TV provided the only light in the room. The pitcher fired a fastball into the catcher’s mitt, and a sophisticated radar-based umpiring system that had been scientifically proven to be 99.99% accurate declared it a strike.
“C’mon,” Nathan said. “That was outside.”
A few innings later, a strange sound emanated from somewhere. It took a few repetitions of the shrill, tinny tones for Nathan to realize it was his phone. He had some trouble digging it out from under a pile of drone-delivered pizza boxes but managed to pick it up before the final ring. He paused the game and gurgled “Hello?” through a mouthful of Cherry Coke he hadn’t quite swallowed yet.
“Nathan? It’s Trav.”
Trav was the son of Travis Sr., the man who’d hired Nathan thirty years ago. He had never met Trav, and had only ever communicated with him via work email, but he didn’t much care for the kid anyway. Trav’s smarmy, MBA-tinged phone voice only reinforced Nathan’s opinion.
“Yeah?”
“Hey, bud. Sorry to be calling you so late, is this a good time?”
Nathan shrugged.
“Nathan?”
“Yeah.”
Trav cleared his throat.
“Hey, so, I know this is weird, but we’re having an all-hands tomorrow morning,” the younger Travis continued. “I wanted to call you to make sure you knew. Mandatory for all drivers.”
“Okay,” Nathan said. “And what’s it about?”
“Just some changes at the company,” Trav said. “Can you be there? 8 AM.”
“I got a shipment tomorrow,” Nathan said.
“Don’t worry about that. Bring your cab.”
“I don’t have a car, so, yeah.”
“Perfect. Thanks, bud,” Trav said. The line went dead.
Nathan tossed the phone aside and unpaused the game. He watched one more pitch and immediately paused it again.
“Shit,” he said.

The next morning, Nathan piled into his trailer-less cab, well aware of what was about to happen. Trav had convinced his old man to catch up with the times and go automated. Nathan would be replaced by a ghost, or a robot, or whatever, and he’d be out of a job. No job, no prospects. A routine replaced by a vacuum, with nothing to fill it.
Nathan drove through a labyrinthine business park and pulled into the parking lot of his company’s corporate office, where he hadn’t been in years. He was surrounded by fake grass and manmade ponds and big concrete boxes filled with people who still had jobs. He watched other drivers, men and women he used to know years ago, trudge across the parking lot silently. They knew, too. They knew, and yet they went into the office anyway, like if cows knew what a slaughterhouse was but figured they had nowhere better to go.
It was then that Nathan realized he did have somewhere better to go. He turned the engine back on, put the truck into gear, and peeled out of the parking lot, leaving big, desperate skidmarks in his wake. He was heading for Ogallah.
This time, he realized exactly what he was doing and why. He needed to talk to somebody, and that somebody had to be Gail. The part of his brain he could hear clearly told him it was because they had an established rapport, because she was a nice lady, because who else would it be? But somewhere deeper, where his thoughts sounded more like underwater murmurs, he knew that Gail was the only person on earth who could pull him from the brink of oblivion, because she was there, too.
Without the usual cargo, Nathan was twenty-three tons lighter, and he sailed down I-70, often nearly 15 MPH over the limit. For hours, he practiced the questions he wanted to ask and imagined the answers. Gail had three kids, two of them grown and one of them just out of high school. She used to work at a plant and made pretty good money, until it shut down. She liked her current job okay, but it did get lonely, and she’d be fine with not having a job if it paid well enough. She likes baseball, too. Her oldest son once had a minor league tryout with the Cubs. Her daughter went through a rough patch a couple years ago, but now she’s cleaned up. Her youngest wants to go to community college and then transfer to K-State. No, their dad isn’t in the picture. Yes, she is single, why do you ask…
Nathan realized the Ogallah exit was fast approaching. He abruptly jerked over into the right lane and cruised up the ramp. The mere prospect of small talk was forcing gallons of adrenaline through his partially clogged arteries.
He pulled into the PUMP ‘N’ SNACK parking lot and jumped out of the cab. The building had apparently gotten a fresh coat of paint. He pushed through the front door, heard the jingle, heard a voice. But the voice was different. It was friendly and light, like Gail’s, but it had a slight metallic tinge to it. The words were either whispered right in his ear or shouted through a bullhorn from a mile away, it was impossible to tell. And those words were:
“Hello! Welcome to the Ogallah Pump ‘N’ Snack by Texaco.”
Nathan turned to find an ultra high definition TV screen sitting on the counter Gail had stood behind. On the screen was a young, chipper blonde girl who looked like a character from an old Pixar movie. Her animated hair rested gracefully on her animated shoulders, and she wore an animated red and white polo shirt identical to Gail’s, which was drawn to fit her ideal figure perfectly. Her waist cut off at the bottom of the screen, where a glass plate lay embedded in the counter, bisected by a thin red laser that was ready to read some barcodes.
Nathan looked around in shock. The whole place had been renovated. There were new hot dog rollers, new drink stations, new donut cases. Every aisle was clean and stocked full. He once again felt something pull on his stomach, but this time it was sorrow. He mourned for the light conversation he never had, for the friendship he never developed, for the new life he never started in this tiny highway town— wait. Somebody still had to clean the shitter, right? It’s not like this prissy little cartoon at the counter could jump out of her screen to scrub the toilets. Maybe Gail was in there, right now, waiting for Nathan to rescue her from the urine-scented monotony of her life. He opened the bathroom door carefully and peeked inside.
What he saw was not Gail, but some sort of wet-dry Roomba contraption squeaking around the tile floors and a small army of little spider-like robots crawling around under the urinal, apparently ready to converge on and eliminate any drop or stain that tarnished the porcelain. He gently poked open the stall door with his boot and saw another group of spider-cleaners squatting at attention. The cleaning log by the mirror was now gone, but the mirror itself hadn’t been replaced. Down in the corner, Nathan could still see the lone expletive some stranger had seen fit to engrave on the glass:
FUCK
Gail was gone. For all he knew, Gail had never even existed. Maybe he’d gone crazy. At this point, he’d have no way of knowing whether he was crazy or sane. Everything felt the same.
Nathan left the bathroom and bolted for the front door.
“Have you tried one of our new fresh ‘n’ ready hot dogs?” the fake girl at the counter asked. Nathan ignored her and hurried outside, letting the bell jingle and the door slam shut behind him.
“Hope to see you again soon,” the fake girl said to no one.
Back in his truck, Nathan decided what to do next. Look for Gail? Go back to the office and face his fate? Go back to the office and burn it down? No. He only had one command. He only ever had one command.
He drove west.
He drove west on I-70, as he always had. He drove across Kansas into Colorado. He drove without thinking to stop for gas, without thinking much at all.
Eventually the gas tank emptied, the hybrid battery drained, and he glided past exit 254, coming to a gradual stop on the parched grass that covered the median. The Continental Divide was in full view ahead of him, and though he’d driven through it hundreds of times, from this distance, it looked new.
Nathan sat in his truck and watched the sky darken. He watched the vast mountains fade into shadows. One moment he could still see the faintest outlines of their craggy peaks and valleys, and the next moment they were gone.

About the Author

Alex Nichols

Alex Nichols is a graduate of the University of Kansas, where he studied English Literature and Creative Writing. He is currently an education services writer living in Boulder, Colorado