Head Out On the Highway
February 11, 2006
I awoke to a strange rattling sound. It was still early in the morning and I didn’t feel like getting up yet, so I put a pillow over my head and tried to go back to sleep. No dice. I got up and listened, then deduced that something had come loose in the air conditioner unit overnight and was bouncing around. The noise stopped after I kicked the machine, so I went back to bed for another hour or so.
When I decided to start my day, I went to the bathroom and then put on my shirt. While examining myself in the bathroom mirror, I noticed just how filthy my shirt was. I’d gone through several days wearing the same shirt, and I didn’t look very presentable wearing it. It would be best to buy some new clothes before setting out.
Check-out time was 11 am. I planned to get out earlier than that, but first I needed breakfast. Back to the room service menu. I ordered a short stack of pancakes with a large side of bacon and two scrambled eggs, with orange juice to drink. I handled the delivery as I had the night before, leaving the money outside the door. The hotel’s cooks earned their money. My breakfast was delicious.
The next order of business was to pack up and check out. I had no real luggage to speak of, so packing was easy. Once my pitifully few earthly possessions were safely tucked away in the Subaru’s trunk, I headed back to the office to check out. I frowned when I approached the front desk. Brad wasn’t working this morning; instead I was greeted by a blonde named Tiffany. How stupid of me to have expected to see Brad; he worked the night shift. “Good morning,” I said, setting my room key down on the counter. “I’d like to check out.”
Tiffany smiled. “Am I on Candid Camera?”
That caught me a bit off guard. “Umm ... no...” I recovered. “But ... we are filming a movie. The director asked me to find an actress who could convincingly do a hotel checkout scene for a new monster movie that should come out some time next year. I told him we could shoot it right here.”
“Oh, my,” Tiffany said, blushing. “I hope I’m qualified enough.”
“You’re fine,” I said, smiling. Anything to get myself out of there without her freaking out.
“But don’t I need, like, makeup or something?” she asked, starting to mess with her hair.
“No, no,” I said, holding my paws up to stop her. “You’re perfect as you are. We can shoot the scene right now.”
“Oh my God, this is so cool!” she squealed. “What do I do?”
I handed her the keycard. “Just act natural. I’m checking out of the hotel. You treat me like any other customer, even though I’m this weird-looking creature in grimy clothes. You don’t need a script, just ad-lib. Then I go on my way and the scene ends, okay? Think you can handle that?”
“Oh, sure,” Tiffany said, pushing up her bra with both hands. “When do we start?”
I turned and pointed down the hall at a maid’s cart. “We have a camera set up down there. See it?”
Tiffany nodded. “Okay,” I said. “Ready? Three ... two ... one ... and ... action!”
I clapped my paws together to “start” the scene. “Good morning, sir,” Tiffany said cheerfully. “Can I help you?”
“Yes, I’d like to check out,” I answered.
“All right,” she said, punching something in on her keyboard. She ran the keycard over a scanner and then put it into a drawer. “Did you have a pleasant stay with us?”
“Yes, I was quite comfortable,” I said, smiling. “The Jacuzzi massaged my tail nicely.”
“I’m glad to hear that, sir. Now, your room rate for the single night stay was $127 plus tax. Your total comes to $135.89.”
I dug the requested amount out of my pocket and paid Tiffany. “Keep the change,” I said, then looked back down the hall at the housekeeping cart. “And ... cut!” I looked back at Tiffany. “Great job, Tiffany.”
“You really think so?” she said, sounding hopeful. “I’ve always wanted to be in a movie.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her I had been bluffing, that her fifteen minutes of fame were a lie. I felt that I had to keep it up, though, or I might end up in serious trouble. “Yeah, you were great,” I said. “I’ll have my people call your people, hopefully within the next week or two.”
Tiffany was beaming from ear to ear. “Oh, and one more thing,” I added, “do you know of any good clothing stores near here? The ... um ... wardrobe department needs some new clothes.”
“Yeah,” Tiffany said, “there’s a mall about a mile or two down the road. They have some great stores. I love that place.”
“All right then,” I said. “Thank you very much, Tiffany, you’ve been a dream to work with.”
I extended my paw to shake her hand. She ignored my paw but leaned over the counter and hugged me instead. “No, thank you.”
“Um ... okay ... well,” I said, feeling a bit awkward, “I think we’re all finished here. Ciao!”
I made my way toward the door and headed for the parking lot. The Subaru started right up, but had to be idled for a few minutes to warm up the engine and defrost the windshield. After that, I was able to cross under the freeway and drive the two miles to the mall. Obviously I couldn’t just barge in without a story of some kind. It sucked having to lie to so many people.
I picked a parking space right outside one of the side entrances. It was a strategic move in case mall security got involved. I looked around to see if any people were watching, then took a deep breath and got out of the car. I pulled open one of the glass doors and was hit by a blast of warm air that, though it smelled a bit stale, felt good. A few people stared at me as I walked past them, but most were too busy with their consumerism to care much about me. I entered the first clothing store I saw, which turned out to be a very teen-oriented store – for girls. That certainly wasn’t what I was looking for. In my haste to leave that store, I stumbled into another one. It had casual menswear in stock, which suited me far better.
I padded into the store to sample the goods. Looking at the price tags, I could surmise that I wasn’t in the cheapest place around, but if a more upscale wardrobe helped keep people calm around me, it was worth it. I picked up a few shirts and two pairs of shorts that were my size, then proceeded to the checkout counter. The cashier was a sour-faced, dark-haired girl in her early twenties. She looked up and promptly said, “Who the hell are you?” in an indignant tone. “Is this some kind of joke?”
“No,” I said, “I’m a mascot for a new toy store that’s opening soon in this mall. The clothes that came with the costume look like crap. I need some new clothes so I won’t be scaring little kids away. I mean, look at me. Can you imagine dressing up in something like this and trying to use this get-up to sell toys?”
The cashier frowned some more. “Right,” she said sarcastically. “You expect me to believe that?”
I took a chance. “Actually, no,” I said. “I’m really an anthropomorphic fox who escaped from a science lab.”
“An anthro-po what?” she said, raising an eyebrow.
“Look, can you please just ring this stuff up?” I pleaded.
“Yeah sure, whatever,” she retorted, passing the clothes one by one over the scanner. “Your total’s $64.42.”
I gave her sixty-five dollars. The cashier grumpily made change and dropped the fifty-eight cents into my paw. She bagged up the clothes and handed them to me. I left the store feeling like I had accomplished something. I now had a change of clothes available to me.
On my way out of the mall, I attracted the attention of some children. They left their parents’ side and ran to me. A young girl hugged my leg and wouldn’t let go. The two boys thought that was very funny. “Hey,” I said gently but urgently, “let go. This isn’t Disneyland.”
The little boys continued laughing. The girl didn’t let go. Their parents didn’t do anything about it. Had the kids been adults, I might have taught them a lesson about personal space with my fists. But they weren’t adults, they were just dumb little kids under age six whose parents wouldn’t discipline them. It was Good Cop, Bad Cop time, and the Good Cop routine wasn’t working. Time for Bad Cop. I bent down and looked the little girl straight in the eye. “Kid, I’m warning you. Let go of my leg or else.”
The little brat stuck her tongue out at me. “Or else what?” challenged one of the boys.
I bared my teeth and growled at them as menacingly as I could. The girl let go immediately and all three kids ran crying back to Mommy and Daddy. I turned and headed for the exit.
Once back in my car, I turned up the heater warm enough that I didn’t need to wear the leather jacket Charlotte gave me while driving. My new clothes were packed safely in the back seat and I was feeling pretty good about things. The Subaru needed gas before I set out on the highway, so I pulled into a Sunoco station in town and waited until the mini-mart was empty before going inside to pay. The clerk eyed me warily until I flashed forty bucks and asked for pump number two. After that, gassing up the car was uneventful. I went back in to get my change and buy some snacks and a road map, and was soon on my way.
It appeared that my safest bet for driving across the state was the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Highway 76. The highway was relatively difficult to find; I would have missed the on-ramp had I not been paying extra-close attention to the road signs.
The turnpike had a toll plaza that covered all lanes, both entering and exiting. I paid the toll and got onto the highway. I drove for about an hour on the turnpike with little fanfare. The road was wide and well-groomed, and it was a scenic drive through the snowy countryside. The thing that bothered me about it, though, was that the turnpike only had exits every ten miles or so, and each was controlled by toll plazas. I would have a difficult time evading any pursuers should there be any.
About four miles beyond the sixth exit, traffic became very heavy. Then it stopped altogether. A quarter mile ahead around a gentle curve in the roadway, I could see flashing orange lights. It’ll clear, I thought. That’s probably just a tow truck attending to a stalled vehicle. Traffic’ll be moving again soon.
I squinted and looked at it more carefully. “Oh shit,” I said out loud.
That wasn’t a stalled car up ahead, it was an accident. And those weren’t flashing lights, the car was on fire! I pricked up my ears and heard approaching sirens in the distance. At that moment I realized that my ears were much more sensitive than a human’s ears. The people around me probably couldn’t even hear them yet. Emergency personnel were too far away to get there in time. Innocent people were undoubtedly in mortal danger. I had the sickening feeling that I was probably the one most qualified to do something about it. I may have been originally created to kill, but I also had training in lifesaving and enough strength to pull a person to safety.
I decided to take action of my own. I pulled out of my lane and into the emergency lane, then accelerated hard. Several cars were parked in the breakdown lane directly in my path. I steered onto the snowy hard shoulder and thanked God I bought a car with all-wheel-drive. The mass of stopped cars cleared about fifty feet behind the accident scene, which blocked both eastbound lanes. It was after I skidded to a handbrake-assisted stop that I fully realized the severity of the crash.
A dump truck had overturned across both eastbound lanes, spilling several tons of gravel on the pavement. The accident involved two other vehicles; a red Ford Escort compact station wagon and a mid-size pickup truck. The pickup had slammed into the dump truck and flipped over; its roof was crushed flat and the whole vehicle was on fire. It had already burned to the point that I couldn’t identify the make and model. No one could have survived that. The dump truck and the Escort were also on fire, the truck’s oily diesel fuel feeding flames that produced thick black smoke and intense heat. I got out of the Subaru and ran toward the fiery wreck as shocked onlookers watched. I couldn’t get close enough to the dump truck’s cab to rescue the driver; the flames were too hot. I could only hope that he had escaped the inferno already. There was no sign of life in any of the vehicles until I reached the station wagon. The small car was folded up like an accordion. The windshield was spiderwebbed with cracks and broken glass was all over the car. A woman sat hunched over the steering wheel, a deflated airbag in front of her. “Ma’am!” I called. “Can you hear me?”
She moved slightly and moaned. “I’m going to get you out,” I said. “You’re going to be all right.”
The fire was spreading, creeping closer and closer to the mangled Escort. I could smell gasoline dripping from its fuel tank. No one was going to be all right if I didn’t act fast. I pulled on the door handle; the door was jammed shut. I yanked harder. The door moved a fraction of an inch with a loud grinding sound. I grabbed the bent door frame and pulled for all I was worth. The door suddenly sprang free and threw me backward. I landed on my tail and it hurt like hell, but I had a mission to complete and I’d be damned if I was going to let this woman die. I looked inside the Escort. The car’s firewall was distorted and it looked like the woman’s right leg was broken. Her forehead was bloody from a cut somewhere above the hairline. She looked like she was not yet thirty. I gingerly lifted her head and her blue eyes met mine. “Don’t–” she started to gasp, “don’t let me die.”
“You’re okay,” I said hurriedly to comfort her.
I tugged on the seatbelt. It was stuck. I looked back at the flames now licking the Escort’s rear bumper, then back at the woman’s scared face. “I’m going to chew through your seatbelt, okay?” I said.
Her eyes went wide when I opened my mouth and showed my teeth, and she squirmed when I moved close to her. “Don’t panic,” I said firmly.
I bent down and held the seatbelt with both paws, then ripped at it with my teeth. It tasted salty from the blood stained on it. After what seemed like forever, I managed to tear the belt free and pull the injured woman out of the car. As I carried her to safety, she finally recovered her ability to speak coherently and revealed something that made my blood run cold. “My baby!” she cried out. “My baby’s in the car!”
Oh sweet Jesus. As if to make her statement painfully clear, I heard a piercing scream come from the wagon’s back seat. There was a child in there! I carefully set the woman down on the pavement and sprinted back to the car. The right side of the Escort was now ablaze, its plastic parts emitting noxious fumes as they melted. Fire surrounded the metal gas tank. I reached the left-rear passenger door and looked in through the window. Inside was a small boy of about four years, strapped into a child safety seat. The little boy was crying hysterically. “Mommmmmmmeeeeeeeeeeee!” he screamed.
It was a dicey situation if there ever was one. The car could explode at any moment. I jerked the door open and, summoning all my strength, ripped the booster seat right out of the car with the child still in it. I scooped him up and ran like hell, shielding him with my body. His mother lay on the asphalt looking on in horror as the car’s fuel tank ignited behind me. I felt a blistering wave of heat and was pelted by tiny pieces of metal and plastic that burned through my shirt and stung my back.
I handed the sobbing boy off to his grateful mother and collapsed on my back in the snow, panting. “It’s okay now, you’re safe,” I said to them, stopping to cough.
Several people ran over to offer assistance. “Get a first aid kit,” I said breathlessly. “Help these people first. They need immediate medical attention.”
An ambulance rolled up within minutes and paramedics jumped out to treat the accident victims and take them to the hospital. A few bystanders stood motionless, just staring at me. I tried to ignore them. “Is the truck driver all right?” I called out.
A man in a faded blue work shirt walked over to me and raised his hand. He was badly bruised and had a cut on his temple, “That’s me,” he said. “I managed to get outta my truck before the fire started. God, I had no idea it would be this bad...”
I looked past him at the three burning vehicles. Flames had almost completely consumed the Escort and the dump truck. Two fire engines arrived to battle the blaze. As firefighters hosed down the charred wrecks, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the unfortunate soul who’d been driving the pickup. Death is a scary thing. It takes some people suddenly and sometimes in horrible ways. I shuddered at the thought and turned back to the young mother who was hugging her son while paramedics prepared to load her into the waiting ambulance. There had been nothing I could do for the pickup driver, but I had saved the lives of these two. “Sir!” she called to me. “Come here, please.”
“Ma’am, we need to get you into the ambulance,” admonished the paramedic who had just finished bandaging the woman’s head. Another paramedic stood waiting with a gurney.
“I’m not going to die,” she said. “I want to talk to him for a minute.”
I did what the woman asked and walked over to her. “I don’t know who you are – or even what you are, no offense–” she said, tears welling up in her eyes.
“None taken,” I answered.
“–But you saved us both. Thank you so very much.” She burst into tears and hugged me. I wagged my tail for her son’s benefit. I was pleased to hear him giggle. It was good to hear a happy sound amid the chaos and pain and sadness.
“You’re welcome,” I said. “I should go now. I don’t want to attract attention to myself.”
“But...” she said, grabbing my shoulder as I turned to go, “at least tell me your name.”
“Fox Tayle,” I answered simply.
“My name’s Maryann Fletcher,” she said. “This is my son, Joey.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I said, “but really, I should go. I’m ... my car’s blocking traffic.”
I started to walk back to my car, which was indeed blocking traffic. Firefighters had nearly contained the blaze, and police were routing traffic around it. Maryann and her son were safe. The last thing I heard her say before I closed my car door was “We’ll meet again someday, I promise!”
I put the Subaru in gear and disappeared into the line of traffic crawling past the accident scene. The diminishing column of smoke became smaller and smaller in my rearview mirror as I drove away. It dawned on me that I had not said goodbye to them. In my hurry to leave the scene before news crews arrived or police tried to question me, I had neglected to say even a simple goodbye. It was the first time I had felt truly rotten all day.
I continued driving for three more hours, trying not to think about anything other than the road ahead. My stomach told me it was time to eat, so I tore open one of the bags of trail mix I bought at the Sunoco mini-mart and munched on that for a while. The sky turned a dark gray again, threatening snow. Car traffic thinned out as time went by, so that eventually large trucks made up most of what I saw on the road. I hadn’t had much to drink, but my bladder could take it no longer. I pulled over at a truck stop and used the facilities, changing my clothes to an outfit I bought at the mall in Pittsburgh. By now it was nearing dinnertime. I got some food from a vending machine outside, and ate it inside the car.
The sky was darkening fast. It would be night soon. If I didn’t find an exit and a place to spend the night, I’d be stuck sleeping in the car on the side of the road. I certainly didn’t want to be awakened by a Pennsylvania state trooper in the middle of the night. As before, exits were still few and far between, spaced at approximately ten-mile intervals – and every one of them had a toll plaza to go through.
Night fell. I turned on my fog lights to help the headlamps light the road in the darkness. The nearly-full moon was just a faint white glow through the gray clouds. No stars were visible. The highway ahead was mostly empty and very dark. The only lights I saw off to the sides were houses. I became worried. There weren’t any motels nearby. The turnpike was for long-distance travelers who were planning to go straight through to one of the major cities or another state. The only places to stop between tollbooths were truck stops. I supposed I could try to rest at one of them.
I passed a sign that said 120 miles to Philadelphia. What was in Philadelphia? I recalled reading somewhere about what happened there back in 1776, when the Founding Fathers of the United States got together to sign the Declaration of Independence there. I vaguely remembered quoting a few lines of that famous document to Agent Farley back at Andrew’s home in Alberta. It might be interesting to make a side trip to visit Philadelphia and see the Declaration in person. But that was a thing for another day. It was getting late and I didn’t feel like driving into the wee hours of the morning.
Coming up on the right were the bright lights of a truck stop. They were a beautiful thing to for my road-weary eyes to behold. I exited the highway and pulled into a dark corner in the rear of the truck stop, behind several parked eighteen-wheelers. I put on my leather jacket for warmth and shut off the lights and engine, then opened a second bag of trail mix and reclined the seat. After snacking a bit, I was ready to call it a night. I closed my eyes and waited for the blissful unconsciousness of sleep to sink in.
[ story by wannabemustangjockey (c) 2007 ]