The Hardest Lesson

My daddy put the “good” in good old boy. He was hardworking, stoic, and he kept his mouth shut unless there was something that needed saying. All he wanted out of life as to drive his trucks, make his living, and take care of his wife and kids; the rest was just background noise.

I used to like to join him on his shorter hauls, the ones that were just going across state. It gave us some Guy Time, which we didn’t get much of back home with Mama and my three sisters. Just me, Daddy, and hours of open road. Sitting up in the cab of his big rig, looking down at all the smaller cars below us, made me feel tall. It made me feel important.

Daddy made sure to keep me grounded, though. He used those drives to share his quiet wisdom with me, which I didn’t always immediately understand or appreciate, but that I always recognized as being Important.

“You mind nobody’s business but your own, Sawyer. World’s a hard enough place without judging each other all the time. You don’t know their story, you don’t get to decide what kinda folk they are.”

“Be respectful to everybody, ain’t nothing good come from flapping your gums, but if it comes down to it and they’re begging for a lesson, you lay them low and you lay them quick and then you walk away. You never wanna start something, but you can damn well finish it.”

“If you can help someone, do it. Don’t be one of them gawkers on the sidelines. You want somebody to be there for you, you gotta be willing to do the same.”

There was something almost magic about listening to Daddy’s slow, southern drawl over the truck’s rumbling while the sun set in our rear view mirror and I’d look up at him and think he had to be the smartest man around.

Other than the conversations with Daddy, my favorite part of riding with him was the truck stops. Back then, they were small diners with big lots and a couple showers out back, nothing fancy, but we didn’t need anything more. On our regular routes, I knew a lot of the waitresses on a first name basis and was familiar with a lot of the other truckers, but there were some roads we didn’t go down much, and those were the most exciting. It was like an adventure every time we took a turn I didn’t recognize!

On this particular run, Daddy almost didn’t take me. It was one I’d never accompanied him on and I was eager to go, but he seemed hesitant.

“Weather ain’t supposed to be great,” he said.

“I don’t mind!” I replied.

“Gonna be bumpy; roads are worn.”

“That’s ok!”

“It’s a long one, Sawyer.”

“I’ll bring a book. C’mon, Daddy, please?”

Daddy eyeballed me for a long moment, his mustache bristling slightly as it always did when he was deep in thought, and finally, he nodded.

We left the next afternoon after an early supper. Mama stood on the porch and waved us out of the driveway as we headed to the depot to pick up the trailer we were going to be hauling.

There’s something real nice about nighttime driving. The world’s dark and quiet and, out on those old country highways, it often feels like you have it all to yourself. Daddy would turn on one of his cassettes and he’d mumble along with it under his breath, the words getting half lost in his mustache, and I’d rest my head against the window and watch the road pass quickly beneath us.

We got four hours into the trip before Daddy had to pull into a stop. A bad back and a bum leg made it so he couldn’t sit for as long as he used to and we’d have to get out so he could move around and work out all the kinks that’d settled in his joints. The lot was almost empty when we rolled up; there were a few trucks scattered about and I could see a couple folks sitting in the 24 hour diner, but otherwise, it was just me and Daddy.

As we parked, I couldn’t help but notice the almost nervous glances he kept shooting around from beneath the brim of his baseball cap that he always wore, even after it got dark.

“Something the matter?” I asked while unbuckling my seatbelt.

“No,” he said, “just keeping an eye out.”

“For what?”

“Nothing. You want a snack?”

We hopped out of the cab and started for the diner. Daddy’s hand rested on my shoulder while we walked and I grinned up at him. We’d just about made it to the door when I noticed a lady leaning against the wall, all the way down at the corner. She was dressed in what Mama would have called “little more than a smile”, and smile she did as we approached.

“Heya, Tuck,” she said in a purr.

“Tawny,” Daddy replied, touching his fingertips to the brim of his cap.

“That your son?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You a good boy?” She asked me. When her dark eyes came to rest on me, I shuffled shyly against Daddy’s side, which made her giggle softly.

Daddy’s fingers tightened just a bit around my shoulder. “Yup.” He said.

“That’s good, Tuck, that’s real good.”

“Sure is. You take care now, Tawny.”

“Always.”

I’d heard other truckers talking about girls like Tawny. They called them lot lizards; they hung out at truck stops and liked to keep the truckers company. When I’d first heard the term, I thought it sounded pretty neat and asked Daddy if I could be a lot lizard when I got older; I liked keeping him and his pals company, it made sense! Daddy had almost bust a gut laughing so hard, and when he had me repeat it to Mama, she turned bright red.

After he’d wiped his eyes and calmed down, he told me not to call them that.

“It’s not a nice phrase,” he said. “We dunno why the ladies like that do what they do, but we ain’t gonna be making any assumptions, are we, Sawyer? You just call ‘em by their names if you know ‘em, be polite, and mind your own business.”

I still didn’t know what a “lot lizard” was or what they did, but if Daddy said it wasn’t a good thing to call somebody, then I wasn’t gonna say it.

We left Tawny leaning against the building and went into the diner. While Daddy grabbed a coffee, I walked the length of the counter to the restroom. It was dated and dingy inside, but had the very specific truck stop charm I’d come to know and love. The two waitresses working smiled and called us “hon” and the truckers nodded and I felt right at home.

When I came back out, Daddy was chatting with another guy at the counter over steaming mugs. I sat beside them for a while, but lost interest in whatever they were talking about pretty quickly and decided I wanted to run back out to the truck to grab my book. I didn’t bother saying anything to Daddy; I’d only be gone a minute, I doubted he’d even notice.

I slid off the stool and left Daddy to his coffee and conversation.

Tawny wasn’t standing beside the diner anymore when I got back outside. She was over by a truck that must have pulled in when I was using the bathroom, smiling and laughing at its young driver. She glanced at me as I jogged past and I mimed touching the brim of a hat to her, same as Daddy had done, but her attention was back on the trucker pretty quick.

My book was in the sleeper portion of the cab and I had to rifle through my duffel to get it out. I checked to make sure my bookmark was still in place and then crawled back out.

The trucker and Tawny weren’t by the cab anymore when I passed by again.

Instead, I caught sight of them going around the side of the diner. The trucker seemed to be dragging Tawny and she was tugging at her arm, trying to pull it away from him. Her smile was gone.

“Stop it,” I thought I heard her say.

At nine years old, I was more curious than concerned. I knew adults had disagreements and sometimes liked to talk about them in private, but I’d never seen a man pull a woman along like that before. When Mama and Daddy had their arguments, they left the room together, sure, but he’d never laid a hand on her like that.

Mama also never said no like Tawny did as she disappeared from sight.

I lingered in place, torn between going to tell my daddy what I’d seen and wanting to check on Tawny myself. Daddy always said to mind our own business, but he also told me to be ready to help other people. If they were just two grown ups talking, I didn’t want to interfere and risk getting in trouble myself, but if Tawny had said no, then the trucker should have let her go!

When I heard Tawny say no again, a little louder than before, I crept along the wall towards the side of the diner. I’d just take a little peak, make sure she was ok.

A brief scuffle and a short, frightened cry made me pause again, but when silence followed, I gathered my courage again and poked my head around the building.

It was dark out there, lit only by the glow from the street lights in the parking lot. I could make out two shapes in the gloom, one on top of the other. The one on the ground wasn’t moving. Over the sound of my quickening heartbeat, I heard a strange, wet crunching sound that reminded me of my dog chewing on a cow bone.

As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I realized it wasn’t Tawny lying there, so still.

It was the trucker.

Tawny was crouched on top of him. At least, it was a thing that resembled Tawny. It had the same cropped top and cut off jean shorts, the same boots with pink accents, the same long, dyed red hair, but this…thing’s head had split vertically, clean down the middle, and a row of long teeth glistened even in the dim light. As I watched, it dipped down and tore a chunk of flesh out of the trucker’s stomach.

A squeal of terror that I hadn’t even been aware of erupted out of my mouth.

The creature that Daddy had called Tawny twisted suddenly, its split head releasing a hiss, and those dark eyes she’d fixed on me earlier rolled towards me again.

I screamed properly that time. My book fell from my hand and I scrambled back towards the diner’s door, away from Tawny and the unmoving trucker. I was sure she’d be behind me, pursuing me, trying to sink her teeth into me, and it made me cry out again, desperately wailing for my daddy.

He caught me in his arms at the door and yanked me inside.

I pointed and shouted that the lady ate the man, but Daddy just carried me to the counter and sat with me on his lap and told me gently to shush, that it was ok. The other truckers and waitresses carried on with barely a glance towards us.

“Daddy, Tawny, she-she…” I couldn’t even say the words. I’m not even sure I had them at the time. What I’d just seen was too far outside of the sheltered realm of my childhood.

“Don’t pay no mind to Tawny,” he said quietly.

“But she —”

“She been here a long time, Sawyer,” he kept his voice low and soothing and I could see him trying to decide how much he wanted to tell me. “As long as you don’t bother her, you don’t gotta be afraid of her.”

“But there was a guy!”

“There are lots of guys, son, and they ain’t all good.”

There were women in the world, Daddy told me, who had to do things that could be dangerous in order to get by. Women who looked like Tawny and hung out at truck stops, waiting to keep the truckers company. Sometimes, bad things happened to those women, but because of what they did, most people didn’t care and nothing was done.

And nothing is exactly what had been done when a 20 year old girl with dyed red hair in a crop top, cut off jeans, and boots with pink accents went missing twenty years before.

She’d been working around the truck stop for a couple months when she disappeared. People agreed it had to have been one of the truckers, but trying to track down which one it was was viewed as a waste of time and resources.

Tawny McMichaels was all but written off and forgotten.

Right up until the rumors started. People who knew of her claimed that they’d seen Tawny at truck stops all over the state, although the one we were at, where she’d disappeared from, was the most popular place; always wearing the same thing, always after dark. She was friendly, they’d say, but never approached anyone. She let them come to her.

The older guys, the ones who’d been on the job awhile like Daddy, steered clear of Tawny. They were a superstitious lot and they accepted and believed things more readily than a lot of others might without question; Tawny was one of those things. The younger ones who didn’t know any better, though, were another story.

They were given three chances, or so the tale went.

Three chances to turn back after Tawny said no.

Three chances to walk away.

Three chances to live.

Tawny was more fair than others had been to her.

“Is…is she a monster, Daddy?” I whispered, my fear making it impossible for me to speak any louder.

His mustache bristled slightly. “You know how I’m always telling you to be respectful, mind yourself, be kind, right up until someone comes begging for a lesson?”

I nodded into his shoulder.

“Tawny ain’t a monster, boy,” he said, “she’s just the hardest lesson some people are ever gonna learn.”

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