Alpha Shorts: Virus

Story by Jack Stewart. Artwork by Adam Archer. Copyright 2017.

John Buckley, Buck to his friends, sat behind the wheel of his Ford truck watching the rain pour down on the highway ahead of him and listening to the radio where some sad sack sang about his broken heart. He was headed north pulling a trailer full of horses behind him headed to Eugene, Oregon to drop them off at some horse ranch for rich people called the Paddock Riding Club. He’d drop the horses off and watch amazed as they were lead into a vast barn that was nicer than the apartment he had back home then hop back in his truck and head south. He’d done this twice a month ever since he hired on at the Dutch Ranch down in Redding, California.

He cruised down the highway at a sedate forty miles per hour through the heavy rain as everyone else, it seemed, blasted by him at eighty miles an hour. Going slow meant turning his normally five-hour drive to Eugene into a six or seven hour one, but that was OK. It was Friday and he didn’t have to be at work tomorrow. Maybe he’d drop the horses off and head north to Portland and visit his brother before heading back to work on Monday.

He pulled off at the next exit and into a large gas station. He’d fill up, grab a cup of coffee, and be back on the road in no time. He pulled up alongside an empty row of gas pumps under the large, well lit covering, stopped the truck, and put on his break. As he got out, the horses, sensing they had stopped and were out of the rain, popped their heads out of the trailer and watched Buck as he fueled up the truck. Buck nodded at his small audience and they all seemed to nod back. He’d give them each a carrot stick after he filled up.
Buck felt the pump cut off and he put the nozzle back in the gas pump, fed each of the horses a carrot stick, then went inside the gas station. He quickly hit the restroom trying hard not to touch anything inside as he did. These things were filthy and were carriers of God knew what. He finished his business and thoroughly washed his hand. He’d use a shot or two of hand sanitizer once he got back into his truck just in case any of the trillions of invaders that coated every surface of the bathroom managed to survive his rigorous soap and water handwashing. Buck wasn’t a germaphobe by any stretch but he just couldn’t afford to get sick and take time off from work.

He finished in the bathroom and walked out into the brightly lit store looking for the coffee machine. He spotted it and made his way to the station passing by the rows and rows of soda and those little shots of liquid energy. He passed on those. Sodas burned his stomach and those power shots amped him up too much. They defiantly kept a guy going, but he preferred a good hot cup of coffee to keep him company on the road.

He filled up a large, plastic mug with the hot steaming liquid, dumped a few tablespoons worth of sugar in it, the nearly as much creamer. He stirred the concoction until it turned the color of mud, to a confirmatory sip to ensure there was the exact balance of sugar, milk, and coffee he liked, then capped his cup shut with a plastic top.

Satisfied that he was good to go for the next leg of his trip, he began to make his way to the checkout counter when he spotted someone standing by the trailer looking at the horses. Most people who saw the horses sticking their large heads out of the trailer just smiled and waved at them, very few ever actually came up to try to touch them. Those that did try were usually young kids being hoisted up by their parents or teenagers but sometimes adults did too. When they did, the horses normally would pull back inside the trailer until the people left. But all six had turned in their tiny pens and were sticking their heads out the right side of the trailer watching the young woman who was busy petting a horse named Mr. Cadbury on his white snout.

Mr. Cadbury didn’t seem to mind and Buck could see why. The young lady giving his oversized muzzle a rubdown was a sight to see. She was five and a half feet, maybe, and had to stand on her hiking boot clad tip toes for her hands to reach Mr. Cadbury. Her smiling heart shaped face was turned up toward his and she seemed to be blowing in his face. She had a compact curvy build topped with a mess of brown hair that she kept somewhat tamed with hairband, was clad in a white top under a jean jacket, a skirt that might be better suited for a private school, and was completely soaked. He spotted a beat-up backpack at her feet with what looked like a university logo stitched onto it.

Buck made his way to the counter and got in line to pay for his coffee all the while keeping an eye on the young woman. She patted Mr. Cadbury on his muzzled and had moved on to a mare named Dolly. By the time Buck had paid and made it to the door, the woman had made it through five of the horses and was now petting a horse named Old Sam. As Buck walked up to the trailer, the girl had noticed his approach and turned her smile from Old Sam to him. Buck did not stop cold in his tracks, drop or spill his newly acquired coffee, or run into his truck but it took real effort not to do any of these things. The young woman, clearly no more than twenty, was a stunner. He could see why the horses didn’t shy away from her.

“Are these yours?” she asked before Buck could even open his mouth. She had large, wide set brown eyes, a criminally cute button nose, and full set of lips devoid of any lipstick. In fact, she didn’t look like she was wearing any makeup at all. And worse, she had an adorable field of freckles splashed across the bridge of her nose. Buck could see that whatever game was about to be played was already over and, he was sure, he had somehow lost.

“Nah, I’m just hauling them up to Eugene,” he said trying not to stutter, drop his drink, or otherwise embarrass himself. Old Sam gave him a knowing look as the girl stroked his nose.

“You from there?” she asked blowing kisses into Old Sam’s face while whispering, “You’re a good boy, aren’t you? Yes, you are.” Old Sam nodded as if to agree.

“No. I’m from Redding.”

“Oh, California! I’d love to live there. San Diego, Los Angeles, Hollywood!”

“Redding’s a long way from there, I’m afraid.”

“Yeah,” she agreed, “I live in Cottage Grove with my aunt and uncle. They have a farm there.”

“You headed that way now?”

“Yes,” she replied giving him a smaller, shy version of the smile she had given the horses. She looked up at him briefly through her wet bangs then back at Old Sam.

“Driving?” Buck asked knowing the answer.

“Hitchhiking,” she said then added, “Well, hiking mostly.”

“It’s a bad day to be out in this,” Buck said waving around at the sheets of rain coming down around them.

He briefly remembered what his boss had told him when he was about to take his first trailer of horses up to Eugene, “There are only two rules for hauling horses: always drive the speed limit and don’t pick up hitchhikers, especially the pretty ones. The owners won’t let you diver their stock if you rack up a bunch of speeding tickets,” he explained, “And if you’re picking up strays, you’re bound to get into trouble. You’ll get robbed, car jacked, or, from those of the feminine persuasion, catch the gift that keeps on giving. You see a hitchhiker, you just drive on by and let some other fool pick them up.”

But Buck hadn’t stopped for this one, she was already here. And she seemed so nice, even the horses liked her. And what could she do to him? She weighed a hundred and twenty pounds tops. The thought never occurred to him that she might have a gun in her pack but Buck’s ability to think clearly had departed the moment he had stepped close to her.
His subconscious must have known that he was going to offer her a ride from the minute he spotted her and before he could even clearly conceive of the thought, he heard his mouth saying, “Would you like a ride? I can take you all the way up there.”

Her small smile turned into a thousand-watt ray of sunshine as she turned to Buck. “Yes! That would be so great!” She gave him a big hug, grabbed her pack, and hopped into the passenger side of his truck.

Buck sighed knowing it was a dumb thing to do but it was just this once. The six horses were looking at him with their heads slightly hung as if they too were embarrassed for letting a cute stranger pet them, “Just his once, right folks?” Buck said to the horses as he walked around the trailer and climbed into his side of the truck.

He buckled up, inserted the key into the ignition and immediately noticed the light, fragrance of the young woman had filled up the cab of the truck. It reminded him of the sweet smell coming from a field of daisies on a warm summer day. His hand was frozen on the ignition and he breathed in the sweet scent.

“You ok?” she asked.

Buck shook his head and turned to key, “Yeah, just woolgathering, I guess,” he said feeling his face flush.

“A rolling stone gathers no wool,” she said a giggled. “Moss, I mean. A rolling stone gathers no moss.” She blushed and looked briefly down at her hands.

Buck laughed along with her for a minute then pulled the truck out of the station and back onto the highway.

“I’m Buck, by the way,” he said and stuck out his hand as they sped down the road.

“A deer leading horses!” she taking his hand. He expected it to be cold form having been hiking through the cold rain but it was warm and dry.

“Yeah, that’s what my friends call me. My real name is John Buckley. Hence ‘Buck.’”

“I’m Casey,” she said pumping his hand up and down. Then she held it for a fraction of a second longer than needed. She smiled as she slowly let it go.

Buck felt his already blushing face get a few degrees warmer as he put his hand back on the wheel.

They talked as the miles rolled under the tires of the truck. She was going to school up at the University of Oregon and was in her junior year. Buck let out a quite sigh of relief. It had only occurred to him after they were heading north that she might be a minor. He told her that he was saving up so he could buy a house in Redding on a large plot of land so he could start his own horse ranch. She said she was studying biology and wanted to be a teacher. He said he wanted to retire far away from the city out in the exurbs.

Their conversation never faltered, there was never any awkward moments of silence, and the hours just seemed to slip by. Before Buck knew it, they passed a highway sign read Cottage Grove exit, five miles. He pulled off the freeway and on to Route 99 and followed Casey’s instructions until they reached the head of a long dirt road that lead off to a farmhouse.

Buck pulled to a stop at the entrance and turned towards Casey, “Wow. We’re here.”

“Time flies, right?”

“Right. I can drive you to the house, if you’d like,” Buck asked already knowing the answer but hoping…

“No thank you. My aunt would freak out if she saw me get out of a stranger’s truck. I told her one of my friend was giving me a ride here.”

“OK, well, it was nice meeting you,” he said trying to hide his disappointment.

“You too,” she said scooching across the seat toward him. She took his hand again and shook it, then leaned forward giving him a kiss on the check. He was about to pull back when her free hand slipped around behind his neck as she moved her lips across his.

He nearly jerked back in surprise but recovered quickly and kissed her back. Her lips, hot, moist, and sweet parted as she slipped her tongue into his mouth. He could feel the heat rising inside of him as he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. The heat seemed to come off of her body in waves as she held him tight. Far away down the dirt road, a light in the farmhouse came on.

Casey spotted it and pulled back panting a bit, her face flush, “I’d better go. Thanks again,” she said as she grabbed her pack and quickly slipped out of the truck. She glanced back and waved at Buck and disappeared behind one of the many trees that lined the driveway.
He wanted to jump out and case after her to at least get her number, but he could see someone was standing now in the doorway probably wondering who he was and what he wanted. He didn’t want to get Casey in trouble or look like a creepy stalker so he quickly put the truck in drive and pulled back onto the road. He would find a way to contact her in a day or so and see where things went from there.

He circled back to get on Route 99, then on to I-5 and be in Eugene later that evening. By the time he was back on the interstate he was coughing. Damn it! he thought, I hope I’m not catching a cold! It would be worth it though. He smiled at the thought of Casey’s kiss and headed toward Eugene. By the time he had dropped of the horses at the riding club he was running a fever of 102. By the time he reached Portland, the horses he had dropped off were dead, and Buck, now running a fever of 108, was coughing up huge strings of phlegm and liberal amounts of blood. He could barely drive and decided he’d go to the emergency room instead of his brothers. Six hours later he was dead having infected the entire emergency room staff.

Casey stepped behind a large oak tree and watched as Buck slowly drove away. She looked behind her toward the old farmhouse and waited for the owner to close the door. He did a few minutes after Buck had left and turned out the porch light. She had done this many times and knew the old man’s routine.

She quickly walked back to the street, turned left towards the highway and walked until she reached a large gas station. The parking lot was full of trucks and cars. She made her way into a restroom, found an empty stall, and locked the door behind her. Sitting on the toilet, she checked her watch. It had been nearly six hours since her last dose. The doctors in San Francisco had told her she had to take one of the blue pills from the package they had given her every six hours. She waited for her watch to finish counting down the minutes, then popped the blue pill into her mouth, dry swallowed it, then checked her temperature.

The doctors had also stated that she would run a fever of 102 the entire time of the trials. This was normal and was optimum for spreading the virus she carried within her. She was at 103. She logged the information from a notebook she took form her backpack, wrote down all the information she could remember about Buck: his name, age, physical description, where he lived, and time of infection. His name was the newest entry and at the bottom of a long list.

She finished writing up her notes, put the logbook back in her backpack, and headed out into the parking lot. She found a picnic bench and sat down on it scanning the people and cars as they moved in and out of the gas station.

Soon a car pulled up to where she sat. Inside was a young man, clean cut with a friendly face. He rolled down his window and said, “Hi! You need a lift?”

“Sure! You heading south?”

“I am now,” he said and opened the passenger’s side door, “Where are you going?”

“San Francisco. That OK?”

“Sounds good to me,” he replied, “You a working girl?”

“I’m anything you want me to be,” Casey said as she sat down in the car and closed the door while smiling at the driver, “I’m Casey.”

“I’m Rick. Nice to meet you,” he said taking her warm hand in his. She was a real cutie. He wondered if he could afford her as he pulled out of the gas station and headed south towards San Francisco.