After dropping his load off in Toronto, Mark urges Bud to give him a load to Halifax. Mark is eager to head back east, because on his way west, Mother Load was broken into and he’s determined to find the thief. At a truck stop in Belleville, Mark talks to other drivers and concludes that lot lizards – prostitutes who haunt truck stops and parking lots – are to blame. He vows to find the lizard who ripped him off and bring her to justice.
Mark watches the activity in the truck stop parking lot that night and marvels at the number of lizards slinking through the lot. He does his best to stay away from them, but in the morning as he’s doing his circle check, a lizard is chased by a monster of a truck driver who’s intent on hurting her… bad. Mark hides the woman in his truck and sends the irate driver on his way, but while the woman is inside Mother Load, she’s robbing Mark blind.
Mark makes her give back what she’s taken from him, and while he talks to her, he realizes that she’s been stealing from drivers up and down the Trans-Canada. He’s tempted to turn her over to police, but knows that that wouldn’t do much good. While Mark’s trying to decide what to do with her, the angry driver comes out of the restaurant still looking for the girl. Mark tells the man the girl’s gone, saving the girl from peril yet again. She wants to thank him in her own special way, but reveals she’s just 16 – young enough to be Mark’s daughter…
Mark started Mother Load and shifted her into gear before the engine had any time to warm up.
“What are you doing?” the girl asked, a hint of panic in her voice.
“We’re getting out of here.”
“But I don’t want to go.” She reached for the door, but Mark managed to lock it again before she could get it open. She struggled with the handle a few times then turned to face Mark. “Let me out of here!” she cried, all spit and venom.
“I’m not letting you go,” he said calmly, pulling forward out of his parking spot. “Call me a softy, but I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
At that she eased her assault on the door and fell back into her seat. “This is kidnapping, you know?”
Mark pulled out his cell phone and offered it to her. “You want to call the cops?”
She looked at the phone a moment, then sighed and turned away, staring out the window as the world began to pass her by. Later, after they’d put a few miles behind them, she said, “Okay, so you take me to the next truck stop, then what?”
Mark hadn’t given the next step much thought. His only concern had been to get her away from the truck stop. Once he’d done that, maybe he could talk to her a bit, tell her she should be doing more with her life than slinking around truck stops, stealing stuff and doing tricks for nothing more than drug money and a place to sleep.
She was at an age where she should be going to the movies with her girlfriends on Friday nights, going to the mall and holding hands with her boyfriend…and maybe, daring to kiss him when no-one was looking. Sex, drugs, and robbery…it was no life for anyone, let alone a 14-year-old kid. It was easy enough to say, but how do you tell someone that age what’s good for them without sounding like you’re giving them a lecture? In the end, Mark decided to ignore her question and just move forward. If he was lucky the two of them might connect. At worst, it might keep her mind off running away until he could get her someplace safe – like a women’s shelter in the next fair-sized city.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
Diamond? thought Mark. What kind of a name is that? He wondered if she’d done any dancing. It certainly fit in with the lifestyle she was leading, but he had to believe that peeler joints – no matter how rural they were – still required proof of age.
The name was probably used just to keep her one step ahead of the law.
“Your real name,” Mark said. “And don’t worry, I won’t be calling the cops.” That much was true, since Mark had decided that a night or two in jail wasn’t going to do much to change the direction the girl’s life was headed.
“Melissa,” she said. “Melissa Ashcroft.”
“My name’s Mark Dalton.” He extended his right hand.
She hesitated a moment, then leaned over and shook. “Pleased to meet you, Mark.” A pause. “And thanks for helping me out back there.”
“No problem. I actually do that kind of thing all the time.”
“Wow,” she said, all cool and coy. “You really are a hero.”
Mark laughed under his breath, thinking he’d probably had that one coming. He reminded himself to keep the conversation focused on her. After all, he couldn’t help her if he didn’t know anything about her. “Where you from?”
Melissa’s eyes narrowed. “Why are you so interested in me? You got a daughter my age or something? That’s what a lot of the drivers tell me when they meet me…I remind them of their daughter. Like I’m supposed to find that sexy or something.”
Mark wanted to steer the conversation clear of her current life, concentrating instead on her past. So he shrugged and said, “I just want to know where you’re from. We’ve got a lot of miles ahead of us and I thought a little small talk might help pass the time.”
“Okay,” she nodded. “I grew up in a place called Arnprior, it’s…”
“East of Ottawa. I’ve been there plenty of times.”
“Then you know that nothing ever happens there.”
“That can’t be why you left,” Mark said. “There’s nothing happening in your life where you are right now. Besides, how much action can a young girl need at 16?”
She turned and stared out the window again, saying nothing.
“What’s the real reason you left home?” Mark prodded.
“To get away.”
“From what…or who?”
She said nothing for a while, then it all sort of came out in a gush.
“I lived with my mom and her husband…my stepdad.” From the way she said stepdad it was obvious that there’d been a problem. “He’s a truck driver, just like you.”
“I don’t know anything about the man,” Mark said. “But I have a feeling he’s nothing at all like me.”
“Yeah, well…who knows, you might be right.”
Mark resisted the urge to say something in his defense, letting Melissa do all the talking.
“It was great when he was on the road. He did longhaul so he’d be gone for days, sometimes weeks at a time. When that happened, me and my mom would get along great. You know, dinners together, shopping, watching movies and eating popcorn. She’d let me wear a some of her clothes and tell me about boys. All the things that mothers and daughters are supposed to do together.”
There was a ‘but’ coming, and it was going to be big.
“But then he’d come back off the road and it was party time. He and my mom would hole up in their bedroom for days, leaving me to fend for myself. My mother never drank when he was away, but when he came home she matched him gulp for guzzle and they’d both be smashed for days.”
She paused a moment to lick her suddenly dry lips.
“But the thing was, she couldn’t hold her booze like he could, and she’d pass out on him all the time… And when he didn’t have her to play with, he came looking for me.”
Mark’s eyes shifted off the road over to the rearview mirror, anything to not look at the girl as she opened up more and more of her wounds.
“He’d come into my bedroom during the night, pressing hard against me and threatening to hurt me, or my mother, if I didn’t do what he wanted.”
Her body began to heave from the sobs wracking her body.
“I took it for a while, letting him do what he wanted, but eventually I couldn’t take it any more. I told my mother what he was doing to me, and what he threatened to do to her if I told anyone… And you know what she did?”
Mark shook his head.
“She slapped me and told me not to lie.”
Mark’s heart fell into the pit of his stomach. Children who speak up, who fight back, are supposed to be encouraged and commended, not beaten down.
“After she did
that, I looked over at him. He was smiling, but there was anger in his eyes, and I knew right then he was going to hurt me…make me pay for what I’d done.”
She sniffed once. Mark offered her a tissue and she took it.
“So I left, that day, six months ago.” Her body had calmed now that the worst of it was over. “I kept thinking I’d run into him at one of these truck stops, hoping I would actually…but it’s probably better I didn’t. Might’ve wound up killing him.”
Mark let some time pass, then asked, “Are they still together?”
“Nah, I heard they broke up. I’d like to think she confronted him about it and left, but it’s more likely he beat her senseless, then took off.”
“Have you ever called your mother, or tried to go back?”
She laughed at him. “You think it’s that easy? Just pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, how’s it goin’?”
“Have you?” Mark persisted.
She shook her head. “But enough about me, what about you?”
Mark told her about himself, about how he used to be a detective and one night found his wife cheating on him. And then he related a few of his adventures…until they came upon a truck stop. “You hungry?”
“What do you think?” She prepared to get out of the truck.
“No, stay here,” Mark said. “I’ll get whatever you want.”
She seemed satisfied with that. “Breakfast sandwich, danish, juice or regular coffee.”
Mark nodded. “You got it.”
He was gone 20 minutes. Longer than he wanted, but it was time well spent. A 411 call to Arnprior got him the number for Melissa’s mom, and once he had her on the line, it only took a few minutes to explain who he was and why he was calling. The woman could hardly control herself, weeping loudly into the phone. Of course, dear God, she wanted to speak to her daughter.
When Mark returned to Mother Load, he handed up the breakfast bag, then offered Melissa the phone. “Here,” he said. “It’s for you.”
She took the phone from him and looked at it with a strange expression, then she put it to her ear and said, “Hello?”
– Mark Dalton returns next month in another exciting adventure