Mark Dalton is carrying a load into Timmins with an East End Distributing company truck when he finds that the highway is blocked with a seven-car pile-up. He’s told the road could be clear in 10 minutes or ten hours. Mark decides to take the detour, but as he’s driving along the side road the winter weather turns nasty and he drifts off the road and into the ditch. To make matters worse, he gets hooked up on a stump as he’s trying to get out and the engine goes dead. In addition, his cell phone can’t find a connection, and just a single truck has gone by since he became stuck. With no heat in the truck, things get cold fast…
Mark thought he’d be able to stay warm for a while inside the cab, but within a half hour the temperature dropped to below freezing. He wasn’t dressed for the cold. And why should he have been? A pair of jeans, boots with a pair of thick socks on his feet, a winter jacket and a ball cap was all he’d ever needed before.
But that was because he’d almost always been driving his own rig, Mother Load II, which was outfitted with sleeping bags and extra blankets, and all the extra clothes he’d need. And not only an in-cab heater, but he had an extra camping heater for those nights when he needed a little extra heat.
The sun had gone down and the temperature was dropping like a stone. The radio still worked, but he’d been up and down the dial a half-dozen times and there was nothing but static and dead air across every band. But even if he managed to find a radio station, it would only bring him bad news, like a forecast of -40 C overnight.
How was he going to survive that?
At least not without losing a few fingers and toes. It would serve you right, Mark thought. You had the chance to take your own truck but you decided to take theirs instead.
And for what? A few extra bucks? So you made $100 extra using their truck, or maybe even $200, what’s the value of your extremities? Fifty bucks a toe? A hundred dollars a finger? Didn’t seem worth it when you looked at it that way. Nothing seemed worth it.
Mark rolled down the driver’s side window and stuck his head out to see if anyone was coming up the road. There was nothing in either direction but encroaching darkness.
He rolled up the window and thought about what might have happened.
When he’d stopped on the main highway the O.P.P. officer had told him that the blockage might take 10 more minutes to clear, or 10 more hours. It must have been 10 minutes, because since he’d broken down, there had been just a single truck on the road.
The problem must have been cleared up just after he’d taken the detour and by the time he got stuck on the side of the road, the highway had been cleared and there’d be no more traffic this way until…well, never. Or at least not before Mark froze to death inside the truck.
So that was the task at hand – not freezing to death.
Mark made another search of the truck and cab for anything he could use to keep warm. There was a change of clothes in his bag which he put on over the clothes he was wearing. That would help, but his feet weren’t that much better off with a second thin pair of socks over his woolies.
Thank God he’d taken a sleeping bag along, and a pillow.
He stuffed the pillow inside his jacket, making him look like any number of pot-bellied truck drivers he’d seen over the years.
The pillow wouldn’t do much, but at least it would keep his trunk warm and he’d have a warm place to put his hands whenever they got too cold.
He unzipped the sleeping back and wrapped it around his head and body.
Then he sat on the mattress in the sleeper with his feet tucked up under his body.
And that was it, the extent of what he could do to stay warm and keep himself alive.
Mark rocked back and forth watching his breath mist in the icy air before him…and wondered how long he could realistically survive like this. An entire day, or just a few hours?
He could try walking, but he wasn’t dressed to spend any time outside, and even if he was, where would he go?
And which way? It wasn’t like there were farmhouses every half-mile or so.
And with the darkness outside pretty much complete, and the snow continuing to fall, how could he know if he were still on the road and not walking across some field?
No, he’d stay where he was. If he ventured outside, he’d get lost on the road for sure, or fall into some ditch and freeze to death, or maybe even be thrown into a snowbank by some inattentive snow plow driver half-asleep at the wheel.
The truck was getting colder – man, was it ever – but at least it was a roof over his head, and it was big. Someone passing by couldn’t miss it, not from the road, and not from the air. From the air? Mark smiled at the thought. Was the cold getting to him already, making him delirious? He was talking like he’d crashed an airplane somewhere north of Cochrane and had to wait for an air patrol to find him.
Well, his situation wasn’t that bad, it just felt that way. What he had to do was try to stay warm and hope that someone – anyone – would come by in the next few hours.
In the meantime he needed heat, more specifically, a source of heat. A fire.
Normally, a fire inside a truck would be a bad thing, but under the circumstances it might be his only chance.
Luckily, there were plenty of things inside the cab that would burn, but he needed things that would burn easily and could be controlled.
There were all kinds of papers lying about from old loads and yesterday’s news, even a months-old copy of Truck West in one of the pockets in the passenger door. There was even a lighter, a working lighter (thank God some people still smoked) on the console in the middle of the cab, as well as a good-sized flashlight which would be great for flagging someone down…if anyone ever drove by.
When Mark had all the paper he could find stacked up on the mattress beside him, he took a piece of fiberglass shelving from the sleeper and stretched it across the two seats.
That gave him enough space to light a fire and not have it ignite the inside of the cab.
Then he piled up a few balls of paper and placed them on the fiberglass shelf in front of him.
With the lighter, he ignited a long twisted piece of paper and then used that to light the rest of the piled paper balls.
The flames spread quickly.
And so did the smoke.
Mark began coughing, but was determined to tough it out for the sake of the heat the fire was generating.
But in just a few minutes the cab was choked with smoke and if it was allowed to spread further he could forget all about freezing to death because he’d die of smoke inhalation long before the cold got to him.
Mark cracked open the driver’s side window and watched the smoke swirl toward it, but not out of the cab. So he opened the window on the passenger side a crack and suddenly the smoke began to exhaust out through the driver’s window.
But Mark’s solution was only partially successful. In addition to the smoke that was going out the window, most of the fire’s heat was also going along with it.
Still, he could feel the heat coming from the fire’s coals and that little bit of warmth was like a tonic to his achingly cold fingers.
The only question was, how long could he keep the fire going? Unfortunately the answer was, not long at all.
The issue of Truck West was gone in about 10 minutes.
The other papers in the cab lasted just as long, and within a half-hour he was burning old coffee cups, snotty tissues, and the cardboard out of the covers of his plastic binder.
“Don’t they make anything out of wood anymore?” he cried aloud as the last of his papers were little more than glowing embers on the shelf.
That’s when he thought about the trailer and what was in it. There were boxes in there and pallets made of wood.
Hard wood that would burn for minutes
, maybe even hours.
If he could just get inside and break open a few boxes, break apart some boards, he’d be warm and toasty through the night.
And so after making sure the glowing embers were safe, Mark wrapped his sleeping bag tightly around him, grabbed the flashlight and stepped out of the truck.
The wind had picked up and the snow was beating down on him, but he kept contact with the trailer and eventually reached the end of it. Then he stepped up close to the doors and switched on the light.
“I don’t believe it,” he screamed. “What have they got in there, gold?”
In the swaying glare of the flashlight, not one, not two, but three, bolt-type seals protected the rear doors from being opened prior to their reaching their destination.
They were each a different colour and the blue one was bent slightly, as if it had been forced into its slot with a hammer.
Three such seals wouldn’t be much to break on the loading dock with a proper bolt cutter, but out here…in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, in a blizzard, with little more than a pocketknife to do the job, the load inside the trailer was safer than a brick of Fort Knox gold.
Mark switched off the light and ran back to the truck, climbing in as quickly as he could but still letting in a dusting of snow over the floor and seats.
Whatever heat he’d gained from the fire was gone now and he’d have to start all over again. ‘With what?’ he wondered.
There were bits of plastic all around him, and his kit bag was made of cloth, just like the seats. And he could try the foam of the seats themselves…
It took him longer to get the fire going this time since his fingers had gone numb and he was never sure when he had something in his grasp.
When the fire finally did start burning the smoke was acrid and filled the cab with a smell that told Mark he was breathing in all sorts of chemicals he’d end up paying for later…if he ever made it through this alive.
He sat there, breathing acrid smoke and rocking back and forth while his body shivered uncontrollably.
Outside a noise.
“Hey! Hey! Hey!” he screamed rolling down the window and waving the flashlight up and around.But there was nothing there other than the howling wind and the all-encompassing darkness.Mark rolled up the window and began to laugh as tears leaked from the corners of his eyes.
People had always said he was the type of guy who’d end up dying inside his truck or somewhere out on the road.
“Yeah,” Mark said aloud. “But not like this.”
– Next month is the conclusion of The Cold Shoulder.