Everything was a mess. Scattered papers and various office supplies smothered the surface of my desk. Reorganizing was the first task I meant to complete that morning.
Then I saw him out the window. I knew instantly that I would have another problem to solve before.
Kenny stormed over from across the yard. His faded jeans and plaid shirt were covered in oil stains. His crusted lips moved up and down, muttering something to himself as he got closer.
I sat down as he reached the wooden steps of my trailer office. I cleared a space small enough for me to rest my elbows and lean forward. Before he opened the door, I made myself look as ready as possible.
He didn’t knock. That was strike one. That would be held against him. But what did he have use against me?
“Got another problem… boss,” he said he pulled off his John Deere cap.
I didn’t like the pause before he said the word boss. It was a calculated and too obvious slight against me. He was already starting that shit up again.
“And what is it today, Kenny?” I asked in an uninterested voice. I grabbed a loose piece of paper and pretended to inspect it.
“Well, your auto parts supposed to be goin down to Paterson won’t be there this afternoon like they’re meant to.”
“Why is that?”
“Red didn’t show up to deliver em. And it ain’t an hour late like last time. He was supposed to have that truck on the road and drivin south on interstate 87 more than two hours ago.”
I sighed and leaned back into a relaxed position. There wasn’t a whole lot I could say to the yard manager about a trucker not showing up. He had the right to be upset.
Red (properly known as Charlie Redmond) was the longest tenured trucker in my dad’s truck yard that I was now the owner of. He’d been driving trucks for my father since he got out of high school, nearly forty years ago. He’d been as reliable as they come for my dad before I took over. I remembered him bringing him up as his go-to-guy when I was still a child and unaware that I would one day be running the place myself.
And for the last year and change, Red had been the guy I could count on as well. At least that’s how I saw it. He was certainly doing a better job than Kenny who stood before me then. It was clear he never liked his old boss’s son taking over.
Being late last Tuesday was a mistake I was willing to forgive. For him, there would always be leeway. I docked $50 from his last paycheque as a precautionary warning. I wondered if that was too harsh.
But, just not showing up for your next route after being late… That had to be addressed.
“Sit down, Kenny,” I said as I gestured towards the chair on the opposite side of my desk.
He was reluctant to take the order. His pause made that clear to me. But, he soon thought better of it. He walked over and fell into the seat. Clumps of dirt fell from his tattered work boots and onto the floor with every step.
“In all your years working with Red, are these the first two times you can remember him being late or not showing up?”
“Do you have any idea why he would be acting this way?”
“None that I consider reasonable,” he said as he pressed his cap over his knee. “He just kinda changed ever since he came back from his week off down at his camp.”
“What do you mean changed?”
“Dunno how to describe it. He just kinda went down for a week of huntin and BBQ round Lake Champlain. Couple of the boys were sayin that he got into a big fight with Donna, so he went down there to be alone for a while. First time he’d taken any vacation in a long time.”
“Donna is his wife’s name, right?”
“Yeah. So while he’s down there, I know they had a lot of storms. Like really bad ones. Worse than usual. Was probably dangerous being out in the woods all alone. Maybe he got frustrated all locked up and got cabin fever or somethin. When he came back for his first route, he was like a totally different person. He was actin like he was drunk or somethin, muttering little things to himself. Bad things too, that I could hear. Said some stuff about how bad you and your pops have used him over the years. Then he’s late for the next route, and now today, the old guy doesn’t even show.”
I looked out the window. I saw the trailer loaded and ready to depart. It was already supposed to be south of the border and on its way to New Jersey. This one was going to cost me. I had to find a solution. But whatever it was, it needed to be delicate.
“Alright then. So Red’s acting a little strange. Can’t say that’s the first time we’ve seen that from one of our guys, right?” I said.
“And the other guys occasionally show up a little late and miss delivery times, and so long as it doesn’t get out of hand, we just kind of let it slip, right?”
“Suppose so again.”
“So wouldn’t you agree that I can’t just go and fire Red for two mistakes in as many years as we can remember?”
He felt I was taking control. He didn’t like that.
“Then the hell do ya want me to do? Can’t get my job done if the drivers aren’t showin up.”
“Do you know where he lives?”
“You’re going to take me there.”
Red’s house was as typical as you can find in the Townships. A one-story bungalow with grey paneling and a driveway wide enough for three cars. The property was big. The lawn sprawled all the way from the street to the lush forest it backed onto. His neighbours, on either side, were so far away they would have to yell to greet each other if they both went for the Sunday paper at the same time.
Kenny pulled his Silverado into the spot next to Red’s. As I stepped out, I noticed that Red’s was both considerably newer and in better shape. I wondered if Kenny secretly resented him for that.
It wasn’t until I reached the front porch that I realized I was walking alone. I turned back and saw Kenny still sitting in the driver’s seat with his head sunk into his hands over the wheel.
I whistled back and beckoned him to come join me with a nod of my head. And for the second time that day, Kenny reluctantly did as I told him too.
I tried to hit the door as gently as I could. I stood there behind the frosted glass window of the door as politely as possible. My body language was certainly more patient than Kenny’s when he arrived at my side.
After maybe twenty-five seconds without a response, Kenny pressed his finger to the doorbell and held it there.
“That oughta get em out here,” he said when he finally released.
But he was wrong. Again we waited on the doorstep in silence.
I decided to test the door. It was slightly ajar and pushed forward when I pressed against it. It was nothing out of the ordinary for a place to be left open in those parts.
The scene on the inside of the house did not match the calming regularity of the exterior.
The kitchen, at the end of the front hall, was filthy. The floors and countertops were littered with wrappers, beer and soda cans, pizza boxes and any other junk food packaging you could think of. The drawers and cabinets were pulled out and hanging open. It looked like a tornado had passed through.
“Red?” I called out. My voice died in the quiet.
I stepped forward and proceeded to the kitchen. Kenny followed closely behind.
I jumped the moment I saw him. From the kitchen, you could see clearly into the living room. It was at the rear of the house and overlooked the backyard and the forest.
Red sat on a beaten leather couch on the near wall. He was cross-legged, sitting straight up. The TV was on in front of him, and he stared blankly in that direction. On closer examination, I noticed he wasn’t watching the screen. His gaze cast over it. He looked out through the big bay window and onto the trees. I didn’t see him blinking.
I heard Kenny hold his breath behind me. Red didn’t acknowledge our presence at all.
I glanced around the room. It wasn’t as bad as the kitchen, but clearly hadn’t been cleaned in some time.
Red looked different than when I had seen him last. The long grey hairs he had surrounding the bald patch atop his head were gone. The white t-shirt he wore tucked in against his track pants didn’t seem to press as hard against his chest and stomach.
“Hello, Red,” I finally said.
“Derek,” he answered. His focus still out the window.
“May I take a seat?”
“You’re the boss now. Aren’t ya?”
“Yes. And that’s why I’m here to talk to you.”
I took the closest seat to where I stood. An old wooden rocking chair that was just to his side. Kenny didn’t move from his spot in the kitchen.
“Red,” I said as I rocked the chair back. “You did know you had a delivery to make today, right?”
“Yes. 10 AM. Down to Paterson.”
“Then why didn’t you show up?”
“What do you mean you couldn’t?”
“Too many deer in the woods right now. They’ll start eatin away at Donna’s garden if I don’t keep an eye out.”
I looked down at his left hand. The white studded wedding band he always wore wasn’t on his ring finger. I considered asking more about Donna but thought better about it. At least I understood what the problem was.
Or so I thought.
Through the corner of my eye, I saw Kenny with his arms crossed, swaying impatiently in the kitchen. It was best I wrapped things up before he intervened.
“Red, I just want you to know how much appreciate all the great work you’ve done for my father and me over the years. It’s real hard for me to come in here and have this discussion with you.”
“I know that,” he answered.
“I’ll let it go this one time. I’ll call the guys down in Jersey and tell them we had a mechanical issue. But I don’t like to make lying a habit. Tomorrow, I need you to guarantee you will be on time and ready to take the load down. 10 AM, same time as today.”
“Can only make the delivery if the trailer is actually there. Don’t think it will be.”
That made me chuckle. I got up and tapped him on my shoulder as I made my way back to the kitchen. I pushed Kenny gently in the direction of the front door.
“Alright then. See you tomorrow, Red.”
Kenny and I made our way out and back into his truck.
“Did I handle that issue as well as my dad used to?” I asked as I strapped up my seatbelt.
Kenny didn’t answer. He pulled into reverse and looked over his shoulder.
I can always tell immediately when there’s a problem in the yard. And a problem is exactly what I saw when I pulled my car in the next day.
It was around 12:30 PM. Kenny and a few of the other truckers were huddled in a circle in front of one of the loading doors. They were talking about something important (at least to them). Kenny was waving his arms wildly. The others were listening, shrugging their shoulders and scratching their asses.
I parked in the usual spot, next to the stairs of my trailer office. But instead of darting inside before getting noticed, as I usually tried to do, I walked over to them.
Whatever problem they were having was going to be mine eventually. May as well have gotten it over with right away.
“Let me guess,” I said, almost at their circle. “Red didn’t show up this morning?”
Kenny stepped out in front of the others. His clipboard grasped loosely by his side.
“Well, there’s that. But we got other problems too.”
“And what would those be, Kenny?”
“Well, I was fumin mad when I didn’t see Red’s truck this mornin. So before I got tryin to figure that out, I figured I’d help the boss out and get someone to cover the route for him.”
“Thank you. Very considerate.”
We locked glances. Neither of us smiled in recognition of the others sarcasm. Then, he continued.
“So I run up to double check that everythin is ready to go. And I realize that lane six is empty.”
“And what’s special about lane six?”
“That’s where the trailer Red was supposed to deliver was parked.”
“Where is it now?”
“Got no idea. It’s just disappeared off the lot.”
My blood started to boil. I pushed a long breath out through tight lips. The others refused eye contact. They looked only at the ground or up into the air.
I turned back to Kenny and stared at him hard.
“Did you forget to lock up last night?”
“Nope. Locked it and did everythin else on the closin procedure. Just like I done for the last twenty years and you were still a runnin around, sucking on your mother’s tit.”
I pretended to ignore the last bit. That would be dealt with later.
“So you’re telling me you locked up, but somehow a giant eighteen-wheeler trailer that was parked on the lot isn’t here anymore. That’s not possible, Kenny.”
“I’m tellin ya, it’s the truth. The gate was still locked when I showed up this mornin. Didn’t see any tire marks in the dirt from where it went earlier. Whoever snuck it outta here must have known what they were doin.”
“Does Red or anyone else have a key to the gate?”
“Is it possible that the lock was picked?”
“Suppose so. But again, they musta really known how to cover up after themselves.”
The problem had escalated to something bigger than I had ever dealt with before. And here I was in front of a group of men close to twice my age. All of them worked for me, and I had no idea what do.
I needed to say something before Kenny brought up that I still hadn’t gotten around to fixing the security cameras. I settled for the first thing I thought of.
Kenny, Jackson and Stan, come with me. The rest of you, get to work on whatever the hell it is you’re supposed to be doing.
I started back to my office.
“What are we doing, Derek?” I heard Kenny call from behind me. He was still intent on seeing how far he could push.
“Exactly what I say we’re going to do. Now hurry the hell up.
I pushed the chair away from behind my computer. I let my palms rest on the part of the desk I cleared the previous day. I stood there, leaning idly for just a moment while the three men watched from the other side.
“I’m going to go out on the limb and guess that Red doesn’t use a cell,” I said finally as I looked up at them. “Anybody have his home phone?”
“I know it,” Jackson answered.
I gestured towards the phone on my desk. He swivelled it around in his direction, pushing a few of the scattered pieces of paper to the floor as he did.
He typed the nine digits in then passed the receiver to me. I paused before taking it. My hand shook as I brought it up to my ear.
“Derek,” Red’s voice sounded from the other end of the line.
He picked it up before it even rang. As if he knew the exact moment I was going to call. At least, that’s what it sounded like. My voice quivered as I responded.
“Red, why didn’t you show up this morning? Thought I made things very clear yesterday.”
“Told ya, I wasn’t gonna come if there wasn’t a trailer for me to deliver.”
“Interesting that you know it’s missing without even showing up. Do you know where it is now by any chance?”
“Do you know who’s responsible for taking it?”
I slammed my fist down against the desk. The three men on the other side all took a nervous step back together.
“What did you fucking do, Red? Tell me!”
He didn’t answer. Only breathing sounded on the other end.
“I’m talking to you,” I said as I tried to steady my voice.
“I don’t like these trees. Providin too much cover for the deer. Reckon they’d be better off dead already.”
“Stop wasting time. Where’s the trailer?”
“Don’t know… boss.”
I slammed the phone down. It slid off along with more paper onto the floor. I pointed to Jackson and Stan.
“You two. Drive over to Red’s house now. Make sure that son-of-a-bitch doesn’t go anywhere.”
I turned to Kenny.
“And you. No more bullshit. Here’s what you’re going to do. Go outside and inspect every leaf blade, every pebble, every clump of dirt until you figure out exactly how that god damn trailer disappeared from the yard last night.
“Sure thing, boss,” Kenny said as he started towards the door. “And what will you be up to in the meantime?”
I didn’t answer him. I was already dialling the police.
Kenny’s truck engine made the worst clicking sound every time we turned. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It’s all I could hear as we made our way along the exact route we had taken the day before.
It was time to take matters into my own hands. I didn’t see another option.
It’s not like I had an abundance of evidence to spur the police into action. Spent half an hour on the phone, arguing against filling out a theft report for them. Finally, they agreed to send a trooper out to Red’s place when they got the chance.
I knew how long that would take.
Kenny turned the truck around the last bend and onto Red’s street. I trembled at the thought of the upcoming confrontation.
“Ever seen anything like this before?” I asked Kenny.
“Nope. Never seen a trailer just disappear in all my years workin this job.”
“And you’re sure you didn’t just forget to lock up last night? Just like you’re sure there’s no sign of forced entry?”
Kenny looked away instead of replying. I started to feel the heat of anger again. I turned towards him, ready to scream.
But I didn’t. I stopped as soon as I saw his face. All colour had flushed. The wrinkled, rubber skin had gone pale. He stared wide-eyed ahead of us as the truck started to slow.
I looked through the front window and saw what he was looking at. Pins and needles rose to my cheeks.
It was the area behind Red’s house. It became clearer the closer we got.
The forest that had once grown thick and green had changed. In its place, were the same trees, but no longer lush and full of life. They were dead. Completely bare as if it were four months back, still in the midst of winter.
Kenny’s hands didn’t leave the wheel as we parked behind Jackson’s jeep.
Something about the place felt unsafe. It was hard to articulate exactly what it was. Red was nowhere to be seen, same for Jackson and Stan. The jeep was empty.
It took a full minute of silence before I finally moved. I pushed the door open and stepped down to the road. I heard it lock again behind me as I took a nervous step out onto Red’s lawn.
I looked back at Kenny. Like the day before, he remained in the driver’s seat. The key was still in the ignition. He grasped the dull, weathered hatchet I noticed earlier on the truck floor. His pinky finger twitched along the splintered wooden handle.
There would be no convincing him to get out with me a second time.
I felt around my pockets and was relieved to discover one of the yard’s X-ACTO knives in the back left. I wondered if I could find the guts to use it if I needed to.
Perhaps Jackson and Stan were simply inside the house waiting patiently alongside Red, just as I instructed. I could bring myself to believe that.
What I couldn’t bring myself to believe was any rational explanation for what happened to all the trees I had seen alive and healthy just the day before. I remembered him saying he wanted them dead on the phone. But no way could that have been the work of one man.
The front door was open. It stared back at me like a void in the darkness. I knew it was foolish to go inside.
Then, from the corner of my eye, I saw Red. Not inside the house, but in the mess of dead trees behind it. He was out in broad daylight, unarmed. He walked back towards the yard, arms at his sides. Little twigs crackled beneath his steps as he emerged from the forest. I could feel his gaze shooting into me like a laser.
I tried to look as casual as I could as I took a step back towards the truck. I didn’t turn away. It didn’t feel secure turning my back to him.
But when he reached the edge of the grass, he turned away. He started towards the work shed at the far corner of the property.
I eased as he disappeared inside and looked back at Kenny who still hadn’t moved. He stared at me, petrified, and gestured to go after him with a dip of the axe.
I was faced with a decision.
Either I cowardly went back to the truck, no bigger of a man than Kenny, afraid of the unarmed, feeble old man. Or, I went forward like he gestured. Like I was accepting a childish little dare in an attempt to prove who the boss was.
The grass crunched beneath my feet with every step. My breaths, long and steady, attempting to keep my heart rate under control. I braced myself as I reached the entrance to the shed.
My hands stayed outside the door frame. As if I could use the leverage to push off and give myself a head start. Just in case the guy more than twice my age started to chase me.
The shed’s interior was covered with dust and wood shavings. Spider webs occupied the four corners of the ceiling. Red kept his back to me as he fiddled with a few rusty tools at his workbench on the far side. He whistled casually. As if he didn’t notice or even care that I stood behind him.
I wondered exactly what I was going to say. On the surface, it was no different than when I had shown up the day before. But before I could figure something out, he broke the silence.
“Derek,” he said. “So nice of you stop by.”
He turned to a toolbox by his side, taking no more than a half step in my direction. It was enough to make me tense up again.
“Tell me, boss. How’s that ol bastard of a father of yours doin?”
“You mean the guy who employed you for your entire life? He’s fine.”
“Employed and enslaved me the way I see it. Anyways, I know that ol ticker of his don’t beat like it used to. I’ll make sure it gives out on him.”
I scanned the shed, looking for something big enough he could use as a weapon to threaten me with. There was nothing I could find. I reached back and felt for the knife in my pocket.
“Red, I don’t want any trouble from you. I don’t even care if you show up anymore. But you have to tell me what happened to that trailer.”
“I told ya. I know it’s gone, but I don’t know where it is.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. How can you know about a massive trailer disappearing and not have any clue as to where it went?”
“I don’t know where the things go after I make em disappear. I’m sure they go someplace. But not someplace like where you and I are livin now.”
“What the hell happened while you were at the lake? Did you get caught out in the storms? Everybody’s been saying that you’ve lost your mind.”
The question made Red stop fumbling with his tools. Slowly, he pivoted and looked in my direction. A maniacal expression was on his face. Like he found it both hilarious and insulting that I questioned his sanity.
“Funny you should ask that,” he said as he took a step forward. “The two chumps you sent over asked the same thing. Didn’t turn out so well for them though. And please, don’t even try grabbing for that knife in your back pocket. Won’t do ya any good.”
“Red, where are they? And where is Donna? Why don’t I see your wife around?”
“Don’t know exactly where Donna is. That cheatin bitch is prolly in the same place your trailer is now. Also where all the leaves from the trees went when I didn’t want em anymore.”
I started to backpedal carefully. Sure to keep my balance, sure to not turn my back on Red.
“As for your two friends,” he continued. “They’re just hangin out in the woods. Sure you can see em if you looked.”
He faked a lunge forward and laughed as it made me stumble back and fall.
“You want to join em? Be happy to help ya. Will serve ya right for all the shit you and your dad put me through,” he said as he stepped forward.
“Red, please, what have I ever done to you?”
“Don’t call me Red anymore. I don’t like that name. That’s what people used to call me.”
“Don’t call me Red,” he said again as he continued getting closer. “Call the sky red. The sky is red now.”
I collected myself as quickly as I could and sprang back to my feet. As I did, from the corner of my eye, I noticed two limp figures hanging impossibly high up in the barren treetops. Their lifeless bodies swayed gently, grazing against the trunks.
I started a full on sprint, terrified that somehow the old man would be just behind me. That somehow his feeble legs could pump faster than my own.
The light above changed to a darker shade I had never seen before.
“Start the truck!” I yelled at Kenny as I ran towards him.
But Kenny was too preoccupied to listen. He had vacated his spot from the driver’s seat. He stood outside the truck, neck reeled back and head pointed straight up at the sky.
The colour above kept changing. Redder, like I had never seen before.
I jumped into the truck and locked the door. I screamed at Kenny who was still in a trance, staring at the spectacle above.
“Kenny! Let’s go!”
Kenny finally got inside. As the engine started, I chanced a look back at the lawn. Red had stopped just outside the shed. He stood there, calmly staring back at us. His head turned and followed me until we were completely out of sight.
Kenny stayed flat on the gas pedal. He didn’t stop at any sign or streetlight and soon we were completely out of the area, blazing down one of the long country roads.
It wasn’t until the gas light came on and the car started to beep at us that we finally slowed. Kenny looked down at the dash and pulled us over. We had put many kilometers between us and Red’s property at that point. Yet, somehow, I couldn’t help but check over my shoulder, expecting to see him strolling casually down the street behind us.
Finally, the panic started to fade. As it did, I realized something. The sky, which had gone completely red as we peeled away, had changed. Somehow we hadn’t noticed in the heat of our escape. It returned to the natural pale blue that it had been before.
Nobody ever saw Red again. Nor could anyone ever explain how Stan and Jackson were hung so high up in the empty trees in such a short period of time. A few of the neighbours reported the same rose colour in the sky that we saw. But what was there to do?
Just chalk it up as some kind of natural wonder.
Last week was my father’s funeral. Nearly all current and previous employees from the yard (save for Red of course) attended. He died suddenly the day that we frantically fled Red’s property. He had a heart attack. Estimates from the coroner said it happened in the early afternoon. Likely right around the time Red threatened me his heart would stop.