Keep On Truckin’
(sequel to IMYOR62)
Their Racing Hearts
Despite the tough front he put on, Gaspar couldn't bear the thought of facing his son through the bars of a jail cell. Not alone, anyway. That's why he waited at the hotel for nearly four hours for Midge. There was little else he could do. The police wouldn't allow him so much as a glimpse at Mack yet. He couldn't help wondering how long it could possibly take just to "book" someone. And he couldn't get within a thousand feet of Vee because the hospital she was taken to was designated for smaller vehicles. Ambulances were about the biggest things that could fit through the doors. What made matters even worse was the fact that Doc couldn't even report to him on Vee's condition, as he had not been permitted past the entrance to the ER.
He had just gotten off the phone with him for the third time when the sound of a familiar diesel engine caught his attention. Gaspar turned around to see Midge pulling up to the hotel. She looked considerably calmer than she had sounded on the phone earlier, though her expression was grim. The two stood staring at each other for a long moment, the silence heavy between them.
"Midge," Gaspar murmured, rolling closer to her. She met him halfway with a tearless sob. They held each other close for another long moment, almost afraid to let go. It was only when Gaspar backed away that he noticed the rusty tow truck standing behind Midge.
Mater grinned. "That's mah name!"
Gaspar gave his wife a quizzical look. "What's he doin' here?"
Midge smiled faintly. "Half the town wanted to come, but he was the most insistent. Plus he was the only one ready to leave right away."
Mater nodded. "Tha's right! 'Cuz Ah gots ever'thin' Ah need right here!" he said, waving his back end. This caused his tow cable to swing wildly about and the loose assortment of tools in his bed to clink together.
Gaspar smirked. "Well, just so you know, this ain't no vacation," he said sternly. "This is some very serious stuff goin' on here."
Mater dropped his smile and nodded agreement. He looked so uncharacteristically solemn just then that no one could possibly doubt the sincerity of what he said next. "Ah know. Ah wouldn'ta come all this way on such short notice if it weren't. Ah came 'cuzza Vee an' Mack. They's mah bestest buds, right after Lightnin'. An' besides, it jist weren't right tuh let Midge drive two hundred miles all on her lonesome."
Both Midge and Gaspar smiled fondly at the smaller truck. Then Midge turned to her husband suddenly and said "How is Vee? Have you found anything out yet?"
Gaspar seemed hesitant to answer. "Well, I found out some, but – it's still kinda wait-and-see at this point. They've got her stable, but it was a pretty bad crash, and right now the main concern is the baby." At his wife's horrified expression, he quickly added, "It's fine, for now. She hasn't miscarried or anything like that, but… that doesn't necessarily mean that she won't later on. That's what the doctors are worried about."
Midge bit her lip, stifling a sob. She stared morosely down her hood, unresponsive both to Mater's tire touching hers and to her husband's grille nuzzling her cheek. Lightning came out of the hotel lobby just then to join the group. Gaspar glanced down at him, then at Mater, then back up at his wife.
"C'mon, hun," he whispered, "let's go see Mack."
* * *
The holding area for larger vehicles was located in the back of the jail. Oddly, it was far smaller than the rest of the place, the individual cells barely big enough to allow a bus to turn around. There were only four cells, half of which were empty. Of the remaining two, one contained a street sweeper sleeping off a DUI, the other a forlorn-looking red semi truck.
"MACK!" Midge shrieked, all but throwing herself against the bars of his cell. The sweeper jolted awake, glanced around blearily, mumbled something incoherent, and promptly resumed snoring.
Mack took one look into his mother's watery eyes and tears began to threaten his own. "Mom?" he croaked, his voice hoarse and faint. He rolled forward, extending a tire. Gaspar pulled up beside Midge, and when Mack saw the look on his face, his oil ran cold and he quickly backed away. It was a strange and terrifying look, one composed of equal parts disappointment, pain and fury. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen his father so upset.
Gaspar struggled with these emotions, unsure which to reveal first. "Mack Trucker, how could you – why did you – damn it, Mack, do you have any idea how bad this is? What have I always told you growing up? Huh? That you don't ever, EVER hurt another vehicle, especially the little ones! There's no Dodge-given excuse for beatin' up someone weaker than you! None whatsoever!"
"Gaspar!" Midge pleaded, and he stopped for a moment to consider her. Glancing around, he noticed that everyone, including the guard and the drunk street sweeper down at the other end of the corridor, was staring at him. He hadn't realized he'd been yelling so loud. With a weary sigh, he lowered his voice to a growl.
"You hurt a lot of people today, Mack, and not just that Chick character. You hurt Vee, you hurt your friends here," he gestured to Lightning and Mater standing nearby, "and you hurt your mother. Real bad. You made her cry. You feel like a big man now? Huh? Do ya?"
Mack, who had been withering visibly under his father's reprimand, suddenly sprang back at the mentioning of his wife. "Wait! You saw Vee? How is she? Is she okay? Is the baby okay?
"She's fine," Gaspar answered gruffly, his dark mood unspoiled by his son's concern. "Baby's fine too, though I didn't get to see her. Hospital's too small. They wanna keep her a while to make sure she doesn't have complications."
Mack's obvious relief at this news only fueled Gaspar's anger. "But that don't change what you did. Not by a long shot. Chick's in the same hospital as Vee, and Doc says he's worse off than she is. You're in big trouble, even if he doesn't press charges, 'cuz you're gonna have a hell of a time convincing anyone that you weren't tryin' to bump off a competitor!"
"But I wasn't!" Mack replied. "You know I wasn't going to kill him, Dad. You know that! But you saw what he did to Vee. It wasn't an accident. He could've killed the baby!"
"Use your common sense, boy! Do you honestly think he knew she was pregnant? And do you really think he'd a done what he did if he had known?"
"But he still had no right to do it," Mack said bitterly.
"For the love of Peterbilt, it's NASCAR! What do you expect? That sort of thing happens all the time!"
"No more excuses!" Gaspar snapped. "We can stand here arguing all day and you aren't gonna convince me of anything, except how desperate you are to justify yourself. You attacked a car, Mack! You beat up a vehicle much smaller and weaker than you, who stood absolutely no chance of defending himself! You wanna rationalize, be my guest, but not with me. You look your mother in the eye and tell her why you did it. I'm through with you."
And without another word, Gaspar turned away, ignoring his son's protests as he drove down the corridor and parked at the far end, near the door. Mater and Lightning, who had been standing by awaiting their turn to speak to Mack, were stricken silent by Gaspar's reproach. Neither one dared to utter so much as a syllable.
Midge stared sadly at her son after Gaspar had taken his leave. There wasn't an ounce of his venom in her aching, loving look, and though it hurt Mack just as much as his father's hard glare, it nonetheless invited all the things Gaspar's demeanor had prohibited.
He brushed a tire against the treads Midge had wedged between the narrow bars, his eyes fixed on his hood ornament. "I know what I did was wrong," he murmured, "and I know there's no forgiving it, but… I just wish I could make you and Dad understand why I did it, why I was able to justify it the moment it happened." He sighed heavily. "I wish I knew why, but I don't. It hardly makes any sense now."
Midge flexed her treads in order to grip her son's tire. "Try," she whispered, giving him a look of the utmost willingness to understand.
Try as he might, Mack was reluctant to divulge certain facts. "I don't know if I should," he confessed. "It's kind of personal. Kind of really personal."
His mother said nothing. She didn't need to. The look in her eyes said enough. Even more, it begged him to open up to her so much that he finally gave in.
Mack sighed. "Well, you know what Vee used to do in L.A., right?" he said quietly, almost a whisper, though the sound carried well down the corridor to where his father stood glaring at him.
Midge nodded. Vee had come clean to the Truckers about her past not long after they'd moved to Radiator Springs. Mack had told her that they didn't need to know, but she'd insisted. "I can't keep living a lie," she had argued. "If they hate me for it, then so be it. It lets me know who my true friends are." Far from passing judgment, Midge and Gaspar had been nothing if not completely open and understanding. Not only them, but everyone in town knew about her former profession. Reactions had varied from laughter and disbelief to mild disgust and indifference, but in the end everyone, including the cantankerous Sarge and uptight Sheriff, came to accept her as one of their own.
Mack glanced warily at Lightning and Mater, but avoided eye contact with his dad. "I don't feel right telling you this, but here goes." He paused, his next words already tasting rancid in his mouth. "Her and Chick… got to know each other pretty well through her old job."
The silence that fell after this statement was like a piano hitting the ground from the hundredth floor. If not for the street sweeper's gurgling snores, it might have crushed them all. The fire in Gaspar's glare smoldered and died.
Mack shook his hood, blinking back the sting of tears. "I told her I wasn't jealous," he murmured, "and I told myself that, too. All this time I tried to convince myself that I wasn't, that I just loved her so much and felt bad about what she'd subjected herself to. But then when she told me about— about him— I couldn't help it. I hated him for it, but I didn't want her to know, so I just pretended it didn't bother me. That none of it bothered me. It was her life, not mine. I kept telling myself I had no right to be jealous, but… after what he did to her today… I couldn't take it anymore."
A sharp noise escaped his throat, and he shuddered. A sudden torrent of tears streamed down his hood. "I just wanted her to be happy," he sobbed, throat tightening. "Let her know I didn't judge her for what she did and that I could never love her any less for it. She feels guilty enough as it is. That's why I could never let her know how much it did bother me. But now… now she knows. And the worst part is, I'm stuck here. I can't even be there for her when she needs me the most!"
"Wull don't feel bad, Mack," Mater spoke up. "Ya couldn'ta been there anyways 'cuz the hospital's too dang small!" Everyone turned to stare at the tow truck. "Whut? Ah's jist tryin' tuh cheer 'im up a little. It hurts tuh see a friend hurtin'." He drove up to the bars that separated him from his friend. "Ah know it probly don't mean much, but Ah promise ya, Mack, me an' Lightnin' is gonna go to that hospital and look after Vee fer ya. We won't leave her side fer nothin', will we?"
Lightning turned a tire outward in a shrug. "Welllll…"
"Tha's right! We's gonna have ourselves a good ol'-fashioned bedside vigilante!"
For the first time since his incarceration, Mack managed a smile. A small one, but sincere just the same. "Thanks, guys," he sniffled. "That does mean a lot to me. Really, it does."
"Ya want us tuh give 'er a message?"
"Sure. Tell her I love her and I'm sorry and – well – Mater, give her a kiss for me, will you?"
Mater nodded gleefully. "Ten-four, good buddy!"
"What about me?" Lightning asked, a little too eagerly.
Mack smirked at him. "Yeah, you can tell her to punch your headlights out if you try to kiss her."
"Ha! Joke's on you 'cuz this car ain't got headlights!"
"Then tell her to make some holes for headlights if you come within ten feet of her with your lips puckered!"
Gaspar rolled forward just then, and the smile vanished from Mack's face. He stared at his father with a mixture of guilt, anticipation and dread. To his surprise, Gaspar dipped his hood to him respectfully. "I can't make any promises, but I'm gonna see what I can do about gettin' you bailed out of here."
* * *
Vee didn't fully regain consciousness until the morning after the crash. By then her private hospital room had been crowded with flowers from friends and fans alike. Most prominent among these were contributions from Red's personal garden, Easter lilies from Flo and Ramone, red roses and baby's breath from the Truckers, freesias and snapdragons from the Weathers, tulips from Sally, chrysanthemums and carnations from Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and pink roses from Darrell Cartrip.
Before she even opened her eyes, the floral scents overwhelmed her. They were practically intoxicating. Vee breathed in deeply and sighed, wondering vaguely if she had died and woken up in Paradise. It didn't occur to her in her drug-induced haze that Paradise promised an end to pain, including the all-over ache tingling to life throughout her frame. The razor-sharp reek of alcohol lurking just beneath the various flower fragrances should have been her second clue that she had survived the crash. It wasn't until she managed to pry open her bruised and swollen eyes and focus them that she realized where she was.
Cables and tubes went under her battered hood, attached at either end to who knew what. Something beeped quietly nearby. She moaned. There was a small sound to her right, followed by a familiar voice. "Well, good morning, Mizz Vroom." Unable to move (both a front and rear tire on opposite sides had been removed), she tried turning only her gaze in the direction of the voice. Doc moved to park himself directly in front of her. "How are you feeling?"
Vee's mouth felt like it was full of peanut butter. Her throat was parched. "Mm— what— ooh, my hood." She looked cross-eyed down at her crumpled hood and grimaced. "Where's the morphine? I feel like crap."
Doc smiled. "Sorry, no morphine during pregnancy. I'll have the doctor find something safe to give you."
Vee blinked. "S-so the baby's okay?"
"For the time being, yes. You were both extremely fortunate to come away from that crash intact." She smirked as he looked her over. "Well, for the most part. They want to keep you and the baby under close observation for about a week to make sure you don't develop any complications."
"But it's – it's really okay? My baby's all right?"
Doc smiled again and nodded. "It's just fine. Can you feel it moving?"
Vee didn't answer right away. "Not right now, no," she said after nearly half a minute. "Are you sure it's okay?"
Doc shrugged. "If you don't believe me, have a look at the monitor."
"I can't quite—"
"Here." Doc rolled the device around the bed until it was easily within Vee's limited field of vision. "See that second line from the top there? That's the baby's heartbeat."
Vee stared wide-eyed at the fluctuations of the green line for a long time, unblinking. "It's so fast," she murmured, awestruck.
"It's usually a bit faster than that," Doc informed her. "Looks like he or she is asleep right now."
"Can they tell what it is yet?"
"Well, they did do an ultrasound, but— don't you want it to be a surprise?"
"I do, but I meant the make and model, not the sex. Can they tell what it is yet? I just want to know if what I'm carrying isn't going to be… you know…" Vee blushed and bit her lip.
Doc nodded. "I understand. From what I saw, it wasn't very clear, but it didn't look nearly as big as you might have been expecting. Of course, now that you're entering the second half of your pregnancy, it's going to start growing really big, really fast."
Vee said nothing in response to this, though Doc could have sworn she paled a little. The Chrysler turned her attention back to the monitor, and as she stared at it solemnly, her eyes began to shimmer. When she blinked, tears spilled down and pooled in the dents on her hood.
"I'm so sorry," she whispered, watching the green line that tracked the baby's heart rate rise and fall rhythmically. "Mommy's an idiot. She never meant to put you in danger, but she did, anyway. All for a stupid hunk of brass."
The young woman's words hit a nerve in the elder racecar. Silently, he reached out to her, placing a worn but gentle tire on hers. They stayed that way for a long moment, until finally Vee blinked away the last tear and turned to Doc with a thankful smile. He smiled back.
"Where's Mack?" she asked hoarsely, and his smile vanished.
"He's— being detained at the moment," he answered carefully, "but he sends his love—"
"And us!" came a voice from the doorway. Vee didn't need to see who it was to recognize Lightning's voice.
"Yup! We're here tuh keep ya comp'ny, Mizz Vee!" Mater said, driving up to her and kissing the minimally damaged space between her wheel well and right headlight. "That's from Mack," he added with a blush.
"Thanks, Mater," Vee replied, smiling. "But where is Mack?"
"In jail," Mater answered before Doc or Lightning could intervene.
Vee stared at him. "What?"
"He beat up Chick Hicks, who looks WAY worse than you, by the way," Lightning spoke up, putting on a casual air in order to downplay the severity of Mack's crime. "I saw him a few minutes ago. He's just down the hall, as a matter of fact."
"I thought you two went to the cafeteria?" Doc said, raising a brow.
"We did," Lightning assured him, "but it's closed till lunchtime, so I went to see Chick."
"An' Ah went up tuh the maternity ward!"
Doc turned a stern look on the two truck. "You weren't by any chance trying to scare someone up there into labor, were you?"
Mater grinned. "Nope! Jist the babies! They's got this li'l newborn minivan in the nursery, cute as a lugnut, till ya go like this: BLEEEAAAH!" He bounced forward, baring his buck teeth and lolling his tongue around like an epileptic serpent. "Ooooh-ee! I never saw nuthin' so cute turn so ugly so dang fast!"
Mater guffawed, pounding the linoleum with a tire. At Doc's and Vee's smoldering glares he quickly sobered up. "Aw, Ah's jist kiddin', Mizz Vee. Ah only does that tuh baby tractors! But that li'l minivan liked me. Kids always like me!" he bragged. "Ah smiled at 'im, and he was smilin' back an' gigglin', and purdy soon every baby in the nursery was all happy and gigglin' an' makin' cute li'l faces—"
"That did SO not happen," Lightning interrupted. Turning to Doc and Vee, he explained, "I went up there with him. All the babies in the nursery were asleep, so Mater started tapping on the glass to wake them up. Then suddenly they're all crying, and this big, burly nurse comes out and yells at him, and he races off screaming with his tow cable between his tires!"
Vee laughed, and Doc smiled at the two young men, thankful for their presence. Still, with or without the dynamic duo, it was sure to be a long, hard week.
Chapter Sixteen: [link]