“The Hitchhiker” by Michael T. Smith

It was late enough that she didn’t even feel tired anymore.

Clarissa squinted so hard her eyes hurt.  She tried see through the fogged-over windshield as the onslaught of rain danced upon her Oldsmobile.  The wipers made a steady, almost hypnotic, squeaking noise in a futile attempt to fight the swirling mass of liquid.

Why did she have to drive back to Pennsylvania tonight? She should have just stayed in the library.

The moon lit up the road well-enough for her to distinguish a metal sign indicating the state border was 27 miles away.  “Yikes,” she grumbled to herself. She thought she was much closer. The massive forest around her seemed like a dark sheet enclosing the road, and all around her, dark-green amorphous masses shivered in the night winds.

“This is not a night anyone wise would be out in,” she spoke again to herself as was her wont when alone – which she often was.  People always told her she was shy (a statement she never knew how those who said it expected a shy person to respond to). She just considered herself an introverted soul, who found a pleasant sanctuary at the library where she had worked.

The road curved sharply, and her fingers tightened on the steering wheel.  She was navigating through the twists and turns when a smaller shadow to her right caught her eye.  It was not a thrashing tree. It was much too small, and its motion was more…“deliberate?” She completed her thought out-loud.  Oh my, she thought as she stared at it. It was a person.

She braked.

In the judgment of a glimpse, she thought he looked young. About her age.  Perhaps a college student going home or military cadet on leave…

The hooded man ran to her red break lights, which shone as a beacon in the bleak night.  As he hustled to the car, his hunched form grew bigger and bigger in her rearview mirror.

Should I? Thought Clarissa.  It wasn’t too late to pull away now.  Certainly not…the slightest twinge of her ankle, and she would be accelerating away.  Probably never to see this individual again.

She heard a knock on her window as she sat clutching the steering wheel.  A smile peeked in from underneath a soaked black hood. Was that a normal smile?

Her hand methodically went to the door, popping the plastic locks up on both her doors.

With water dripping from off his coat, the man popped open the door and climbed inside.  Clarissa kept her eyes glued to his every movement, reading every rustle of his over-sized coat through her glasses, which fogged up as soon as the door was opened.  It was funny, she thought, how messy the streaks on eyewear could seem.

“Oh boy, do I owe you. Thanks, lady –.” He froze while taking off his hood, seeing she couldn’t have been much older than late-twenties.  “I mean…”

That smile again.  Despite her weariness, she couldn’t help but notice he was quite good-looking.

“Miss.”  He shot out a damp hand.  “Name’s Jonas. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”  He spoke with an almost “down-home” drawl, with a little Kennedy-esque flair thrown in for good measure.  He seemed to carry that Midwestern friendliness only those outside of the Midwest hear about.

And he was a bit of a charmer.

“Clarissa,” she replied.

“Well, Clarissa, my savoir.”  He almost shouted out the word.  “I cannot tell you how long I was waiting out there.  I think I’m soaked straight through to my bones. You know, no one will pick up a hitchhiker anymore.”

“I’ve heard –” She lost her voice as she dared another quick look over her foggy glasses at the man.  His wet, dark hair stretched down in elongated clumps, casting shadows on his angular features. Behind which, a wood-brown eye searched around the car while the moaning cries of his leather coat sounded with each subtle movement he made.  And as he reached up to wipe his face off, she noticed his chin was roughened with at least a few days’ stubble.

“Oh shoot.  I’m sorry,” he said.  “I’m just getting water everywhere.”  

“It’s ok.” She said quietly.  

“Jeez, I look like I’ve been swimming with my clothes on.”  He grinned over at Clarissa as if he had made a joke and was now awaiting his well-earned guffaw.  However, in response, she merely pushed up her glasses and gave a timid smile.

There was a moment’s silence.  She breathed in the silence. She drowned in the silence.  “How long were you out there?”

“Me?”

“Who else?”  She smiled again with a slight chuckle.  Hers was a pleading smile, saying more than she could articulate with words.

The stranger next to her buzzed his lips.  “Oh, hard to tell really. Not too long I would guess — looking back that is.  But it felt like a lifetime as I was standing out there.”

“I’m sorry.”  Her voice was mousy in lieu of the sonic mixture of the engine’s churning and the heavy rain plashing against the windshield.  Perhaps “mousier” would be a more accurate phrasing.

“Well, don’t be.  You’re exactly what I was hoping to find.”  The man stared out the rain-streaked window.  Not that there was much to see with the weather as it was.  Out of the corner of her eye, Clarissa would peek at him as they drove along.  Holding a constant hardened expression, he seemed like a dark horse of the world.

The conversation’s death left an awkward void in the automobile, which she hoped to alleviate by turning the radio on:

A disk jockey’s voice came through the speakers sounding much too chipper.  “…and hey, hey, hey, top of the hour to you on WKPW: Welcome to the Bob and Ben Show.  Severe thunderstorms continue to berate the area. If you are outside, beware of flashfloods, high winds, and lightning.  We advise all our listeners to stay inside as it is a nasty one out there tonight…”

“Yeah!  Thanks buddy.” The strange man next to her broke the silence.  “Helpful weather report, huh?”

On the radio, Janis Joplin began belting out a static-covered tune – more static than tune.

“So where are you from?” The man turned his torso to her.

“Around,” she tersely replied.

“Well…well everybody is from around now, aren’t they sweetheart?” He spoke loudly.

“I mean, I’ve moved a lot.  First school, and…then jobs.”

“What do you do?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?” He seemed intrigued.  His entire body was turned towards her now, and she only caught fleeting glimpses of his squinting eyes staring her down.

“I’m unemployed at the moment.”  She said quietly. “I-I just quit my job actually.”

“What did you do?” He talked over the end of her response.

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Is that why you’re traveling?”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe?”  He stroked his stubbly chin. She could see a bit of grime underneath his fingernails as he dragged his fingers across his face.  “So…yes.”

Maybe.”

The discussion was like exchanging blows, with Joplin singing in the background:  ‘I know it’s not my place to say, but it sounds like your one of those solo types, moving about by your lonesome…’

“Why are you so curious?”   She asked. If they weren’t confined in the automobile, Clarissa would have searched for a seat farther from the man she had just picked up.  She didn’t like answering these questions.

“Just conversation,” he said coolly before diverting his gaze again.  Joplin’s voice fought to get through the car’s old speakers:

‘…just another word for nothing left to lose…’ …but a blast from the thunderstorm cut out the rest, leading into a haze of beeps and chimes.  He turned his whole body towards her.

“Of course.”  She said. “I – uh –”  but the suddenly clear radio cut her off.

“This is WPPW with a Special Newsbreak.  A murder has been discovered in Chesapeake County believed to be the work of a psychopathic killer moving through the area…” Clarissa’s fingers white-knuckled the steering wheel, the plastic casing cracking under her grip.  “…details are skim, but preliminary investigations state the murderer is believed to be alone, traveling with no acquaintances.  Witnesses report the culprit had no definite markings, clothing, and traveled with little luggage…”

It was ridiculous — her thoughts right now…

“Miss, are you ok? You look nervous,” he uttered with a defying calmness.

The radio managed to stay mostly on, switching to a classic Jimi Hendrix number.  The heavy guitar riffs seemed to drive her heartbeat to an even quicker pace, which – in turn – seemed to drive her breathing to an equally quicker pace.  All told, her physical responses seemed to drive her thoughts.

“Of course.”  She said. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Nervous?” He said. “Or ok?”

“Either…both.” She spoke quickly.  She could sense herself losing her grip on the situation and pulled herself together.  Now was not the time for an unclear or unlevel head. To make matters worse, the road seemed to come at her as a black blur of asphalt.  “I’m sorry. What I meant to say was that I’m fine.”

He smiled again.  Why did that smile have to be so enigmatic? “I’ll believe you, but I don’t know if the same could be said about you believing yourself, sweetheart.”  Her eyes shifted to his luggage – a lone brown suitcase that showed its age.

“Is that all you’re carrying?” She said to him with choppy breath.  

He looked at his suitcase and clutched it tighter.  “All I need for my purposes.”

“What purposes are those?”

“And why are you so curious?”  His tone cut the conversation in half.  He held his thoughts to himself, and she held hers.  Dearly. Jimi sang through the static: ‘If you wanna get outta here alive…Freedom, That’s what I want now.’

For the second time, he turned his entire body to face her directly.

With one eye on the road and one eye occasionally shooting a glance at him, Clarissa saw a grin spread across his face like melted butter on toast.  The rain was coming down full force, which only served to heighten her tension as the tiny car whipped around the unfamiliar back roads.

There was absolutely no one else out this treacherous night.

“What?” She blurted out, noticing his complete lack of movement while staring at her.   His face was nothing but a puzzle of shadows in which only key features stood out – high cheekbones, black strands of hair, a cleft chin.

“You’re funny.” He said.

“Why?”

“You’re one of the more quiet types I’ve met.”  He said with a shrug.

“You’re pretty quiet too.” She panted out.

“Hey sweetheart, I’m happy to yap it up with you until our gums get tired.  You’re the one who didn’t want to answer any questions from the get-go.”  He leaned in a little closer over the center console. “But I tend to find out what I want.”  

Clarissa felt like she had already told him too much about herself already; she was not comfortable with this fact.

Especially when he put his hand on her leg.  “I’ll bet you haven’t even told anyone you quit your job this morning.  It was this very morning wasn’t it?”

The radio crackled with the distinctive cacophony of a news-broadcast breaking in as she pushed his hand off of her leg.

“…This is some hefty news folks.  Bob and Ben with you on WKPW. This is shocking news. Forensic experts are now connecting the murder we just reported minutes ago to a previous murder across county lines.  Yes, we have a serial killer by-definition on the loose, one who various news outlets are dubbing The Outcast.’”  Upon the sound of the name, with each phonetic nuance rolling off the DJ’s tongue, Clarissa felt like she had a block of ice dumped into her stomach.  “Police further warn the suspect is most likely finding victims along the roadside, possibly posing as a trucker, a patrolman, or even a hitchhiker.”

She could have fainted.

It seemed like her eardrum popped, and the entire world shrunk in on itself.  “Where are you going?” Clarissa blurted out to her shadowed companion.

He stretched his arms skyward, his big leather jacket moaning with his body’s expansion.  “As far as you can take me.”

“Where are you from?”

He shrugged.  “All over, I guess …same as you.”

Her lips felt dry as she quickly prodded him with another question.  “So you travel a lot?”

“When I need to.”

Unconsciously, Clarissa sped up.  The act mirrored her quickening pulse.  As her junker of a car dipped and then peaked over a slight series of hills, she thought she saw the glare of a headlight down the road for the briefest of seconds.  Her mind instantly cried out: was that a cop?  But it was merely the moonlight reflecting from a pool of rainwater, the pavement otherwise cupped in the skeletal hands of the roadside trees.  To think what that cop could have meant…

“How did you know about me?” She said aloud.  

“Know what?” He was smiling again.

Now, Buddy Holly burst through the speakers in his smooth, crooning voice: ‘Well that’ll be the day when you say goodbye.  Yeah, yes, that’ll be the day when you make me cry.’  She wondered how he could sound so happy at a time like this, but Buddy didn’t respond.    

She noticed her dark passenger’s hand gripping tighter on his bag.  Could he tell how nervous she was?  Was her heart thumping loud enough so that it echoed in his ears too?

“How did you know I quit my job so recently?”

His smile – already too wide – somehow expanded.  He said in a sweet voice, “Oh…oh, bingo, bingo. Chalk one up for me.”

Clarissa swallowed. “You didn’t answer my question.”

“I’m a good guesser, I guess.”  He laughed at his little flailing joke.  “No, I feel I can more or less read people soon as I meet them.  All about them.” This was bad. “Like I did with you.” Really bad.

She turned to see him but couldn’t maintain eye-contact with the demands the thrashing rain put on her driving. “Do you have any family?”

“Nope.”  He said. “Not I.”

“What about your friends?”

“Oh, here and there.  But I don’t have any particularly close friends I suppose.  I’m a bit of a nomad one might say.”

“One might say?”

“Sure,” his voice was cool as he slowly nodded.  “They might.” The radio reception was getting more erratic in this section of the highway.  They were far from the town now. He loudly cleared his throat next to her. “What would you say?”

The thunder cracked across the sky.  “About what?”

“Why about me, sweetheart, what would you say about me?  At the end of it all, you’ve asked enough questions for an interview tonight haven’t you?”  He ended his sentence with belligerent chuckle.

Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! What the hell was she thinking?

Still Buddy sang: ‘…That’ll be the day, you make me cry…’

“Would you like to get to know me?”  He smiled so widely.

She tried to gaze out the window, as if the direction of her gaze could somehow free her body from its current confinement in the car.  All she could muster up was a weak, “maybe.”

“Yeah…maybe, I’d like that.”  He moved so close to her she could smell a faint whiff of onions coming off of his breath, probably the remnants of a meal from some roadside diner.  “You know I had a close friend looked just like you once.”

“I thought you didn’t have any close friends.”

“Right, I had a close friend.”

“What happened to her?”  Why was she even continuing this conversation?  But what else could she do?

“What happened to her?” He repeated as he stroked his chin.  “Well, she’s no longer with us anymore. That’s what happened.  She’s gone to a better place.”

‘…Cause that’ll be the day when I die…’

There was silence between them.

Internally, she yelled at herself: stay focused! She spoke at a rapid pace now “You know, I never asked.  What happened to your car?”

His eyebrows raised in confusion.

“You were just standing there all by yourself.” She said.

“Don’t have a car, hence the thumb.”

“How’d you get in the middle of the highway, then?”  Her head jerked towards him every now and again.

“In a car…”

“But you –”

“From the last ride I got.”

Their words cut each other off like two daggers clashing into each other, stopping each partially completed swing of a phrase.

“What happened to them?”

“Her.”

“What happened to her?”

He smiled that horribly large smile.  “Well she’s gone, sweetheart…far away from here now.  So far away I’ll never see her again.”

She moved to speak, but her voice trailed off as Buddy Holly was interrupted by the DJ’s news broadcast once more.

“We’re back once again on WPPW with word now that our murderer has had another victim added to the tally!”  The radio DJ crooked out ‘another’ like it was his final breath of air.  She wondered why he couldn’t just shut up!  “This is frightening.  This is truly frightening stuff folks.  To all our listeners out there stay indoors.  Lock your doors. Do not open up for any strangers.  Stay in your house! And —”  His hand slowly hovered over to the radio dial before a short click snapped the radio into silence.   

Clarissa jumped.  It’s amazing how silence can cause someone to jerk with fright.

The steady drone of the car pushed the seconds by ever-so-slowly as they sat in silence.  Several agonizing minutes (or was it just seconds?) of silence.  He was looking at her the whole time.  

“Does this radio serial killer business scare you, Clarissa?”  

She had let this go farther than she ever should have.  “What did you say your name was anyway?”

“Joe.”

“No you didn’t.” Her head jerked towards him.

“I haven’t any other name to tell you, sweetie.”  

“It wasn’t Joe.”

He sighed.  “My full name is Jonas…but my friends call me Joe.”

She swallowed hard.  

“Are you ok?”  

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

He readjusted his body in the car seat.  No matter what she said, he could tell she was agitated.  “Now, I don’t know. Why wouldn’t you be?” He continued to stare at her…into her.

She swallowed. Hard.

After a moment, he repeated himself, “I said: why wouldn’t you be?”

She didn’t respond but shot her eye over to him in rapid succession as her knuckles turned white from her staunch grip on the steering wheel.  He seemed to be on the verge of madness. What have I done?

From the corner of her eye, she saw him move for his suitcase.  Without any hesitation, she thrust her hand underneath her seat.

The struggle that followed caused the car to veer of the road, hydroplaning into the gravel shoulder.  Its passengers were thrown from left to right and back again while in the midst of their own struggle. The knife seemed to have its own motion, moving in every direction possible as blood splattered on the front windshield, the side windows, the seats…it was a mess.  A horrible mess. But, then, it was over.

*   *   *

“…WKPW here, bringing you the late night swings for you late night things.  Just in at the newsroom is some hot stuff. Folks, folks, folks. It makes me sick to report this.  But a fourth body has been discovered along alongside Route 66 this very evening, just a mere half-hour ago….”

Clarissa stood on the side of the road, wiping off her windshield as she listened to the radio blare its news update.  She hadn’t planned on the events of this night.

“…it’s horrible, Bob.  Simply horrible…”

But he had simply found out too much about her.  He seemed suspicious, which boded badly with the urge returning.  

“…I cannot express my deepest concern to all you out there in radio-land; protect yourselves; protect your families.  Be advised The Outcast has struck yet again!”

“Ugh,” She groaned to herself…she always hated that nickname.

 


Michael T. Smith is an Assistant Professor of the Polytechnic Institute at Purdue University, where he received his PhD in English.  He teaches cross-disciplinary courses that blend humanities with other areas.  He has published over 50 poems in over 20 different journals (mostly within the past year).  He also has critical work recently published in Symbolism and Cinematic.  He loves to travel.

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