The Hitchhiker (part one)
The hitchhiker wandered along the dusty American highway, wondering if she was still on I-40. West or south, she wasn’t sure, as long as she kept moving- down, away, going nowhere, it didn’t matter. The thing she was escaping was inside her- she’d brought it along, it kept her alive. Technically.
Dry bushes and weeds dotted the landscape, flat and ongoing into the burning sky that hung above her, a ceiling of whistling heat. The emptiness was oppressive, the loneliness was killing her, which, she had long since decided, was for the best. After all, she wasn’t truly alone. She touched her marks, her fingers lightly grazing the jagged lines on her wrists. On she went, her leather jacket too hot, but she didn’t care. Maybe it would kill the thing inside her, burn it out, back to hell, a fever curing her infection. The sky felt like it was on fire. She had to keep moving, she didn’t care how or where. In the distance behind her, the faint approach of an engine. She felt it coming. She stuck out her thumb…
The driver had taken this route many times. Endless desert scenery that contained no beauty for him. Brush and weeds, dry twigs stabbing at the air, dirt, dirt… he spotted her, a slight, frail thing, lost in this nowhere, dark stains all over her jeans. She’ll do, he thought…
Barrelling truck, heavy machinery, kicking gravel, loud, deadly. One swerve and it would be over. She waited. Dirt and stones sprayed toward her and the heat blasted her face. The driver asked where she was going. ‘Your way,’ she replied. The trucker smiled to himself.
Fake leather seats, searing hot. The wind was warm, scratching her skin and coating it. She climbed into the cab, her dark, stringy hair falling across her eyes. Everything about her had been dulled, like the outside of the truck that had long ago lost its sheen. The acrid smell of old greasy burgers, their wrappers still littering the floor. Stains on the seat like the ones on her pants- black oil, perhaps, and something else, something rusty. She felt a turn in her stomach. It was the turn she feared
They drove, the road ahead unchanging. ‘I’m Rick,’ he told her. Fine, she thought, I’m Cole.
‘Cole?’ ‘Nicole, but no one calls me that.’ No one called her anything
‘Why you out here all on your own, Nikky?’ She stared at her hands, her wrists. ‘Just trying to get away.’
‘You running away from home? How old are you, eighteen? Nah, don’t tell me- you’re eighteen.’ Her insides squirmed. She could never get used to this
Stained upholstery and stench. She looked out the rolled-down window. Desert air, thick and stifling, the wind doing nothing to cut the heat. Old wooden posts, tangled barbed wire and tumbleweeds, jagged rocks and rusted signs, remnants of a dead civilization, time has moved on. Things are different now. They’ve changed the name of this road. She was young, but something inside her stretched back, reached before the decay. Was there ever such a time?
‘Listen,’ the truck driver continued, ‘there’s a road house in about ten miles this way, and nothing between here and there, so why don’t we stop and grab a bite when we reach it?’ It didn’t matter to her, she didn’t eat. Her ribs poked through the skin underneath her filthy top. The thought of shitty diner food made her vaguely sick
‘Fine,’ she said.
Bleached blacktop rolled beneath them. The cabin cooked under the sun.
The sign for an upcoming rest stop interrupted the barren landscape. A few gas pumps, covered in the dust and dirt from years, and a tin shack. The bar had a faded sign and the wooden slats that made its walls and roof were cracking. She heard the growling of a mangy dog wrestling with something in the ground. She smelled rot and alcohol
The interstate stretched away from them into infinity and they stepped inside. The air was rancid and stale. The trucker ordered two beers and wasn’t questioned. ‘On me,’ he told her. She should get away. This would be her only chance. But if she did, what was going to happen would only happen to someone else. They sat at a booth, and a leather woman in a badly cropped top came and asked unsmiling what they wanted to eat. ‘Two burgers.’
‘Not for me’ Cole said
‘I told ya, on me’
It was dark inside, only one or two other patrons, other truckers with their hats and flannel. The wooden table was marked and scored, had names carved into it. She absently ran a finger over a scar
‘I don’t eat’
‘Fellas like a little meat on the bone,’ said the trucker, as the stray dog continued to gnaw outside. ‘You got a boyfriend?’
She looked away. The table had a layer of film, and she could see the grime on the bar. Whiskey, sweat, and meat. Sometimes, the dust from outside
He looked at the thing sitting across from him. Skinny little bitch, he was only trying to be nice. He didn’t have to pick her up. He could dump her at the side of the road any time
He was telling her about himself. An ex-wife. An asshole boss. A shitty roach-filled apartment with a view of a parking lot, usually empty. The flies in the bar buzzed around their heads unacknowledged, trying to find holes in their skulls to burrow into, trying to escape the heat. She thought about the carcass she had come across in the desert, bones grasping their way out of the desiccated flesh, the sun beating down, bleaching the skeleton chewed on by coyotes and pecked at by buzzards before they moved on to fresher, shadier prey. It was too hot even for the maggots.
The waitress stinking of cigarettes brought their two burgers and greasy fries, the coldest thing in the place. The meat dripped, its juice pooling on the trucker’s plate as he crammed it into his maw. She nibbled on a salty fry, sharing her meal with the insects. He wanted to take that fry and shove it down her throat.
As the trucker chewed, the meat juice ran down his shaggy chin. There were no napkins, though the back of his hand seemed to do. She curled into the booth, attempting to cocoon herself, remain unnoticed as she congealed in the corner like grime behind a stove. Maybe she was a chrysalis, housing a larva, and something would one day hatch from inside her
He swallowed his beer right down to the floating black bits, telling her she had catching up to do. She took a sip. It tasted the way the bar smelled and swam down her gullet in chunks. Her stomach turned. Not her stomach- something alongside it, beneath it, around it, twisted into her intestines, itching to get out. She left for the bathroom, a filthy hole without properly working water, rust in the sink and excrement on every surface. She didn’t care, she didn’t have to go, it would be fine…
Could she lock herself in, or crawl through a window? It didn’t matter- the desert was as much a threat as a man, one she had no hope against. In the corner a fly struggled in a spider’s web, while back at the table another rubbed its two front legs together, as if in anticipation of the feast it would enjoy when they left. ‘Let’s go,’ she said to the truck driver when she returned to his table.
He threw some wadded cash down with a wink at the waitress. She sneered. Old fuckin’ hag, he thought. Cole’s scars itched and burned
Something inside her told her not to get back in the truck, while something else urged her on, hungry, thirsty, anxious, excited. She wondered if she had any control. It wriggled, it writhed. It isn’t up to me, she thought. Monsters will be monsters
He was a large man, hairy, beer belly poking out from under his shirt and over his jeans. Her own pants were scuffed, knees torn, covered in dirt where she’d fallen, where the wind blew the desert into the fibers, trying to reach her skin. Her lips cracked. Her skin was pale despite the sun’s deadly radiation. He had a trucker’s tan. His bottom lip was wet
The sky pierced her, electric, white-hot. Dry driftwood and yucca tombstones, prickly plants and bleached bones. How many corpses were buried out here? Would the earth notice one more
The scars on her wrists. The night she tried. The last time she tried. The last time she cared. The knife, that dull, jagged knife with its jagged edge ripping into her flesh reluctantly, she tried harder, harder, no clean painless lines, no chance to go peacefully. She remembered the blood, red as the sky, bleeding down upon her, into the ground, turning brown, then sludge-black. Her meat juice oozed, pooled, congealed, became something else. Her blood was alive. It came out of her, sinewy tendrils wrapping around her wrists, down her arm, gripping her tighter, tighter. Her eyes widened and the sky bled
She didn’t die. Something inside her wouldn’t let her die.
The sky was bleached and white again, a gaping cyan biding its time. She didn’t belong here. This wasn’t her world. She imagined a place with a reason for such desolation, a future of famine and emptiness, a wasteland standing as a massive unmarked grave of some unknown, forgotten holocaust. Perhaps that was the past. Another place, or another time. Or now. Her sweat did not evaporate, it clung to her with the desert air. Red bell-shaped flowers bloomed inexplicably in the dead gravel. She didn’t know what they were called.
He was talking about a motel now. Cable tv, a pool, no questions asked. She didn’t swim. The wilderness around them was dotted with old burnt tailpipes and pieces of corrugated metal. The land was corrupted. Vultures circled above
His wife was a bitch. Taking his daughter away like that. He deserved more, more than driving day after day, parched and lonely. Nothing but cactuses and dust. Every now and then, his truck would hit an armadillo, but he’d never see the same dead animal twice. Scavengers must be getting to them. He thought. Maybe it was the same armadillo.
He was a good man once. He thought so. He still was, in his way. What had changed? Why was this how it was? This road was his, it belonged to him. These damn hitchhikers, they didn’t belong here. He moved them to where they needed to go, where they ought to be. The teenage girl with the black hair like wire who didn’t swat at the flies around her face. She would be next.
She knew she didn’t belong there. She didn’t know where she was. A wayward traveller with no home, not anymore. She’d destroyed that. Or rather, something had, something she didn’t understand. Was hers a life worth saving?
A wanderer, a runaway, he thought. No one would miss her
They hadn’t passed another car. The middle of nowhere. The sun, the stench… she began to doze off, into those atomic dreams of hers. Background fallout festering. The bugs on her skin, licking, sucking, laying their eggs, the one inside her ravenous, angry. Black tendrils snaking their way through her body, crawling through her bloodlines like tunnels in earth. A grizzled hand crept up her leg
Fucking creep, she thought. Dirty old man. Your job is to get me where I’m going. Take me away, away from everything, away from you. Then you’re done. You’re done, he thought. He’d taken the knife from her pocket, glanced and the scars on her wrists. You’ve been done a long time.
Dusk encroached, the air stilled. Dogbane littered the ditches on the side of the road, and she wondered how many bodies dotted this route like road signs. There was a trail of blood behind them, she knew that, and it would continue as far as it could.
She couldn’t even remember what had made her do it, it had been another lifetime. It seems she’s always been trying escape, but from what? She thought she was weak, taking the knife to her wrists, crying, unable to cope. What had been so wrong? Her home, her family, her father… she was done, she’d wanted to die. How cruel to find a strength inside her, one she did not ask for, one that came from outside, a foreign presence in her body that willed her to go on despite herself. It had crawled inside her, feeding off her. She died that day, though she was still alive. Her walking, speaking, blinking body a corpse only waiting for a carrion feeder strong enough to digest the parasite along with the meat. She was unclean, to touch her was to invite death
He glanced at her bare knee poking through the dirty denim, the weathered leather jacket that should be killing her. But she felt cold inside, always cold. Where did it come from? It rode with her, hitching a ride in her nervous system. Her body shivered at the emptiness and desolation of a world that could not possibly sustain life. She looked at the cacti outside, lizards and scorpions taking refuge in their shade. How could anything survive out here? They would have to move on, go somewhere else. The world was over
He thought of the women who lurked at truck stops, she thought of the men she’d left behind. Nowhere to go but on. Twilight darkened the jagged landscape and more detritus appeared along the highway. The painted white lines cut into hyphens dotting the concrete, the road ahead at last no longer crimped and distorted in the air. Ahead, streetlights, another car passing them by. A family of four, perhaps, on a road trip. A pair of lovers. Another murderer. The flies and moths were black silhouettes against the dim sky as they approached a crossroads. A gas station at the corner, the option of turning toward fast food, convenience stores, and a cheap motel. There were people here, other people, some who’d want to help, some who’d want something else. She shrank down into the seat, the stains barely visible in the diminishing light. There was nothing she could do now.
They pulled toward the motel with its blinking neon sign and empty, unused pool. Rick parked the truck and stepped down, walked around and opened the door for Cole, who slowly stepped out onto the concrete of the parking lot, into inevitability. She waited outside the office as he checked them in. The man behind the counter never saw her