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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hitching a Ride

A new short story, about an encounter on a lonely highway in Arizona one summer's night.

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Hitching a Ride


            The sun was setting over the southeastern Arizona desert, and I was heading up Highway 80 through rocks and cactus and sagebrush and not a hell of a lot else.  I was on the way to visit my cousin in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and planning on stopping halfway at a hotel in Deming for the night.  I work as a staff geologist for the Freeport Copper Company, and had been down in Bisbee doing some preliminary site work – the idea being that if the place looks promising, I’ll move there semi-permanently.  You never can tell with this sort of job, though.  You think you’ve settled down, and then the higher-ups transfer you to South Bunghole, Nevada, and the next thing you know, you’re packing up everything and moving again.
            In any case, I was just driving through the desert, radio cranked, window open, shirt off – between the thermometer dropping as the sun did the same, and a seventy-mile-an-hour breeze coming in the window, it was a damn sight more comfortable than the 105 degrees it had been at two in the afternoon.  The strange, sculpted rock formations swished past in the half-light, the tan sandstone and pink limestone torched to fiery crimson as the sun reached the horizon.
            It had been twenty miles since I’d passed another car – for all I knew, I was the alone on the road that night.  The only other living things I saw were a couple of hawks, flying high and probably heading toward their roost, and a fox that looked at me out of a gap between two rocks, its eyes glowing green in my headlights.  For ten minutes after the fox there were just rocks, cactus, and sagebrush, fading into shadows in the failing light.
            And that’s when I saw the guy with the yellow t-shirt.
            He was standing on the side of the road, thumb out, wearing a rather foolish-looking grin.  There was nothing else near him – not a backpack, not a broken-down car, nothing.  I had zoomed past him before I registered that he was there, then my eyes jumped upward into my rearview mirror in time to see the whap of my wind-wake blow his unruly blond hair into a snarl.  His head turned, and I saw his eyes meet mine.  I know that sounds ridiculous; I was already a good hundred feet further on, and the light was bad, but I was certain of it; he was looking right at me, still grinning in a goofy, good-natured way, thumb still stuck out.
            I hit the brakes.  I’m honestly not sure why I did.  But I braked to a stop, and put my car into reverse, and still looking into the mirror, I backed up to where he was, and hit the switch that lowered the passenger side window all the way down.
            “You need a ride?”  Okay, I know, dumb question, but I didn’t know what to make of this guy, out here all alone in the middle of the desert at nightfall.
            “Yeah, thanks!” the guy said, and opened the door, and climbed in.
            I gave him a look; he was tall, with fair skin and almost white-blond hair.  His arms and legs were thin, and the t-shirt he wore didn’t seem to fit very well, hanging loosely and fluttering in the breeze as I put the car in gear and started back up the highway.
            “Don’t you have any stuff?” I asked.
            “Nope,” he said, his voice cheerful.
            “How’d you get out here?” I said, trying to make it sound offhand.
            “Oh, I was already out here,” he replied, as if that explained everything.
            “Okay,  then where are you headed?”
            “I just need to get a ways up the road,” he said.  “You don’t need to go out of your way.”
            By this time, it was full dark, and the mountains and dry washes had vanished into a uniform black, only lit up by the twin circles of my headlights.  There was no out-of-my-way to go; there was just the highway, winding its way through the hills, not a cross road for fifty miles.
            “My name is Matt,” I said.  “Matt Childs.”
            “Nice to meet you, Matt,” he said, and I saw his grin flash out again.
            After a few minutes of silence, I couldn’t contain myself.  “Dude,” I said, “c’mon.  What the hell were you doing out there?  How’d you get out there without a car?”
            “You can get places without cars,” he said.
            “That doesn’t answer the question,” I shot back.
            “Nope!” he said, and laughed.  Then his voice got serious.  “Oh, look,” he said.  “Look, but don’t stop the car.”
            I glanced over at where he was pointing, and caught a hint of motion, off the road to the left.  And there, walking along the road, was a boy of perhaps fourteen.  He was dressed in ragged jeans and a sweatshirt, and raised a face that glowed pale in my headlights as I passed him.  Then he was swallowed up in the night.
            “Lucky you found me first, isn’t it?” he asked.  “You might have stopped.”
            “Why is that lucky?” I said.  “He just looks like some poor kid.  But god knows how he got out here, either – I didn’t think there were many towns along this stretch of highway.”
            “There aren’t,” the man said.
            “So why is it lucky?” I repeated.
            “Oh.  Because that was a Black-eyed Child.  You’d probably never have been seen again.”
            The way he said it, so matter-of-factly, sent a shudder up my spine.  “A Black-eyed Child?” I said.  “What are you talking about?”
            “You don’t know about them?” he said, his voice rising a little, as if he found it incredible that I had no idea what he was talking about.  “They’re dangerous.  You stop on the road, or maybe answer your door in the middle of the night, and there’s a kid there.  He looks sad and forlorn, and asks for help – for a ride, to use your telephone, for a drink of water, whatever.  And then you look at him, and you see his eyes are completely black – like drops of ink.  No colored part, no whites.  And you know at that point you’re fucked, but it’s too late by then, of course.”  He gestured with one thin hand at the road slipping beneath my tires.  “They love this stretch of highway.  Not many witnesses, you know.”
            “What….” I started, and then stopped, closed my mouth.  “That’s crazy.”
            “Yeah, it is,” he said, with feeling.
            “But who are they?”
            He shrugged.  “I dunno.  I just avoid ‘em.  And they avoid me.  Mutual respect and fear, you know.”  He laughed.  “And like I said.  Lucky thing you saw me before you saw him.  I bet you’d have stopped, wouldn’t you?”
            “Yeah,” I said.  “I probably would have.”  I shook my head.  “But come on.  How do you know that was a Black-eyed Child?  Looked like a plain old teenager to me.”
            “They always wear ragged clothes.  Usually a sweatshirt and jeans.  I don’t know why.  I suppose they haven’t figured out that it makes them stand out.”  He chuckled again.  “Of course, I don’t really fit in all that well myself, do I?”  He reached up and tugged on the sleeve of his t-shirt.  “Why’d you stop and pick me up, anyway?”
            “I don’t know,” I said.  “You looked harmless.  And I didn’t want to leave someone out in the desert who needed help.  You didn’t even have any water, or a backpack, or anything.”
            “Nope,” he said.
            “So, where are you trying to get to?” I asked, feeling like I needed to change the subject.  The previous one was creeping me right the hell out.
            “Like I said.  A few miles up.  Away from that kid, and any others who might be there with him.   I’d rather not get into a scuffle with them this evening – you know, discretion being the better part of valor, and all.”  I heard the serious note come back into his voice.  “But you know, next few days, you should be careful.  That Black-eyed Child saw me riding with you.  They’ll be gunning for you, least until you can get far enough away, kind of lose yourself in the Great American Wilderness.  But I’m sure they’ll track you for a while.”  He reached out, and touched my shoulder, and I jumped a little.  “If someone knocks on your door at night, don’t answer it, okay?”
            A lot of replies came to mind – knock it off, you’re scaring the shit out of me being the first one – but they all died on my lips.  I looked over at him, at his white, angular face, topped by its shock of blond hair, his eyes wide and luminous in the darkness.  “Okay,” I said, faintly.  “I’ll be careful.”
            His grin flashed out again.  “Good.”  He looked out of the side window, as if trying to see something in the pitch black, and finally said, “Okay, I think this is far enough.  You can let me out, now.”
            “Seriously?” I said.  “We’re still a good sixty miles from I-10, much less near any town.”
            “Yup.  I’ll be fine.  I appreciate the ride.  And like I said; just be careful.”
            I braked the car to a stop, and he opened the door, and climbed out.  After closing the door, he leaned into the open window, and said, “You should get out of here quickly.  I’m guessing they’re pretty much right behind you.”  He smiled, and gave me a cheerful wave, as if he’d just told me nothing more alarming than have a nice evening, and walked off the side of the road, between two clumps of sagebrush, and vanished into the night.
            I put the car in gear and hit the accelerator.  I don’t think I went under eighty miles an hour until the lights of Deming appeared in the distance.
            Only one other thing about that strange evening bears mention.  It was just before two in the morning, and I was sound asleep in room 204 of the La Quinta Motor Inn, and there was a knock on the door.  I sat bolt upright in bed, the sheet slipping from my bare shoulders, my heart pounding.  The knock sounded again – furtive, quiet, persistent.  I felt the sweat break out on my chest, and kept my breathing steady only with an effort.  The knocking continued, intermittently, for over three hours, and only stopped at about 5:30, when the first light of morning was turning the eastern sky to pearl.
            I didn't open the door until nine o'clock.  By then, the corridor was empty.

2 comments:

  1. wow! once again, you have creeped me out first thing in the morning. damn.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great story, Gordon! Enjoyed it immensely!

    ReplyDelete