The following is an excerpt from my novel, "The Hitchhiker: An Unlikely Love Story." For inquiries about this manuscript, please contact:
P.O. Box 4281
Durango, CO 81302-4281
The Hitchhiker: An Unlikely Love Story
I am driving home in the rain when I see the hitchhiker. Visibility's shit- sheets of rain slash at the car, obscuring him from view until the last second, and then he appears amongst the trees, walking along the shoulder of the highway. He's hunched over, hands in the pockets of his black leather jacket. He doesn't even bother to put out his thumb as my car approaches- looks like he's given up on finding a ride tonight. His hopeless trudge- head down, hands in pockets- hurts me somehow, in the place my heart used to be.
Jesus, I think. He's just a kid. He looks like he's cold...
I'm wondering if I should stop and offer him a ride when the car hits a puddle and starts to slide.
Hydroplaning. That feeling in my stomach like being at the top of a roller-coaster, right before the drop. My battered Ford Taurus loops crazily across the skittery surface of the road. I haul on the steering wheel, try to steer out of the skid. The passenger-side tires drop off the pavement and sink into the mud and gravel of the soft shoulder, where the kid was walking only a second ago.
Where is he? Where is he? I don't want to hit him. Can't see shit...
The steering wheel twists in my hands like something alive. I'm screaming, cursing, honking the horn, slamming on the brakes- all at once. All of a sudden, I see the surprised white O of his face in the headlights' glare. He sees me, sees the car, turns to run. I twist the wheel in one last effort to stop this terrible, terrible thing from happening. The car responds, but too late. Too late. I feel the bumper strike something solid and my face slams into the steering wheel, splitting my lip open. My seatbelt snaps, locking into place across my chest, my lap. It hurts, it hurts- not like a slap but like a bear hug, squeezing me too tight.
The world fades out in a shimmering wave of silver and blue. I ache inside. He was just a kid, I think, with a tearing sense of regret. And then everything goes grey, then black. I surrender to the void.
Cold wind on my face. Raindrops fall on my hot, bruised lips like tears. I smell mud and rain; something sweet and green. A hand- not my hand- on my shoulder.
"Oh fuck oh fuck..." His voice is trembling. Whatever he's seen, whatever it was, it must have been awful. He sounds so scared. "Are you all right? Say something," he begs. I don't know him. I would remember this voice, this warm hand. I do not know him. I look into his face, confused. Is he talking to me? He's looking into my eyes, worried. He shakes my shoulder gently. "Hey...are you hurt?"
"What the fuck just happened?" My voice is rough and dusty. My tongue feels thick and foreign in my mouth. "Jesus." My voice is not my own. Disoriented, I look down at my hands. Red lacquered nails, long skinny fingers, wedding ring. They, at least, are familiar. I flex my fingers, absorbed by the sight of them moving along so obediently.
"Are you hurt?" he asks. Who is this guy? Why is he asking so many questions? I don't know him...do I?
"My face... I split my lip, I think." I lift one shaky hand to my poor, wounded mouth. It comes away slick and bloody, but all my teeth seem fine. The blood isn't much, but it's enough to turn my stomach. My lip feels too hot, too fat. It's already starting to swell. Shit.
"Your car went off the road. You hit a tree," he tells me, looking concerned. "Are you okay? Tell me where it hurts." His voice is gentle.
"My heart," I tell him. "I think it's broken. My husband...he's cheating on me again. We had a fight. Fucking bastard. Is he here?" I ask, confused.
"No. There was no one else in the car with you," he says, receiving the news of James' infidelity with a calm nod and a sorrowful smile. "Anything else? I could try to call an ambulance, if-"
"They can't help me. There's no cure for what I've got," I say in my strange new voice. It sounds harsh, streetwise. Tough. I like it. I light a cigarette, blow out smoke.
"Are you injured? Besides your heart?" he asks me, crouching down beside the open doot of the car to look at me more closely. I can see his dark curls, wet with rain; his soaked leather jacket, his sweet face.
Something about his face...so familiar...what is it? I know I've seen him before... somewhere...but where? And then I remember...
James' phone call comes just as I'm leaving work. He won't be home tonight, he says. So sorry. Poker night with the guys, over at Ray's house. Says he'll just crash there so he don't have to drive home drunk. And then I know. It's starting again. Motherfucker. The lies, the cheating. He's got another girlfriend, I know it. My guts know it even though my head doesn't want to believe he'd do it again.
"You pig!" I say, disgusted. "If you don't come home tonight, don't bother coming home at all."
"But, baby-" James says, trying to sweet-talk me.
"You bastard, fuck you. I'll see you at home."
"I can't," he says. "I already told Ray-"
"Fuck Ray! That's bullshit. Come home. We need to talk," I tell him.
"Callie, I'll talk to you all you want tomorrow, but you're too upset right now. You're not making any sense-"
"Upset? I'm upset? Upset is for when I break a fingernail, James. This is a whole different ballpark!"
"Callie...honey...what's the big deal? It's just a night out with the guys."
"Oh you fucking liar. You know what? Frigging forget it. Don't come home tonight. Don't come home at all. Have fun with your new girlfriend, asshole."
"I know what you're doing, James. I'm not a fucking idiot."
"You're completely paranoid," he says, sounding shaky. I busted him. I know it, and he knows it, too.
"I'm not paranoid, I'm right. I'll see you in divorce court, you prick." I hang up. I refuse to cry and smoke a cigarette instead. It will kill me to cry over James again, and so I bite my tears back and get in the car. It's raining. I leave town, and it starts to rain harder. We live up in the mountains, and the highway's always deserted this time of night. I pass a few cars heading back towards city limits, and then no one. The road is empty, a black void... and then I see the hitchhiker.
I remember it all; the puddle, the wild loopy skid; his white face looking back over his shoulder. A final, mortal thud...
"Oh fuck." I am absolutely convinced that he must be dead. And if he's dead, I'm either seeing his ghost, or I'm dead, too. "I... did I hit you?" I ask him, for this boy bears the same face as the one in my memory. "Are you an angel?"
But he only laughs, rocking back on his heels. "No."
"A ghost? I did, I did hit you! Shit..."
"I'm fine. I heard your horn and got out of the way. It was close, but your car never touched me. You hit a tree. I'm not an angel, or a ghost. I'm just me," he insists. "Are you sure you're all right? Did you hit your head?"
"No. I mean, my lip. I think I'm okay. Just shook up." I am suddenly claustrophobic. "Let me out. I want to see what I did to my car." Thinking that if I can see where it hit the tree, I'll be able to believe I didn't hit him. I'm still not quite convinced. I can feel that thud, deep down in my body. I can hear it. I will always hear it, feel it, until I see concrete evidence that I hit a tree instead of a hitchhiker. I want to touch him, make sure he's real, but this seems forward, and all wrong. I don't want him to get the wrong idea...or maybe I do.
I claw at the seat-belt and finally get if off of me. My ribs are sore from the pressure, and I slide out from under the wheel and stand shakily, bracing myself against the car. The shoulder of the road is all torn up here. Unsteady in my heels. I have to know. I hurry to the front bumper and look at the dent there in horror. James is gonna be super-pissed, I think, and then I remember I'm angry at him and think, Fuck him. He's the least of my worries right now.
The bumper is hanging by a thread, at a weird angle, like it wants to fall off. "Goddamn it!" I bend to touch the dent gingerly with my fingers. The tree I hit is only a few inches away. I know it's the one I hit because there's a little scrape at the base of the trunk; a scar; a smear of silver paint against the bark.
My fingers trace the little scar on the rough hide of the tree. I fall to my knees in the rain. I praise the Goddess, God, Jesus, Allah, Buddha, and whoever else might be listening. I am insanely grateful for that tree; that silver smear of paint. I raise my face to the sky. Icy rain pours down. "A tree! It was a fucking tree! Not him...Oh, thank you, thank you..." I pray ecstatically, giving thanks to the Goddess on my knees in the mud, with the rain in my face.
An unknown amount of time and tears later, he is beside me, putting his heavy jacket around my shoulders.
"You'll freeze out here; you're going to catch a cold, or something. Come on." He helps me to my feet and we walk back to the car. The motor is running again, and the heater is on full blast. I wonder, again, if he is some sort of angel. Mud trickles down my legs and into my ruined shoes. I shiver; look around for my purse, light a cigarette and offer him one. I sit there for a minute with my purse on my lap, while he stands awkwardly by the door, letting in the rain and cold air. I realize he's waiting for me to say something and so I ask him if he needs a ride somewhere.
"I don't think you should drive anywhere like this. You might have a concussion."
"Get in. Get in. I'm okay, I just need a minute." He comes around the front of the car, bathing in the headlight's golden glow. Tight blue jeans, so wet they almost look black, and a thin T-shirt that says, The Replacements. He's tall, well-built, with broad shoulders and a strong, stubborn jaw. Dark wet curls hang in his face as he crosses through the path of light the highbeams cut through the rain. He slicks them back with one hand, squeezing out a handful of rain, and then gets in the car.
"I looked at the dent. I think you could probably drive it like it is. The tires are fine, and you're not stuck," he says. I don't know what to say, so I say thank you. That sounds stupid, but I can't think of what else to do. "Do you have far to go?" He asks me, realizing that if he wants a conversation, he'll have to be the one to make it happen.
"I was on my way home. Literally. My house is, like, a mile away. This is so stupid! Fuck!" I bang my hand on the steering wheel, and light another cig.
"Yeah. I'm friggin' great." I put the car in gear for a test run along the shoulder. It rolls obediently forward, reluctant to leave the muddy ruts I'm stuck in. I give it a little gas and look over at him, grinning in delight. "Shit! It works!" I laugh wildly. "I thought it was totally fucked from looking at it, but it's fine." He grins and I ask him, "Are you sure you're not an angel? You just answered prayers I didn't even know I was praying."
"I'm sure," he tells me, and smiles. He's got killer green eyes and a wide white smile.
"Michael. Michael Rosen."
"And what are you doing out in the rain, Michael?" I ask. "Don't tell me you're just out for a walk. I mean...do you need a ride somewhere?" My hands are shaky on the wheel, and I don't exactly feel qualified to play chauffeur, but I feel indebted to him.
"I'm trying to get to Silverton tonight. I...I had a fight with someone, and I was so pissed I just left," he says. "And I'm not planning on going back."
"Oh. I'm sorry. Was it your girlfriend?" I ask, and then ask myself why I even care. I notice he isn't wearing a wedding ring, so maybe he isn't married. Or maybe he is. Either way, it's none of my business. "I- I don't mean to pry. I'm not usually so forward, I-" I fumble with my words, embarrassed.
"No, it's fine. I don't mind. It wasn't my girlfriend. I don't have a girlfriend."
"Oh. Your... wife?" I try to say this lightly. but it falls flat.
He laughs. "I'm not married. Do I look married?" I laugh too.
"Not really." I venture a final guess. "Your... boyfriend?" I say weakly.
"No! I'm not gay." Thank you, God. "Do I look gay?" he asks, as a joke.
"No!" Mortification sets in. In the early stages, it feels like heartburn. You can die of it if you're not careful. I vow to stop saying embarrassing things, and then I can't think of anything to say. He laughs at the look on my face, but not mean. I try to laugh too.
Then he says, "Will you promise not to laugh if I tell you the truth?"
"I'm visiting my mother. I'm on summer break, and we have a vacation home in Durango. I don't know anyone; I just got here yesterday. We had a fight. She can be very...controlling. To the point of insanity. She started pulling her usual shit and, I don't know, I left. I just left. I walked right out the front door. I wasn't fighting with my girlfriend. I don't even have a girlfriend. I was fighting with my mother." He laughs, then says, "If you want to throw me out of your car right now, I wouldn't blame you one bit. I'm completely pathetic. And I'm getting your upholstery all wet."
"Fuck the upholstery," I say. "Look. How old are you? Are you running away from home?" Please tell me I'm not helping a minor run away from home, I think.
"I'm twenty-three. Why?"
"Just...if you're a minor, I have to report runaways... I'm a social worker. That means I'm a mandated reporter, so it's my job to go to the cops if I see a minor in danger. But you're obviously fine, and, uh...of legal age, so...that's great." I stumble over my words, and he nods like he understands.
"So...uh...I'd love to give you a ride, wherever you want to go, but...I don't think I should be driving just now," I say all of a sudden. "I'm afraid to take this thing up in the mountains, the way it is. If we broke down, we'd be sleeping in this fucker," I say. He agrees that this would be a less than ideal scenario. "Look, there's a bar a couple of miles past my place. They're open late. I could take you there, if you want to try and catch a ride to Silverton. Or..."
"Or...?" he asks, cocking his head, grinning.
"Or...well, if you wanted to. If you needed? A place to stay, I mean. I have a guest room..." I say, and let my words trail off meaningfully.
"A guest room. And what would your husband think of you bringing home a guest?"
"I think, fuck what he thinks! It doesn't matter what James thinks anymore because I'm divorcing his sorry ass as soon as I can find a lawyer. He's cheating on me again. I don't have to put up with this shit! We're separated. As of tonight," I explain. Michael nods like he understands all about divorce- and maybe he does. "You're not married, are you?" I ask again, just to make sure.
He barks out a short, humorless laugh. "Uh, no."
"You ever been married?"
"No." That's good. That's real good, I think. I don't know why I think this.
Wait- that's a lie. I do know why. It's the same reason I felt relieved when he told me he didn't have a girlfriend. I want him to be single, so I can have him all to myself...
This excerpt from "The Hitchhiker: An Unlikely Love Story" is an original work of fiction by Molly Anderson- Childers. Copyright held by author. All rights reserved.