The hitchhiker stood at the roadside, so still as to be dead, staring a stare that might’ve seen through all the long silences and vast nothings of eternity. He was beyond the world, lost in a place all his own.
Then his mind came back to him and he traveled on with steps that pained his feet His shoes were ragged and he studied them with shuttered eyes, blue marbles. Once in a lengthy while he would raise his head and search for something that eluded him in the rolling plains. Then he moved on.
Four days now he’d been walking, and twenty-five miles out of Melbun he was. Cotter’s Ridge lay sleeping in the wheat, ten, maybe fifteen miles away. He could reach it this night of he hitched another ride. Twilight was dropping its blue creepers over the horizon, but he could reach it, if. . . if he hitched another ride. But he was afraid.
The hitchhiker paused and put two callused fingers to his left cheek, to the healing laceration that blazed bright from eyebrow to chin. Needs stitches. That’s what the Father had said. Needs stitches, my son. But there had been no stitches. Not for him.
The hitchhiker shook his head violently to clear his brain of these thoughts. In the process, a few strands of his oily midnight hair stuck to the wound. He brushed them away.
The hitchhiker walked, very slowly, not quite stumbling. Ten or fifteen miles to Cotter’s Ridge—that translated into two or three days for the hitchhiker to walk. And in Cotter’s Ridge there would be shelters, with warm beds and showers .. . maybe. Two or three days.
He could’ve walked much further, much faster if he weren’t in such constant pain. Bruises, fading to sickly yellow, might be internal injuries, he didn’t know. There were cracked ribs, three of them, that needled into his chest when he breathed. And that wasn’t the worst.
The worst was that it could’ve been averted. It all could’ve been averted.
It was a nice car. Brand new, clean, red like a hooker’s lipstick, it peeled down the highway like a stallion. There was no element of fear in the halogen headlights spilling their golden fan into the rainy dark; no screams in the glistening of the wet windshield. The car pulled over, tires popping and crunching like murky firecrackers in the gravel. The hitchhiker stood paralyzed, bails crawling and flesh on fire. He felt his bowels loosen and drop; his heart skittered like a startled rabbit and a moist lump that might’ve been a scream rose thickly in his throat. A panicky voice deep in his mind clamored at him to run, get away, not to get in this car but the next one, yes, the next one would be safe.
He might’ve run; his feet were already turning, muscles twitching in adrenaline ecstasy, ready for flight.
A harsh, cawing voice issued from the ebony depths of the car, “Ya gettin’ in, or what?” The spell of blind terror was broken.
The hitchhiker started forward. His legs quivered, his heart thumped, but the searing dread subsided. Reason was reasserting itself—it was raining, cool, and dark; he had seventy-five miles to go till he reached Kansas City. He might have friends in Kansas City. It would be nice, after all this time, to have someplace to go. Yes, that would be almost…like paradise.
The hitchhiker noticed the car’s driver leaning to unlock the door. He opened it—CHU-CHUNK—to get in, and was again frozen.
Eyes .. . the man’s eyes. They were steel.
And that voice again—rough, jagged voice, voice like Marlboros and whiskey. “Don’t stand there and let the rain in.”
The hitchhiker didn’t.
“Name’s Bob,” the driver said as the hitchhiker buckled up. “What’s yours?”
But the hitchhiker had no name; none, that is, that he would’ve been proud to lay claim to. So he made one up.
“Ryan. I’m going to Kansas City,” the hitchhiker replied thoughtlessly; he had so many aliases, after all. He cast his eyes aimlessly about the cab—where they came to rest on Bob’s hands.
Those hands—the palms, the hairy backs—were streaked with blood. It gathered in the creases of Bob’s knuckles, clotted under his fingernails. The hitchhiker could smell it, a solid, coppery stench that clouded his nostrils. Suddenly he felt smothered; the air in the car was leaden, and his lungs could not use it.
He rolled down the window. Perhaps, if he hadn’t done that, he might’ve been safe.
“Roll that window up! It’s raining!” Bob snarled. The hitchhiker whose name wasn’t Ryan caught a glimpse of these eyes, those steel eyes, flash insanely, and that loose feeling again gripped his bowels. He rolled up the window, turning his eyes skyward. There were worse storms brewing in the heavens, and the hitchhiker knew it.
They drove on in ghastly silence. The hitchhiker’s tongue felt papery and scraped like sand across his teeth; his mouth was a hot, red desert. His pulse pounded in his forehead like a devilish hammer. He stole a glance at Bob, and at Bob’s bloody hands. His own hands curled into tight, sweaty fists in his lap.
Presently the hitchhiker heard Bob speak. The words came out jumbled and slurred.
“What’s that?” the hitchhiker asked. His host paid him a weary gaze. “I said, we’d better pull over for the night.”
Not knowing what else to do, the hitchhiker nodded. His headache was getting worse. The dark and the scarlet upholstery made the car not a car but the belly of a beast. The warm, salty reek of blood was still dense in his sinuses. The hitchhiker rubbed his forehead and hoped against hope that Bob wouldn’t decide to add his blood to the mess congealing on his hands.
Bob pulled the red-lipstick car over. With the engine off, the silence grew immense and oppressive. The rain drilled a deadly rhythm on the car’s fiberglass exoskeleton. The hitchhiker realized he could feel the weight of his head bearing down on his spine, grinding the fragile vertebrae together. He could almost hear it.
A few inches away, Bob removed the keys from the ignition, reclined the seat, and prepared to sleep. The hitchhiker did the same.
Engulfed in night, he began to doze off.
He was caught in a dark place, a tight, dark place, and he couldn ‘t get out—maybe it was a prison, yes it was a prison. He could feel the manacles cold on his wrist and there was sickness everywhere; pestilence, plague. It wouldn’t touch him because he had done something awful, something bad, something worse than murder, and he was doomed to a fate worse than death.
He started awake with a strained little squeal A fleshy hand rested on his leg, midway between knee and hip, crawling with spider-like precision toward his crotch with an effort, he turned his head; it felt as if his vigor had melted. He saw only a pair of fiendish eyes and a flash of stained teeth, reflected dimly in the moon’s borrowed light.
“You’re pretty, you know that, Ryan?” That voice again, like Marlboros and whiskey. Only this time, it curled around his chest like a frigid snake. Yes, very pretty.”
A slimy hand fell on his cheek; wretched lips pressed against his. His mind seemed numb. It’s getting on me, he thought frantically. All that blood, it’s getting on me.
Bob’s tongue was worming its way into his mouth; that vile hand had now slipped into his crotch and was stroking it. There were stirrings there—that seemed the worst of it.
No , no way, not now, not here, not this. He tried to shrink away, fumbling discretely for the door handle. He couldn’t find it. It seemed to lurk just beyond his reaching fingertips, mocking him. Disgust was rising in his throat like bile, a bitter explosion that might burst from his chest at any second.
He bit down hard on Bob’s tongue. Fresh, torrid blood spurted into his mouth, a taste like pennies and oysters. Bob jerked beck and roared with pain, surprise, and wrath.
Motherfucker, I HOPE it’s pain. I hope you’re bleeding to death.
The door handle slid into Ryan’s palm like an old friend. He yanked with all his strength, strength that was both young and ageless. Nothing happened. The door was locked.
“Shit!” he hissed as a strong hand grasped his hair and wrenched his head back. A glowing line of fire bloomed on his face and gory fluid began to flow down his cheek, over his chin. There was a knife at his throat.
Oh, fuck, more blood and this time it’s MINE .
“Think you’re gettin’ away huh? Is that it? Don’t you want me, pretty boy?” Bob’s breath was pungent carrion.
Ryan’s eyes darted. He could find no weapon. The highway was deserted—no one to help him. If only he knew who I was, if only he knew who I really was, he thought briefly, but did not speak his name. Instead another thought leaped into his head, or an image, rather: a little girl, pretty and proper, reciting something . . . a rhyme.
There may be fairies, there may be elves, but God helps those who help themselves. And then, Oh please God, I’m sorry, help me now, and. he jabbed his sharp elbow into his captor’s fat gut.
The blow was a sure one. Bob collapsed, hemic hands glued over the offended abdomen. Air charged from his lungs—”Oooof!” The knife clattered away, leaving the hitchhiker’s throat only nicked.
Ryan scrambled for the lock button, nearly blinded by stinging sweat and tears. His shirt was drenched.
Finally he found it, pulled it. The candy-apple door swung open and the car tossed him out into the stormy night. His legs sprang instinctively, muscles bunching and stretching, tendons straining. Damp air ripped through his lungs, scraping his throat raw. The deluge pulsed on his scalp like a thousand ireful mallets, throbbed on his back in a cruel tattoo. It drizzled down his face and dripped from lip to feverish lip. His arms pistoned, his heart raced like a maniacal clock.
He even hoped for escape, when he heard the thunder of a vengeful engine trumpeting to life behind him.
There was nothing to be done; no way he could run faster. Yet somehow he did; there must’ve been more potency in his skinny limbs and striving muscles then he could’ve ever known. So he ran—wheezing on the edge of oblivion he ran, ran with that final and passionate eruption of speed that is saved for the dying.
In vain. The car’s mechanical sinews raged. Its radiator grill shimmered like the teeth of a famished lioness. It chewed up the distance and spit it out, approached him furious and snapping.
The hitchhiker felt his knees buckle and give as the car struck his buttocks. His arms flew up and his eyes widened in a comical expression of surprise. He tried to turn, fall, anything so his head would not bash through the windshield, so he would not have to feel his skull crumple into his brain. One hand flapped futilely at the flimsy antenna, but did not fmd purchase. He had an instant to see his labored face in the glass, and raised an arm to shield himself. Before he did, he caught one last glance of these steel-colored eyes.
He could’ve swore they flared with hellfire.
He collided with the windshield; by the grace of some divine Providence his head did not crash through. Amidst the crunch of foundering safety-glass, a sound like wet branches breaking, and a bang of new agony boiling through his chest—those were his ribs cracking, he knew. Flipped up onto the roof, which bucked and heaved beneath his weight as he jounced around. Pitched down to the trunk; another of those branches breaking, and he screamed. It was a sound faraway and unimportant; his ears recognized the cry but not the throat that gave it birth.
Flopped splashing into a puddle of mud. The car sped away with yips of delight. He paid it a feeble parting glance and minded that the passenger door still hung open, swinging like an absurd wing.
Then Bob, and his red-lipstick car, were gone forever.
The hitchhiker lay moaning in the rain, rocked with waves of anguish that seemed to swallow him completely. The downpour was his worst enemy; each drop was a minuscule scalpel to his tender flesh. His eyes fluttered open and he found, somewhat gratefully, that he was still alive. But he also noted a types of grey, gauzy, opalescent clouds hovering over him, as if waiting. It seemed he might die after all.
With this ache, and all he had been through before the ache, it began to seem like a relief.
Finally, he thought, finally, the end of time, Judgment Day. .
A voice called to him from the vapor, a silken sweet voice, like the faint scent of roses on a spring day. It called to him by name—his real name, and it sounded strange, he hadn’t heard it in ages. “Pontius.” the voice whispered, “All is forgiven, for you have repented . . . come, Pontius. .. come . . .”
And he did. As he slipped into the dark realms of the mind where no misery reaches, he found himself praying, a prayer two thousand years old, a devotion he had no right to utter, a psalm he had first heard on a mountain top long ago.
“Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven . . ..”
And each word, as it passed his lips, rang true.
It wasn’t the end of days, after all. His eyes sprung open eons later. The mud around him was brutally hard now. The sun sat at its highest point in the sky, swathed in blue raiment. It gloated at him.
The pain had receded somewhat, but still lapped at his bones dismally, threatening high tide, masking his thoughts. He stood, and his legs were of real stuffs; they trembled, but held him. He moved shakily. The world seemed over bright, as if primed for an detonation. The episode (it seemed safer, somehow, to call it an “episode”) in the rain seemed warped, surreal; it could’ve been a nightmare, but nightmares didn’t leave such dire proof behind.
He managed to walk ten miles that day; he would not Walk as far in one afternoon for months hence. He again drew strength from some inner source that was bottomless. There was misery, torment, but underlying that, something else: the knowledge that he could go on, would go on, must go on. So he did, even as delirium descended with gentle feathered wings and wicked talons. He stumbled past a sign proclaiming “Melbun City Limits” in large, blatant white letters. He did not see it, did not know what it said, did not care. He did not notice that he was ascending a small flight of sunbaked concrete steps; he was not aware that, when he faltered, he came to rest on a modest, shady porch.
He woke on a soft beige couch. His throat was dry and prickly; his body pulsated in dull harmony with his heart. The face of Jesus Our Savior smiled down at him from the wall, arms extended in silent, loving welcome. It did, of course, bear naught but scant resemblance to the actual man, but the irony was there—oh yes, irony in its finest degree. Or had his long-overdue prayer been answered?
“You seem to’ ve had some hard luck, my son.”
A priest. Standing over him, but not coming too close. Looking wary, as if he might’ve guessed the hitchhiker’s identity. Was this man privy to celestial revelation, or had the hitchhiker been mumbling in his sleep?
“Why aren’t I in a hospital?” the hitchhiker croaked. The Father gave him an odd look—head cocked, one eyebrow perched high above the other—as if the idea of hospitals had never crossed his mind.
“You came here, my son”—he said the words ‘my son’ as if he knew the hitchhiker could never be his son—”and something tells me here is where you belong.”
There seemed to be no argument for that.
“I have to get to Kansas City.”
“So you do.” That curious look still on his face. “But perhaps it’s best if you stay here for a time.”
No argument for that’ either.
The Father turned, began to walk away. As he reached his office, he looked back.
“That gash needs stitches, my son,” he said, and that was all.
The hitchhiker stayed. For two and a half weeks, he stayed. Although the Father cared for him diligently, that weird wondering expression never left his features. The hitchhiker grew to hate that expression, to loathe it more and more as his soul itched for travel.
So, one day over breakfast, the hitchhiker announced his intentions. For the first time in their acquaintance, the Father did not seem surprised. In fact, he seemed relieved.
The hitchhiker set out the selfsame day. As he stepped out the door, the Father pressed a small cylinder into his hand. The hitchhiker glanced at it. It was a tiny roll of cash, seventy-five, maybe one hundred dollars. Nested inside was a bus ticket to Kansas City.
Something clenched inside him. “I can’t take this,” the hitchhiker stammered.
“You can and you must.” There was an element of undefined sternness in the voice of this man who was God’s representative on Earth.
The hitchhiker took the money and the ticket. Now, four days out of Melbun, they were still nestled snugly in his hip pocket. There was a bus station in Cotter’s Ridge, he remembered. He didn’t know if he would use that ticket or
But he thought he might.
- Memories of a Cocaine Wraith
- Bone Collector