HITCHING A RIDE

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic
A British hitchhiker in America hitches a ride that takes him into a realm of terror beyond madness and death itself on a road that leads nowhere.....

Submitted: September 30, 2012

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Submitted: September 30, 2012

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Murder is easy in America.

The white lines in the road rolled past my eyes and under the wheels of the truck in the darkness as I sat in the passenger seat with this thought going through my mind. Each line appeared, became elongated like an elastic band being stretched out, and vanished  as another appeared in the glare of the headlights, like a reel of film slowly being rewound on a projector. I was sitting high up in the cab of this giant truck, in the comfort of the huge passenger seat, more like a sofa than anything else, as the driver silently concentrated on the road and the steering wheel. We’d turned off the main highway about twelve miles back and were now on some sort of B-road, but still much bigger than an equivalent road would be in England.

Murder is easy in America. I suppose that’s the sort of thing you begin to think about when you’re on the road hitch-hiking in a strange country, sitting in a truck with a stranger who’s been kind enough to give you a ride, while all the time you’re wondering if that’s all it was, kindness, someone to talk to, a few dollars to help with the petrol costs, (pardon me, I’m English, I know it’s called “gas” here) and so on, or is there something darker playing in the  tape recorder of his mind? It’s true, murder can be so easy in America. Why? Because it’s a vast country, almost too big to understand when you’re there, in which mainland Britain could easily fit three or four times into one of the smaller states. And in this continent, the roads pass though hundreds of little towns, each with its motels, bars, shops, secrets. The cities are all connected by this immense web of highways, freeways, railways and B-roads, with thousands of miles between them, and it must be the easiest thing in the world to buy a gun in the States.  What’s more, people are often on the move here, running away from something, running after something, fleeing the law, debt, bad marriages, bad parents, bad lives. It’s easy to just jump on a Greyhound in America and disappear, and also to stay ahead of anyone who might be looking for you. So what’s there to stop the psychopath from simply picking up some stranger, someone fleeing a broken life, or just a drifter with nowhere especial to go to, finding or engineering their presence in a lonely place, shooting them, stabbing or strangling them or whatever method they want to use to end their pitiful little lives, then simply joining the network of roads and vanishing?  Some people think that’s what happened in California in the 1960’s and early 70’s when the police were hunting a serial killer called “Zodiac.” I can’t remember exactly what he did to his victims but he vanished and was never caught, and over the next ten years or more murder victims turned up all over the States with the bodies displaying the same  modus operandi as Zodiac....

Well, as I say this is the kind of thing I suppose you think when you’re a little tired, but the guy driving the truck was very quiet, and when he did speak it was very slow, like you might do if you were exhausted and I wondered whether he didn’t need to stop for a coffee or something. The truck had one of these huge boxes behind the cab, like a mini mobile home, that you can stop and sleep in so it wouldn’t have been hard to do that. He was doing OK so far but inwardly I began to think about what might happen if he lost control of the vehicle whilst we were running. He had a deep, deep voice, a big bass rumble that you might expect to come from a huge bear of a man, and although this guy was big, he wasn’t like that. He was big but lean, with  big-boned hands on the steering wheel and a lean face under his baseball hat. For some reason everyone on the road in the States seems to wear these baseball hats, and he had pale skin.  He’d hardly spoken a word in all the miles we’d gone so far, and when he did it was in this deep, slow drawl. He’d say something like  “Gotta long trip ahead of me” in this drawling voice so that it came out like “Godda laauunnggg trip aheyyyuuuddd..” He sounded so tired when he said things like this that I began to worry about him a little. In between this and the constant, irrational rumination that he could just stop at any time, pull over, kill me, nick my wallet, dump what was left of me by the roadside and drive off, I began to form a resolution in my mind to get dropped off at the nearest town that looked big enough to have a motel and a greyhound stop, or just a motel would do, I supposed, The worst that could have happened is I’d have had to hitch  another ride. One reason I felt uneasy because he was so quiet most of the time is that he only mumbled irrelevant things, like how far he had to go, how he’d been driving for days. One thing about America, the people here are friendly, not just friendly but friendly, and inquisitive especially if you’re from outside the States. They want to hear all about you and tell you all about themselves and how great America is, they want you to like it there. Hey man, where you goin to? You jump up, boy, I’ll help ya on your way. You ain’t from around here are ya? Hell, you from England? Well I ain’t never been there, how you like it here? Now you tell me, which place would you rather live, back home or in the States? (you always have to be careful answering that one) How long you planning to stay? Where you headed again? New York? Hell, that’s a long ways to go, only goin to Phoenix myself, but you can catch a greyhound from there, sure as shit. You wanna beer? I got some cans in back. Won’t  touch one myself, nossir, not till I can pull over for the night, I value my licence too much... On top of that, sometimes these guys are on the road for days at a time, they appreciate the company. It’s unusual to meet a quiet and shy type when you’re hitching or bussing  in my admittedly limited experience, so it’s just a little unnerving when you meet someone like this. It gives you that uncomfortable feeling that you might be in the presence of a weirdo. Like when you’re alone in a pub waiting for someone, or waiting for a bus, or simply enjoying your own company, and someone makes some comment to you, it seems innocent enough, it might just be asking the time. You look over and see a man there, he looks OK, looks harmless enough, maybe needs a shave or something but that’s about all. So you reply and then he makes some other  comment like Oh, that’s good, not as late as I thought, I’ve got to catch the twenty-to-four bus  to get home, I’ve just been to see my solicitor about my kids.... You nod sympathetically but there is a sudden feeling of discomfort coiling in the pit of your stomach, as he goes on and suddenly you find yourself in an unwanted conversation.  What’s more, you begin looking for a way out, but you can’t find one that doesn’t seem rude. It becomes more and more clear that the guy talking to you is a bit strange,  probably living alone or with his ailing mother, no friends, if he has a job it’s as a bus driver or working in a warehouse, something where you do shifts, he’s lonely and hasn’t got a girlfriend, his ex dumped him, why, you’re not sure but you suspect it’s because of his weirdness, maybe he was harming his ex’s kids, they turn out not to be his, and you want to scream Fuck off and leave me alone! But you don’t and if you’re waiting for someone, you feel even more trapped. Finally, if you’re clever, and you have a mobile with you, you make your excuses and leave politely, then call your friend and arrange to meet in a different bar or pub, but if you’ve forgotten it, or there isn’t another bar around you’re stuck with it. I was getting this feeling in the cab of this truck and was beginning to wish I was elsewhere. However, I was also getting tired and felt that it wouldn’t be long before I dozed off. The radio was on in the cab, not very loudly for which I was pretty grateful, with some sound coming out of it, just talk, nobody I recognised, often you don’t, there are so many radio stations out there, some playing old music, some playing latest hits, some playing just Rock or jazz, and some with just talk on them, sports stations, news-only stations. This sounded like one of those talk shows you get on a lot of stations in America, only I recalled it was playing rock a while ago. I supposed this was one of those rock stations, maybe with some talk shows thrown in. You could never tell what was coming up next, and what station you were listening to. They all seemed to be called W-something-or-other with four letters. So it went on discreetly in the background lulling me into a doze. The driver looked at me and surprised me in the middle of this reverie with “You okay?” in that slow drawl of his.

“Yeah sure.” I answered.  “Just a bit tired, that’s all.”

“I know whatcha  mean.” He drawled back. “Long road, this. I’d like to stop over someplace and have me a rest, only they ain’t nowhere round here.” His voice had a mournful tone to it and again, I found myself wondering how tired he was. But he looked OK and I decided I was being a little over-imaginative. Maybe I just needed a bit of sleep myself. The deep rumble of the engine, the radio in the background and the sight of the road running past the windscreen like an endless waterfall were all conspiring to have a hypnotic effect. As I looked out of the windscreen with sightless eyes a movement caught my eye and I saw a car coming the other way on the other side of the road. It was a big car, huge, bigger than most and I think it was a Cadillac, with wings coming up out of the back, and one of those windscreens that wraps around at the front. It was bright red or pink I reckon, one of those cars you used to see in films from the 50s. I thought to myself “You don’t see one of those every day” and it’s true you don’t, not even in America where you see more of them than you do in England, but they tend to belong to collectors or people who maintain them as a hobby. A gorgeous thing it was, sailing sedately by on the other side of the road. I voiced my thought: “Hey see that? You don’t see those every day.” But the driver just rumbled to himself and took no notice. I suppose he saw things like that more often than I’d imagined.

 

The town I come from in northern  England is one of those towns that’s a good place to escape from. I won’t tell its name here as it’s not important, it’s that kind of a place, and what’s more I don’t want to be bothered by anyone getting offended about it. It’s full of people who’ve never been anywhere or done anything interesting in their lives, and talk about things like football, how the weather’s too cold and wet so they can’t get the outside of the house painted, or too warm so the garden isn’t getting any water, how times are hard (times, in my experience, are always hard) how much sex they’re having (usually lies) or that most boring of subjects, money. How much they’ve got, how much they haven’t got, how much this or that costs, mortgage, car, kids at university, that sort of shit. And if that’s not the subject of conversation then it’s who has cancer, liver disease, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, tinnitus and so forth. It nearly always seems to be raining and when it is, the sky lowers with a gunmetal hue over a dreary landscape of hopelessness, lack of ambition and failure. Worst of all, the inhabitants of places like this act and talk as if they live in the centre of the universe, as if there’s something massively important about this backwater that wouldn’t be missed if it were to be wiped from the face of the earth by an atom bomb tomorrow.  When I was at school I saw a vision of myself in the future and one thing was certain: it didn’t have me sticking around there, so I made up my mind to get out as soon as I could. That’s easier said than done, I know. You can’t just buy a ticket to London and vanish, not unless you want to find yourself very quickly on your own with no friends, no money, no job and at the mercy of people easily able to manipulate the vulnerable, and then finding yourself unable to make any progress or take care of yourself, dragging yourself with your tail between your legs back to your family, and I have to say at least my family’s always looked after me, well, so far as they could. You need to have somewhere to go to, not just something to get away from. There weren’t any jobs going there that I wanted to do as I wasn’t into sales, didn’t want to work in a shop, warehouse or office, not when I was eighteen at any rate. The answer lay in getting myself an education, and in those days, the late 1980’s,you could still get grants and loans to top up the grants, although that was all rapidly coming to an end. Today, unless Mummy and Daddy have about a hundred thousand pounds to send you, then tough, go and get a job.

So, bright and ambitious as I was, I worked hard at my exams and won myself a place eventually at University College London, to study architecture. This was just what I’d wanted, a big university in a big city, with exciting people, exciting things happening and what was beginning to look like an exciting future. I spent my time working hard and playing hard, because if there’s one place in the world where you can do both of these, it’s London. London provided the ideal escape for me from small-town drudgery, and you might wonder of course how this led to me hitch-hiking across America stopping at one no-name town after another, but it’s not as simple as that. Money became tight as I went on in my studies and so I couldn’t go out as much. I reasoned that once I was working in an architecture company I’d be making plenty of money so this didn’t worry me unduly.I went for the full loan and got it, thinking I wouldn’t have much trouble paying it off. I was now  coming to the end of my third year at University and my horizons were widening all the time. I had more friends than I could cope with, was on course for a  2:1, led a busy life and tried to make the most of the cultural ocean I was immersed in, even if my work, (and there was a lot of it) meant I didn’t get much time to do this. Above all I felt a sense of pride at studying in such a prestigious institution. There would have been no point as far as I was concerned, in studying at some third-rate backwater college, then again, I supposed I’d been lucky to have that choice. I’d chosen London because among other things it was remote from my hometown, and one thing that I needed was to avoid the all-too-easy option of going back there whenever the holidays came along and I was bored. This, I felt, was my chance to grow up, to become a man.

So during my third year I’d looked at adverts for BUNAC, an organisation in America that ran holiday camps for kids in summertime. Now I’d wanted to go to the States for years, and knew I couldn’t afford it, but here was the chance to do just that and get paid for it! Well, not a great deal of money, you understand. You got enough to finance a couple of weeks’ travel, plus your air fare. Now I knew deep down that looking after a bunch of bratty kids all wailing for their mommas and being sick everywhere wasn’t my thing, but you could sign up for janitorial work for the same pay, where you didn’t have so much contact with the kids, and you got to knock off earlier than the instructors as well, at least depending on your job. There wouldn’t be a great deal to spend your hard-earned dollars on, there were no bars or shops near these camps, as they tended to be in woodlands and such-like in the National parks. All I needed to do was to get some references and raise the money for my travel insurance, then apply for work. I made up my mind that, if I were accepted, I’d go out afterwards and explore America by Greyhound. To cut a long story short, I borrowed the £120 or so I needed to cover my insurance, applied and was accepted for a janitorial post in a camp in Colorado Springs.

It was my first ever long-haul flight, and when I arrived I was glad to find there was a representative to get me to the camp. I worked there for eight  weeks, and I have to tell you it was pretty hard work. I was often up at 7 am and frequently didn’t get to sleep  before midnight,, although I didn’t have the responsibility I would have done if I were in charge of some kids. The camp director was a youngish girl called Suzy, she was from Australia and was a bossy cow, who I tried to stay out of the way of as much as I could, although I made a few friends and generally speaking had a good time. But September came and in a month I wanted  to be back in England. I had a fourth year to complete, and I was going to have to try and make a decision about what I wanted to do next, probably a master’s, so when the end of my placement came along, I caught the Greyhound, first stop, San Francisco.

One thing about travelling by greyhound, you really get to know people, and you develop a high level of tolerance for and knowledge of, human nature. I mean you’re travelling for three or four days at a time cooped up in the same tin can, and after a day or so boy, when people either haven’t had the chance or the inclination to wash, and the weather is hot, you find yourself looking at life from a different perspective. You end up either trying to ignore the other passengers, or having to spend all your time trapped next to someone who may be incontinent, fat, neurotic, ugly, mad or retarded. The ideal passenger is someone who sits  there  quietly reading a fat book, and does not fart too much, as the bus will be full enough of fart gas as it is after twenty-four hours. Air-con helps, but you do begin to feel a kind of claustrophobia after a while. You get a lot of Spanish, Chinese and Mexican travellers especially if you’re heading towards California as I was, but if you prefer to be alone as long as possible, it helps to look a bit unshaven and smelly, as I learned early on, you can see it in their eyes when they get on the bus, I ain’t gonna sit near that guy, he looks like a psycho. By the time I got there I was as unshaven and in need of a shower as the next guy, so my first priority was to get myself into a hostel. The one I did find was located near Union Square, handy for many places like Chinatown and (I hoped) Haight-Ashbury, one area I wanted to see in San Francisco. I’d wanted to go to the city for a long time, as I was fascinated by the architecture, the art scene, the culture and the history. My brother was a big fan of Armistead Maupin, and he wrote about the gay scene in San Francisco a lot, but also, (I’m no queer, let’s just get that straight) about how anybody can be accepted there. You can just be yourself and you’re much more likely to find a crowd of people who take you as you are. The other side of the coin, sadly, is that San Francisco isn’t a very safe place to be. The violent crime rate there is far higher than it is in the rest of America, and it was in San Francisco that the Zodiac killer worked, also it’s no secret that Haight-Ashbury, as well as being the birthplace of the hippie movement in the 60s was also the home of Charlie Manson and his “family” of murderers in 1967 and onwards. This is the downside of somewhere as cosmopolitan as San Francisco, the dark face of a colourful city.

In San Francisco I had to keep my wits about me, and there was more than one time I regretted having chosen to travel alone. Now I’d got talking to one or two people on the Greyhound, and I’d got along well with most of the people I met at camp, I’m a sociable enough guy, but I also wanted to be independent, as I had my own agenda, and didn’t want to have to fit in with anyone else’s, so I took to the road on my own. But sharing a dorm in the hostel in America’s most violent city, depending on your view of statistics, was an eye-opener. Apart from the fact that it was full of cockroaches, I never slept all that well, as first of all, the weather was very warm, so that even with  the windows open, the night air was humid enough to make sleep difficult to attain. In the distance I could hear police sirens going off from time to time, and I slept with my clothes on, wallet and passport in my trouser pockets, all zipped up, as I wore combats with pockets just above the knees. No way could I take the chance someone wouldn’t go through my bag, and I knew perfectly well that there was always the chance somebody would go a bit further, and rip me off in bed, asleep or no, and maybe alive or dead. So sleep wasn’t a big part of my experience.

 

Something caught my eye as I was reminiscing and dozing gently in the truck. It was  just a road sign however saying Interstate 30A, so I got back to the serious business of trying to catch a bit of shut-eye. However when your eyes are alert you find they latch on to anything.

The cab of a big truck, yes I know, lorries in England, is a bit of a mini-universe, full of personal paraphernalia, bits and pieces, parts of a man’s life, the parts he takes with him when he isn’t at home. Truckers in the states tend to take photos of the wife, kids, pictures they drew and so on with them on the road especially if they’re out for a few days at a time. Well this was like that, maps on the seat beside me, photos stuck up around the cab, behind the flaps above the windscreen, stuck behind all sorts of surfaces. There were a great many pictures like that, most of them black and white or faded colour, making me feel a little sad somehow, because I supposed they were parts of this man’s past and he did seem a little lonely. There was even a sticker somewhere on the dashboard that read “Hey, hey LBJ, How many kids did you KILL today?” I remembered that one from the news and papers in the past, it was about the Vietnam war, how in 1969 and 1970 there was a huge youth movement  to get American troops out of Vietnam, when it became obvious to many that the war was not worth fighting. The then president, Lyndon Johnson, was under constant pressure to get the soldiers out.  He must have had that in the cab for a while, I thought. Again I wondered how long he had spent on the road all told when I saw another car passing  by on the other side, just a pair of big headlights at first, then a washed out bug shape in the truck’s own lights. This time it was a big old Plymouth, one of those big rounded cars like you would see in the 1940’s  or in films like The Godfather, wonderful thing although battered looking, as if it had been driven by some sort of reckless driver who didn’t mind having dings in the body work. The driver was still pretty silent and I realised I didn’t even know his name. At least I couldn’t recall having asked. Now some inner instinct told me not to bother.

 

Early morning is, I think, the best time of the day to walk the Golden Gate Bridge: at about 5;30 am the towers rise from the surrounding mist like the bones of some dead dinosaur, and as you begin the approach the mist begins to slowly dissipate. The bridge itself is nearly two miles long, so it takes around an hour to walk if you’re taking your time, especially as the first half of the walk is uphill and you descend in the second half. Now when you walk along the bridge you  can see little signs on the structure of the towers advertising helplines and crisis lines, as The Golden Gate is still San Francisco’s number one suicide spot, and the world’s most jumped-off bridge. When you’re walking there is a red fence between you and the water, and you can look down at it through the palings. It looks almost like slowly setting concrete, because it doesn’t seem to move very much and what’s more, you can imagine the effect of a human body impacting that much water from two hundred-odd feet up in the air: it would be the same as hitting concrete in the first place. You’d burst open like one of those water-bombs kids drop on one another from upstairs windows. It looks much further down than you think, so you don’t tend to look for long. The view across the bay is stunning, a vista that seems to stretch beyond your imagination, blue sea below and blue sky above, a blue expanse into which you almost want to disappear, becoming pale at the horizon, almost sucking you into it. You don’t notice the wobble too much until you’re in the middle, and the traffic doesn’t get too bad until you’re over the other side if you’ve started early enough. It was on the road back that I had to put up with the noise and exhaust fumes, but I have to say if you’re going to San Francisco this is one thing you shouldn’t miss.

Haight-Ashbury was my high-point, incredible really. It’s basically just a junction of two streets, but so full of brightly painted buildings, street theatre and colour that I came away  with “Flowers in your Hair” running through my mind. There were all these murals of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and John Lennon plus some amazing bars. The whole thing’s basically a tourist trap now, but at least I met Tessie there. Tessie was this artist I met in a bar, I can’t even remember how we got talking, I think she heard my accent. I got the whole Hey, you’re English? I got so many friends in England stuff and it just seemed to go from there. She was sitting near the bar with this sketch-book, drawing pictures of anything and everything, I suppose to sell. She’d draw someone and sell their picture to them, sometimes for a few dollars, sometimes for a drink. I got my own picture drawn for a beer but the conversation flowed from there as I’m interested in art myself as well as buildings, so it seemed we had a lot in common. Now although she was a few years older than me she was a bit of a looker, with tumbledown red hair and a stunning smile. Thanks to my English accent, my interest in art and my wallet, I managed to keep the talk going over lunch and then she decided to show me around a few other bars. “I’ve made enough this week,” she said. “I usually turn over a couple hundred dollars a day, and my dealer finds me other stuff.” She showed me her paintings hung up in a gallery, more big portraits of Morrison, Lennon and Kurt Cobain done in this psychedelic style, pretty good although I wouldn’t have them on my wall at home. Following this, we had ribs and wings in another local bar and I was now considerably the worse for wear and dreading the thought of going back to the hostel. But as luck would have it, she invited me back to her flat and I have to say I made a wise choice. The place was big, airy,  and pretty clean actually with her easels mounting big canvases in progress, a fountain of colour, and we spent that night in bed. I stayed with Tessie a couple of days but by now, I was beginning to get a little worried about how much money I had left.

Anyway, it seemed Tessie had a friend coming over to stay and so it became clear it was time for me to go, and I have to admit I did make a comment about how I seemed to have overspent, especially as I’d been buying most of Tessie’s food and beer. I still had a long way to go to get to New York where I intended to finish up my ambitious itinerary, and dwindling funds.

“Why not hitch a ride?” she suggested.

“Never occurred to me.” I said. I’d never done it before.

“Sure, why not? It’s easy. All you need to do is get yourself a bus to the outskirts of town or even to the next little truckstop. There’s always someone willing to get you on the next stage for a few bucks gas money  and conversation. I used to do it myself, although being a gal, I didn’t go alone. But you’ll be fine. Why not try it?”

I made sure I had some cash money with me and a bit of lunch to keep me going, so after breakfast Tessie saw me to the bus terminal. After studying a few timetables I managed to find a bus that headed for a place called Walnut Creek,  the nearest town of any size outside San Francisco, so I got myself on  board and waved goodbye to Tessie and San Francisco, feeling a little sad as I headed over the Golden Gate. I stopped off near a big truckstop just outside Walnut Creek, and I figured I could get back to San Francisco on the bus if I needed to, or just book myself on a Greyhound using my credit card if all else failed. Tessie had given me a big piece of card and I’d borrowed a brush and some paint, so that I now had a folded sign in my rucksack that read: ANYWHERE WEST. I didn’t think New York would be worth writing just yet, so I hung around outside the truckstop after visiting the men’s room with this sign. Overhead, the sky was beginning to cloud a little and I hoped it wasn’t going to rain before I’d found a ride. I’d decided to give myself till lunchtime, have a break then try again until I ran out of patience before giving up, as I didn’t hold out too much hope. It took me two hours to get someone to stop, and I was lucky: it was a big tanker heading back to Phoenix: what he’d had in the tank I don’t remember, some sort of chemical, and that was my first hitch. He was a friendly guy, and said my best bet was to try and get to Denver if I could before trying for New York. Denver was where I’d flown to in the first place and I began to feel a little foolish, and daunted by the size of the task I was taking on. New York was over 3,000 miles away, and I began to think I’d be better off flying, but money was beginning to dry up.

 

A bright flash caught my eye to the right as we cruised along in the dark. Now one thing about travelling in America on the road is this. You look out of the window and you can see some sort of landmark in the distance, a hill, mountain or rocky outcropping. In England this would rapidly disappear over the horizon, but in the States the land is so big and flat, that you can still see the same landmark after nearly an hour, as if you haven’t moved, because you’re looking over these incredible distances. What I saw to my right as I looked was a flash of lightning, a distant thunderstorm. I had no way of knowing how far away it was, but there was no thunderclap, so it must have been a heck of a distance. I looked again and there was a second flash, and this time I had some idea of the vastness of the land, because I saw something I’d never seen before. The lightning flash connected the earth to the thundercloud above it, but for a second or so I could see the entire mass lit up from within by green bolts of electrical power, yes, green, I know, how many times do you see lightning that colour? The bolts also shot into the sky above. It was like some immense brain, like something you’d see in a horror film where someone is trying to bring a dead brain to life with electricity, or a living thing, like a giant jellyfish, a moving, crepitating ball of energy pulsing with life. Flash after flash lit up that moving mass, and I couldn’t help remarking to my silent companion: “Hey, look at that!” even though I despaired of a reply.

His face turned in the dark and  in the next flash of lightning my heart almost stopped. For a split-second in that flash I saw his face lit up, a dead face, the lidless eyes screaming from their sockets, the grinning teeth set in the ghastly rictus of death, the skin a dead, peeling white skull, starkly drawn out in the green of that unnatural light, and my jaws clicked together painfully as I muttered “Gahhh...!” in a moment’s utter terror. The flash passed and I could see he had turned his attention back to the road. I was sure what I’d seen was an illusion as his face seemed back to normal again, and he drawled “You okay boy?” in that odd voice of his. “Yeah, yeah,” I managed to mutter, whilst trying to recover my composure because I felt very far from OK.  There was another flash, lighting up the cab interior and everything seemed just as it was before, the silent stranger, the oddly mute radio now with some more talk coming out of it, the photos briefly lit in the flashes of lightning. I realised I couldn’t take much more of this and needed to get out of here. There was something strange about this entire situation, what it was, I couldn’t put my finger on, but all the time I’d been thinking all these weird thoughts, about serial-killers, morbid things and feeling more and more uncomfortable. My eyes began to seek out a sign for the next town, a filling-station, anywhere so I could just get off and away from this strange driver and this strange truck. I never even asked myself if it wasn’t the workings of a tired and overwrought mind, and I imagined myself holing up in the safety of a motel somewhere.

 

“This is as far as I  go, son” , the driver told me as we approached Phoenix, now about four miles away. “Now I can drop you by the bus terminal, that OK?”  The night was beginning to draw in, the sun had set and it was getting dark fast. Also, it was beginning to rain, so I wasn’t altogether happy at abandoning the safety of the truck for the outside world. However, it wasn’t as if I had much choice, so I thanked him for the ride, handed over a few dollars and got my kit together. “You take care now.” he said as I got ready to leave. “you should be able to get’s far as Denver, but New York, phewwww! Good luck son.”

The truck growled away and I went to look at the bus timetables. The next Greyhound wouldn’t be along for more than two hours. I decided to try another hitch before either getting myself a ticket to Denver or all the way to New York, or just seeking a motel for the night. I wasn’t too tired as I’d had a cat-nap  and didn’t fancy hanging around. By then I was starting to feel a little lonely. I got out my sign again and started thumbing for ANYWHERE WEST  just outside the terminal, on the junction for the highway. I got out my Army hat and stood there in the light drizzle, promising myself I’d give up if it got worse. I realised I looked unshaven and in my black coat and with my hat probably looked like a bum, but since I’d been lucky once, I thought I would be again.

One truck after another went by, and a number of cars, shooting past in their hurry to be wherever they were headed for, until half an hour later this big truck came lumbering up, bigger than the one I’d taken from Walnut Creek. It had a long snout and was pulling these two big containers behind it, and as he seemed to be going pretty slowly I thought I might be in luck. The drops of rain hung in the beams of the big headlights as I put out my hand and stuck my thumb up, but the lumbering giant just went straight past me, the smell of gas and hot rubber coming off it, the smell of the road and in frustration I shouted “Ahhhh SHIT!”

The truck slowed and stopped about twenty yards up the road. Just for a second I thought: “What have I done?” The idea came into my mind that the driver had heard me and I was in for a pretty bad time, but the truck just waited there, no sound of the cab door banging shut, no shouting. “Come on,” I thought. “He couldn’t have heard. What are you waiting for? Hurry up before he goes.”

So I ran up to the cab, sitting there in the night, something feeling a little strange as there was no-one leaning out of the window, no-one opened the door to ask “Where you headed?”  It felt as if there was no driver at all, so I climbed up the ladder to the door and opened it myself, out of curiosity as much as anything.

“You headed west?” I asked. “Denver maybe?” The big driver just nodded at me. I felt a little self-conscious at this, and for a second contemplated just jumping off and going back to the bus station. But I felt I’d already made the decision and all I needed to do was complete the transaction, so I jumped in. The truck rumbled away as I thanked the driver and in twenty or so minutes we’d driven out of the rain, and maybe three-quarters of an hour later left the main highway.

 

“Can you tell me where the next town is?” I asked. I’d had to pluck up the courage to do this because that terrible face was still imprinted on my mind. I felt anxious about asking this, because somehow, I feared the answer.

“Long ways yet.” The voice rumbled from beneath that hat. It came out “Lauuunggg wayyyysssss.”My state of mind was becoming steadily worse and I feared, bordered on hysteria. The storm was now coming closer, and the cab was lit bay another green flash of lightning, illuminating the interior, with the driver now seeming feverish in his concentration, leaning forward over the wheel. The storm was definitely approaching because this time the thunder filled the cab, a huge tearing noise that seemed to come from right above us. It began to rain heavily so that the beams of the headlights became clearly visible ahead, two cones of bright yellow light. As I peered through the curtain of rain I could see something ahead, vague points of orange light and I began to feel a sense of hope and relief; it might be a junction, a town, a filling station, somewhere I could escape. I didn’t care about the rain and the storm, I just wanted to get out of there. The points of light were distorted in the wet windscreen even though the driver had turned on his wipers, and I saw with a surge of hope a bright yellow square appearing in the distance. It was a filling station. Filling stations often had toilets, so here was my chance.

“Could we pull over?” I asked. “ I need to visit the bathroom”. After a short time in America you learn to use that expression. I’d forgotten the living-quarters behind the cab where he had his own facilities.

“I can’t stop yet” came the deep-throated, mummified voice. coming out like: “ Ahh caiiiinntt...” “Not in this rain.” In mounting despair I watched as we passed the filling station, and I noticed it had old-style pumps, big rounded ones like they had in the Fifties, at least on the films I’d seen, and old electric lights with saucer-shaped shades above them. And that was when it hit me.

That’s what was wrong with this whole picture. Since we’d turned on to this highway. My mind suddenly worked like a kid making a jigsaw and putting all the pieces together. The Cadillac, the Plymouth, the gas station. All of them were old, I hadn’t seen a single modern car! The faded photos, the LBJ sticker, all of it was from the past! Where was I? What was all this? My heart began to pound and I began to sweat with real fear, for the first time in my life. Although by now I was in the grip of mounting terror, my voice somehow came out steady as I asked: “Where exactly are you headed for?”

Another flash lit up the cabin. Above, the thunder crashed through the ionised air. I could see the driver’s face, the mouth hanging slackly open, the eyes sightless white balls rolled up into the head no movement from the mouth as that hollow voice croaked from somewhere : “End of the road. I’m goin to the end of the road.”

Flash after flash lit up the cab. “I been on this road these eighteen year since I rolled over. I’m dead. You’re dead. This here’s a dead end. No way off this road” Again that white mask of grinning death snarled at me in the next lightning flash. “DEAADDDDD!!!”  croaked that hideous voice.

I think I screamed then. I could see no way out. I looked out of the cab window at the speeding world outside and I knew I had only one chance. I could try to tackle the monster beside me but what good would that do? I thought for an instant of grabbing the steering wheel, but these thoughts were burned out of my mind in an instant. It was the work of a second to open the door, with the rushing air outside and the rain lashing my face, the thunder and lightning now coming like explosions overhead, flash after flash, crash upon crash, boom, boom, boom, and I could see the grass bank of the road just beyond the wheels as I climbed down the ladder. I didn’t know how fast we were going, I only knew I had to jump. I threw out my bag, prepared to roll so as to cushion the fall, and with a scream I let go of the ladder and fell into space. The last thing I recall seeing was that truck fading away in the distance. It didn’t just dwindle away in the dark, it seemed to slowly break up, become transparent and disappear, as if it were somehow unreal.

 

I don’t know how I escaped so lightly. When I woke up there was a light drizzle, and the sky was a gunmetal grey above. I rose stiffly but with surprisingly little pain, and looked at the road. It was crumbling and overgrown with weeds and moss. It clearly hadn’t been used in years, and I wondered what in hell had happened to me. Had I been on some sort of ghost road where only the dead travel? I felt unreal, other-worldly and scared, but above all relieved to have escaped that nightmare. I looked myself over and couldn’t see any bruises, let alone broken bones and I laughed with relief. I’d expected to be mashed to pieces by that jump, if I made it alive at all. But a deep gloom fell over me as I realised I was going to have to try and find my way back to civilisation and I had no idea where I was.

I managed to find the highway about half- a mile away. It wasn’t hard as I could hear it from the footpath I was on, and I was lucky: by sticking out my thumb again I got myself a ride in a concrete mixer to some small town I forget the name of. I couldn’t tell the story of what had happened to me, but I did ask the driver about the road. I made up some story about photographing old roads and mapping them for a thesis. It turned out to have been abandoned thirty years ago.

Finally I stopped off at this little town and feeling very tired, started to look for a motel. The streets were quiet as it was still early. No-one paid me any attention for which I was grateful. Feeling like reading something, I passed one of those newspaper machines they have in America, where you put in a coin and it unlocks the machine so you can buy a newspaper. Fumbling in my bag for my wallet I noticed I couldn’t find it. Panic began to creep into my stomach in case I’d lost it, and at that moment the contents of the paper caught my eye with a photograph. It seemed familiar and I realised it was the same guy who’d given me a ride to Phoenix a day or so ago. I froze.

 

TRUCKER ARRESTED FOR MURDER

 

Waylon Hendricks, 43,was arrested yesterday following a routine police check after a spate of illegal trafficking from San Francisco. Hendricks has been formally indicted for the murder of a British student who was hitch-hiking in the area after police found the dead man’s passport and wallet in his cab. (I’M DEAD! YOU’RE DEAD! That strange ghost driver had said. I became cold inside.) The identity of the hitch-hiker has not been released yet for legal reasons, but the body was discovered outside the borders of Phoenix in a waste skip by disposal operatives. (How had I escaped without any injuries?) He had been strangled. (All those thoughts I’d had about murder!) Police are appealing for anyone who may have seen this man hitching on the road between San Francisco and Phoenix to come forward....

 

It’s a lonely life on the road, but you get used to it. I get myself a ride on most good days. You’d be surprised how many people will help you on your way. I just wish I could go back to England. I’m homesick.

 

There’s a car coming. I put out my hand....

 

 

 

 


© Copyright 2017 MARCUS DARWIN. All rights reserved.

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