I submitted this story to the Word art show in Harrisonburg this past February. I’m only beginning to write short stories, and I’m hoping to feature more of them on my blog along with my other reflections. Enjoy!
Lena stared, eyes glazed over with indifference and boredom, out of her passenger window when she caught sight of the hitchhiker. She sat in her 2005 navy blue Nissan Altima, stuck three cars back at the last red light on Main Street, already dreading the eight hour work day at Target to come. The hitchhiker stood, not with tattered clothes or grizzled hair, but in a nice suit with a briefcase by his side, his posture pitch-perfect and straight with his thumb held out. It was a devilishly hot day, even for mid-July in Virginia, but he did not drip sweat like Lena did in her air conditioned car, and his smile was as bright and dazzling as her frown was dreary and mopey.
In all of her life, Lena never stopped for hitchhikers. She barely even glanced their way when she passed them. She had been raised to never consider doing such things, despite all that her pastor at church said about looking out for the least of those. Church might have taught her to be kind and compassionate, but her mother had taught her to be cunning and suspicious. Lena was twenty-four years old now, but she still lived under her mother’s roof, and her mother never hesitated to remind her that living under her roof meant following all of her rules. Despite the frustrations of living at home and the tediousness of her job, she wanted to live long enough to make some money and maybe start her own life elsewhere, and picking up this hitchhiker, one of the least of those, would certainly infringe upon her.
Yet this guy, Lena couldn’t help but note, didn’t seem like the stereotypical hobo hitchhiker she was used to seeing on the streets and at stoplights. His clothes were nicer than anything Lena had ever owned; even coming from a single parent family, her clothes in high school were just as nice and fashionable as the rest of her classmates. He had nice teeth and a nice physique, hinting at a history of good orthodontics, a gym membership, or at the very least great family genes. And yet here he was, standing on the side of Main Street with his thumb extended as if his next destination, despite his clean-cut appearance, remained dependent on the kindness of strangers passing by from home to work or work to home.
Although Lena never stopped for hitchhikers, something about this one changed her mind. Maybe the heat boiled her brain into madness. Maybe she had reached the point in her career where she didn’t care about being late anymore and was looking for any reason to stall. Maybe she thought he was attractive. Whatever it was about this stranger, it made Lena, after checking the status of the traffic light, tentatively put down her passenger window, enough that he wouldn’t be able to thrust his hand in and attack her, and yell out, “Where are you headed?”
The man retracted his thumb, the gleeful, pearly smile still on his face, picked up his briefcase, and walked jovially over to Lena’s car. He confidently leaned his arm against the car, put his head close to the slightly opened window, and replied, “Where are you headed, stranger?”
Lena sighed impatiently and turned her gaze downwards. She did not detect any suaveness in the stranger’s voice, but the remark, which could have been flirtatious, made her immediately regret her decision to interact with him. “Look, I don’t ever do this, and for good reason, so if you’re some skeavy perv with a creepy idea of how to pick up dates, I can just leave you here for another victim.” She put her hand over the window button to roll it up again; the air conditioning had finally reached its optimum coolness, and she wasn’t going to let the stranger enjoy any of it at her expense.
“No, ma’am, please,” the stranger replied quickly and apologetically. He held the window in a tight grip, as if his strength could prevent her from making the slight movement that would cause the window to crush his fingers. “Please, I don’t mean any harm, and I am not looking to, well, nothing like that, ma’am.”
“Then where, sir, will you be going today?” Lena tersely asked. She knew his “ma’am” wasn’t meant to be taken sarcastically, but she wanted to show him that he was the dependent one, and she could very easily and swiftly retract her random act of kindness if he pushed the boundaries too far.
“Honestly, I need to get out of this area as soon as I can. Whether it’s ten minutes or an hour down the road or in another state entirely, I just need to get out of this exact spot.”
Lena frowned suspiciously at the stranger. None of this made any sense. What kind of a hitchhiker had no permanent destination in mind? He didn’t have the air of an amateur, but she couldn’t help but think that this was not the most practical way to get somewhere that wasn’t right here and right now.
No, Lena couldn’t peg his exact intentions, nor could she shake off the sense that she needed to get that guy the hell out of his current location. Despite the fact that she never felt the desire to bail anyone out of anything, she couldn’t shake the sense of obligation she felt to this stranger. She rolled the window down a little further, still not enough for him to put his hands through. “The Target on East Market Street,” she replied. “I’m on my way to work. It’s only 10 minutes up the road, so you won’t be that far away-“
“Oh no, that’s plenty far enough!” he joyously exclaimed, as if she had offered him a ride to Disney World instead of her soul-sucking place of employment. He picked up his briefcase, then stopped himself from becoming too hopeful, holding it instead to his chest and imploring Lena with his gaze. “Is that OK with you, then, if I join you there?”
Lena paused for a moment. At this point, she knew there was no way she could turn back; after all, the light was only moments away from turning green. “Sure,” she tonelessly replied, and she flipped the unlock switch. “Please, in the back seat, though.”
“Thank you, thank you, so much!” he exclaimed, and he opened the back door, lightly placed his briefcase on the backseat (he hadn’t thrown it carelessly, Lena gratefully noted), and pulled his frame gracefully into the backseat before shutting the door and buckling up. She was at least glad to know that he had the sense to buckle up upon entering the car. She always had to hound her mother about things like that, but her mom always said it was her right to fly through the windshield if she so pleased. Lena felt grateful that at least this stranger cared enough about his life, and her own liability, to buckle himself in.
As soon as she saw that he was settled in his seat, Lena looked up in time to see the light turn green. Even though she now carried a stranger in her car, the ride to work continued as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Lena flipped on her right blinker and followed the two cars in front of her around the bend as they turned onto Cantrell Avenue. Three lights on this road separated her from her right turn on East Market, and three more lights on that street would bring her to her final destination: an eight-hour day on her feet, ringing up plastic items, and being hounded by customers about non-existent coupons and deals. By the time she finished her shift, she might reflect that picking up a handsome hitchhiker was the least stressful part of her day.
Before she could decide if keeping up any type of conversation would be worth the awkwardness it entailed, the passenger said, “I’m sorry you have to be stuck inside on such a day like today.”
There were many things people had a habit of saying to retail workers that Lena absolutely hated, and this was at least in the top five. Easy for anyone, even a hitchhiker, to say, that it sucked to be her because she would be indoors, breathing other peoples’ diseased air and dealing with greedy, disgusting attitudes, while others got to enjoy nature. And yet before she could say any of this, perhaps because of a subtle glare she had directed towards him in the rear view mirror, he immediately and smoothly replied, “Oh, I’m so sorry. You’re probably sick to death of hearing people say things like that. Of course you’re sorry for yourself for being stuck inside all day. I don’t have to remind you of that.” While he talked, he kept his smile on. He didn’t seem at all embarrassed by his remark; on the contrary, he seemed intentional about everything he was saying, as if he read this interaction from a script. He knew his statement would provoke her, but she didn’t know why he sought to intentionally irritate the person helping him out. Despite this odd situation and his remark, nothing about him made her uncomfortable; in fact, everything from his smile to what he said seemed very genuine, something she was not used to at or outside of work.
“No, it’s fine,” Lena replied, less terse than she had been throughout her entire interaction with him. “But yeah, it really does suck being inside that building all day.”
“And dealing with all of those people. How many times do they whine and complain about not being able to use enough coupons?”
Lena made a short sarcastic laugh and gave the stranger a look of exaggerated irritation in the rear view mirror to answer his question.
He made a short laugh in return. “I can’t stand corporate America. Spending and consuming all that stuff we have no need at all for, just to make ourselves feel better than the next person. It’s so mindless.” He took his eyes away from hers in the rear view mirror to stare knowingly out of his side window. “I hate mindlessness,” he said calmly to the glass.
All Lena could do was nod. She knew he was a random guy who seemingly felt the same way that she did about her place of employment, and the state of both humanity and the economy, but he was still a hitchhiker. No matter what little things they’d have in common, he would be out of her life in less than ten minutes. She reminded herself of this as she swept swiftly under the first light on Cantrell, but as she slowed to a stop at the second, she could not shake the sense that she felt the flicker of a flame burn within her, one she extinguished months ago that was now kindled by the stranger’s words.
“So,” he said after she came to a full stop, sitting easily back in his chair and making direct eye contact with her through the rear view mirror, “what do you really want to be doing?”
Lena stared back at him with an intense and quizzical look before returning her eyes to the road ahead of her. Only four more stop lights stood between her and this stranger getting out of her car. Why on earth did he want to get to know such an intimate detail of her life? He could have been flirting with her, but she believed him when he said he was only looking for a ride. Then why else would he want to know this about her? “I’m just your driver today,” she replied, “one who will be out of your life in less than ten minutes. Why do you need to know anything else about me?”
The stranger, with a bright and curious gleam in his eyes and an easy crooked smile on his face, leaned closer. “You aren’t just my driver. You aren’t just anyone. Anyone else would have passed me by and left me to fend for myself. No, you’re not just anyone. And I’m curious to get to know just who you are.”
“I really am just anyone though. And for now, I am just a driver. That’s all you need to know, sir.” She couldn’t resist tacking on the “sir” at the end, once again to remind him of the kindness she was doing him and his need to mind his business. The light turned green, and Lena drove on. They were silent again when Lena made her right turn onto East Market, three lights from her final destination, but when she straightened the car onto East Market, he spoke again.
“I know you’re not just anyone. I know you’re unhappy at your job, you not so secretly want an escape from this mundane life, and I know for sure that I can help you with that.”
Lena stared back at him through the rear view mirror. Now that she had ruled him out as a playboy, she couldn’t decide if this guy was ridiculously idealistic or if she had unwittingly picked up a hitchhiking missionary who would spend the rest of the ride thumping her with Bible quotes and trying to convince her that all she needed to be satisfied was the blood of Jesus. She didn’t understand why he couldn’t simply sit in the back for the rest of the short ride without seeking to fix or change her life.
But for some reason, Lena humored him. If he was a Bible thumper, she could try to take him down a notch with some simple logic and reason. If he was an extreme idealist, she could give him a reality check about how the world really worked. Lena knew she could do the second one; she had been a very strong idealist once, until reality settled in after graduating with her philosophy degree, and she became forced to make a living by taking this job and moving back home, a decision which her mother wasted no time in reminding her “I told you so.”
“Alright. So you realize I’m miserable and want an escape. How exactly are you the person to save me?”
The stranger, smiling even brighter now, stared at her reflection in the mirror before turning to look out his window, speaking once again to his own reflection. “I’m hitchhiking with you today because I needed to make a quick escape as undetected as possible. I needed an escape that couldn’t be traced, and for me, hitchhiking was the best way to do it. I can’t be detected, because if I am, I will be in some big trouble with people I do not want to be in trouble with.” He paused for a moment to let Lena absorb this information, and in a calm yet proud voice he continued, “But I can’t say I regret what I did. I know I did the right thing, and I feel so alive now that I’ve done it.”
Lena slowed to a stop at the second light, and turned in her seat to look directly at him. It started to make sense now. This man was dangerous, maybe even psychologically unstable, and she no longer wanted any association with him. She opened her mouth to tell him as much, but he broke his gaze with his reflection and turned to meet her eyes. “What I do makes me feel alive, because I’m living truly and honestly, not false and mindlessly. You, like those customers and managers you deal with and loathe on a daily basis, are living false and mindlessly, but I know you don’t want to. I know you’re not like those others who have sold themselves to apathy. I know you want to truly live and say all the things you think and feel. That’s why this job is so soul-sucking for you. That’s why I know I can help you. I can get you in on what I do.”
They stared intently at each other for what felt to Lena like forever. Finally, their gaze was broken by the blaring of a car horn; the light had finally switched to green, and the rest of the world was impatient to move on. Lena tore her gaze from the stranger and drove forward, thinking only of getting rid of this man as quickly as she could. Waiting to get to work would be too long. She flipped on her right blinker and crossed over into the right lane, making her way to the shoulder on the road between the Jimmy John’s sandwich shop and the Chic-fil-A. The stranger seemed to notice her idea, because he wasted no time in interjecting, “You won’t drop me off, either. You know I’m right, and I know that scares you, but if you’re going to be honest with yourself, you know that the idea of dropping me off and facing your mundane day without knowing exactly who I am and what I’m up to will make your day that more unbearable. You’ve had enough unbearable days, ma’am. Do you want to make this one worse?”
She knew it wasn’t a threat but a complete fact, and with that she quickly merged back into her lane and drove on. The final light switched to yellow as she approached it. Lena cursed to herself; if she hadn’t been so easily swayed by this stranger, he would be out of her car, and she would have made the light. Now she was late for work with a radical lunatic in her car. Only one more light until she made her turn into Target. Only so much more time to figure out exactly what this stranger’s business was.
She looked back at him again in her mirror. “So I’m guessing you’ve either killed someone or done something that will make a lot of very powerful and important people come after you.”
He smiled. “I do not have bloody hands, ma’am, but as I said earlier, I am not safe.”
“You’re a dangerous and wanted man, but you’ve done something because you thought it a noble cause, not for money.”
He simply stared at her in response, the easy, crooked smile still on his face.
She stopped at the final light and turned to look at him. “Sir, you may say my life is mundane and boring, and you’d be right about that. You say that I want an escape, and you’re sure as hell right about that, too. But if you think that you, a criminal, can offer me a better alternative, then you are absolutely nuts, and I will have nothing to do with you or anything you’re involved in. Do I make myself clear?”
The smile stayed on, and the gleam in his eye became a bit more feverish, but his voice was calm and steady as he said, “I understand completely, ma’am. I’ll stay quiet for the remainder of our time.”
With a sense of both relief and anticlimax, Lena turned around just as the light turned green. She made her turn into the Target parking lot and found a space. As she turned off the engine, she looked back in her rear view mirror one last time; she saw the stranger putting a pen back in his pocket, but otherwise he was still and silent. She turned in her chair to face him, not sure if they would part with a good-bye or in silence; she secretly hoped for the later. He gazed directly into her eyes, made a quick little smirk, and opened the door. “Thank you for your kindness, ma’am,” he said as he promptly picked up his briefcase and stepped out of the car and into the parking lot in one swift motion. She did not wait to see in which direction he went. She did not care if he hitched the rest of the way to his unknown destination, or if he boiled in the harsh heat, or if his supposed enemies found him and gave him his punishment. She only cared about clocking in and avoiding an explanation for her lateness to the general manager. Hastily, Lena grabbed her purse and started for the door, thinking she had properly washed her hands of this stranger and his situation.
It was when she got inside and fished her name tag from her purse that she found the note.
It was written on a Wendy’s napkin, one of the many she often left in her car, with a fountain pen. She knew it had to have been written quickly, but the handwriting was neat and tidy. She saw an email address and a phone number with an area code she didn’t recognize. There was only one message:
“If you’re looking for more, all you have to do is ask.”