Short Story — “The Hitchhiker”

Have you ever felt inexplicably called to do something, even when you can’t figure out why, and even when it flies in the face of logic and common sense?  Certainly Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, and Ryan Swinton have.  In The Eye-Dancers, in the recurring dream they share with one another, they feel compelled to look into the “ghost girl’s” eyes, unable to avoid them.  She has an almost magical, hypnotic force about her, and the boys cannot fight it, no matter how much they might want to.

Likewise, in the short story “The Hitchhiker,” which I wrote while in the middle of working on The Eye-Dancers, the protagonist feels compelled to pick up a hitchhiker he sees walking along a country road in western New York State on a cold, dark November evening.  He doesn’t know why he feels he must give this stranger a ride.  He just knows, instinctively, it’s something he has to do. . . .

I hope you enjoy the story.

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“The Hitchhiker”

Copyright 2013 by Michael S. Fedison

*************

It had been nearly twenty years since he’d left, but now, coming back, Kyle’s memories felt so near, close enough to touch.  He wished it weren’t so.  Some memories, some people, were better left in the blurry, distant past.

The road leading out to the college was also much the way Kyle remembered it.  The hills came and went, like a gentle roller-coaster ride, as the road passed through a handful of small towns, with their old brick storefronts and well-kept, tidy main streets.  It rolled through the countryside, past farms with yellowed, desiccated corn stalks and Holsteins grazing contentedly on the still-green grasses.  It wound through stretches of woodlands, the bare branches of the trees blending in with the early evening gloom, gray on gray, faded brown on dull slate.

“Welcome home,” he said, as he cruised along in his rented Subaru.  “About the kind of reception I’d expect from this place.”  But then, how did he think it would be?  Warm and sunny?  This was western New York State in mid-November, after all.  For years, his alma mater had asked him to come back, give a presentation.  He’d always refused, but this year he accepted.  Now he wondered why he hadn’t decided to come in the spring, when—

There was a man walking backwards along the shoulder of the road, arm extended, thumb up.  He wore a black hooded sweat jacket, and carried a duffel bag.  Odd.  Why would someone be hitchhiking at this hour, in this chill?  In just a few minutes, it would be dark.

He passed the guy, still not getting a clear look at him.  All he could see was the arm flop back to the man’s side.

“Sorry, buddy,” he said, glancing back in his rearview mirror.  “But you know how it is.”

He drove on, his rental car effortlessly conquering the miles.  He glanced at the digital clock on the dashboard.  Four-thirty.  No wonder he felt hungry.  He hadn’t eaten since breakfast—and that had been breakfast on London time.  He would stop for a bite to eat at the first diner or fast-food place he saw.  And he knew from memory, there were plenty of both along the route to the college.

Sure enough, a place called Shirl’s Diner came up on the right.  He’d never heard of it, but it would do.

“Hope their food’s all right,” he said, as he pulled into the parking lot.  A dozen other cars were parked out front.  “Wouldn’t want to come down with food poisoning the day before my speech.”

He smiled.  Still talking to himself—that was a habit he’d never been able to shake.  He remembered how Renee had caught him doing that several times, rambling about a homework assignment, the Mets’ chances at making the postseason, a short story he was plotting, or, most embarrassing of all, his growing fondness for her.

“Well, I’m flattered,” she’d told him one time after walking in on one of his monologues.  He’d been saying how beautiful her eyes were, how much he liked to look at them, at her.  “But you know, you might have told me directly.”  She smiled then, and hugged him, and it felt so good.  So good.

“Stuff it,” he said, getting out of his rental, pressing the automatic Lock button on the handheld remote.  Thinking about Renee again.  That’s the last thing he needed.  She was a part of his past, the past he’d escaped—the stifling small-town life, the provincial narrow-mindedness, the ignorance.  He’d visited New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Paris, Berlin, before completing his MFA in London, and settling down there.  He’d met brilliant professors, talented writers, intellectual giants.  He’d brushed away the residue of his childhood home.  It was the best decision he’d ever made.

He went inside, heading right for the counter.  Three men sat there, scattered, no one sitting next to anyone else.  He followed suit, finding a stool three removed from the closest patron.  From a radio behind the counter, a Country singer he didn’t know whined about losing his job and his girl.  Off to the left, a few other people sat in booths, couples mostly, talking with each other, eating the burgers, fries, and greasy fried chicken that evidently was the staple of Shirl’s Diner.

“What can I get ya?” a middle-aged blonde woman with cigarette breath asked him.  She had bags under her eyes, and her forehead was wet with perspiration.

“I’ll have a cheeseburger, well done, and a side order of fries,” he said.  He hadn’t had a burger in months.  It sounded good.

“K,” she said.  “That’ll be just a few minutes, hun.”  She rang him up, then vanished momentarily through an open doorway that led to the kitchen.  Kyle could see her telling something to the cook, an overweight guy with a bald head and a goatee.

He glanced back at the booths again.  One couple in particular caught his interest.  They were young, probably college undergrads, and they looked so happy with each other, so comfortable, so alive.  They even held hands across the tabletop as they ate.  He saw them share their food, letting each other sample what the other had ordered.  At one point, the girl leaned across the table and kissed the guy, then sat back down, a flush on her face.

She made him think again of Renee, of the times he’d shared with her, the way her nearness always had such an effect on him, the way her laughter always made him feel as if he were soaring.

He shook his head.  Why was he thinking so much of Renee?  Maybe it was because he’d returned home, the place where they’d met, loved, and ultimately bid each other farewell.  Well, he had done that.  He explained to her that he had to leave, had to see the world, cultivate the talent he’d been born with.  He was destined to be a writer, he told her.  Writing was his first love.  Besides, it wasn’t as if he had any close family.  His mom had run out on Dad and him when he was just a kid, and Dad died a few years later in an automobile accident.  He had no brothers, no sisters.  There was nothing to hold him here.  Couldn’t she understand?  If she would agree to travel abroad with him, to relocate . . . but she wouldn’t.  She said he could be a writer right here, in western New York.  He didn’t need to go to Europe.  He told her she was naïve, and left her in tears.

It was the right thing to do, the only thing he could do.  Better to sever the strings than leave her hanging, waiting for a change of heart that wouldn’t come.  And when he would sometimes think of her in the years since, lying in his bed alone at night, lingering under the massage of a hot shower, during those moments, when her face, the one she had years ago, young, unlined, a fresh canvas upon which the passage of time, the pain of experience had yet to carve their testimonials, came to him, he would tell himself that he didn’t miss her, didn’t long to be with her, didn’t wish for the warmth and closeness of her embrace.  He of course had his share of flings with London women, but none of them had ever evolved into anything serious.  Perhaps because no one else could replace Renee.  Or perhaps because he was just too busy, and didn’t have time to pursue a serious relationship.  That’s what he liked to tell himself, anyway.

“There you go, hun,” the waitress said, breaking his train of thought.  It was a welcome interruption.  What was the matter with him, anyway?  It was as if coming back to his roots had reawakened his old feelings, sending an electrical charge through them.  Had Renee ever moved away?  Or was she, as he sat here now, within a mere few miles of him?

“Makes no difference,” he said, taking a bite out of his burger.  It was greasy, but thick, a mouthful of meat.  Delicious.  “Imagine that.  Still like the cheap stuff.”  He preferred to believe that he’d changed over the years, improved himself.  Maybe he hadn’t.

He glanced back at the love-struck couple.  They still held hands, still gazed in each other’s eyes.  He wondered if the guy would one day tell her he had to leave, to make it big somewhere else.  He wondered if she’d go with him, or stay behind and cry.

He blinked, looked away.  This was too much.  He should just wolf down his food and get out of here, make the drive out to the college, check in to the hotel they had booked for him.  Look over his notes for the presentation he would give tomorrow evening—telling the audience how writing is a passion.  If it’s in you, it has to come first, or else you’ll never make it.  Yes.  That’s what he needed to do—think of his work, his career, perhaps even write a few more pages on the novel he was crafting.  Something to get his mind off of the past.  Off of Renee.

He finished his meal in a hurry, then left.  Back outside, the last lusterless drop of daylight was bleeding away, as though being sucked into the low-lying clouds, which hung over the landscape like dirty laundry.

Hopping into his rental car, he switched on the ignition, and cranked up the heat.  Living in London for years now, he was used to the chill.  But somehow the cold here in upstate New York seemed to penetrate more.  Or maybe it was something else that caused him to shiver.  He couldn’t know for sure, didn’t want to.

Back on the road, he accelerated to sixty-five, ten miles per hour beyond the limit.  Surely no cop would care, there was virtually no traffic out here.  The biggest problem he had was relearning to drive on the right side of the road.  It was ironic, really.  For months, in England, he had all the rules of the road in reverse—sometimes he worried that he’d never get the hang of it.  Now, it turned out, he’d gotten the hang of it too well.  He had to fight the impulse of swerving past the yellow line, into the other lane.  He laughed.  That wouldn’t be a good idea.

“Nope,” he said, considering whether or not he should turn on the radio or drive in silence.  He normally liked the silence—he was able to come up with story ideas, ponder character motivation, enjoy the faint echo of his thoughts.  But this evening, with his mind taking him places he didn’t want to go, perhaps it would be better to turn on some noise, listen to some local talk-show host jabbering in that nasal western New York twang he’d fought so hard to get rid of in the years since leaving.

He reached for the dial, then stopped.  Up ahead, arm extended, thumb up, walking backwards along the shoulder of the road was the same guy he’d seen earlier.  That was strange.  He’d passed this guy over ten miles ago.  He’d been in the diner no more than a half hour.  How could the guy have gotten ahead of him in such a short span of time?

Unless someone picked him up back there.  Yes.  That must have been it.  But why would someone pick him up only to drop him off a few short miles down the road?

He was nearly beside him now, but still couldn’t get a good look at the man’s face.  The hooded sweat jacket, coupled with the near-darkness, concealed his features.  He might be a maniac for all Kyle knew, a madman with a collection of hunting knives in his duffel bag.  Then again, if someone had just picked him up, maybe he was harmless.  And it was a chilly evening.  And he was driving in the same direction the guy was headed. . . .

He was surprised as he slowed down, then came to a stop a few feet ahead of the hooded man.  He had never picked up a hitchhiker in his life, and never thought he would.  It was a foolish, dangerous thing to do, especially on a country road like this, in the November dark, with barely any traffic around.  And yet, something inside him seemed to urge him, tug at him, telling him to stop.  Besides, there was a town just a couple of miles ahead.  Surely he would reach it in time if the guy tried anything.

Before he could second-guess himself and pull away, the passenger-side door opened, and the hooded figure hopped in.

“Thanks,” he said.  “Gonna be a cold night.”  Then he shut the door, buckled himself in.

Kyle rubbed his chin with the palm of his hand.  This wasn’t the normal way it went, was it?  Wasn’t the hitchhiker supposed to ask the driver where he was headed, or vice versa?  Wasn’t the hitchhiker supposed to look the driver in the eye, so the two of them could examine each other and decide whether or not they wanted to take the risk?  As it was, he still had no clue about this guy—not where he wanted to go, not his name, not even what he looked like.  The overhead light in the car wasn’t working, and the man still had his hood up.  For all Kyle knew, the guy seated next to him might have a scar raging along the entire length of his cheek.  He might be wearing earrings or a necklace.  He might have a head full of wavy hair, or be completely bald.  There was no way to tell.

He decided to just go with it.  That feeling inside him, the instinct, if you wanted to call it that, which had made him pull over in the first place still urged him to drive this guy along.

“I’m headed for the college,” he said.  “Well, not exactly.  Not tonight, anyway.  I’m giving a presentation there tomorrow.  Tonight I head for the hotel on the other side of town.  So, that’s as far as I can take you.”

Against his better judgment, perhaps, but still believing it was something he was supposed to do for some reason, Kyle pulled back out into the road.

“That’s perfect,” the guy said.  “I’m a student at the college.”  That wasn’t surprising.  He did sound young.  Still, what had he been doing, wandering along the roadside in the dusk?  “Oh, just thinking, I guess,” the hitchhiker said when Kyle asked, as if that explained why he was more than ten miles from the campus without any transportation.

They drove along in silence, passing through the next town in less than a minute, then finding themselves back out in open country again.  A deer suddenly darted in front of the Subaru, but Kyle braked in time.

“Dumb deer,” he said, watching the animal disappear into the yawning mouth of the night.  “I’m not used to them jumping out in front of you like that anymore.  Nothing bolts out in front of you in London except people.”

“You live in London?” the hitchhiker said.

“For seventeen years now,” Kyle said.  He glanced at the young man beside him, still unable to see anything save for the side of his hood.  Even so, there was something about him.  Something . . .

“You know, I sometimes think I wanna go live somewhere else, too,” the young man said.  “I mean, I want to learn, to experience things, you know?  But I don’t know.  I mean, I’m not sure if I want to move away or not.”

They passed a green road sign with fluorescent white letters, telling them that the college was six miles ahead.

“Well, I couldn’t encourage you enough to shake the dust of this area off your shoes,” Kyle said.  “I grew up here, went to college here.  That’s why they want me to give a talk tomorrow night.  I’m a writer.  And they want me to talk about how to succeed, how to define your dreams and then reach for them.  Maybe you can attend.”

The hitchhiker just sat there, glancing out the window at the dark fields, the impenetrable shadows of the nighttime woods, the occasional farmhouse with its trusty porch light on, cutting a swath of brightness through the murk.

“I want to be a writer, too,” the hitchhiker said, still looking out the window.  “And I know there’s a lot I can learn by seeing the world.  I just had a professor talk to me about that the other day.  It’s just . . .”

“Family?” Kyle asked.  That was the reason Renee gave him.  She wouldn’t leave her mom, her dad, her brother.  She couldn’t.

The hitchhiker just shook his head, as they drove on, nearing the college.  It didn’t take a genius to figure out what was preying on his mind.  He must have a girlfriend.  What was it with these kids?  Couldn’t they understand that the relationships you share when you’re twenty rarely last?  Couldn’t they look beyond the narrow confines of the present and appreciate tomorrow?  He suddenly felt angry.  How many great writers had never been published?  How many literary masterpieces had never been written, because their would-be authors gave up too soon or failed to dedicate themselves to their calling?  How much wasted talent existed, littering the earth like the confetti of a million unrealized dreams?

“Don’t waste your skills,” Kyle said then.  “I’ve never seen your work, but you must know if you’re any good.  If you are, don’t let anyone hold you back.  When I was your age, I had a choice to make.  Stay here, maybe settle down, have a steady job, a family.  Or come to terms with the fact that I had a gift, a responsibility to use that gift, to give it back to the world.  I chose the latter.”  He paused, amused, realizing he had pronounced the word “latter” like a born-and-bred Englishman.  “If you give up now,” he went on, “you’ll never know.  You’ll never know if you might have made it.  That’s a tough way to live, if you ask me.”

The hitchhiker offered no response.  He just continued to glance out the window, then looked down at his lap.  Kyle hoped his words were getting through.

Yeah, tell him to live like you.  Tell him to give up on the things that really matter.  You’re blowing it with this kid, and you know it.  You’d give your right arm to do it over again, to marry Renee, spend your life with her.  Coming back here, to this place, you know that now, don’t you?

“Shut up,” he said, and the hitchhiker glanced at him quickly, then turned away.  “I wasn’t talking to you,” he said, feeling a touch of warmth on his cheeks.  “Sometimes my mind doesn’t want to shut up, that’s all.”

The hitchhiker nodded.  “I know what you mean.”

They were in the town now, and Kyle could see the campus lights straight ahead.  He pulled in to the main parking lot, trying to quell the longing he felt.  How many times had he walked along the pathways and lawns of this campus with Renee beside him, their hands clasped, their fingers intertwined?  How many times had he kissed her, held her, stayed up late and studied with her, shared secrets with her that he wouldn’t tell anyone else, and never had in the years since?

He felt an urge to tell himself to shut up again, but he didn’t.

The hitchhiker opened the passenger door, ready to get out.  Kyle still hadn’t gotten a good look at him.  But what did it matter?  “Thanks for the lift,” he said.  “And the advice.”

Kyle nodded.  “She . . . she must be a special girl, I bet,” he said.

“Yeah.”  The young man shifted in his seat.  “Yeah, Renee’s the best.”  And then he got out, gently shutting the door behind him.  There was a sadness in his gait as he walked away.

Kyle blinked, took a deep breath.  It all came clear to him now—why he felt such a need to stop, to pick up this particular hitchhiker.  No.  That was the only word his mind could construct.  The writer, the wordsmith—all he could think was, No.

“Wait!” he yelled, but the hooded figure of the boy, of the young man, was gone now.  Gone.  And Kyle knew that he would never return.

“Wait,” he said, softly.  “Please.  Please wait . . . ”

****************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

39 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. 2embracethelight
    Mar 18, 2013 @ 19:52:11

    That was very good! I enjoyed the suspence and the aching in his heart. It moved me.
    Yisraela

    Reply

  2. Mary
    Mar 18, 2013 @ 20:29:41

    Very well developed and had me reading all the way through, good story – thanks for sharing.

    Reply

  3. valentina
    Mar 18, 2013 @ 22:28:30

    Enjoyed it a lot! Your prose is both easy to read and rich in detail. Kept me wondering until half way through when a thought crossed my mind: the hitchhiker is Kyle’s son! … and then read faster and faster until yOu left me hanging! LOL… 😀

    Reply

  4. reocochran
    Mar 18, 2013 @ 22:35:14

    You are an awesome story teller! I appreciate all the times you have read and liked mine!

    Reply

  5. mummyshymz
    Mar 19, 2013 @ 00:10:12

    I liked the ending. Not the usual “man receives great advice from future self and turns his life around”…great writing.

    Reply

  6. Jackie
    Mar 19, 2013 @ 01:14:18

    Awesome story! I enjoyed it very much. 😀

    Reply

  7. readinpleasure
    Mar 19, 2013 @ 12:05:36

    Great story 🙂

    Reply

  8. Christy Birmingham
    Mar 19, 2013 @ 16:47:01

    Wow, awesome! I had goosebumps at the end!!

    Reply

  9. maryamchahine
    Mar 20, 2013 @ 14:36:29

    Wow! We have to be ever careful of the choices that we make in life. And sometimes at the moment we are making the choice, we think it is the best, but later on we find out it is not. The story flowed along very nicely. This is my second time reading it, and on the second reading I saw little details that said a lot to me. The ending of the story was somewhat mysterious, or it is just the way that my mind works – very nice ending although a bit sad, too.

    Thanks for sharing this enjoyable story!

    Reply

  10. WordsFallFromMyEyes
    Mar 20, 2013 @ 19:28:49

    Hey, I haven’t stopped by for a short story before – great stuff, Mike 🙂

    Ah, that writer could be me…. could be me…. I sometimes feel like I’m hitch hiking from office job to office job.

    Like it when he said ‘shut up’ – it was blunt, changed pace. Enjoyed it.

    Reply

  11. kelihasablog
    Mar 22, 2013 @ 00:14:39

    This is so great Michael 😀 ….. In my own life, I’ve made choices that I thought were the right choices at the time, but later, looking back…. I could see that they weren’t the best choices, I just thought they were at the time… 😀 Excellent story!

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Mar 22, 2013 @ 13:44:49

      Thanks, Kat! And you’re right about choices . . . so often it’s a case of–“I wish I knew then what I know now!” The character in this story tried denial for a long time–but denial can work for only so long.:)

      Reply

  12. lolarugula
    Mar 22, 2013 @ 01:23:35

    Fantastic story Mike! I finally had some down-time to sit and truly enjoy this. You have a fantastic knack for weaving a great tale.

    Reply

  13. likeitiz
    Mar 27, 2013 @ 05:50:48

    Good story. I like the way you developed it. I could see from your description of the drive at the beginning how desolate the place seemed to the main character and why he left for greener pasture. Good story. Nice ending.

    I’ve tried a few stabs at short story writing but I’m nowhere in developing and moving it forward. Your writing has given me reason to try again. Thanks.

    Reply

  14. Angela Grant
    Apr 04, 2013 @ 09:54:44

    Michael, your writing is inspiring. I felt compelled to write that. :).
    That was a very nice story, I liked the ending which returned to the beginning and the moral of the story…very nice. One day I hope to write books….one day….

    Also thank you for stopping by blog.

    Reply

  15. YOGiNi
    Apr 04, 2013 @ 17:47:34

    That was a nice story, you are a good story teller 🙂 I enjoyed the way the story progressed, loved the way it ended.

    Reply

  16. kaytisweetlandrasmussen83
    Apr 07, 2013 @ 02:46:09

    Awesome story Mike. I had goose bumps at the ending. We don’t see enough stories like that. Too bad.

    Reply

  17. Lynda
    Apr 12, 2013 @ 14:05:04

    I always worry that if I read someone else’s work that I will inadvertently pick it up and use it in my writing. Suddenly this morning, after reading to the end of your story, I realized that there are only ‘X’ amount of story scenarios, but they are not static. All may travel familiar paths, yet still offer a different view at each turn along the way, and certainly not all are going to have the same outcomes.

    To put it another way…
    If ten people travel the same path each will see it with new eyes and tell you about what they saw. None will describe the same journey, because each will have seen it through the filter of what was important to them.

    As I read I thought I knew your story’s end today, and then you surprised me. Thanks for a good read, and equally important, a writer’s object lesson!

    Reply

  18. renxkyoko
    Nov 01, 2016 @ 17:16:56

    Oh. I knew the hooded guy was Kyle. For some reason, I feel sad . Thanks . This is a very good story.

    Reply

  19. The Eye-Dancers
    Nov 01, 2016 @ 17:47:05

    Thanks so much! And thanks for taking the time to read this–much appreciated!:) I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    Reply

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