The moon rides high in the sky and I feel myself yawning for the fifth time in so many minutes. The road curves and bends as I try to keep my eyes open. They told me I could spend the night, but I’d rather get home and to my own bed before this storm hits. It’s looking to be a real drencher once it gets started. As it is, I’ll probably still be driving when it does. That’s if I don’t fall asleep and run myself into a ditch first. I can already see flashes of lightning up ahead.
I sip the lukewarm coffee I bought at the last service station, and slip the speed up a bit more. If I have to wreck tonight, I may as well make it spectacular. The lightning flashes in the distance and I catch a glimpse of someone standing on the side of the road. I don’t envy them. Hitchhiking this late at night with a storm bearing down can’t exactly be feel good times. I ease on the brake and dip my lights. Time to be a Good Samaritan. I’d hate if it was me stuck out here in this weather.
I pull over in front of the hitchhiker and roll down the window. It’s a girl in her teens. She looks too pretty to be wandering around alone this late at night. She’s shivering in the cold, the dress she’s wearing too thin to offer much protection. I can’t just leave her out here, who knows what would happen, so I lean over and ask if she needs a lift. The girl gives a weak nod and climbs in the car. I wonder how long she’s been standing out here trying to hook a ride.
The girl looks like a block of frozen ice, so I put on the heater before restarting the car. I don’t usually pick up hitchhikers. Giving rides to strangers is a good way to get yourself into serious trouble, but this night is a true equaliser. The oncoming storm is enough to spark empathy in even the coldest of hearts. You’d have to be really repressed to even consider leaving someone to freeze on a night like this. Giving them a ride is just the right thing to do.
“So where are you headed?” I turn to the girl, but she doesn’t respond.
I shrug and pull out onto the road. She’s probably too cold to think straight right now. I’ll give her some time to warm up before asking again. She’ll tell me when she’s ready, otherwise I’ll drop her off some place warm in the next town. Maybe once we’ve gotten rolling, she’ll relax and open up a bit. Just let her get a nit of warmth into her first.
We continue on in silence, the hum of the heater the only sound between us. I can feel her staring at me. I ease back on the gas to a comfortable cruising speed. Outside the rain has started falling, making seeing difficult. If it gets much worse I’ll need to slow down to a creep. So much for getting home before the storm broke. At this rate I’ll be lucky to get home before sunrise. I sip the last of my coffee and watch the rain gush down outside.
“Just let me know when you want to get out. I’d hate to drive past it.”
My passenger doesn’t say anything. She just keeps staring at me. It’s a bit unsettling. Probably worried that I'll try and rape her or something equally vile. Can’t be too safe, hitchhiking at her age. I’ll just need to show her that there’s nothing to worry about. That she’s safe with me.
I glance over at her and feel my heart do a little flutter. Something’s different. She’s changed somehow. It’s like her hair has gotten longer since she got into the car. That’s silly. She probably had it done up and let her hair down to dry off after she got in. I don’t remember seeing her do that, but I’m tired. I shake off the sensation that something strange has happened and focus on the road.
Lightning flashes outside and briefly I see a ghost of a landscape before it disappears back into the black mists of rain. I keep an eye on the speed as the road in front of us becomes little more than a thin line running in front of the headlights. Almost hard to imagine that only an hour ago, the skies were relatively clear. And now it’s dogs and cats out here. Again, I think how lucky this girl is that I came along when I did. She could have been standing out there all night if I hadn’t.
This is not the kind of night you want to be walking around in. My passenger continues her wordless scrutiny of me and I feel a chill. Turning the heat up, I risk another glance in her direction. Another little flutter rocks my chest. There is definitely something different about her. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is though. It’s like the eyes staring back at me have gotten older since the last time I looked. It sends shivers down my spine.
The sound of my own breath rings heavily in my ears. I start to worry that maybe I’ve made a mistake, picking up this girl. Her ceaseless stare and unresponsive nature is beginning to freak me out. Probably I am overreacting, I shouldn’t be scared of some teenager hooking a ride, but as they say hitchhiking is a two-way street. It’s just as dangerous for the person on the other side of the fence as it is for the hitcher. Sometimes being a Good Samaritan is the quickest way to a roadside grave. There’s all kinds of crazy out there, in all kinds of packaging. Just because she looks harmless, doesn’t me she is.
I glance back over at her and almost swerve off the road. It wasn’t my imagination. The woman sitting beside me isn’t the same one I gave a ride to. The girl I picked up was in her teens. This one looks to be in her late forties. Looking at her, she might be the girl’s mother. The only signs that this woman was the pretty young girl I met on the side of the road are the same miserably thin dress and those same unwavering emotionless eyes studying me like an insect under a microscope.
Fear sets in and I find it harder and harder to pay attention to the road. The woman beside me is growing older by the second. As though the revolution of the wheels were the hands on a clock. I suddenly become sure that I mustn’t let her know I’ve seen it. If she discovers I know her secret, I will never see the sun again. Struggling to remain calm, I force myself to focus on the road.
Outside the wind is blowing fiercely and I can feel the car start to hydroplane. Each bend feels like the car will go flying off into the darkness, and all the while I can sense my companion growing old beside me. Her silent gaze locked firmly on my face as if challenging me to acknowledge what we both know is happening. I tighten my fingers around the wheel and stare straight in front of me.
“Look out ahead.”
The cracked and ancient voice caws from the seat beside me and I find myself turning against my will. In a flash of lightning, the withered and desiccated crone in my passenger seat raises her long skeletal hand and points out the front window like the proclamation of Death itself. Screaming, I slam on the brakes. The car skids wildly on the wet road as it skids to a stop. My heart pounds in my throat, fighting to get out as my eyes take in the empty seat beside me.
My rider is gone.
Panicked, I glance everywhere for some sign of her, but she’s nowhere to be found. I try to calm the stampede in my chest without success. It’s a long time before I feel steady enough to continue driving, certain that at any second my passenger will return to finish what she started. Hands shaking, I ease the car forward.
Crawling at a more restrained speed, the headlights fall upon the road ahead and I feel my heart start hammering all over again. Draped across the road in front of me like a slumbering giant is a fallen tree. Uprooted by the storm, it lies across the path like a blockade. I shiver as the truth sinks in. If I hadn’t slammed on the brakes when I did I would have driven right into it. I would have been killed.