Cold winds ripped through everything lose on his body, from the hair of his beard to the pocket flaps on his chest, down to the laces on his hiking boots. He stood with a rucksack beside a cross-country highway; a desolate bastard begging for a ride on the suburban outskirts of a spasming, pseudo-Babylon. There was nothing to look at except the constant flood of vehicles moving along the grey corridor, flanked by tall trees and patchy grass that had had all green sapped out of it. Nothing to do but stick out a meek hand, hold up his cardboard sign with “End of the line” scrawled on it, or occasionally snatch a split second of eye contact with a passing driver.
After more than an hour, he sat down on the rucksack with an arm propped up on a knee, holding his head. The sign slipped between two fingers, hiding his face and offering respite from the wind and the apathy.
It was another twenty minutes before he gave up and started waving with vigour, contorting his young and relatively wrinkle-less face into a non-threatening smile. Whether or not that was the reason for it, a man stopped his car a good distance up the road, pulling onto the flimsy shoulder unhurriedly. When the man shuffled across the shotgun seat and leaned half-way out, hollering and waving, the hitcher smiled, cocked his shoulders, grabbed his bag, and ran up to the car.
“Hey there.” The driver smiled, sliding back into his seat.
“Hi, ah, where you headed?”
“Up this road for about another hour, go on and chuck that on the back seat there and hop in.”
With a nod, the hitcher slid his bag onto the seat, pushing aside children’s toys and an empty juice bottle.
“I’ve been waiting for a ride for a real long while now. Thanks.”
“I bet you have. I know how it is out there, but you don’t see too many people giving it a go these days, not in this city at least. Terrible decision; dumb really. Just coming off the motorway? There wasn’t time to spot you.”
The driver had floppy, modish hair and loosely thin limbs, which the hitcher stared at, his mouth warming up but his face still cold.
“So where are you headed exactly?”
“Ah, how’s it go, D… something, Dun…Don..Dar”
“On this highway?”
“Yeah. Way at the end, on the coast.”
“Ah… Okay. I’m not going that far, but I’ll take you for a good ride.” The driver let out a bellowing laugh that quickly sank into squeaky puffs out of tautly wrinkled, rosy cheeks, “I mean, I’ll take you up a good way!” He laughed a little more until it petered out.
“So what takes you up this way? Adventure?”
“Death.” He slapped his fingers softly onto his thigh as they slowly warmed up.
The driver’s foot stiffened in place, and as they crested a hill the car rushed forward from the excess of throttle. He slipped a look quickly over the distracted hitcher and then relaxed,
“A funeral, y’know.”
“I didn’t really know ‘em.”
“Well, I’ve been to too many funerals in my life.”
“One’s probably too many.” The hitcher laughed and scratched his beard with both hands before stretching them overhead.
The driver’s left cheek flinched, the muscles connecting it to his collar bone drew sharply up and then sank back into the sweat crusted skin. He slackened his lower jaw, letting it swing from side to side as he moved fluidly into the over-taking lane to pass a caravan.
“I’m sorry mate. It’s never easy.”
“I guess not. It’s tragic right?”
“Yeah. But there’s a lot of death everywhere… It’s the flipside to life, which is all over… But if you’re going to get philosophical…”
“I don’t know…”
“No, it’s your right.”
“It’s my last rite.”
“Yeah. I mean, well I just finished work so, I kinda bit of more than I can chew here.”
The hitcher looked up briefly, running a hand over the long stubble of his shaved head before flicking his fingers again and trying to pick some dirt out from his nails. He opened his mouth meekly,
“Mmmn. What can you do?”
“It’s got to be the hardest thing to face, doesn’t it? Death. The abundance of it! Anywhere you look, BOOM, there it is. What does it mean? How do we honour them? How do we do anything for them? You’re lucky, I’m lucky, we’re all so damn lucky for the moment. You have to think at times like this, what is one? What is two? There are so many people out there; what is twenty? What’s two hundred, two thousand, two million dead? There’s too much there. Too much life to fit in your head, it hits a wall, like a board of a thousand pins pushing up against you. They won’t break the skin, but one pin, slips right in. It’s one pin prick that kills you.”
There was a lack of measure in the driver’s voice. He stared at the road, looking at nothing but squinting; the patches of silver beside his temple pulsating in erratic waves. The hitcher shifted in his seat to adjust something solid in his pocket.
“You just have to stay safe. Protect yourself and all of that.” The driver added.
Neither man moved. The hitcher sat semi rigid, his eyes barely alive, and the driver turned his head histrionically at a passing sign. The hitcher tried to warm his hands again by rubbing the palms together. The driver noticed and turned up the heating. The little jets were struggling but strong. The friction on the hitcher’s cracked and thinly calloused hands gave a subtle, human noise to the mechanized hum in the car.
“Yeah. I don’t really know what you mean about ‘honouring’ the dead, though.”
“It’s what decent people try to do.”
“It’s dumb. Or, vain. What you give everything for: freedom, family, love, happiness, your life… won’t mean anything after a while. Cities build statues, reincarnate heroes, they make them messengers of tragedy. Why flatter tombstones?”
“I’m not talking about noble things; I’m just talking about meaning something, that can’t be let go.”
The car jerked abruptly to the right, veering into the oncoming lane and slamming the hitcher’s knee into the hard foam of the door. The back left wheel shuddered and dragged, bouncing the whole car off centre. Both men lurched forwards and to the left as it eased back into alignment.
“Oh. Tragic.” The hitcher smiled.
The driver gave a bellowing laugh that devolved into an impish rat-a-tat howl,
“Sure, yeah, fine.” He rubbed his knee and turned around to look for the corpse through the rear windshield, but saw nothing but a grey corridor and a car distantly behind them. Looking down he saw that the rucksack had fallen to the floor. He flicked a look to the driver then back, lingered and then swung back around.
“Yeah, sorry about the mess back there. With the girls and my hectic work I don’t have time to keep things up to scratch. I suppose I don’t need to. No one to impress usually.”
“I’m just glad for the ride.”
“I know you are. I know you. You remind me of myself. You’re not from here are you?”
“What, well, no, I’m not.”
“And where I picked you up, not from there either?”
“No.” The hitcher smiled as he shook his head.
“And you’re going to a funeral.”
“Yeah.” He said slowly.
“Any excuse to travel I guess. I’ve done that. Crisscrossed Europe, the States, Australia, New Zealand! You’ve got to do it when you’re young. I remember I had a little journal with me. Brely wrote in it, and I met a hundred or more people, got close, wrote their name down, and I couldn’t put a face to a single name now. Little brown thing, just a sturdy, cardboard piece of shit really. On the front page it had my name, the date I set out travelling and, in quotation marks no less, ‘I’ve swallowed my pride. I’m out for the unknown, insight, and beauty. I’m without a roadmap for the soul.’”
“That’s a good line.” The hitcher nodded.
“You’ve gotta make the most of it.”
“Life.” The driver shrugged, yawning very slowly with his eyes open.
“I might just check on my bag…”
“Why, you have a pet in there I don’t know about?”
“No, it just might be leaking.”
“Got some booze in there do you?”
“Hah, no –“
“Well, if it’s just water it doesn’t matter. The car’s seen worse.” He took his eyes from the road and winked at the hitcher.
Time passed in quiet, the driver confessed more about his life; the simple information about work and housing which seems important sometimes. They agreed there’s a repeating battle between the generations of rural versus city life, and it goes back and forth depending on where you grew up and where you think you’ll find peace.
The hitcher sucked in air to hold off a warm burp and he tangled some fingers in the long beard hairs on his chin. The driver shifted his weight, taking a hand off the steering wheel to lean on the door. The hitcher grabbed something in his pocket, holding it through the fabric,
“Do you mind if we stop for a little bit?”
“Stop? You need to piss do you?”
“I was actually hoping you wouldn’t mind, but I’ve got to stop off in a little while anyway.”
He raised a single eyebrow but kept his eyes on the vague lines of the highway.
“Ah, sure, okay.” The hitcher relaxed. He took his hand out of his pocket and calmly hugged his abdomen; the itch of sweat breaking through cold skin was rippling across him.
The setting sun pierced straight through the windshield. He dropped his head and watched the edge of the road through the window. White lines shot past and the edge rippled in waves. Then the driver flicked on the indicator. It was loud and unnecessary given the absence of traffic on the highway. The car rocked unsteadily as the surface roughened. The dirt road barely managed to hold apart thick forest and had had been almost unnoticeable from the highway.
“Is this going to take long?”
“Oh no, don’t worry, the sun takes hours to set ‘round here. And I know what I’m doing.”
They drove down through well worn puddles, getting jarred by the exposed rocks and tree roots for five minutes before the forest cleared and the driver stopped expertly in a solid patch of mud. He bounded out of the car, keys swiftly displaced in his pocket, and after a deep breath, the hitcher climbed out.
“Well go on, have a look round, it’s beautiful isn’t it?”
The clearing was a filthy, malformed meadow that light could not reach. Everything looked burnt and wet. Tire tracks scarred the ground everywhere, and some were truly deep holes. It was surrounded by hills and hot stenches. The hitcher started to retch.
“I s’pose it is a bit rank, but ah… It’s just fuel for the fire.” He picked up two clumps and banged them together. “This stuff makes brilliant firewood.”
The hitcher struggled to find footing. Grasping unsurely at his pocket he tripped over a pile of soil and landed just shy of a deep hole. His cracked hands sank into the soil; liquid seeped into his skin as he raised himself up. The driver moved in a fluid, satisfied motion with the hunting knife, gliding it easily into the hitcher’s skull just above the neck.. The sound echoed out and was barely heard.
“Yeah, it’s one of life’s greatest pleasures to have your children nestle under blankets with you by a bright fire.”
The driver smiled and spun back to grab a pile of firewood. The driver slung hooks into the body, connected the rope to the car and drove across the opening toward a rusted wood chipper. Standing up the body a small camera fell out. He bent to pick it up and the body fell. The driver took a few photos, urinated, stripped the body and piled the clothes up on a mound of the peat bricks. After he fed the body into the machine he fed a series of trees and branches through. He poured fuel over the remains and the pile of clothes then set them alight. It was definitely getting dark now.
The driver got back in the car and put on some music, it was Bob Dylan’s album ‘Highway 61 Revisited’.
“Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain. That could hold you dear lady from going insane.
That could stop you both, from dying in vain.”
He pulled into his garage, left the keys and walked in not wiping the mud from his boots. He found his wife in the kitchen and caught her by surprise. While a deep smile bubbled over her face he kissed her. His hands gruffly shot up to touch her warm cheeks and the fingers on one side caught the smooth flesh, creasing it. Both hands slid down her alabaster nape, passed her breasts and around her waist. He yanked her close.