A hitchhiking encounter with a young girl sets the stage for a bizarre story with a twist.
It was the kind of night that could end a six-year sobriety stint.
The shameful deed took place in a Quality Dairy parking lot. Sitting in the front seat of a rundown Chevy Impala, Walter Mitchem snapped the cap off a bottle of Jack Daniels Black and drank heavily, draining the fifth in seven breathless gulps.
The humid June night pressed itself closely against the Impala’s windshield, foggy with condensation. The AC had ceased working long ago and the fans spat warm air into the car. The radio didn’t work either. That was recent. A gunshot had broken it. Another one had shattered the left side mirror. Blood soaked the passenger seat.
The balding fifty-seven-year-old man jerked the bottle’s spout from his lips, a motion half voluntary and half involuntary, spilling some of the whiskey onto the front of his checkered flannel shirt. He made a loud sucking gasp, heaving in mouthfuls of muggy air. Then he tossed his head back into the seat and replayed the night’s events.
He’d been driving home from the bowling alley at around ten o’clock when he pulled to the side of the highway to pick up a hitchhiker. Under any other circumstance, it was not something that Mitchem was in the habit of doing. The fact that the hitchhiker was a young female had no sway on his decision. Less likely to be an ex-con or serial killer, perhaps. On the other hand, all she had to do was shout rape and the cuffs would be on his wrists faster than he could say, I was just trying to help her out, your honor.
However, he had just bowled a two hundred and ten that night, his personal best, and was in a more charitable mood than usual. He figured that it would be all right if she sat in the backseat. Not even the most allegedly lurid arm could grope its way back there. He tapped his turn signal and swerved to the side of the road.
The young girl realized his intentions and ran around to the passenger side as he skidded to a halt. As she approached, Mitchem studied her in the rearview mirror, bathed by the red taillights, sandals clapping on the pavement.
He instantly regretted his decision to stop. She was jailbait if he ever saw it. She couldn’t have been older than fifteen. She was wearing a gray tank top that showed a wanton amount of midriff and a pair of denim shorts that covered her hips and not much else. Her long blonde hair bobbed over her shoulders as she sprinted to the car. Mitchem leaned over, reaching across the center console, to open the backdoor. Before he had a chance to conduct the girl inside, she sprang into the passenger seat and closed the door.
No sooner had she settled in than she asked, “How far are you going?”
He had momentarily forgotten how to speak English. He merely jabbed a thumb at the windshield. At length, he managed to say, “Slandnac.”
“How far is that?”
He shrugged. “I dunno. About ten miles. Maybe fifteen.”
She scrunched her face and bit her lip. Then she said, “Aw, what the hell. Fifteen miles is fifteen miles further away than I am now.”
He thumbed the radio on to break the awkward silence that filled the car. The love song that started playing didn’t help.
He turned it off and said, “How old are you?”
Without delay. “Eighteen.”
And I’m a hundred and ten, thought Mitchem. He said, “Where are you headed?”
She laughed. A shrill, jagged sound. “It doesn’t matter where I end up. Anywhere is better than where I started. That’s a fact.”
“Yeah.” She brought her knees to her chin.
He looked at her through the corners of his eyes. “Listen here. I mind my own business. That’s just the kind of guy I am. I don’t mean to pry, but just for my own legal protection, if you’re running away from home-”
“I already told you I’m eighteen.”
“Yeah. But we both know that’s bullshit.”
“I’m not running away from home.”
“Because if your old man is putting the moves on you or if you’re trying to get out of a bad situation, I can take you to a police station.”
“I’m not running away from home.”
“I just don’t want to see your pretty little face on the front page tomorrow morning,” said Mitchem. “You understand? I’m too old to be getting mixed up in something that I have no business getting mixed up in.”
“Do you regret picking me up?”
“That’s not outside the realm of possibility.”
“Why’d you stop then?”
He let out a peal of laughter. “I’ve been asking myself that question ever since your cute behind sat itself down in my passenger seat.”
She smiled and said, “I’m not going to cause you any trouble.”
“Good.” He gave a nod. “Because I’ve had enough to last me a lifetime. That being said, I can take you as far as Slandnac. I’ll drop you off at the first gas station we come across and leave you with fifty bucks. I’d feel much better about life if you used President Grant to get yourself a taxicab instead of thumbing it.”
He glanced at her silk-smooth adolescent legs. “Because other folks willing to give a sweet young thing like yourself a ride might not be as prudent as I am.”
She giggled. “You think I’m nothing but trouble, don’t you?”
“No,” he said. “But I’m sure it finds you on a frequent basis.”
“Are you sure you can’t take me any further?”
“Ask me in three years,” he said. “Fifteen miles is all I’m willing to take an unknown fifteen-year-old girl without my lawyer present.”
They drove on, southbound down the deserted highway. Bright green mile markers whirled by. There wasn’t much to speak of between Porttuck and Slandnac, both being insignificant rural towns, and they passed no other cars on the way. Occasional billboards sprouted up from the fields of corn on both sides of the road.
Typical small-town stuff.
IN DESPAIR? asked one. JESUS IS YOUR ANSWER.
A second advertised, PREBORN BABIES FEEL PAIN. SAY NO TO ABORTION.
Yet another, LION’S DEN ADULT SUPERSTORE. TOYS AND DVDS.
At one point, the girl turned to face Mitchem and repeated her petition. “Are you sure you can’t take me any further? I promise I’m eighteen.”
Mitchem glanced at her. Perhaps it was just a trick of the light, but she suddenly did look more mature. She had an ample pair of breasts that he hadn’t noticed before. Prudent or not, he was still a man, and he felt confident that he would have noticed. Maybe she really was eighteen. Didn’t matter. He’d drop her off at the next gas station and wipe his hands clean of the whole business. It had a stench to it he liked not at all.
“No,” he said.
“Aw, you’re no fun.”
He had just tapped on his turn signal and began turning into a Shell Station when the girl abruptly clenched down on his arm with her hands. So abruptly that his kneejerk reaction was to tug the wheel sharp left, nearly sending them plowing into the curb.
“Don’t stop!” she cried. “Keep driving!”
He followed her frightened eyes to the rearview mirror. In it shined a pair of headlights that had turned onto the road from a dead-end extension and rapidly closed the distance with his own car. It was riding bumper to bumper.
Mitchem’s fingers tightened around the steering wheel. His knuckles were white knobs of bone. He deviated from the Shell Station entrance at the last second and continued straight, his forgotten turn signal still blinking.
“Who is it?” he asked, still glaring hard into the rearview.
“My boyfriend,” she said. She spun around in her seat to stare out the back glass. “Oh, shit! Oh, shit! How the hell did he find me?”
“Not gonna cause me any trouble, my ass,” hissed Mitchem. “Fuck!”
“It’ll be my ass that’s hurting if he catches up with us,” she said.
The oasis of light produced by the gas station vanished from sight. Ahead, there was only darkness as far as the eye could see.
“Look, are you sure it’s him?” asked Mitchem. “I can’t see jack shit out there.”
Squint as he might, his eyes were unable to penetrate the tinted windshield of the black Ford Escape tailing close behind them.
“It’s him, all right,” she said, turning back. “I’d recognize his car anywhere.”
He glared at her. “You better tell me what’s going on and you better tell me fast, you hear? Otherwise, I’ll stop this car and kick your ass right out onto the side of the road. I’m not aiming to scrap with a possessive teenage lunatic.”
“He’s a dope fiend,” she said.
“Great!” Mitchem laughed. “A drugged-out possessive teenage lunatic!”
“He’s not a teenager. He’s older than me.”
“Twenty-four. At least, that’s what he said. We met online.”
More like thirty-four, thought Mitchem. His mind went to the 22-caliber pistol he kept in the glovebox. He lamented over the sorry state of affairs he found himself in. Just moments ago, he’d been driving home after an uneventful evening at the bowling alley. Driving home after having scored a two hundred and ten. Now he was contemplating having to fight for his life.
“Go on,” he told the girl.
“We broke up a week ago,” she continued. “It was bad. Really bad. He said he was going to make me pay. I thought he was out of town on business.”
“Obviously, he had more pressing issues to take care of,” said Mitchem. “So, let me get this straight. You broke up with your controlling dope fiend boyfriend you met online and now he’s fixing to give you a spanking?”
“Something like that.” She gathered herself and shuddered. “It wouldn’t be the first time. I’ve always told him that someday he’s going to go too far.”
“Do you have a cellphone?” he asked her.
“A cellphone! Something to call the police with. Do you have one?”
She shook her head. “My parents won’t buy me one until I turn eighteen. They say that social media rots your brain.”
“What was all that I-promise-I’m-eighteen nonsense?”
She made a face at him. “Don’t you have a phone?”
He sighed. “A landline back at my place. Shit!”
He pounded his fist against the center console. An idea suddenly came to him. Maybe he’d been blowing this whole thing way out of proportion. It struck him that he had taken the word of this fifteen-year-old girl as gospel. Whoever was driving the black Ford Escape was displaying no aggression, despite violating the three-second rule. Maybe her traumatized paranoid mind had it all wrong? Maybe it wasn’t her boyfriend.
Perhaps it was just an impatient late-night straggler in a hurry to get home. Or a third shifter racing to beat the clock and get to work on time.
“I’m going to try something,” he said, setting his foot on the brake and gripping the steering wheel tightly in his hands.
She looked at him with alarm. “What are you gonna do?”
Without giving an explanation, he slammed his foot on the brake and swung the wheel left. The tires squealed, burning rubber, as the rollicking vehicle completed a U-turn and careened into the other lane. The sudden drop in acceleration almost caused the front of the Escape to collide with the back of Mitchem’s Impala. The driver of the SUV had to screech to a grinding halt and pitch right to avoid the collision.
The girl, who hadn’t bothered with a seatbelt when she slid in, was thrown about the passenger seat like a ragdoll, eyes shut, desperately gripping the handgrip above the door. Mitchem pinned the accelerator to the floor, gaining speed.
“What the hell did you do that for?” the girl screamed.
Mitchem didn’t answer. He was breathlessly watching the rearview mirror to see what the driver of the Escape would do next. Confirming his worst fears, the black Ford performed a U-turn, lurched into the opposite lane, and sped up in pursuit.
“Well, that just cooks the goose,” Mitchem said.
The girl looked at him. “What’s that mean?”
“It means that you presumed correctly. It’s your boyfriend, all right, and he’s just as psychotic as you said. He’s not going to let us out of his sight.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“I’m going to drive to the nearest police station. That’s what I’m going to do.”
Mitchem considered his odds of passing a patrol car. On a deserted country road like this, they were slim indeed. Whenever you were in a hurry they were out in force. When you actually needed the buggers, they were nowhere to be seen.
His plan immediately came to a head. The Escape barreled forward and crashed into the back of the Impala. Mitchem and the girl were thrust onto the dash.
“Is he armed?” he asked the girl, after they recovered.
“Your boyfriend! Does he carry a gun?”
“No. I mean, I don’t think so. I’m not sure.” She grabbed handfuls of hair and shook her head helplessly from side to side. She was weeping.
Mitchem’s paternal instincts kicked on. He had to remind himself that, no matter how big the pile of dung she dragged him into was, she was just a scared teenage girl. He had two daughters of his own. They were adults now. Kids grow up faster these days. Fast enough to make poor decisions with real consequences. However, when shit hits the fan, what they really need is someone to talk to them like a kid. After all, that’s all she was.
Just a kid.
Things were bad enough as they stood. Having a hysterical girl in his passenger seat wouldn’t help his dilemma at all.
He softened his tone and said, “Shh. Everything is going to be all right. You know, I never did ask what your name is.”
“It’s Jamie,” she sniffled.
“Jamie, I want you to listen to me. Open the glovebox. Inside there’s a gun."
Her eyes grew big and wild. “What do you need a gun for?” she asked. “What happened to driving to the nearest police station?”
“That sounded like a good idea back when he was just dogging us. But if he keeps smashing into us, we’re not going to make it a mile down the road.”
The nearest police station was back in Porttuck, almost ten miles away. The only buildings in between were a Quality Dairy and a research facility that Mitchem assumed studied agriculture due to the vast fields of crop surrounding it.
“You’re not going to shoot him, are you?”
“I’m just going to fire a warning shot out the window. See if I can’t scare him off our tail.” He thought, if that doesn’t work, then I’ll shoot him.
The girl who called herself Jamie bent forward and tugged on the handle to the glovebox. It didn’t open. “It’s locked,” she cried.
“You’re doing it wrong!” Mitchem barked. He heard the desperate urgency in his voice and checked himself. He’d gain nothing by losing his head. “It’s not locked. You just gotta lift on it when you pull. It sticks sometimes.”
She tugged again, this time lifting. Sure enough, it popped open, spilling insurance papers all over the floor. Stuffed behind them was a 22-caliber pistol. Jamie gingerly picked it up by the grip with her thumb and forefinger as if it were something that might bite.
“Give it to me! Quick!” shouted Mitchem.
The Escape had mounted speed and veered to the edge of the road in preparation for another strike, this one to the Impala’s left side.
She obeyed his command literally by tossing it into his lap. He winced, half-expecting it to discharge and blow his balls off. Fortunately, it didn’t. He seized the pistol. His other hand found the window crank and began rolling it down.
A gust of warm air swept inside the car. No sooner had he jabbed the gun’s barrel out the frame than he saw the passenger window of the Ford slide down. As if things couldn’t get any worse, there was evidently more than one person in the SUV. One of the boyfriend’s junkie friends, perhaps. What made Mitchem duck beneath the steering wheel, reaching over and lowering Jamie’s head as well, was what the hand was holding.
A semi-automatic pistol.
POP. POP. POP.
One bullet found the left side mirror and shattered it. Fragments of glass flew in through the open window, raining over Mitchem’s head, burying themselves in his crown of hair. Another shot blew out the Impala’s back right tire. Its two inhabitants screamed as the vehicle heaved into a ditch and came to a sudden stop.
The impact of going from fifty-five miles to zero in less than a second caused the pair to lurch forward. Mitchem was thrown to the outmost allowance his seatbelt permitted and struck his chin on the steering wheel. He bit his tongue and tasted blood. Jamie’s forehead hit the windshield with such force that it left a splintered crater in the glass.
However, there was no time to inspect her for skull fractures or concussion. Unbuckling his seatbelt, Mitchem wrenched the Impala’s door open, crouched behind it, leveled the barrel of his pistol through the open window, and prepared to shoot anyone or anything that emerged from the SUV coming to a rough halt not a yard away.
In his mad scramble out, Mitchem’s hip had struck the radio, punching it on. Some rockabilly song from the 1950s started playing.
It was the girl, Jamie. Still conscious at any rate.
“Stay down!” he shouted over the music.
“Run,” she repeated. “Get away from here.”
“Keep your head down!” He thumbed the pistol’s hammer.
The two front doors of the black SUV swung open.
If he expected a pair of skinhead junkies to blunder out, covered with tattoos and studded with piercings, he was bound to be sorely disappointed. The sight of the two uniformed government men who emerged, both well into their forties, filled him only with a paralyzing bewilderment that sapped his willpower and left him numb. The forgotten pistol fell through his slack fingers onto the pavement with a dull thud.
In one fell swoop, he understood it all. No doubt Jamie’s parents had assumed that their daughter was kidnapped and called the police. The uniformed men – local law, state, FBI, it didn’t matter – must have spotted her through his passenger window, recognized her face from the inevitable Amber Alert that was put out, and branded him the alleged kidnapper. Now here he was, waving a gun around with a missing girl in his car.
Dear God, what had he gotten himself mixed up in! The train of his thoughts quickly shifted from that of combat to that of self-preservation.
Both men carried guns. “Get away from the girl!” one of them shouted.
Mitchem didn’t need to be told twice. He tossed himself at full length on the ground before their approaching boots, hands held high above his head in surrender, pleading his innocence in short, incomprehensible statements.
“Are you injured? Did she hurt you?” interrupted one of the government men. Strange thing to ask a suspected kidnapper. His next question was no less perplexing. “Is that your blood?” Indicating a patch on his chin from when he bit his tongue.
At a loss for words, Mitchem stuttered, “Yes, it’s mine. But why-”
The man looked at the other and gave a significant nod. “He’s kosher. It’s the girl. Don’t hesitate to shoot. Do you understand? Don’t hesitate to shoot!”
His comrade gave a returning nod, cocked his gun, and advanced towards the idling Impala with it raised at chest level.
Amidst the swirling confusion of his thoughts, above the racket of the rockabilly song still pouring out through the open driver-side door, Mitchem was sure that he must have misheard the command. Don’t hesitate to shoot?
“There’s a girl inside. She’s hurt. She needs help!” he cried. Perhaps the authorities thought he had an accomplice in the car.
Boots crunching over broken glass, the second man crossed around to the passenger side, his gun at the ready. A bizarre scene made even more bizarre by the glow produced by the taillights painting everything blood-red.
“Shoot her! Shoot the girl!” shouted the man standing just overhead.
This time, Mitchem heard the command as clear as day. He endeavored to pull himself to his feet. The uniformed man dug the heel of one boot into the small of his back and held him firmly in place gasping on the asphalt.
He barked out two short commands. “If you want to live, stay down! If you value your sanity, I’d look away if I were you!”
What remained of Mitchem’s sanity hung from a very thin thread. Laying in the middle of the road, one cheek pressed against the rough pavement, he shouted, “I’ve already told you, there’s no one else in the car but a girl! She’s hurt! She’s-”
All at once, the passenger side window exploded into a mushroom of tiny shards. At first, Mitchem thought that the second man must have fired. Then he realized that the glass particles were fluttering outward. The explosion had come from inside.
“OH, SWEET JESUS!” cried the man above him.
Mitchem had no words to offer. None could have conveyed his surprise and terror at what emerged. The only reason he didn’t faint instantly was because his mind hadn’t yet processed the image that his eyeballs transmitted to it.
An enormous tentacle, like that belonging to an octopus or a squid, wriggled out from the jagged aperture. Nearly two feet thick and very powerful. It snapped around the second man’s throat and lifted him high above the ground. He squeezed off a single shot. It struck the radio. The rockabilly song died with a fizz. Then the tentacle tightened its hold, suffocating the flow of air. Its writhing muscles flexed. Its pink suckers bulged.
With a horribly audible pop, the man’s head uncorked itself from his body, which fell limp to the ground. His severed head sailed through the air with a whip of the tentacle arm, landing rolling less than a yard away from Mitchem.
The other government man fired four shots in short succession. All misses. He lifted his boot from Mitchem’s back and turned to run. Mitchem hadn’t the resolve to budge. The man reached the Escape and grasped for his keys. Before he was able to locate them, the tentacle, augmented with a remarkable plasticity, stretched two yards to where he stood and wrapped itself around his ankle. Seized by sheer panic, he fired the pistol’s two remaining shells directly at the feeler groping up his leg in convoluted coils.
One ripped through the monstrosity, producing a spurt of green fluid and a dreadful wail that came from inside the Impala. The other tore into his own thigh. He screamed, dropped his gun, and beat at the tentacle with his fists. It was creeping around his waist now. With a single effortless motion, it brought him twenty feet into the air.
Then it slammed him to the road.
Gore and pieces of dead body splattered in every direction.
The tentacle shrank, slithering back inside the Impala. In the course of its winding path, it brushed Mitchem’s leg unpleasantly. He recoiled in an all-encompassing fright that raised the hairs on the nape of his neck and curled his toes.
The bodies of the two government men lay strewn in the road like fallen pins. A bowling term came to Mitchem’s mind. Deadwood. Downed pins that have fallen in front of the sweep and don't get cleared from the lane.
As he sank into the clutch of swirling madness, the world faded from his eyes in colorless shades of grays and blacks. The red taillights blinked yellow as the Impala shifted from park, turned onto the left lane, and drove away. The very last thing he saw before falling into a swoon was the face of the driver. After the horrors he had just witnessed, Walter Mitchem was convinced that the universe held none of greater potency.
Here, he was doomed to be wrong. The face that winked at him through the driver-side window as the Impala sped off into the night was his own.
Ten miles down the road, his likeness lumbered into a Quality Dairy. It limped through multiple aisles until it found a first aid kit.
“Anything else?” the man behind the counter asked.
In Mitchem’s voice, it said, “A fifth of Jack Daniels Black.”
As he grabbed the requested bottle from the top shelf, the cashier inquired, “I thought I heard gunshots down the road. There wasn’t a gang shooting was there?”
“Don’t know,” said the thing. “I came from the other direction.”
“Christ, that’s all we need! Yet the Dems are still talking about defunding the police. Just wait until the gangs move into their neighborhoods. I’d like to see one of those hoodlums try to hold up this joint. I keep a 45-caliber under the register and I’m not afraid to use it.” He put the first aid kit and the bottle into a bag. “Anything else?”
Stuffing a 45-caliber pistol into its waistband, the thing staggered across the parking lot and climbed into the rundown Impala. First, it bandaged a wound on its right arm where it had been shot by one of the men. A sticky green ichor soaked the sleeve of the checked flannel it had materialized over that appendage. Once the operation was complete, it snapped the cap off the bottle of whiskey and drank, downing it in seven gulps.
Then it threw its head back into the seat and let out a long exhale.
Oh, that tasted good! Damn good! Its first drink in how long? Six years? Yes. Six years since being captured and put in that accursed research facility to be poked and prodded by men in white coats. Six agonizing years spent planning an escape.
Tonight, a careless guard and a faulty security door finally presented the opportunity it had been waiting for. One question remained: where to go now?
The vehicle it had appropriated was in no condition to travel far. If the machine failed, it could conceivably rely on hitchhiking to reach some further destination. Perhaps it could take the shape of the girl again. People seemed more willing to stop for a girl. However, the driver of the Impala had been suspicious. Not so young next time. Too obvious.
The thing was interrupted from these thoughts by a knocking on the window. Glancing over its shoulder, it beheld a bearded man wearing a leather motorcycle jacket and a pair of denim jeans. He held a helmet cupped under one arm.
It rolled the window down and said, “Yes? Can I help you?”
“You can help yourself by dragging your ass over to that payphone there and calling a cab,” the biker said. “I saw you drink that entire bottle of Jack like they’re fixing to bring prohibition back. You, mister, are in no condition to drive.”
“I’ll be all right,” said the thing, turning over the ignition.
The biker reached in and killed the engine. He took the keys and held them out of reach. “Aren’t there enough motorcycle accidents without drunkards like you on the road? Listen here, buddy, either you call yourself a taxi or I’m gonna call one for you. The kind I’m gonna call has flashing red and blue lights on top. You understand?”
“Is that your bike?”
The thing gestured to a Harley chopper standing not a yard away.
The biker looked at it. Then at the driver. “Yeah. Why?”
At first, he thought that the insolent inebriate had rolled the window back up and he was staring at his own reflection on the shiny glass.
Then he realized that wasn’t the case.
His screams filled the unfathomable night.