Hitchhiker by Désirée Matlock

For Diana Rosenfield

 When he looked up, he saw only branches; he knew better than to look down.

He’d woken up a few seconds ago, confused. Where was he? In Jessie’s car, which was upside down. Upside down is never good. What had happened? He tried to remember, but nothing came. Strange. Well, he could certainly fill in the blanks well enough. They’d started on the trip from Pacific Palisades up toward the bay area, and Jessie’d been goofing around on social media.

 

It had taken everything he had to get Jessie to stop going live. Like anyone cared about their commute. “No one wants to see you drive back to school on Facebook LIVE!” he’d yelled at her, while Jessie held a phone out the window, swooping and turning and looking for a good angle.

 

“Hey, seriously, KNOCK IT OFF!” he had yelled for all to see, before Jesse had turned the phone’s tiny black eye back, saying, “Live, from California… it’s Saturday Night DRIVE!!!!”

 

“Seriously, Jessie, focus on driving!” the wheel jerked, and he snapped the phone away from her. “Do I need to drive so you can do that?”

 

“Chill out, psycho,” she whispered loudly at him, eyes buggy. He shook his head in disbelief, and muttered a small prayer for them both. He turned away, shoving the phone under his seat.

 

Not much else happened for an hour or two. The commute droned on, winding roads, gorgeous shimmering seas, smatterings of beach towns, shitty ancient bridges, and he was lulled into semi-consciousness.  But then they’d pulled over, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and Jessie had picked up a hitchhiker. Seriously, this girl had a dead wish!

 

Jessie had made it worse picking up a hitchhiker. Seriously. She had seen him on the side of the road, looking lost, and the car had come to a crunchy stop in the side of the road gravel. She’d peeled down his window, leaning over him, arm churning the universal sign for “get over here.” The hitchhiker had climbed in the backseat behind him as if the stranger had been depending on the kindness of others for cars forever. Who knows. Maybe they don’t have the same stigma on hitchhiking where ever he’s from.

 

Jesse had turned toward the back seat somewhat, finding it hard to turn far enough to see, but the guy looked short, skinny, harmless. Serial killers don’t wear jeans and a tee, do they? He smiled and his teeth popped white. That’s when he noticed that the stranger was dark-ish skinned, maybe Middle Eastern? Or South American? Or mixed? Whatever. Who cares. A hitchhiker is a bad idea. But, the guy smiled a lot and as Jessie got back on the road, he tried asking questions, but the guy apparently didn’t speak any English.

 

Eventually he thought maybe he’d fallen asleep. And now look. Upside down. Trees outside, also upside down, from his perspective. Near darkness, it must be around dusk. He looked down at the little bit of sky he could see and realized that was ocean, not sky. Great.

 

Dusk, and he was going to die hanging over a cliff along the grapevine.  He was never getting in a car with her again. He tried to turn around enough to look at the backseat, where he knew Jessie’s hitchhiker was sitting, but couldn’t. No noise arose from behind him, and he was barely able to turn enough to see that Jessie was a barely recognizable mess. Piercing pain flooded his head when he tried to turn farther, so he stopped. He groped in his pocket for his phone, pulling it in front of his eyes, which were blurring alarmingly. Damn.

 

He tried to dial 911, but realized the screen was too shattered. The phone dropped out of his hands and fell upward, somehow it felt oddly majestic and beautiful, watching it collide with a branch and then plop into the seafoam above his head. His field of vision darkened. Was that the sky?

 

His thoughts grew blurry, and he remembered something else about a phone. That’s right, Jessie’s phone. He jerked himself more awake, forcing himself to think, another small prayer forming on his lips.

 

He forced his body to bend over – upwards? Downwards? – some, to check under his seat. But then he saw it. Jessie’s phone was lodged firmly in the dashboard, right in front of the unconscious girl beside him. Oh my God, had she done this by going live again, at dusk and on the fucking grape vine? He did NOT want to be in this year’s Darwin Awards. Fuck.

 

The air felt increasingly like thick molasses as he breathed, and his vision blurred further. Moving any part of himself was incredibly difficult.  Damn. He realized he was probably going to die, and then a surge of energy coursed through him. He remembered Lana, the girl he’d done Habitat for Humanity with last year. She was ridiculously beautiful and utterly disinterested in herself. She hadn’t even gotten a smart phone yet, for the love of all things holy, he wanted to see her again. Wanted to hand her tools and chat with her in her broken English and his broken Spanish. He suddenly wanted it more than anything in the world. He tried to free himself from his seatbelt, and the pain intensified, then faded.

 

His field of vision started spiraling inward, his peripheral vision now totally black, and the world going entirely fuzzy as his head fell upward, toward the reaching fingers of branches and the yawning sea beyond the broken window. Please God, I don’t want to die, he’d thought. Not before I get to kiss Lana.

 

A bright, incandescent, peachy pink light similar to sunset suddenly filled the car, and he felt two arms grasp him under his shoulders. Impossible, since he was firmly stuck upside down in a car’s bucket seat. But it still happened. The light grew brighter, gold followed by brilliant white like the dentist’s light. Too strong, he shut his eyes, and felt his body go weightless, and he drifted beyond the car. Must have been through the front window, but he didn’t feel it touch him. He knew because he felt a fresh cool breeze. Am I falling into the water? He idly thought, then he’d passed out.

 

When he woke, he was lying with sharp gravel pressing into his cheek, face down with arm draped over something soft. What? He lifted his head, and found he could. His neck had stopped hurting. He cracked an eye open, but bright blue and red flashing lights made it hard to see. Oh, Jessie was beside him, crumpled and still out cold, but no longer in the car. He could have sworn he’d seen her chest caved in and an arm broken, but he couldn’t even find anything wrong, except that she was still out.

 

How had they gotten out of the car? His ears were still ringing, and as that faded, he realized he could hear sirens. They’d been found. That must have been who pulled them from the car.

 

Two paramedics arrived, one started checking Jessie, and another turned toward him.

 

The paramedic leaned over him, patting and looking for issues, trying to talk to him. He woke up better and better every second. It was a minute before he realized he had forgotten someone. He turned and sat up suddenly.

 

“Where is our hitchhiker? Still in the car?”

 

“What do you mean?” the paramedic looked alarmed.

 

“There’s a guy still trapped in the car! He’s brownish, short, skinny, jeans and a grey tee shirt.”

 

“You mean that guy?” the paramedic asked, pointing toward where three police cars blocked the road while the paramedics worked. A guy was leaning on the hood of one of the police cars, chatting and laughing with one of the cops. It sure looked like their hitchhiker.

 

“No, I mean yes. He looks the same, but there was a guy in the car with us!”

 

“Are you sure, sir? I mean, that’s the guy who spotted you guys, while he was just walking along. Are you sure there was another person in the car?”

 

He nodded, and that started a long, drawn out process of checking the car, with search and rescue running lines down the cliff to where their car was.

 

He explained what had happened a few times, though, and the paramedic had left, muttering with the fire and rescue guys, and then everyone had looked at him sympathetically. An EMT had checked him for a head wound.

 

Jessie was lying quietly on a gurney in the next ambulance. He didn’t even know whether she would make it. No one did at this point. She hadn’t woken up.

 

They ran two guys down the cliffside on ropes to check the car, but it turned out no one was in the car. There was no sign of a seat belt fastened in the back seat, and that meant their hitchhiker was probably thrown, too, but not onto the road, into the sea.

 

They started arranging for a chopper to spotlight the sea below, but weren’t hopeful… As time rolled onward into the wee hours, he drifted slowly into a lulled state. The ambulance had already left with Jessie, and his was getting ready to leave.

 

A few minutes later, he was sitting up in the back of an ambulance, getting ready to be transported to the hospital, for an overnight concussion watch, since they hadn’t found anything wrong with him, but he had been acting strangely, seeing things, and had obviously been thrown from a car moments before it fell over the cliff. They suspected mild head trauma, but he was doing fine.

 

The guy chatting with the cops walked over, in a street-wide gait. “Hey man, tough break.” The stranger reached over to give a fistbump, then rethought it, seeing that he was wrapped in a blanket. “Dude, you lived through that? You can live through anything.”

 

The guy sure looked like their hitchhiker. Except this guy spoke English, and didn’t smile… So confused, he closed his eyes.

 

“Yeah, I guess you need some R and R. You know what I recommend? Chill, head down south for a while, find your head, you know, man?”

 

“Yeah, I guess so.”

 

“Hopefully, I don’t have to see you around again man, but anyway. Hey, have a nice life. Do good shit and all that, man.” A smokey laugh, a surfer type laugh. He opened his eyes just in time to see the same bright white smile from before. The same guy, he was certain now. Had to be. What were the chances? Maybe he really had been conked on the head.

 

The stranger waved, shuffled on the spot, and then started walking off down the gravel on the side of the road, headed south, the opposite way they’d been driving, and he swore to God, just a second there, it was like he glowed a little around the head. What was that called? Golden light? Halo. That’s right, a fucking halo. He knew how ridiculous his thoughts were.

 

He closed his eyes and tried to be patient with himself. It was just the head wound talking. He was seeing halos. He cracked his eyes open again to peer over toward one of the EMTs. No halo there.

 

He tried to look back at the stranger again to see if he still saw it, but he just saw a jeaned pantleg and a sneaker as the dude rounded a curve out of sight.

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