“Hey, Red. Bum a smoke?”
She was standing by the vending machines, so still I almost walked right past her without noticing. Blame it on highway hypnosis; I’d been driving for hours with nothing to focus on except miles of cornfields and the pavement ahead of me. Flat farmland the whole way and not a single interesting bit of roadside flair, unless you counted that broken-down old van I passed just before the rest stop with the words DEATH BEFORE DISCO painted on the back.
“Oh,” I said, turning back from the women’s bathroom where I’d been heading. “Yeah, sure, Camel okay?”
She smiled at me as I dug into my purse for my cigarettes.
“Beggars can’t be choosers, man.”
She looked like one of those girls going to Coachella, all faux-70s lace and fringe, a cheap Stevie Nicks knockoff. Don’t get me wrong, she wore it well – the only accessory missing was a flower crown from American Eagle – but something about those festival chicks just gets under my skin.
I handed her a cig and she stuck it in her mouth at once, motioning impatiently at me with her other hand.
A little bossy for someone who just said beggars can’t be choosers but whatever. I fished out my lighter and held it out to her but she just pursed her lips and leaned towards me, wanting me to light it for her like gentlemen do in old movies. The action struck me as very Joan Crawford-esque – intended to be flirtatious but coming off as sort of bitchy instead.
I clicked the lighter to life and she inhaled, the cherry of her bummed cigarette glowing bright in the falling light of dusk.
She held it in for a long moment like she hadn’t had a smoke in a while then exhaled grandly.
“Ugh, thank you,” she said, pushing a lock of dark hair away from her face with her free hand. “I needed that like you wouldn’t believe.”
“No problem.” She was looking at me kind of funny now, squinting a little like there was more to say, but in my opinion the cigarette was more than enough so I gave her a wave and went back to the bathroom to do what I’d pulled into the rest stop for in the first place.
When I came out again she was still there, leaning against the vending machines, blowing out slow clouds of thick white smoke into the evening air.
I felt weird just ignoring her but I didn’t really have time for strained conversation with a stranger. I needed to get back on the road.
“Have a good one,” I told her lamely as I headed for my car.
“Hey, Red, wait.” She took another long drag on her cigarette and ashed it onto the cement. “I hate to ask but… I’m sorta stuck here. You think you might gimme a ride?”
Okay, two things. One: I don’t give rides to hitchhikers. It’s a thing for me. As a young woman I just don’t feel very safe with a stranger in my car, no matter how nice their hand-written cardboard signs might be.
Two: I hate being called Red. I hate it. Yeah, ha-fucking-ha, my hair is red, you are absolutely the FIRST person who’s ever given me that extremely clever nickname! The only thing worse than Red is Firecrotch and believe me, during high school I heard them both more than I care to recall.
So, these things taken into account, you’d think I would’ve done the smart thing and said no. Gotten back in my car and headed down the road, leaving who I was already thinking of as #coachellachick in my rearview mirror. But something strange happened, I opened my mouth to tell her I was sorry and instead I found myself saying, “How far do you need to go?”
Her eyes lit up.
“Not far, man, not far!” She took another quick drag. “I mean, as far as you wanna take me, but if I could just get to a gas station or somethin’ it’d help me out a lot.”
Shit. Shit shit shit. Why had I said that? I had no intention of offering this girl a ride but the words had come out of me without any warning, almost like something else had compelled me to say them.
I should’ve felt it then, the sick tug on my gut of something being very wrong, but I didn’t and that’s why I’m telling you this story.
She must’ve seen the look on my face because she stuck the cigarette between her lips, raised her arms and did a little twirl for me. Her boho skirt followed the curve of her legs, the fringe of her vest fanning out prettily.
“Don’t got any weapons. See? Nowhere to put ‘em.” She was right; no pockets, no bag, and I doubted there was a knife stashed in the crop-top between her meager cleavage.
She turned back to me and grinned. “You can frisk me if you want.”
I blushed a little when I realized she probably saw me staring at her tits. Oops. Which was more awkward, being caught looking or trying to explain I actually was scanning her for deadly weapons? I shifted my purse uncomfortably from shoulder to shoulder.
“Okay,” I said, resigned to the fact that I’d backed myself into a corner. “I think there’s a gas station in about 10 miles, a few exits down. I’ll drop you off there if that’s fine with you.”
“Super fine, super fine,” she agreed, and I gestured to my car – needlessly, I might add. It was the only one in the lot.
While we’d been talking the sun had set and the overhead lights came on, giving the mostly-abandoned rest stop a spooky sort of feeling. All shadows and contrast, no sound but the occasional vehicle zooming by on the highway. Suddenly I was ready to hit the road again, get far away from this place. How long had the hitchhiker been stuck here? I didn’t envy her.
“Let’s go.” I slipped behind the wheel of my compact little Malibu and stuck the key in the ignition. My new passenger gave the roof a cheerful slap with the palm of her hand as she hopped in.
“Bitchin’, man, thank you so much!”
“You bet.” I shifted into gear and merged back onto the highway, feeling better as the rest stop grew smaller and smaller in the distance until it was gone altogether.
The hitchhiker leaned back in her seat and put her feet up on the dashboard. I noticed for the first time she wasn’t wearing shoes; her soles were black and filthy.
“Hey,” I started, and as I glanced over at her I realized a few more things: she wasn’t buckled up and she was still puffing on her cigarette. Great, like the situation wasn’t awkward enough. “You mind getting rid of that? I don’t… don’t really smoke in my car.”
She gave me a look, a dark sidelong look I really didn’t like. Then she smiled.
“Yeah, no sweat.” She took one more deep drag and began fumbling around the door for the window controls. I rolled it down for her from my side and watched, satisfied, as she flicked it out into the night.
“Thanks, I appreciate it,” I said, even though she had accidentally exhaled that last drag kind of in my face. “You should buckle up, too.”
“Jeez, Red, you got a lotta rules,” she laughed, but there was tension in her voice now, something I hadn’t heard back at the rest stop. She didn’t reach for the seatbelt and wiggled her dirty toes on my dashboard.
I looked at the mile marker. Only eight more miles until the gas station exit. I could make it until then.
A few long moments of silence passed between us before the hitchhiker said suddenly, “Where you headed, Red?”
I fucking hate being called Red.
“Oh, just home,” I said, not wanting to give her more information than I had to. “Visited a friend out of town so, you know, just… heading home.”
“Oh,” she said thoughtfully. She shifted in her seat, put her feet back on the floor. “That’s cool, man, that’s cool.” She paused. Turned around briefly to glance out the back window. Then said, “’Cept you ain’t never gonna make it.”
Before I could even process this, something slammed into my bumper from behind. My car lurched forward and I heard an engine being gunned, loudly.
“The fuck–?!” I gripped the wheel tight, struggling to stay on the road. My eyes flicked to the rearview mirror.
Behind me, right on my ass, was a bright red van. One of the ones that don’t have windows on the sides, sort of like the Mystery Machine from Scooby Doo. I only had a split second to register what was painted on the hood – a cartoon devil with his middle finger in the air, pointed tail looping through the words DEATH BEFORE DISCO – before the van fell back, revved its engine, and rammed into us again.
The hitchhiker was laughing, a weird high-pitched screamy sort of laugh.
“You fucked up, Red, you really fucked up!” she crowed, pounding her fists on the dashboard.
I remembered the van from the side of the road, it had the same thing painted on the back without the little cartoon devil but it had been old, rusted, red paint faded to a salmon pink. All the tires were flat, it was a piece of junk – I had briefly wondered if it was even legal to leave something that dilapidated on a highway – yet this van was as new as if it had rolled right off the lot. Shiny as a candy apple and in perfect shape, according to the roar of its engine in my ears.
I swerved into the left lane and it followed seamlessly, dropping back only to advance on me again. My foot pressed the gas pedal towards the floor and we surged forward but the van wasn’t far behind.
“What the fuck is this?” I shouted, willing my shitty little car to go faster. The speedometer’s needle was at 90 and wavering.
“They’re gonna mess you up, man,” the hitchhiker cried triumphantly. She was alternating between bouncing in her seat and twisting to look at the van as it got closer. “They’re gonna fuck you up, Red, just you wait, my boys are gonna GET you and when they do they’re gonna do things to you, crazy things…”
A crunch of metal as the van rammed us again. In my rearview mirror, the cartoon devil gave me the bird. DEATH BEFORE DISCO.
“They’re gonna kill us!” I tried swerving right this time, close to the guardrail but the van followed suit. It was like it wasn’t even trying, not all that hard, a cat playing lazily with a crippled mouse.
“No, not right away,” she said, a sick sort of glee in her voice. “I mean you’ll wish they did, my boys got all kinds of appetites and they’re fuckin’ sure gonna play with you, Red, they’re gonna have a good time with you – good thing you picked me up back there, I was stuck at that shithole rest stop but now we’re gonna have such a good time…”
I blew past the exit for the gas station, going too fast to take it and not entirely sure what I would do if I did. The van fell back a bit; my heart was hammering in my chest, I wasn’t sure if I could force her out the passenger side but I knew had to keep driving, if I stopped…
I couldn’t stop, that much was certain.
I stomped on the gas, putting pedal-to-the-metal for the first time in my life. My car’s engine whined in protest but I put some distance between us, the speedometer heaving towards 100, 110.
She was laughing now, stomping her filthy bare feet like a kid at the circus.
I glanced at her, prepared to tell her to shut the fuck up, when I saw that suddenly she didn’t look like a privileged rich kid heading to Coachella, not one bit. Her clothes were as dirty as her feet, her hair clumped in black tangled mats. There was something on her face –
I was thrown forward as the van crashed into my bumper again. Knuckles white, I turned the wheel back towards the white lines, trying to stay on the road.
“Whassa matter, Red?” she whispered, creeping towards me, her lips right next to my ear. “Look like you seen a ghost.”
A stench washed over me, wet garbage and decaying flesh, a centuries-old-grave freshly pried open. I gagged but there was no time to be sick, I had to drive, I couldn’t stop – I didn’t want to meet her boys. I swerved left, scraping the side of my car against the concrete wall that divided the highway, the Malibu shuddering violently as we sped on.
The hitchhiker began cackling again and I chanced one more look at her face.
Most of her left cheek had been blown away, exposing the teeth and bone in their gleaming white glory. Blood oozed from the wound and pattered down in thick red drops across her crop top, her fringed vest, her boho skirt. Above the meager cleavage I’d checked out such a short time ago, her chest was peppered with what appeared to be bullet holes.
My mouth opened but no sound came out. I looked frantically from the gruesome creature in my passenger seat to the van in my rearview mirror – which now looked more like the wreck I’d seen on the side of the road. Rust spread across the metal like an exotic mold; the cartoon devil and DEATH BEFORE DISCO were rendered almost unreadable by a spray of bullet holes, much like the ones on the hitchhiker’s chest.
I couldn’t see who was behind the wheel of the van – the window was black, shiny, a dark mirror reflecting back the ass end of my battered car – but I was suddenly, wildly sure that “the boys” looked a lot like my passenger, complete with mortal injuries and breath that smelled like utter reeking death.
“We’re gonna have fun with you, man,” she said in a low, gurgling voice, playing nonchalantly with a strand of my hair as I drove for my life. “We’re fuckin’ sure gonna have fun playing with you – tell me, does the carpet match the drapes, Red?”
To my left, the concrete divider of the highway fell away. The hitchhiker was leaning closer to me, pressing her rotting body against mine, halfway across the center console. And then I remembered.
I turned towards her, forcing myself to look at her destroyed, dripping face.
“I fucking hate being called Red,” I hissed, and wrenched the wheel to the left, sending us hurtling into a ditch separating the highways.
My poor old Malibu bounced and shook as we thundered towards my target: a small cluster of trees. I didn’t have time to see if the van had followed me but I did see the expression on the hitchhiker’s ruined face – shocked, furious, and a little scared – just before she went flying through the windshield.
I was all right for the most part. Physically speaking, anyway. Bruises, cuts, typical car crash injuries. The place where my seatbelt locked hurt like a bitch for a few weeks but hey, my seatbelt is why I survived.
The guy who called the ambulance said he saw the crash. He’d pulled over to change a flat and I went speeding past him like a bat out of hell, right into the ditch. He didn’t mention a red van, new or otherwise, because he didn’t see one.
I don’t know for sure what happened that night. I don’t know how (or when) that hitchhiker and her boys died but I know they did and I know they didn’t go out peacefully. I’m sure I could do research and probably come up with some answers but I don’t because a part of me doesn’t want to know.
Here’s what I do know: I’ll never stop at that rest stop again. I’ll never pick up another hitchhiker.
And I’ll never tell the police, no matter how many times they ask me, where the candy-apple-red paint chips on my bumper came from.