Dirty headlights lit up a few yards ahead with a weak yellow glow, but outside Dan’s small orbit could have been outer space. Heavy darkness pressed in around him. The wipers stuttered and honked across the windshield, hardly making a dent in sheets of rain that crashed diagonally into the glass. Rain was falling and falling and falling as if trying to wash the world clean. Water sloshed under his tires and there was a swoosh every now and then as he barreled through a puddle. No cars had passed for what felt like hours, just straggly, ghostly trees and a barn here and there. Every so often he caught a glimpse of the moon, huge and orange and sickly low in the sky, skinny branches silhouetted in front of it like a Halloween cliché. The car clanked through a pothole, tailpipe clunking and rattling and scraping until it set his teeth on edge. Piece of shit machine. He gripped the steering wheel tighter, anchoring himself in a cocoon of light and safety. At least the radio still worked, though the music came through weak and distant under the rain. He sang along to Hotel California to keep himself company.
Shit, was he seeing things, or was there a person standing at the side of the road? The figure held up a thumb in traditional hitchhiker style, pretty optimistically considering the circumstances. Surely it must be a tree, or his mind playing tricks? Who would be hitchhiking here, on a back road miles from anywhere at 2am? Dan shifted in his seat. An instinct told him the figure couldn’t be up to any good. But it must be freezing out in that rain. What if they were drunk, or hurt, or in trouble? They could die of hypothermia if he just drove on by… He could hear Leanne’s weary voice: ‘If you get killed, you’ll only have yourself to blame…’ All right, he was a busybody. But there was nobody else around; probably no-one else would drive by all night.
Dan stopped the car and carefully peeled off the duct tape which held the glove compartment together. He took out his gun, checked it was loaded, triple checked the safety, then stuck it into the waistband of his jeans under his baggy T-shirt. He slowly reversed toward the shape, which came forward hopefully to meet him. His heart beat faster and he kept one hand on the gun as he cracked the window – there would still be time to pull away if the guy was really deranged.
‘Thank you so much for stopping!’ It was a young voice. It sounded scared, but not crazy.
‘No problem, man.’ He couldn’t back out now, after hearing the relief and gratitude in the guy’s voice. He unlocked the car. ‘Jump in.’
The hitcher couldn’t have been more than twenty. When the car light fell on his face, Dan saw that he had a black eye and a split lip. His blue eyes had a deer-in- the-headlights vibe, though it was hard to tell whether that was permanent or the result of whatever had happened to him tonight.
‘Hey, have you been in a fight tonight?’ His tone was harsher than he intended. The guy jumped back and almost hit his head on the car window.
‘No, no… it wasn’t a fight…I basically just got my ass kicked. I didn’t even throw a punch…’ he trailed off. Dan sized him up, wondering if this was turning into a bigger problem than he wanted. The hitchhiker was wearing an oversized college hoody which emphasized the slightness of his frame. His body language was open and his eyes were fixed on Dan’s face, pleading with him not to order him out of the car again. He didn’t look like a threat. Then again, Dan knew from experience that the most dangerous people could appear needy and vulnerable when it suited them.
‘I won’t cause any trouble. If I could just get a ride to wherever you’re going. Anywhere, it doesn’t matter.’ Rain streamed off his clothes, soaking the upholstery. That would take another $20 off the resale price of the car. The kid was shivering now, from cold or fear or both. Hopefully he wasn’t going into shock or something.
‘It must be freezing out there,’ said Dan, softening. He turned up the heating and reached into the back seat for a frayed old blanket he kept there.
‘Thank you.’ His teeth were almost chattering. He wrapped himself in the blanket, which made him look even younger. Dan sighed inwardly. It would probably be fine. He guessed he was about 6 inches taller and 30lb heavier. Plus he had the gun. He was pretty sure the hitchhiker didn’t mean him any harm, but there was a hint of lingering tension, or maybe danger, coming from him. Like unfinished business. Still, Dan didn’t have the heart to throw him out into the rain again. He pulled into the road again, sensing him relax slightly beside him.
‘Thank you again for stopping. I didn’t think anybody would.’
‘You’re lucky. On a night like this the road could have been empty.’ Dan glanced sideways. Finn was starting to recover. Some color had come back to his face and he’d stopped shivering. Dan waited for him to explain why he’d been out there, but he said nothing.
‘This rain seems to be getting worse. It’s like biblical or something,’ said Dan. Maybe if he got him talking, something would slip out.
‘Global warming,’ said Finn. The literal type, then.
‘How old are you, Finn?’
’19.’ Even younger than he thought.
‘I’m 35. I guess that seems old to you.’
‘Not at all,’ said Finn politely. He was obviously a well brought-up kid. Dan couldn’t figure out how he’d ended up with such a beating. Unless it was a random mugging…but something told Dan it was personal. The kid was fidgeting with the frayed corner of the blanket and glancing behind when he thought Dan wasn’t looking. As if his attacker could still be after him.
‘Are you at college?’
‘Yeah. Majoring in Engineering.’
‘That’s where the money is.’ What was he, a careers counsellor? Dan looked round his wreck of a car. It should be pretty obvious he didn’t know where the money is. ‘I mean, so I hear…’
‘What do you do?’ asked Finn, rescuing him from the end of that sentence.
‘I work in the plant.’
‘My parents have both worked there all their lives. I’m the first in my family to go to college.’ It didn’t seem to be working out for him tonight. Did college kids get into fights? Leanne would have confidently said not. But how would she know? She’d never been either.
‘Are you on the boxing team or something?’
‘Haha, no. Unfortunately.’
‘So what happened tonight?’
‘I think it was probably my fault…’ Dan raised an eyebrow.
‘I was messing around with a girl who has a boyfriend.’
‘The boyfriend did that to you?’
‘Yeah. He’s a fucking asshole. Excuse the language.’
‘I though your generation didn’t agree with violence.’ Where had he got that? The New York Times?
‘He didn’t get the memo. He’s even hit Laura… that’s his girlfriend.’ Dan’s hands tightened on the wheel.
‘Is he at college too?’
‘Yeah. Football scholarship. He’s built like a tank.’
‘He sounds like a bully,’ said Dan. As if he thought college was elementary school.
‘You seem to have a funny idea of college, Dan. They let some real assholes in. Believe me.’
‘Sounds like it.’
‘I guess I shouldn’t have been fooling around with her…’
‘Fuck that, man. He doesn’t sound like much of a prize. The way I see it, once he hits her, he’s the bad guy, end of story…’ Finn had stopped listening. He was looking in the rearview mirror.
‘Are those headlights behind us?’ There was a faint glow in the rearview mirror, which intensified until it was obvious that a car was following them.
‘Shit, I bet it’s him!’ Finn went whiter than ever. His panic was contagious. Dan’s heart started drumming in his chest.
‘Come on, man. It could be anybody.’
‘You said yourself, no one is out tonight.’ Finn’s voice rose. His eyes darted round the cabin as if he could find some escape route. The car behind was close now, closer than politeness usually dictated.
‘I’ll let him go round,’ said Dan, putting on a show of calm. He pulled in slightly and slowed down, trying to keep his breathing slow. The car kept hugging his tail stolidly.
‘Is it his car?’ asked Dan.
‘I can’t tell. All I can see is the lights.’
‘Relax, Finn. It won’t be like earlier. There’s two of us now. Who is he anyway, Bruce Li?’
‘I should have told you earlier…He’s probably carrying.’
Dan stared at him. ‘A gun?’
‘No, a banana. Yes, a gun!’ At least now Dan knew what he was facing. His brain started working practically, step by step.
‘Is he likely to use it?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know! He didn’t earlier, obviously. But he’s probably gone and got loaded now…’
‘OK, OK.’ Dan lifted his T-shirt. Finn stared at the gun and realization dawned on his face.
‘OK?’ said Dan. Finn met his eyes.
‘You should give it to me. It isn’t fair to drag you into this…’
‘No way, man. You’re just a kid. I’ll do it if… need be.’
‘Don’t argue with me –‘
The car behind rammed them. The crash was deafening, heavy metal crumpling and the lighter, dry tinkle of glass breaking. The car spat itself forward, and their bodies jerked against the seatbelts.
He slammed into them again. Nausea rose up in Dan’s throat. They skidded on top of the thick layer of water on the road. He pulled on the wheel madly, trying to remember what to do. Was it the same as skidding on ice? There was no time to think, and his thoughts were bizarrely slow anyway. He felt like a cornered animal, losing control of the car, losing control of himself. Finn was holding on to the edge of his seat, breathing hard. The car was slipping out of Dan’s hands.
‘Brace yourself,’ he shouted. They careened into the ditch and rumbled forward, bouncing over tree roots and rocks, bobbing up and down in their seats, banging their heads on the roof. Dan hung onto the wheel for dear life. Finn covered his head with his arms. It felt like they were doing seventy, though it was probably barely thirty. Dan slammed on the brakes but it made no difference; they were gliding on a layer of mud. Tree branches caught the sides of the car, scratching and jarring them. They lost speed sluggishly, like a runaway horse running out of energy, until eventually the car came to a stop, creaking and complaining all the way. This would probably finish it off once and for all. Why was there time to think such stupid, irrelevant thoughts at a time like this? Dan forced his brain into gear.
‘Are you all right?’ he said.
‘I think so,’ said Finn. His eyes were wild. ‘Dan, I’m so sorry about all this…’
‘Don’t start. There’s no time,’ snapped Dan. ‘He could be out there –‘ Something on the floor caught his eye. The gun. It must have fallen while they were speeding through the ditch. Finn noticed it too and grabbed for it, taking Dan by surprise. Then he sat staring at it, holding it awkwardly with one hand and pushing his soaking hair out of his eyes with the other. Shit. Everything was getting out of control tonight. Dan took a deep breath, sat back and tried to exude an air of calm authority.
‘Come on, man. You don’t even know how to hold that thing.’
Finn swung the gun round into his hand and took off the safety. He looked a lot more formidable now.
‘Relax. I know how to shoot. We learnt that first semester of college.’
‘It’s a joke. Dark humor.’
‘Just give me the gun, Finn.’
‘I told you, this is my problem. It isn’t fair to make you deal with it.’ He stared Dan down.
He was calm now. Determined. Should Dan try to grab the gun? What would Leanne say? A tirade about how he should never have picked up the hitchhiker in the first place, definitely. And she would certainly tell him to back down now. Let the kid handle his own mess.
He held up his hands. ‘All right, all right. Whatever you want.’
‘Can you see anything out there? Any sign of Clarence?’
‘That’s his name? Clarence? And he’s meant to be a scary guy?’
Finn gave a snort laugh. ‘Yeah, I think he’s a bit sensitive about –‘
A metallic twang connected with Dan’s door. He flinched.
‘Was that –?’
‘It sounded like a bullet,’ said Finn. A dark shape materialized outside, filling the whole window with its bulk. It lifted a heavy arm and pointed something toward Dan. Before he had time to think or react, Finn lifted the gun and fired twice. The shape fell heavily, slowly, almost in slow motion. Finn stared at the gun in his hand. His eyes lost focus.
‘Finn! Finn!’ said Dan. He looked up.
‘Give me the gun, man.’ Finn didn’t move. Shit, he was in shock now if he wasn’t before. Clarence could shoot again; he might just be injured. But Dan couldn’t risk the gun’s going off accidentally if he grabbed it. Finn seemed to have forgotten he was holding it. He seemed to have forgotten where he was, even.
‘Please. Give me the gun,’ Dan repeated. He held out his hand insistently until Finn handed it over. Dan opened the car door and peered out. The huge shape was lying flat on the ground. Not moving. He reached back into the car for a flashlight, leaning right across Finn to get to the glove compartment. He didn’t seem to notice. Dan tiptoed toward Clarence, concentrating on keeping his footing in the mud in the inky darkness. The lashing rain soaked him within a few steps. He forced himself on, pointing the gun ahead of him just in case, though he was pretty sure of what he was going to find. He shone the flashlight onto the still mass suddenly, before he had time to change his mind. There were two huge wounds in Clarence’s chest, leaking blood which was diluted pale pink by the pulsing rainwater. His eyes stared straight ahead. He was dead. Dan’s stomach lurched and he leaned over, breathing through it and waiting to come back to himself.
No wonder Finn hadn’t stood a chance against this guy earlier. He must have been 6 foot 6 and nearly as wide. Still, two little slugs of metal had taken him down. Clarence’s face still had the puppy fat and naivety of a child. Pride, arrogance, the desire to control some girl that he probably didn’t even care about, had killed him before he’d ever reach maturity. When the nausea subsided, rage replaced it. Clarence wasted his own life, but he ruined Finn’s too. He had forced the kid to kill him, forced himself into his life and memory. Finn was the type who’d let this haunt him forever. And he’d done it to save Dan’s life... Dan had a lightbulb moment. He glanced back at the car. Finn was staring down at his hands. Dan fired another round into the undergrowth, then stuck the gun back into the waistband of his jeans – there was no need for the kid to see it again. He came back to the car and got in. Finn turned his head in slow-motion and looked at him.
‘Was that another shot?’
‘Yeah. He…he wasn’t dead. You just wounded him.’
‘I thought I killed him,’ said Finn. But there was a little hope in his voice.
‘No, you didn’t kill him. He was alive.’
‘He pointed his gun at me. He was going to shoot me.’ Dan kept his gaze steady. According to Leanne, the secret to lying well was to convince yourself that it actually happened.
Finn’s eyes searched his face. ‘You killed him?’
‘Yeah. I killed him.’ That got through to him. Finn crumpled in relief and Dan caught him in a kind of half-hug.
‘It’s OK, man. It’s over,’ said Dan.