by E. L. Skip Knox
|part 1 of 4|
The hitchhiker ran up to the car and opened the door. It was a Buick Roadmaster, a fine car, if a little square. It had been hours since he’d seen a pair of headlights on the highway, and the desert was cold at night. The dome light showed an interior of metallic blue and vinyl white, with an old man at the wheel, tall and weathered like some ancient cactus.
The hitchhiker slid onto the seat, pulling his duffel bag after him, and swung the door closed. The dome light went out and all was dark except for the ghostly light from the instrument panel. The car swung back onto the road with barely a whisper.
The driver looked at him, peering under eyebrows, head cocked. “Where you headed?” he said.
“Wherever,” the hitchhiker said. “East.”
“Sure. Headed that way myself.”
“Thanks,” the hitchhiker muttered as he arranged his duffle bag on the floor under his feet. He fervently hoped the old guy wouldn’t talk much.
The driver nodded at the bag. “You running from or running to?”
The hitchhiker glanced sidelong but didn’t look up. “Ain’t runnin’ nowhere.”
“Well, that’s remarkable, that is. Quite the anomaly, you.” The old man’s voice was raspy, like tumbleweeds across a dry lakebed.
The young man didn’t answer. If he didn’t answer, maybe the guy wouldn’t talk to him. He didn’t want to talk. He just wanted to go.
The driver did leave him alone for a while. The Buick hummed through the night. The road was straight, the air was cold, and the darkness was its own kind of comfort.
The hitchhiker thought about where he’d been and where he was headed. Both seemed vague to him just now, as if behind and before were both dreams and only the desert and the dark were real. He stared out the window at the black night, seeing nothing, thinking nothing, and satisfied with both.
“You headed to New York, young fellow, or New Orleans? Or maybe just to Barstow,” the driver said.
“East,” the young man repeated. “Maybe Chicago.” He had no destination in mind, but he said it to be saying something.
“Don’t worry, Johnny boy,” the driver said, then he dropped into a mock-alien voice, like in the movies, “we mean you no harm.” He chuckled.
The hitchhiker looked up. “The name is John, not Johnny, and I never told you my name.”
The driver pointed at the bag; the name ‘JOHN’ was stenciled on it, along with COUNTY CORRECTIONAL HOME.
“So you know my name,” John said, kicking the bag further under the dash. “Big deal. What’s yours?”
Again the driver laughed. “Whoa now, where’s your manners? It won’t do to be asking a sorcerer his name, no sir! And I’d be a fool to give it. Out here, though, a fellow can take on most any name he pleases. So, you can call me Driver. That’ll serve, for now.”
John peered at him. “You a sorcerer?”
“Seems unlikely, doesn’t it? After all, sorcerers don’t get out into society, do they? And they sure don’t drive fancy Roadmasters! Most unlikely.
“Almost as unlikely as you, lad, out here in the middle of the desert, all alone. Don’t reckon you got much in the way of rides. Decent folk take a look at you and what do they see? Some teenager on his way home from the hop? An honest Joe whose car broke down? No sir-ree, bub.
“They look at you and they see a big Trouble sign hanging over your head like red neon, and they drive right on by, figuring they were smart to leave that pack of woe on the side of the road. So, me, I pick you up because otherwise you’re stuck out here. And believe me, Johnny boy” — here the old man leaned over at him — “you don’t want to be stuck out here.”
John pulled away. Great. Not just a sorcerer, but a crazy one to boot.
“How about some music?” the old man asked, abruptly switching from ominous to cheerful.
Before John could answer, a Hank Williams song came wailing from the speakers. Hank was singing about some woman and some pain that he couldn’t bear.
The old man glanced over. “No? Well it’s an acquired taste, I suppose. Easier to acquire if you’re born and bred out here, but I don’t reckon you’re from around these parts, as they say in the movies. How about this, instead?”
The music switched to Stravinsky.
John squirmed uncomfortably. He ran one hand through his long, black, curly hair.
“But no,” Driver said, “I don’t suppose the classics quite fit your temper either, do they? Well, we can choose another. On a clear night out here on the desert we can pick up stations from... Well, from far away, let’s say.”
The music changed again. Now it was electronic sounds, weird melodies and pulsing rhythms of a sort that seemed to John both alien and familiar. The sound pulled at him even as it made him shudder. He clapped his hands over his ears.
“No music,” he said, half-snarling but half-pleading.
“No? Ah well.” The music ceased. “I was tired and hoped the music would keep me awake. It’s a mighty long drive, it is, when you’re driving to wherever.”
“Are all sorcerers this chatty?” the young man said.
“Beats me,” Driver said. “I don’t usually take long drives with any of them.” He chuckled at his own joke.
Another question came out of John’s mouth before he could stop it. “So what are you doing out here, running to or running from?”
Damn it, John scolded himself. Why? Do you really want to talk to this creep?
“Ha ha! Good one! Turn my own question on me, eh? Oh you’re the sly one, Johnny, and no mistake. Running to or running from? I’d have to say, not running at all. Shall I throw your own answer back at you? I’m not running, no; I’m driving, you see!”
The sorcerer laughed and stretched, using the steering wheel as a brace. “But you asked a serious question, and I’ll give it a serious answer. I have to say I’m running to. Searching. I don’t often run from, Johnny.”
“To where?” There was something in the sheer goofiness of the driver that seemed to encourage questions.
“That’s a little harder to answer. To a rendezvous... You know the word?”
John groaned inwardly. How ignorant does he think I am?
“It’s French,” Driver continued, “it means ‘meet you’. Now why couldn’t we have a good, sturdy English word for such a common idea, eh?
“But it’s more than that, isn’t it? French words always have these nuances, layers of meaning, don’t you know. Rendezvous doesn’t merely say ‘meet you’, it’s a word that implies something is going to happen, at the meeting or because of the meeting. There’s something portentous about it, a hint of excitement, or even danger.”
John contemplated opening the door and having a rendezvous with the road. But the desert night was pressing up against the window and the Buick’s speedometer was showing 60 mph. He wasn’t quite ready for suicide. Murder, maybe.
“Look mister,” John said, “I ain’t in trouble with the law, if that’s what’s worrying you. Get me to Barstow, or maybe Flagstaff by morning and I’ll be obliged. Maybe we can leave it at that, okay?”
“We’re hours from the Arizona line, young warrior, and even farther from Flagstaff. But time plays funny tricks out here in the deep desert and that’s a fact. The locals tell all kinds of stories. Stories that would curl your hair, except yours is curly already.” The driver laughed again and the Roadmaster sped along the black road.
At least he shut up for a while. The big Buick ran almost silently, its steam engine leaving a vapor trail in the cool desert air, and John took time to wonder where he was going. Running from or running to. He didn’t know. Running, that was for damned sure.
Get the hell out, that was the one true feeling he had. What came after, well, he’d figure that out. Half his life in an orphanage and two years in Juvenile Hall. It was time to be going, and just about anywhere was bound to be better. Some place where he didn’t have to be careful about using his powers.
Copyright © 2012 by E. L. Skip Knox