by Morris J. Marshall
As a truck driver who’s spent thousands of hours on the road, I’ve had one rule for the last twenty years: never pick up hitchhikers. No exceptions. Then, last October, I broke my own rule. Six months later, I’m still not sure exactly what happened that night. What I do know is that my life has improved.
My wife and I had just had an argument. I was on my way to our cottage to cool off for the long Thanksgiving weekend. It was Friday October 5, 2018 around dusk, and I’d just pulled out of a diner outside Orillia, Ontario. I was heading back to the entrance ramp to Highway 11 for the three-hour drive north to Burk’s Falls.
As I was waiting for a green light, I saw in my driver’s-side mirror someone approaching my car. Someone asking for money, I thought. Even up here it’s happening.
In Toronto, it was common to see people soliciting drivers at stoplights. They’d stand on the islands on the green lights and move from car-to-car on the reds. I’d given change a few times, but most of the time I kept my windows up. You never know if someone might stick a gun in your face and carjack you.
Fear seeped into my stomach. Had I locked my back door? You can never be too careful. I turned my head to see.
A blonde woman, mid-20s, with curly shoulder-length hair, pale, bluish-tinged skin and dark spots on her cheeks, stood by the back door on the driver’s side, tapping on the glass. Dressed in a long beige gown, she held what looked like a baby wrapped in towels.
I lowered my window.
“My baby’s sick,” she said. “Please, sir, can you drive us to the hospital?”
The last time I had picked up a hitchhiker was 1985, when the practice was still relatively common. I drove the guy from Barrie to Huntsville, appreciating the conversation along the way but, when I stopped to let him out, he asked for money. I gave him five dollars. He asked for more. I vowed never again.
“I’ve got to be up north tonight,” I said, searching for an excuse to refuse her. “I still have a long drive ahead.”
The woman coughed several times. Blood came out of her nose. “Please, it won’t take long.”
I sighed. “Okay, but I don’t know this area very well. Can you give me directions?”
I got out and opened the door for her. Holding her baby up against her chest, she sat down in the back seat. The combined scents of vanilla and talcum powder permeated my car, reminding me of the time I’d visited the Lucy Maude Montgomery House in Prince Edward Island.
“Back up,” the woman said, “then go north along Highway 24. Please hurry.”
I watched her in the rearview mirror. She gently rocked her baby back and forth in the towels. He was quiet and seemed to be sleeping. I couldn’t see his face for all the coverings.
Thankfully, at that time of day, there weren’t many cars on the road. I pulled a U-turn, skidded up the shoulder of the road and stopped at the lights at Highway 24. “What’s your name?” I asked while waiting for a green.
“I have a niece named Sarah,” I said, trying to ease the tension. “She just had a baby herself. He’s a cute little guy. Always smiling and cooing.”
“Please hurry, sir. I don’t think Mortimer can last much longer.”
I made a left turn onto Highway 24 and barrelled through the downtown district, past a flurry of fast food restaurants, a movie theatre and a car dealership. If there were any police cars nearby, they’d definitely stop me. I already had three demerit points against my license. My current driving behaviour would cost me at least three more.
“What’s wrong with Mortimer?” I asked. “He’s awfully quiet.”
“He caught that new flu that’s been going around,” Sarah said, still rocking her baby. “He keeps shifting between fevers and chills, and he’s been vomiting all day. Please hurry.” She put her right hand over her mouth and coughed again, cradling her baby with her left hand. “There’s the hospital. Up at the next light. We’re almost there, Mortimer.”
I slowed down and made the turn. “Just hold on, Sarah. You don’t look very well yourself. You should get treated, too.”
Five minutes later, I pulled into the local hospital and eased the car to a stop near the emergency department. “Sarah, do you want me to get you a wheelchair or are you able to—”
I looked into the rearview mirror. My breath caught in my throat.
The back seat was empty.
I got out of the car and opened the back door. The vanilla smell was still there. A blue baby rattle lay on the seat. I looked around the parking lot. A young blonde woman was entering the hospital holding what resembled a baby wrapped in towels. I ran up behind her and touched her shoulder. “Sarah?”
The woman turned and looked at me blankly. She wasn’t Sarah.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, “I thought you were someone else.”
I ran into the emergency department and approached the registration desk. Several people were seated in the waiting area, watching the news channel on TV.
“Can I help you?” one of the nurses asked. She had shoulder-length white hair tied up in a ponytail, pale skin and bags under her eyes.
“Did you see a young blonde woman come in with a baby?” I asked. “I just drove her here and I can’t find her. She said her name was Sarah.”
“Take a seat, mister...?”
“Davidson. James Davidson. She just disappeared. I can’t figure out what happened.”
The nurse rested her hands, which were trembling, on the desk in front of her. “You’re going to think I’m crazy, but I think I might know.”
“Try me,” I said.
The nurse was silent for several seconds. She lowered her voice. “There’s a legend in this community about a woman named Sarah Willoughby, who lived here a hundred years ago. She and her sick baby died on this date in 1918. Every year ending in eight, Sarah hitchhikes a ride from someone, usually a male, to get her baby to this hospital, and each time staff tells her there’s nothing they can do, that her baby’s already dead. According to the legend, she kicks up a fuss and then disappears for another ten years.”
“Have you ever seen her?” I asked.
“She was here five minutes ago. I’ve been working at this hospital for over forty years, and I always thought it was just a legend, something we shared over campfires as kids to scare each other. Medical staff told me they’d seen her over the years, but I thought they were joking. Until tonight.”
“Why does she keep coming back if her baby’s dead?”
“Maybe she doesn’t know it yet,” the nurse replied, “or can’t accept it. Anyway, I told Sarah her baby was in Heaven and she disappeared.”
I nodded, sad but not surprised.
“Look, Mr. Davidson, I’d like to talk further, but we’re going to be flooded with new patients in a few minutes. There’s been a multi-car accident on Highway 11 just north of here, and we’re short-staffed.”
According to the news channel, it was in the northbound lane. Eight people dead, multiple injuries. Icy fingers caressed the back of my neck. All those years, I’d vowed I’d never pick up another hitchhiker. I almost hadn’t picked up Sarah. If she hadn’t stopped me for a ride, I could have — probably would have — been in that accident. Maybe dead. And I thought I was doing her a favor. Maybe it had been the other way around.
I went back to the nurse’s desk. “Do you know where Sarah is buried?”
“In a cemetery twenty minutes away by car. It’s a little way in from the road. You might want to wait till morning, though, before going there. It’ll be dark soon, and it’s not well lighted. It’s pretty rocky.” She wrote down directions and passed me a small sheet of paper. “I know it’s none of my business, Mr. Davidson, but why do you want to go there?”
“I have a favour to return,” I said.
* * *
Upon arriving at Grace Cemetery, I reached into my glove compartment and retrieved a flashlight. I got out, picked up the baby rattle from the back seat and put it in my pocket. I firmly closed the car door. The echo reverberated through nearby trees.
The street lights had just come on, but the cemetery itself was already dark and silent. An owl hooted somewhere in the distance and a light mist creeped along the ground. It’s still not too late to reconsider, I told myself. You can get back in your car right now, drive straight up north and never look back. You don’t have to do this.
I turned on the flashlight and shone it on the ground. The grass was about two feet high, but someone had tramped down the weeds to form a path that led to the gravestones. I could make out some of the trees: weeping willows, cedars and oaks.
I had never liked cemeteries as a kid. We’d dare each other to bike through Prospect Cemetery at night with a slice of pizza as the reward for anyone brave — or dumb — enough to do it. I’d always chickened out. Watching too many horror movies convinced me that if I stood too close to a gravestone, the person underneath would reach out of the ground, grab my ankle and pull me under.
The nurse wasn’t kidding about the rocks. They jutted angrily out of the ground. I stumbled twice but caught myself and stood up, thankful for the balance and dexterity I’d developed playing tennis. I thought about going back to the car and returning in the morning but decided to press ahead. If I went back now, I’d never return.
Five minutes down the path, I arrived at the graves. About twenty of them were laid out in a circle. Although some had moss, the writing on them was easily legible. Staring at the dates on the stones, I remembered how the pastor at my dad’s funeral had discussed the significance of the two dates on every grave stone. They all had two numbers, but what was important was the dash in between. That represented what we did with our lives.
Most of the people in this cemetery had experienced short dashes, but that wasn’t an indicator of how much they’d accomplished. Something had struck them down in the prime of life. I took a deep breath and focused my flashlight on the first three stones:
- Edward Freemont, February 10th, 1896 — October 2nd, 1918
- Ellen Freemont, August 22nd, 1898 — October 3rd, 1918. Greatly missed
- Clarence Freemont, March 5th, 1918 — October 1st, 1918. Resting in the arms of Jesus
Heart thudding, I went from stone to stone, shining my flashlight on each one. The dates of death were all the same: 1918. World War I had ended in November of that year, but the people in this graveyard were mostly women and children.
I fished out my smartphone. The screen lit up as I Googled “1918 deaths” and some keywords. The first entry was an article written in 2008 by a researcher from the University of Toronto. Several phrases jumped out at me:
- Spanish Flu hit Canada, brought home by soldiers returning from the European front.
- Two to five percent of the world’s population extinguished.
- Fifty thousand Canadians perished, mostly between the ages of 20 and 40.
- Funeral parlors in Toronto and Montreal ran out of space because of the large number of deaths.
- Overwhelmed undertakers stored bodies in their own homes.
- More people killed by Spanish Influenza than in World Wars One and Two combined.
- Worst pandemic ever; deadlier than the Black Death.
My hitchhiker’s grave was at the back of the cemetery. Sarah Willoughby, read her stone. April 26th, 1895 — October 5, 1918; loving mother of Mortimer (1918 infant). Her husband’s stone was beside hers. He had fought in the war and died just two weeks before her. An entire family snuffed out.
I stood in front of Sarah’s grave stone. “I just wanted to thank you for getting into my car when you did. I’m sorry about you and your baby. I wish things had turned out differently, but I believe you saved my life, and I’ll never forget you. I wanted to return this.”
I removed the baby rattle from my pocket, placed it on the ground and stood quietly for a minute. Then I walked back down the path, avoiding rocks and weeds along the way. It was easier this time; I had memorized the landscape, and the land sloped downhill.
Black clouds were accumulating overhead, and it began to rain. As the ground moistened, it became slippery, and my jacket and pants got wet. My middle-aged body wanted to get back to my car as quickly as possible, but I knew I’d trip and end up on the ground if I hurried.
A quarter of the way down the path, I stopped. In that instant, I was sure I’d heard something: a rattling sound. It’s the wind moving through the trees, I thought. It’s playing tricks with my ears. In nature, sounds are magnified.
I turned around.
Sarah was leaning against her gravestone, smiling and waving at me with the rattle. A soft light surrounded her, revealing the long beige gown she’d been wearing earlier that evening. Mortimer, whom she had clung to dearly while in my car, wasn’t with her. She had finally let him go.
I waved back.
When I got back in my car, I glanced back up toward Sarah’s grave, but she was gone. I put my hands on the steering wheel. They were trembling, and I sat for a few minutes before starting the car. I decided not to drive up north that night. Instead, I found a hotel room in town. I awoke early the next morning and drove back home.
* * *
It’s been six months since I picked up Sarah. I’ve never told anybody about her, apart from the nurse, and I doubt anyone would believe me even if I did. The whole experience made me appreciate the fragility of my own life and the importance of treasuring each day, of making the most of the dash between my numbers, whatever my second number turns out to be.
When I came home early that Saturday morning, I brought my wife flowers and took her out to breakfast. I’m still not fond of picking up hitchhikers, but now I am willing to make exceptions from time to time.
[Author’s acknowledgment] The idea of the dash is taken from Linda Ellis’s poem “The Dash.”
Copyright © 2018 by Morris J. Marshall