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Hitcher

by Terrye Turpin 10 months ago in fiction
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We don't always see the evil inside

Hitcher
Photo by Wai Siew on Unsplash

They picked up the hitchhiker outside Salado, Texas. Twelve-year-old Kenny, his head hanging out the window like a dog’s, was the first to spot the blind man. He stood on the gravel embankment at the edge of the highway, nothing around him — no gas stations, no fast-food places, no buildings — just the flat expanse of fields dotted with scraggly trees. The last rest area had been three miles back, on the other side of the interstate.

“A hitchhiker!” Kenny whooped, delighted by the unexpected vision, as if he’d spotted a flying saucer. “I think he’s blind,” Kenny added as the car zipped past the man. The hitchhiker held a white cane and thick-framed dark glasses covered his eyes.

Kenny’s father braked at the next exit and circled back. “We can’t leave him on the side of the road,” he said. “Not in this heat.”

The air conditioning in their rented Buick had died with a rattle the day before, ten miles west of Oklahoma City. Kenny’s father made a wrong turn somehow, and they were halfway to Amarillo before he swung the car around. He searched for someone else to blame, and when no one came forward, he blamed the car’s GPS, even though he’d refused to follow the directions spewed out by the Buick’s electronic voice.

In the front seat, Kenny’s mother held a can of cola, dripping with ice water from the cooler, against her forehead. Her breath smelled of mints and menthol from the cigarette she’d sneaked behind the motel that morning. “That man might be a serial killer.”

“Cool.” Kenny squirmed in his seat, struggling to locate the hitchhiker again as his father sped down the interstate.

“He might be a veteran,” Kenny’s father muttered through clenched teeth.

He had never served, but Kenny’s dad had a soft spot for the armed forces. He teared up at the ballpark when they played the National Anthem and claimed his “biggest regret” that he’d never enlisted. Kenny thought it a strange thing to regret — missing the opportunity to be shot by strangers in a foreign land.

“Are you crazy?” Kenny’s mother grabbed his father’s arm when he stopped the car and backed up toward the man waiting on the side of the road. “We’ll wind up dead, chopped to bits along I-35.”

“How many blind serial killers do you know? Hot as it is, he might die out there. You need that on your conscience?” Kenny’s father left the car and approached the hitchhiker.

Kenny, watching his dad talking to the man, commented, “He doesn’t look like a soldier.” The blind man wore torn, dirty jeans and a faded t-shirt with a beer company logo. “How would a blind guy shoot a gun?” Kenny wondered.

“Christ on the cross, Kenny, maybe he wasn’t always blind.” Kenny’s mother leaned her head out the window, then popped back inside with a huff. “There goes your father, playing the hero.”

Kenny’s father held the hitchhiker’s arm and led him toward the Buick. The blind man tapped the ground with his white cane. Bare patches dotted his clipped brown hair. Maybe his barber had also been blind.

“Scoot over, Kenny.” For a moment, as the blind man stooped to climb into the car, Kenny met his own face mirrored in the lenses of the hitchhiker’s glasses.

Grumbling, Kenny scooped up his backpack and slid toward the driver’s side window, his bare legs sticking to the vinyl seat. His father helped the blind man buckle his seatbelt before he sauntered around the car to the driver’s side door. He gave Kenny’s mother a little smirk when he passed her.

“I appreciate the ride,” the blind man said. “It sure was getting hot out there. My name’s Martin. Martin Colson.”

“I’m Roger. My wife, Doris.” Kenny’s father waved a hand toward Kenny’s mother, then looked into the rearview mirror as he continued, “and that’s our boy, Kenny.”

“A pleasure,” the blind man, Martin, said.

“We’re only going to San Antonio,” Kenny’s mother said. “To visit my mother.”

“San Antonio. I haven’t been there in years. Time to go back, I reckon.”

Kenny’s mother stared straight ahead through the windshield. If she stared holes through the blind man, he wouldn’t know. The blind man, Martin, twisted his face, as though searching for something. Kenny wondered what his eyes looked like under the glasses. Were they blank as stones? The man kept his cane between his legs and rested his palms on the top. The backs of his hands were covered with scabbed over scratches. He stank of stale sweat and something else — raw hamburger right before the meat turned bad.

As the car pulled out onto the highway, Kenny leaned into the oven-hot rush of air streaming in the car window. In the front seat, Kenny’s mother crossed her arms on her chest and closed her eyes. The Saint Christopher medal she had draped from the rear-view mirror swung back and forth on a silver chain. “You should call the rental place again,” she said to Kenny’s father.

“We’ll trade it in at the office in San Antonio. They had nothing this size in Dallas.”

“Hard to believe.” Kenny’s mother peered at the windshield, addressing the flat landscape rushing by outside.

“I’m not putting my family in some piece of crap foreign car.” Kenny’s father tapped the car’s digital screen, tuning the radio to a country station.

Kenny figured the rental agency offered to refund his father’s money, and now he planned to get all the free mileage he could from the car.

Ahead of the car, the road flowed into the horizon. Heat waves shimmered across the asphalt, creating an endless mirage of standing water, sparkling puddles that disappeared, then reappeared as the car traveled down the highway.

As they crossed through Austin, a sudden rain shower forced them to roll up the windows. Humidity fogged the window glass until beads of water gathered on the inside. The blind man, Martin, rested his hand, palm up, on the seat next to Kenny. A black fly spiraled down and landed on Martin’s hand. The fly twitched, about to take flight, when Martin snapped his fist closed. His fingers drooped open, and he wiped the crushed fly against the leg of his pants.

They arrived in San Antonio two hours before their check-in time at the hotel. As they pulled off the interstate, Kenny’s father called the car rental agency and discovered they would have a replacement ready after five that evening.

“I can’t stay in this car another minute,” Kenny’s mother said.

“Okay. We’ll stick to the plan, go to the aquarium.” Kenny’s father glanced at the blind man in the back seat. “Can we drop you there? Or, I could pull over at the next exit.”

Martin shrugged. “The aquarium will work. I don’t want to be a bother.”

Kenny’s mother swiveled in her seat. She studied Martin for a moment, then asked, “Why don’t you join us?” She glanced at Kenny’s father. He shrugged.

Inside the aquarium, the family split off in different directions. Kenny’s parents lingered to read the lengthy descriptions posted at each exhibit. Martin shuffled beside Kenny. Occasionally, the blind man asked Kenny to describe what he saw.

“There’re all kinds of fish. Different colors.” How to explain colors to someone who’d never seen the blue of the ocean?

They passed a large tank with white sand at the bottom. Sharks drifted past, their eyes flat and cold behind the glass. Kenny stopped before the tank, leaning forward to study the predators. Martin halted behind him. Their image, displayed in the shark tank, made it appear that they floated in the water while the sharks swam around them.

As they strolled away, a chattering toddler crashed into Martin. He laughed while the child’s mother scooped her up. The mother apologized, but Kenny noticed she wrinkled her nose at the blind man, frowning as she backed away. Kenny considered how Martin must appear to them, outsiders. His worn clothing, his body odor, his patchy haircut. Instead of being embarrassed by Martin, Kenny felt noble, like he had accomplished some great good deed.

“Hey!” Kenny paused at the entrance to another hallway. “You want to feed the stingrays?” This would be something even the blind could experience.

“If you want to, yes.” Martin said.

They purchased tokens to exchange for small fish to offer to the rays. Martin drew out his wallet at the counter and thumbed through the bills.

“How do you know how much to give them?” Kenny asked.

“They’re folded differently, see.” Martin eased a twenty halfway out of the billfold and held the wallet out to Kenny.

The leather of the wallet was warm and shaped to the curve of Martin’s body. Kenny touched the money, tugging gently at the bill. He looked up at his face reflected in the blind man’s glasses and eased the twenty from the wallet. Would he notice the loss of his money? Kenny palmed the bill, stuffing it into his pocket.

The stingrays swam in a large open pool, a little larger than the wading pool Kenny had in his backyard when he was younger. While they waited their turn, they trailed their hands in the warm salt water. The stingrays drifted by, rubbing against Kenny’s palm like cats.

One of the aquarium staff explained how to hold the tiny fish they would feed to the stingrays. “Like you’re holding an ice cream cone,” she said.

Kenny wrapped his hand around Martin’s, holding the bait, and guided Martin’s fist toward the tank. Together, they lowered their hands into the warm water. The stingrays swooped over and sucked the fish from Kenny’s hand. How odd, this sudden, sandpaper rough brush against his fist. Kenny grinned. “It tickles,” he said. He shivered, imagining what it might be like if the rays had sharp teeth.

“Yes, it does.” Martin smiled, and lowered another fish morsel.

Kenny closed his eyes as he dipped his hand back into the water. He listened to the splash and slap of the stingrays as they rushed to devour the food.

Afterwards, Martin asked Kenny, “How about a bathroom stop?”

They were alone in the restroom. Kenny stopped at the urinal, one hand on the zipper of his shorts, when he noticed Martin, paused in the middle of the room. The blind man turned his head.

“There’s a stall in front of you, about four steps,” Kenny said. His voice echoed in the space.

“This way?” Martin pointed toward the wall on the east side of the restroom.

“No, here.” Kenny stepped over and took Martin’s arm. He led the blind man to the large stall on the end and pushed open the door. When Kenny moved to step away, Martin clutched his shoulder and pulled him close.

“You aren’t such a good boy, are you?” Martin whispered. Wet flecks of spit landed on the side of Kenny’s face.

Kenny pulled against Martin’s grip, grabbing the door to the stall, but the blind man held on, crushing Kenny’s fingers and dragging him forward.

“You’re hurting me,” Kenny said. He thought he should cry out, but he hesitated, confused. Was this about the money? Did Martin know about the stolen twenty? “I didn’t mean it. I’ll give it back,” Kenny said. He let go of the door and reached toward his pocket.

With his free hand, Martin gripped Kenny’s bicep, his fingers pinching into the flesh. The white cane, held to the blind man’s wrist with a plastic strap, banged against the metal door of the stall.

“Let go!” Kenny struggled. He dropped the money. The bill fluttered to the floor and landed in a puddle of liquid.

Martin bent toward him. His mouth opened, impossibly wide, as though he were unhinging his jaw. Gray fillings capped several of his teeth. The blind man dropped Kenny’s hand and brushed his palm across the crotch of Kenny’s shorts.

At the touch, Kenny thought of the stingray mouthing the fish from his hand. Bitter bile rose at the back of his throat. “No!” Kenny shouted, his voice echoing in the tiled room.

Now Martin clutched Kenny’s arm with both hands. He bent toward the bare skin as though to kiss it, then clamped his teeth on Kenny’s bicep.

Enormous pain, like a brilliant flash of light, enveloped Kenny. He struggled to draw breath to scream. Martin turned his head from side to side, grinding his teeth into Kenny’s flesh. Everything fell away until only the agony remained and Kenny felt if he did not escape, Martin would devour him. He stomped on the blind man’s foot and punched Martin’s ear.

“Ah!” Martin released him.

Kenny twisted away as Martin stumbled backwards, his feet sliding in the puddle between them. The cane slipped from the blind man’s wrist, tangling in his legs. Kenny shoved him. Martin slipped, his head knocking against the toilet. The blind man’s dark glasses clattered onto the tile floor. His eyes, revealed at last, were a cloudy blue, blank and cold. Martin reached out, his fingers groping for Kenny’s leg.

Kenny backed out of the stall, then stooped and grabbed up the twenty. He turned and ran.

Kenny banged out of the restroom. As he ran through the door, he almost knocked down an elderly man standing just outside. The man gave him a scolding look, and Kenny slowed.

Back in the main hallway of the aquarium, Kenny pushed up the sleeve of his t-shirt and studied the mark on his arm. His skin, a vivid red, held a perfect oval of teeth-marks that were already beginning to purple. He pulled his shirt sleeve down to cover the injury and brushed at the tears that fogged his vision.

When he passed the souvenir shop near the entrance, Kenny paused. Stuffed sharks, rubber fish in a rainbow of colors — children’s toys lined the shelves. A display of sunglasses stared out at him, row after row of black lenses. His hand went to his pocket to clutch the twenty-dollar bill he’d stolen from Martin’s wallet.

As he left the shop, Kenny slid the sunglasses he’d bought onto his face. The world became a place of shadows. He moved through the hallways, unseen, a shark gliding past in search of his prey.

* Originally published 09/10/2021 on Reedsy

fiction

About the author

Terrye Turpin

Terrye writes stories set in Texas and other strange places. She enjoys exploring antique, junk, and thrift stores for inspiration and bargains. Find her books on Amazon: Terrye Turpin

Follow her at https://terryeturpin.com/

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