“Already?” asked Big-Tree, “Damn that was fast.”
Less than five minutes had passed since we walked across the last state line of our ocean to ocean cross-country journey; a first for my companion and the second such trip for myself. Unknown to us, the specter of trouble was upon us, embodied in a silver four-door sedan occupied by a thinly-mustachioed driver and his indistinguishable passenger.
At a glance, it was an improvement from yesterday’s supply of post-prime strippers, neurotic drug dealers, and ever-inconsistent enforcers of justice. Denied the shelter of a warm, dry, preferably unlocked cell in the local jail of some forgettable village, we were worn from the night before. That morning the warm summer sun glistened over the golden highway suggesting, if only transitionally, that we’d caught a break; perhaps fate would at last smile upon us in this, the land of ancient giants.
But, then again, perhaps not—such are the hard-learned lessons of Hitchhiking 101.
“If y’all are headed south, hop in, cause I’ve still got ‘bout four hundred miles to go,” said the tanned, thin man in the driver’s seat. It was a promising proposition; we were, in fact, “headed south,” Bay-bound.
We heaped our burdensome gear into the trunk. Rounding the side of the vehicle, my gaze was drawn to the web-like pattern of the glare on the driver’s side windshield. After settling into the dusky rear of the car, I noticed that the odd pattern on the windshield was the glass itself, forcibly fractured by an ambiguous impact; this seemed an odd characteristic for any vehicle, much less an apparent rental-car.
Our driver, who couldn’t have been more than 30, cordially introduced himself as Robert. His counterpart, a young, unkempt woman with lifeless eyes was identified as Megan. She acknowledged us wordlessly and turned away leaving us with a view of her bleach-faded split ends.
“So, in case I get tired of driving, do you guys have valid driver’s licenses?” asked Robert, breaking the silence. We answered affirmatively.
Robert went on to mention that we would stop in a nearby back-woods hamlet to “drop the girl at her mama’s place” before moving along. Shortly after our deviation from the highway, Megan began to complain. She decided “mama’s place” didn’t hold a candle to this excursion; her first spoken words personified the empty liquor bottle rolling on the floor. Robert denied her request, predicting that she would change her mind half-way through and want to return home, to which she replied with a belligerent, bestial howl.
Robert brought the car to a stop in the parking-lot of a community park, so that he and Megan could privately discuss the matter. She discussed the issue by pushing Robert onto the hood of the car, jumping onto him, and vigorously attempting to suck his tongue out of his mouth. As Robert regained his mobility, Megan surfaced with victory smeared across her gloating face. Evidently, Megan would continue with us after all.
Heading back toward the highway, Robert re-prioritized his eyesight in order to send a text message and, in the process, repeatedly caused the car to swerve between lanes—a reckless combination, considering the empty liquor bottle. Feeling nervous, I volunteered to take the wheel awhile and Robert readily agreed, pulling the car off to the side of the woodland road. As we shuffled the seating, Big-Tree joined me up front and much to his sleep-deprived delight discovered the presence of a puppy which refused to leave the floor of his seat.
While guiding us back to the main highway, Robert engaged us in a few minutes of vague small talk from the rear, comprised mostly of smug allusions to his ‘professional hustler’ lifestyle about which Megan maintained passive silence with a ‘boozily’-mischievous look on her face.
Our light dialogue ceased when, much like a ball-gag, Megan’s face obstructed Robert’s speech. As grotesque grunts began emanating from the back seat, I scrambled to the turn on the radio to envelop the tiny, awkward space with anything, even mid-station static. Unfortunately, nothing could revive the unresponsive speaker system. The only thing to do was escape into other thoughts.
My quiet, puppy-cradling Iroquois travel companion was dozing-off, and I imagined him dreaming of Buster, his beloved bulldog back east. Looking around, I took stock of the situation. Inside, the car was trashed, outside, the windshield was mangled. Both screamed for attention.
The empty liquor bottle, an omen of bad decisions to come, manifested in an utterly shit-faced girl. It was easy to imagine her also screaming for attention.
Robert, however, was less transparent. Calm from the start of our journey, a whiff of his breath suggested he was partially responsible for the empty liquor bottle. Neither his docile manner nor clean-cut presentation fit the “professional” hustler stereotype, yet his soft demeanor came off as a deliberate attempt at self-censorship.
Suddenly, a pink blur was flung from behind. The contact of cloth meeting dashboard brought home the reality of the moans and awkward thrusts crashed back around me. My seat jolted multiple times in rapid succession. A morbidly inquisitive peak at the rear-view mirror confirmed that my now partially-clothed hosts quickly shedding layers.
It was as though Robert and Megan were expressing the desperate urges of impending-doom lovers alone on a slowly sinking ship. Exhausted by the rain-soaked plight of our previous night, Big-Tree slept in the seat beside me with the puppy in his lap. Feeling trapped and very alone in this surreal misadventure, I rolled the window down in an attempt to drown out the guttural, distinctly pornographic sound effects.
The small beach towns and mountain passes on our route were a mere blur as Robert and Megan subjected me to their howling, perspiring, and gyrating. Hanging their feet out the window with no framework for decency, Robert and Megan’s inescapable presence was a powerful test of resolution. I adjusted the mirrors in an effort to restrict the view, and then stuck my head outside until my eyes watered from the rushing wind.
I felt like time slowed to torture me, and I aged decades, maybe centuries, before they returned to Earth. After what the clock indicated was 33 minutes, the debauched couple emerged from their ‘bubble of love.’
“We should stop for a break soon cause I need a new tampon,” announced Megan as they fumbled with their clothing. I shuddered instinctively as a lump formed in my throat. Without reply, I resolved to bite my lip and stopped at the nearest convenience store.
Shortly after resuming the drive, Big-Tree and the puppy were abruptly awakened as a surge of obscenities erupted from the backseat. I caught snippets of the conversation, something about drugs and the state of Utah. Noting the sleepy look of utter bewilderment on Big-Tree’s face, I reassuringly mumbled a promise to provide details in full, later. Truth be told, I could barely comprehend it all myself.
Adding to my confusion were Megan’s occasional mid-sex outcries to “Mikey.” I saw it best to keep such observations to myself. This definitely was not the context for even a benign interrogation.
The distinct sound of skin slapping skin caused tensions to spike abruptly and was followed by an exchange of obscenities and sounds of someone spitting at something. Moments later, a tussle ensued that quickly escalated into a commotion of thrashing limbs and angry grunts.
The passionate, booze-fueled flailing lasted a few minutes until it dissipated as fast as it began. Big-Tree shot me a sideways look of perplexed concern, which we shared. I readjusted the rear view mirror to catch a glimpse of the current state of affairs.
Robert and Megan had not, in fact, ceased their expression of apparent rage toward each other, but rather incorporated the violence into their earlier, overly-demonstrative physical ‘expressions.’ It was as though they meant to strangle one another amid sensual embrace. As they growled and snarled, biting at each other, Robert forced himself upon Megan’s willing form. I again turned the mirrors away as tactfully as repulsion would allow. The degree sexual excitement emitted from the backseat rose audibly, as though their outpouring of obscenities was a gauge of the degenerate lust which consumed them. With a gnawing sense of déjà-vu, clothes were quick-shed and flung to where they may land.
“Satan is my father!” screamed Megan.
Short on immediate comprehension, I strained my eyes with focus on the horizon. I became the road.
“I want your soul, bitch, I WANT YOUR SOUL!” snarled Robert in reply, as if automated.
Over and over they repeated this exchange with rare variation, continuously yelling as they flopped around, naked in the mid-day sun. I would no longer tell myself that ‘things couldn’t get worse,’ though I’ll forever appreciate the conscious presence of my companion, if only for the sake of verifying these sordid events.
After twenty minutes of pseudo-satanic sex worship, they stopped abruptly. Something was wrong; Megan was crying and Robert was talking softly to her. Despite the unexpected anticlimax, lingering shock from the backseat dramatics captivated my nerves. The petrified look etched on Big-Tree’s face, and the intensity with which he protectively gripped the dog, exemplified his struggle to absorb the aromatically tangible devilry in our midst.
Caught up in the absurdity, I’d ceased paying attention to the passing time or the beauty of our natural surroundings, and I realized that little more than an hour had passed since we “hopped in.” Megan suddenly grabbed her pants from the console between the front seats, and clothed herself again as she and Robert whispered in hushed tones. Confident that the view was safer, I readjusted the mirror.
Megan’s reflection stared back at me. She looked like she’d been suffering for years. She was a mess: crying, petting her disheveled hair, peering through the ravaged features of an addict clinging to the residue of intoxication. I wondered if more than alcohol fueled this girl’s instability.
Considering what was going on, Robert was unnaturally docile. He seemed to recognize, as would anyone, that Megan didn’t have her wits about her and his actions reflected that recognition.
“Damn it Mikey, I don’t care!” Megan suddenly screamed, “I said I want to go home!”
This couldn’t go well. Robert’s rebuttal boomed out like a clap of thunder.
“HELL NO! You had your chance to go home when we started and I told you not to come if you were going to pull this shit!” Megan attacked Robert again, slapping his face.
As Robert fended off her blows, their profane shouting bled into a cacophony of reactionary aggressions. Relentlessly irrational, Megan threatened to jump out of the car which, at 70 mph, and considering her condition, certainly would have killed her. Robert’s waning self-control gave way to a mushroom cloud of frustration. In a single fluid movement, Robert grabbed Megan and crammed her down onto the floor behind the front seats. Spittle and garbled curses flew between them as they unleashed their unstable, co-dependent rage. Megan’s thrashing legs kicked wildly in the air.
Losing physically or breaking down under the emotional gravity, Megan suddenly transformed. Her blood-curdling cries became hopeless sobs switching from a hell-bent fit to a vulnerable wail. Robert, however, continued to restrict Megan to the floor, apathetic to her cries for mercy as he forced her down. She cried out desperately for Robert to ease up so she could breathe.
Over months of such travels, I’ve developed a remarkable tolerance for ridiculous bullshit in the interest of a straight ride to the next destination, but only so long as it was mutual exchange thereof. This no longer had the ring of mutuality; this rang despotic, intolerable, warranted intervention.
“HEY,” I shouted, loud enough to catch their attention, “You people seriously need to cut this shit out! Y’all are completely out of control and I can’t focus on the road with my seat being knocked around, so get a grip now or I’m stopping the car, I kid you not!” Big-Tree affirmed my stance with a subtle nod.
Megan replied first, with a desperate, muffled cry of “Pull over! Pull over!” to which Robert responded by demanding that I “Keep going! Keep going!”
This they repeated back and forth at sharply rising volumes until their conflicting dictations became simultaneous and always directed at me. My heart raced as I weighed my options. If I pulled over, a distraught Megan might run off, leaving us to face Robert’s unpredictable reaction. Considering the mountainous forest terrain, an ideal environment in which to hide corpses, I wasn’t keen on stopping the car. However, if the madness continued without intervention anything was possible.
As Robert and Megan continued to issue contradictory demands from the backseat, Big-Tree fidgeted nervously, and I scanned the road for a sign of hope. Within seconds, a large billboard came into view and mercifully indicated our forthcoming encounter with the next town: Trinidad.
“That’s it,” I proclaimed, at my wit’s end, “I can’t do this anymore! I’m stopping in a half-mile at the next town.”
Trinidad is a tiny town nestled into the hills bordering the Pacific Ocean. The community is hardly visible from the highway and offers minimal roadside conveniences. Taking the exit into Trinidad, I scanned the nearest cluster of buildings, spotting a gas station. Entering the town, Robert eased up on Megan, allowing her to climb back up onto the backseat; she continued sobbing nonetheless. Pulling into the one and only gas station in view, I saw no unoccupied pumps and instead pulled the car into a stretch of parking spaces at the edge of the property. Coming to a stop within eye-shot of the main road, the other patrons cast curious looks upon the car, intrigued by the vehicle’s mangled windshield. My only interest was having time away from our aberrant hosts to gather my wits and discuss the situation with my companion.
Between killing the car’s engine and removing the key, a red-faced Megan bolted from the backseat demanding access to the trunk. Having no interest in a standoff with an unstable, intoxicated, and arguably delusional individual, I popped it open.
Robert followed her outside. Predictably, the two began to argue as Megan pulled luggage from the trunk and Robert attempted to return it. My companion and I remained in our seats, frozen as the commotion drew the attention of every single other gas station patron.
The chaos was further exacerbated by the puppy, which seized the opportune distraction to make a not-unjustifiable leap for freedom via the open back door.
Megan spotted the puppy running toward the road and screamed as she chased it around the lot. Nearby, a couple of ‘good Samaritans’ who’d observed the unfolding pandemonium opted to lend a hand to the distraught, wailing young woman. Taking advantage of Megan’s distraction, Robert re-filled the trunk and slammed it shut.
“Let the little mutt run,” grumbled Robert regarding the puppy. “I need to go make a call,” he continued, turning to Big-Tree and I, “cause Meg’s lost her shit and we need to get rid of her before we go further. You guys just make damn sure that trunk isn’t opened again, no matter what that crazy bitch says or tries to pull.” With that, he whipped out a phone and promptly disappeared.
Soon, one of the good Samaritans nabbed the puppy near the edge of the road, triumphantly returning it to its disheveled owner. Shaken up and frazzled, Megan returned to the car clutching her captive pet.
In front of the gas station, Robert paced back and forth conversing on the phone with obvious agitation. The tension in the car spiked as the public attention alienated us. As my gaze swept the area, I noted more than a few off-putting stares and looks of bewilderment. Peering back again I realized Robert wandered off out of sight.
“Hey, so, we should get going, like, now,” posited Megan, with a mixture of impatience and anxiety. “Let’s just get the car going and drive around ‘til we find him.”
Having lost confidence in Megan’s rationality, I tried to stave off her urge to move elsewhere. “Honestly, I’d much rather wait here. It really wouldn’t be cool if we were gone when Robert gets back.”
Glancing around, her agitation rising palpably, she continued to push the matter. “Seriously, we need to get the damn car moving. It doesn’t matter where we go, just move.” I sensed Megan wanted to get away from Robert, but I also sensed that she harbored ulterior motives.
Still, having no interest at all in drawing Robert’s well-evidenced wrath upon my personal self, I adamantly stood my ground. “Unless you’ve got a really, really damn good reason why we should leave the one spot where he can find us, I’m not moving the car without Robert inside too.”
“You want a damn good reason?” she shot back, “How ‘bout the fact that the cops are looking for us right now? Is that ‘damn good’ enough?”
Speechless, my companion and I looked at each other incredulously. However, for the first time, Megan appeared transparent and sincere.
“This car is stolen and there’s a GPS tracker in my cell phone, the one Robert’s using right now,” she informed us, “so the cops probably already know where we are. So yeah, we seriously need to get going.”
Dumbfounded, but not prone to rash reactions, we pressed her for details.
“I broke the conditions of my parole by leaving ‘the’ state,” she explained. “Robert’s wanted by the FBI in like four states, and they’ve been on our trail for a few weeks now—that’s why we have to keep moving.”
With these revelations my reality exploded, and I realized her claims pieced this bizarre puzzle together. I considered the fractured windshield, which they explained as an assault on Robert by Megan’s “mama.” Then there was the outlandish behavior and emotionally volatile climate in the vehicle. Plus Megan had repeatedly referred to Robert as “Mikey,” and she had the ‘Michael’ tattoo.
Then there was me, an easy-going and anonymous hitchhiker, driving this box of crime down the highway on their behalf with a road-weary Big-Tree and that hapless puppy beside me. With a cold surge of panic I realized we had been used. Claustrophobia closed in on me. As a resolute iciness crept into my spirit, Megan again demanded that we move the car. I continued to refuse, at that point without much thought, as my mind scrambled to find a way out of this mess.
Exasperated with my stubbornness, Megan subsequently undertook another method of coercion. She pointed to the car parked beside us containing five intimidating young men. Glancing at the vehicle’s occupants to my left, I immediately concluded that these guys could have been in more than a few fights.
“Fine, if you assholes won’t drive, maybe these guys next to us can get the car moving,” she threatened with a menacing, mocking tone. She opened the car door.
For the first time since meeting Robert and Megan that day, I began to truly fear for the personal safety of myself and my companion. She left the car and approached the car to our left. I was overwhelmed with a rush of adrenaline and the urgent need to be far away from these people.
As Megan began talking to the roughnecks in the adjacent car, I proclaimed to my companion, “Okay man, I don’t know about you, but I’m getting the hell out of here. Are you with me or not?” Not one to waste time deliberating the obvious, Big-Tree consented, and we made our move.
Abandoning the keys on the driver’s seat, I popped the trunk and we dug out our heavy hiking packs from underneath Megan’s luggage. As we strapped our belongings to our backs, Megan’s attention fell back to us, and she made an approach.
“So that ride down here is appreciated and all but this shit has gotten way too far out of hand, so we’re just gonna split and do our own thing from here,” I stated, before she could speak, “but give Robert our thanks when he gets back.”
She mumbled a dismissive reply and turned back to the car. Walking toward the gas station I felt a sensation of liberated euphoria and silently rejoiced our freedom.
My companion and I needed to stop, relax, and reduce our racing heartbeats. We removed our packs and sat down against the front wall of the gas station. Digesting all that transpired, we looked back to the torture-chamber on wheels we arrived in, still parked within view.
Megan took matters into her own hands, starting and reversing the car. Within seconds, Robert emerged from an unseen vantage point and raced toward the vehicle, catching his mutinous counterpart unaware before she finished backing out of the parking space. Amid indistinct shouting Megan conceded, parking the car again. Keys now in hand, Robert left the girl and headed straight for us.
“I need to quick grab something to drink inside but if you guys are ready to keep moving, let’s hit the road. My girl’s step-dad is fronting the money for a bus ticket, so we just have to drop her off at the bus station in the next city and we’re good to go,” he said, unaware of our freshly severed ties despite the indication thereof by the presence our hiking bags. Without waiting for a reply, he disappeared inside of the store.
Looking around the immediate vicinity, I was suddenly very aware of the low-key arrival of a lone police vehicle. As it slowly rolled to a stop beside our former-carriage, I couldn’t help but wonder if the timing of our departure hadn’t been cosmically designed.
Robert returned, beverage in hand, and opened his mouth as if to address us. Before speaking he noticed our gaze focused elsewhere and turned to check out the source of our distraction. When he saw the female officer approaching the driver-side window of “their” car, his face melted into pure horror. Robert cursed, snatched his phone, and without a word to us, sped off in the opposite direction.
“Thanks for the ride, man…” I muttered half-heartedly. That was the last we saw of Robert.
It would be expected that the capture of a couple of fugitives would be met with extreme manpower, if not the element of surprise. This, however, was the opposite of strategic; the lone 5’6” officer nonchalantly approached Megan in the front seat. Perhaps one of the puppysavers was concerned enough by Megan’s distress and roughed-up appearance to report what looked like domestic abuse.
As I glanced around the property, I spotted another cop in a white, unmarked SUV idling at one of the gas pumps. My intrigue quickly gave way to self-consciousness as I realized the male officer in the SUV was staring, with intent, directly at Big-Tree and me.
While the female officer spoke with Megan, the undercover officer slowly pulled the SUV to the storefront and stopped a few feet in front of where my companion and I sat. Expecting the usual chiding that occurs when The Authorities identify vagabonds like us loitering about, Big-Tree nudged me in preparation of the standard operating procedure.
The undercover officer rolled down his window and motioned us towards him. Expecting the ax to drop, we walked the few feet forward to the SUV and stood before the lawman.
“Hey fellas, I need to ask you something” the stereotypically robust, belt-gripping officer said. Perplexed by his uncharacteristic friendliness, I warily played along.
“Shoot,” I replied, in the most sophisticated manner I could muster.
“What do you guys know about the people that own that vehicle over there?” he asked, pointing to the all-too-familiar car, suggesting that he knew more than he revealed.
“Well Sir, I’m honestly not sure what the truth is. I know I don’t trust them. If you look into it you might find they’re into some sketchy stuff, but I don’t know too much about it. My buddy and I are just travelers that caught a short ride with them, nothing more.”
Accepting the offered response, the lawman told us to stick around for a bit. After rolling up the window, he pulled away and parked the SUV behind the car, effectively barricading any movement. I can only imagine Megan’s panic as she attempted to account for the empty liquor bottle and rental car’s mangled windshield.
The summer sun scorched the open ground as the patrons paused to gawk at the potentially scandalous event in their midst. The two officers briefly convened, after which the male officer returned to the SUV while his colleague resumed interviewing Megan.
A minute later, the male officer reemerged from the SUV. It appeared the game might be over for Megan. She hesitantly stepped from the car as the hands of justice escorted her to the rear of the vehicle for a cursory search of the trunk’s contents.
Megan talked with the cops and pointed directly at us, alarming me. The female officer turned and walked towards us purposefully. We stood up as she approached and, with a disarming smile, introduced herself. Getting down to brass tacks, she asked if my companion and I were the two hitchhikers riding in the car, which we confirmed.
“That young lady over there told us that the suitcases in the trunk of her vehicle belong to the two of you,” she stated. “Do they belong to you?”
I replied without hesitation, “Ma’am, I don’t mean any disrespect, but do you honestly think we could have made it all the way out here from the east coast hauling those huge suitcases? If those were mine I never would have made it out of Virginia. Hell, it’s hard enough with these bags alone,” I answered, politely amused.
Receiving my sense of humor well, she continued. “Well, that’s a fair point. Here’s the deal. If you come over to the car and state, in the presence of that young woman there, that those suitcases definitely aren’t yours, we then have justification to search through the contents.”
Reminiscing on the performances these unsavory characters subjected us to that afternoon, the allegation we owned whatever, probably illegal, substance was in those suitcases was like salt in our gaping emotional wounds. My heart pulsed faster again.
She won’t drag us further into their lives without a fight, I resolved, informing the officer that “I think that can be done.” With Big-Tree’s agreement we set off toward the center of attention.
Megan fidgeted as we approached. It only took a moment to clear up the misinformation. Tangled in her home-spun web of deception, Megan ensnared herself with panicked contradictions, demolishing the remnants of her credibility. Recognizing an imminent emotional collapse, the officers gently guided her toward the patrol car. That was the last we saw of Megan.
It was also the last we saw of the puppy. Although uncharged, the animal was placed in the rear of the undercover SUV, likely to become a ward of the State.
While retrieving the puppy, the male officer discovered Robert’s wallet in the backseat. After confronting Megan, the female officer turned back to us. Pulling a license out, she asked if my companion and I could identify whose photo it contained. It was Robert but, the name on the ID was Michael. We discovered that Robert/Michael had licenses from many states, each with a different identity. The officers examined Megan’s license, discovering she also assumed a false identity.
The female officer disappeared inside the SUV as her counterpart took us aside, politely demanding that we explain our interactions with “Robert” and “Megan,” as the latter individual had was now under arrest.
And describe it we did—uncensored. We described every grotesque detail distinguishable from the chaotic mess of the day. Concluding our testimony, the officer was aghast. The small, resort-town cop had personally never heard of anything so callous. He took down our contact information, he clarified that we were free to go unless we had any questions.
“So, what’s the deal with Robert, or Michael, or whatever his name is? What happens next with him?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t worry about him,” he replied, “We have backup on the way from three neighboring communities and he’s running on foot, so we should have him in custody by nightfall. Besides,” he continued haphazardly, “the only other way he might get out of the area is if he caught a ride with someone and nobody picks up hitchhikers around here.”
My companion and I exchanged looks of resignation, prompting an apology from the lawman, who sheepishly suggested that we might have more luck than others. Trudging back toward our bags, I realized that the area looked like a police convention. Gathering around the gas station property was a bevy of patrol cars, SUVs, undercover officers in unmarked vehicles, and one lone bicycle-cop; a manhunt was underway.
The once-searing sun sunk low in the sky as the day closed. Tongues wagging, the rubbernecking locals gathered in hopes of a show. Entering an adjacent store, we were assailed with a barrage of questions. One of the gas station employees, a middle-aged man with oil-stained work pants, expressed his sympathy, offering to take us 20 miles down the highway on the condition that we’d ride in the bed of his pickup. All too ready to get far away from the events of the day, we graciously accepted and drowsily awaited our ride.
Within a half-hour we were back on the highway, enjoying the cool, evening wind rushing around us. I thought briefly of the immediate future, but quickly gave in to exhaustion as we watched Trinidad fade into the dimming light with the day’s trying experiences; they were consumed, as memories often are, in the growing darkness of the past.
Jake Ressler is currently a freelance creative/travel writer and poet. He writes for numerous online publications such as the Writers-Network, has contributed to The Doplic Project, the Icarus Project, and the Natural Hazards Center, and previously served as both the weekly opinion-editorial writer for the Hesston College Horizon and as a technical writer for the Mennonite Disaster Service. His latest word-craft vision-project is a historically-grounded dystopian projection of life in the corporately-owned, totalitarian United States set in the not-too-distant, post-‘superpower’ future.