I stopped for a hitchhiker in Lexton, on my way to Bennet. I drive this route a couple of times a week, and on Fridays there is often someone standing at the top of the on-ramp. Webster College, and not much else, is about a mile from Lexton. Bored students walk over here to catch a ride into the city where they stay with friends or their parents for the weekend. I rarely stop, but she seemed harmless enough, and I was feeling lonely.
And she reminded me of Megan.
She sized me up through the passenger window as I tried to communicate my own harmlessness and sincerity. Clean-shaven, short (but not that short), middle-aged guy with a late model Camry. She opened the back door to dump her bag there.
“You’re not a serial killer, are you?” She asked as she got into the front seat.
“Is that a rhetorical question?”
“No, I’m actually interested in the answer.”
“Serial killers don’t drive Camrys,” I said. “They don’t want to risk a ‘sudden acceleration’ incident when they have a body in the trunk.”
“Ah, but you raise a good point. Apparently you’re willing to take that kind of unnecessary risk.”
“Like picking up hitchhikers?” I said, as I started down the ramp.
A phone had appeared in her hands and she was tapping on its screen. It occurred to me that serial killers who preyed on hitchhikers might have a harder time of it these days. She was probably texting my license plate to a friend. Maybe she had surreptitiously snapped my picture as she got in the car. That was fine, but I wondered if the phone ruled out the prospect of meaningful conversation.
“I don’t think it’s an unnecessary risk,” I said, not willing to give up this early.
“The car. Toyotas are good, safe cars. Nothing has been proven about those incidents.”
“Oh, sure.” She sounded bored, and kept playing with her phone.
Traffic was unusually heavy, with a lot of braking going on in the bottleneck here before the road opened up from two to three lanes. I paid more attention to the road than plotting my next verbal foray. After a few minutes, she put the phone away.
“Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude. I just had to—”
“Text my license plate to a friend?”
“No—” But then she smiled. “Well, not just that, but yes. I try to manage my risks as well.”
Foolish girl. That’s your risk mitigation? Making it easier for the police to catch your killer or rapist? But I smiled, too, wondering where to go with this. She still reminded me of Meg. A little bit. Or maybe I just wanted her to remind me of Meg. Either way, having her in the car hadn’t yet dispelled the hoped-for illusion.
“You know,” she said, “You were the one that brought up the problem with Toyotas.”
“Well— I mean, you’re saying that the cars are still safe, but you brought up the incidents. That’s all I’m saying.”
“I was just making an observation about serial killers and their transportation preferences. They may or may not be applying proper reasoning to the situation.”
“Oh.” She looked at me with what I interpreted as mock scrutiny. “You’re not a serial killer, right?”
This continuing theme made me uneasy, yet I couldn’t resist: “You have to kill more than one person to be considered a serial killer, right?”
“Of course. With one, you’re just a unary killer.”
“Then, no. Definitely not.”
“Phew! Thank god.”
She wasn’t worried at all. She was into it. I might have enjoyed it more in different circumstances, but her disregard for her own safety made me angry. (She had also neglected to put on her seat belt when she got in the car.) And, I wanted to pretend that she was Megan, and this wasn’t the kind of thing Meg and I would have talked about. It was time to move on. “Maybe we should change the subject before this gets awkward and creepy,” I said.
“Uh, uh. Not so fast. Why did you pick me up, then, if not to kill me? Oh! Am I going to be your second one?”
Now that was disturbing. She clearly didn’t see me as a threat. I regretted having played along, so I gave half of a straight answer. “I guess I was looking for some company.”
And, you look a little bit like Meg. And… But don’t tell her any of that, I reminded myself. It never worked well as a conversational gambit.
She seemed disappointed that I didn’t stay with the spirit of the game, and countered, “You’re not worried that I might be a serial killer?”
“No. I haven’t killed more than one person either.”
“All right, now I’m starting to feel weirded out,” I said, desperately wanting to talk about anything else. Can’t you just be like Megan?
She laughed, and took out her phone and started typing again. For the first time, I wondered if I should be worried about her. Maybe she was working with a partner and there was trouble ahead? She seemed entirely too comfortable with this kind of talk. Was I that non-threatening? Did I seem like an easy mark?
The road had widened to three lanes eastbound, but still there was a lot of traffic so I concentrated on the road. After several minutes of silence, she said, “Are you doing something?”
“With the car.”
“You mean, like driving?”
“Like with your foot on the gas. The car is kind of lurching.” Oh, no, not this again. But, so like Meg.
“I don’t feel anything.” And I didn’t, but I knew what she was talking about.
“It’s like you’re tapping on the gas pedal. Are you doing that on purpose? Stop it!”
“Whoa, whoa,” I said. “Let me explain.” But how to explain? It was embarrassing. I considered myself a good driver, but there was this… tick, I guess. “Apparently I have some kind of nervous foot,” I said. “It used to drive Megan up the wall, too, when she rode with me. I can’t really tell when I’m doing it. I think it happens more in traffic like this. Maybe I’m anticipating the movement of other cars and compensating too often? It’s really hard to stop it when I can barely tell I’m doing it in the first place. Is it really that bad? Meg never yelled at me about it.”
She looked relieved. “Well, no. It’s not all that bad, but I suddenly thought you were trying to scare me, as if it was going to be one of those acceleration things. Maybe because of what we were talking about, you know? Some guys I know would do something like that as a goof. I had this idea you were going to jam your foot down on the pedal, or maybe I was afraid it really was about to happen, for real; I don’t know. Sorry, I didn’t mean to get hysterical.”
I had nervously blabbed more than I should have. I hadn’t meant to talk about Megan at all. Fortunately, she seemed preoccupied with her own embarrassment, and more interested in my foot problem.
“That’s kind of weird. Have you seen a doctor about it?”
I heard the question, but now I was thinking about what she said: About pressing my foot down hard on the gas. I had occasionally considered that scenario, among many. I wouldn’t do it right now, of course. Not with a passenger in the car. And I wouldn’t do something psychotic like drive into oncoming traffic, but there were several bridges along this stretch—”
“Hello? Come back. Are you feeling okay?”
“I’m fine. Just watching traffic. And no, I haven’t been to a doctor.”
“Maybe you should, it seemed like you were doing it more just now. Maybe it’s a nerve problem or something.”
Could it be getting worse? It was so frustrating to have this “blind spot” in my muscular control and sense of feel. Was I anticipating more than traffic movement today? Was my foot trying to muster courage that the rest of me had failed to summon for other options?
“Thanks, I appreciate your concern. It will be fine. I do a lot of driving. I’ll get you to Bennet in one piece.”
“Oh, no— it’s not that. I mean— Thanks. I know it will be all right.”
She probably just wanted to keep me calm. Don’t freak out the basket case. “Maybe by now you would have preferred a serial killer,” I said.
“Stop it.” But she was smiling this time. I smiled back to let her know I was calm and not freaked out.
We didn’t speak for a while. She returned to her phone and I turned on the stereo. I would have set the cruise control and removed my traitorous foot from the pedal, but there were too many cars and speed changes. I couldn’t stop myself from imagining what it might be like to drive into a bridge at 120 miles per hour. Was that something I could bring myself to do? I would have to find out another time. For now, I was looking for another Megan.
Was she another Meg?
“Not that it’s any of my business,” I said, “But are you heading home for the weekend from Webster?”
“Yeah. You’ll understand if I’m not overly impressed with your deduction skills, right?”
“Of course. I was just curious: do your parents know you’re doing this? Hitching rides?”
Now she looked at me with a slight frown, but didn’t seem alarmed. “No, but if they were concerned about it, they could buy me a car or come pick me up. They said they were too busy this weekend to spend three hours playing taxi cab. My mom said I should stay in the dorm and study if I didn’t have a ride.”
Not an uncommon story from these kids. Close enough to Megan’s story. Close enough for me to feel the raw pain and anger again, and close enough that the trip hadn’t been in vain. I wanted to keep the wound open. I deserved it.
“I shouldn’t be so bitchy about it, I guess.” she said. “They didn’t make me go to Webster. That was my choice. And they warned me about the transportation situation. It’s just: my fucking roommate. If she would go home once in a while, I wouldn’t mind staying on campus over a weekend.” I supposed Meg may have used language like that when not around me, but I didn’t want to think about that.
“What’s wrong with your roommate?”
“Well, for one, she’s a fucking slut. Oh, I’m sorry. You’re turning red. But seriously, she’s always bringing guys back to our room, so I have to go sit in the common area. And I think they use my bed sometimes. It’s gross.”
“I—” I really didn’t want to think about that.
“I know, but you asked. Let’s just say she’s the worst person in the world and I would totally prefer the company of serial killers, and would rather ride in a suddenly-accelerating out-of-control car than spend any more time around her than I absolutely have to.” She took a deep breath. “No offense,” she said, with a wink. “And, I’m sorry, again. But it felt good to vent. I’m done now.”
I found myself wondering if Megan had a roommate like that. And then I did press down hard on the gas.
Distracted by the outburst, I hadn’t moved over to the right lane in preparation for her exit to Bennet, and now a couple of semi trucks were in my way. I had room and time to make it in front of them, but I noticed she was gripping the door handle tightly.
As we slowed at the top of the ramp, she said, “Oh, good. There’s my ride. Can you pull into the gas station?”
I was surprised she had someone waiting. Why hadn’t that person just picked her up at Webster? I remembered my earlier stray thought that she might be setting me up, but I couldn’t think of anything to do other than follow her direction.
“The red pickup truck,” she said, pointing to a large red truck with a large redneck guy sitting in the driver’s seat. I decided I had no choice but to pull up and let her out. The man didn’t make a move to get out also. She grabbed her backpack and handed it through the window to him. She stayed between our vehicles. “Hold on a second,” she said to me. I put the car in park. Why didn’t I just count myself lucky and drive away?
She was tapping on her phone. The guy in the truck didn’t say anything, and didn’t seem impatient or alarmed about anything. She looked up. “Megan Carlson? Was that who you were talking about earlier?”
That damn phone. And my big mouth. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. I felt exposed. I put the car in drive.
“Well? It was, wasn’t it?”
Now that it was out there, I had to acknowledge it. I nodded, and found my voice. “She was my daughter.”
“Your daughter? For real? Not—”
I couldn’t stand the implication. “Yes, yes. My daughter,” I said, almost inaudibly.
“What’s going on?” the man said.
“Well,” she said, still looking at me, and holding up her phone, “According to the Trib’s web site, Megan Carlson was a Webster student who went missing a couple of years ago. Her first name sounded familiar, and I almost forgot that I meant to look it up. I thought it was odd how you talked about her in the past tense, but I didn’t want to ask about it.” Now the guy seemed concerned, and he squinted at me. Judging me. Both of them were judging me. I could feel them asking the question. What did you do? And: What are you doing right now? I could explain, but I knew it wouldn’t seem right to them. Not normal.
“Now that I think about it,” the girl said, “I’m pretty sure they told us about her at orientation, when they warned us about hitchhiking into the city. That’s probably why the name sounded familiar. They made a big deal about it.”
But you didn’t listen, did you?
I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I was simply giving a ride to a hitchhiker, and getting her home safely. Something I had failed to do for Meg.
The man started to open his door, and I took off. I went over the bridge and turned back to Lexton. I didn’t care if they were watching. I didn’t care if they called the police. I hoped the hitchhiker would think twice before getting in a car with a stranger again.
I waited for the first bridge, and wondered if I wouldn’t think twice.
If this would be the last time I had to do this.