Aphelion Issue 278, Volume 26
November 2022
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Beware of Hitchhikers II

by Jeremy Simons

The black Ford crept methodically up Highway 845. The driver bobbed off rhythm with the static-filled tune blaring from the aftermarket speakers. The prison was just around the next bend. That was good. The driver had a feeling something miraculous was about to happen even before the yellow sign labeled Prison Zone: Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers flashed briefly but vividly in the afterglow of the Ford's high beams.

The carbon lights atop the utility shed just beyond the garden the prisoners on work release tended to came into view. The prison would be just past it. The driver smiled. He wouldn't have to wait that far, though.

Just as the smile faded from the driver's lips, a flash of orange stood stiffly in front of the truck. Tires screeched as the driver slammed on the brakes. The truck came to a stop just inches away from the orange blotch.

Seconds later, the passenger's side door of the black Ford creaked open. In stepped a man of about thirty-five. His head was bald; his tone muscular. A single scar ran the length of his left cheek. The man was the embodiment of a stereotypical movie con, but that was just fine with the driver. The driver was not worried.

"What's your name, stranger?" the driver asked timidly as the truck began rolling forward again, directly in front of the prison.

"Jimmy Harris," the man in orange said. He held his hand out. "But in there, I'm inmate 290810."

The driver laughed wholeheartedly as he shook Jimmy's hand. "I'm David Forsch," he said. "So where is it you're headed, Jimmy? Can I call you Jimmy? Or do you prefer Inmate 2-9-something or another?"

It was Jimmy's turn to laugh. He had expected his ride out of this place to be a little more cutthroat, a little tenser, a little more demanding. He most certainly hadn't expected a pleasant conversation. The pleasantries caught him off guard, forced him to play down the paleness of the skin on the hand that had engulfed his own, forced him to ignore the unreal coldness of David's touch, forced him to overlook a lot of little things that could have paid dividends in the bigger picture. "Jimmy's fine, and I'm headed as far away from here as physically possible."

Ninth Street passed by outside.

David laughed once more. "I can't say I blame you on that, but this truck ain't going any further than Childress Road. I'm sorry. It's not even out of Caldwell Parish, but I suppose it's a start in your new life."

"I know it," Jimmy said matter-of-factly. "Out in Cottonplant, right?"

David nodded as Eighth Street passed and became a silhouette in the rearview mirror.

"That's just fine by me," Jimmy said. "But I have to tell you, I'm a likable guy. I bet by the time we reach Childress Road I'll have you convinced to take me further... at least to the Winn Parish line. By the way, I don't mean to tell you how to drive, but if my recollection serves me right, we should be headed the other way. Right? I mean you need to be on Highway 126 or Highway 4."

Seventh Street passed by as the speedometer in the old Ford held steady at twenty-five miles per hour, ten below the legal speed limit.

"You're right and wrong, Jimmy. Your recollection serves you precisely. I should be on 126 or 4... if I was going home, but I never said anything about taking you there. I said 'this truck ain't going any further than Childress Road'. I've got other plans for you."

Sixth Street disappeared behind them.

Jimmy reached into the waistband of the orange CCC pants. From it, he pulled a rather small object wrapped carefully into several paper towels. "I had hoped it wouldn't come to this, David. I was starting to like you, but you know what they say, once a con always a con."

Fifth Street became a vague shape in the rearview mirror.

David smiled politely. He watched patiently and cautiously as Jimmy unraveled the paper towels. A shank, David thought enjoyably. It was a small knife, a shank in prison lingo, crafted from what appeared to be a garden-variety toothbrush. The things these guys come up with.

Jimmy dropped the paper towels into the floorboard between his legs. He flashed the shank at David. "Don't make me use this, David."

David smiled. "Son, it's gonna take a lot more than that little pig sticker to slow me down. I suggest you think things over and don't make this any harder on yourself."

"I like you, David. You seem like a smart feller, and I don't want to do anything to you, but I need your full cooperation. I don't wear all this orange because I look good in it. I'm a criminal... a felon, and now I'm an escaped convict on the run. As soon as they realize I'm gone, they're gonna send everyone. I need out of Louisiana, but I'm willing to compromise for you. Get me to Winn Parish and nothing bad happens. Refuse... and well, let's just say this old Ford will see the Winn Parish line with or without you tonight."

Fourth, Third, and Second Streets had passed.

David kept quiet until First Street disappeared behind them. He appeared to be thinking, but he wasn't. He already knew his answer. He already knew what Jimmy would try next. He already knew what his retaliation would be. He was simply buying time until the inevitable occurred.

"I've already told you, Jimmy, 'this truck ain't going any further than Childress Road'," David said calmly as he switched his blinker on and prepared a turn onto Old Bethel Road.

As soon as the truck was straightened on Old Bethel and heading West, Jimmy made his move just as David had known he would. Jimmy lunged forward with the shank. David threw his right hand up into the air in a stopping motion. Jimmy stopped just before the shank entered David's stomach. The shoulder strap draped loosely across Jimmy's chest began retracting. The nearly quiet clicks of the seatbelt locking could faintly be heard. David slammed his hand against the back of the bench seat in between himself and Jimmy. Jimmy slammed back against his own portion of the seat as if he had been thrown or pushed by some invisible but powerful force. The seatbelt continued retracting until it dug uncomfortably into Jimmy's chest and waist. Jimmy gasped for breath. David pointed a steady finger at Jimmy, and the shank in Jimmy's hand involuntarily pointed straight towards the windshield. David then rotated his finger downwards, and the shank rotated downwards as well. David poked the seat in between the two of them, and the shank shot straight down and buried itself into Jimmy's thigh.

Jimmy yelped in pain as David drove on with a smile. "What in the hell are you?" he barked in between grunts of pain. "How did you do that?"

"I'm your destiny, Jimmy."

"Sorry, pal, but I always envisioned myself settling down with a beautiful woman... not a guy as ugly as you." He laughed despite the pain.

David snapped his fingers, and the seatbelt began retracting even more. Small droplets of blood began popping up on Jimmy's chest. "Mind your tone with me, Jimmy. What you've seen already is only a smidgen of what I'm really capable of. It's amazing how so many things can be mastered when someone has only free time."

Jimmy relaxed, but only a little.

"You want to know what I am, huh?" David asked. "That's simple. I'm a ghost, Jimmy; a vengeful spirit hell-bent on exacting revenge on those who were responsible for my untimely demise, and unfortunately for you, Jimmy, it seems you have fallen under that category."

"I don't understand." Jimmy began tensing again.

"All in due time, Jimmy."

Hester Road and Billy Cy Road had passed in the rearview mirror. Nothing lay ahead of them but the church and cemetery at the end of this road. The road would dead end between the church and the Awana's building across from it. Only miles and miles of forest lay beyond that.

David had decided to ride in silence until reaching the church, but Jimmy had other plans. Jimmy reached for the shank once, gripped the handle with both hands in an offhanded attempt to pull it free. With a quick twirl of David's finger through the empty air, the shank began spinning on its own in Jimmy's leg. The sound of ripping flesh was barely audible over the roar of the straight pipe exhaust system on the old Ford. Jimmy's screams were an entirely different story.

It wasn't until the silhouette of the church loomed in the distance that Jimmy finally fell quiet once more. David watched him carefully until the transmission was in park and the truck was idling in the small gravel turnaround marking the end of the road. Thousands of trees stared back at the two men. The truck fell silent as David removed the keys from the ignition. The silence was deafening.

"I really thought you would be a little more curious about this truck, Jimmy," David said conversationally.

"And why is that?" His voice was low and dry, hoarse from all of the screaming.

"Because you used to have one just like it."

"Nah. I'm a Chevrolet man."

David snapped his fingers once more. The passenger's side seatbelt began retracting yet again. The clicks got fewer and further in between. The seatbelt burrowed deeper into Jimmy's flesh, the flesh overlapping it like a morbidly obese man's belly overlapping his pant line. More dark stains began appearing on the orange jumpsuit. A small line of blood trickled from the left corner of Jimmy's mouth. Jimmy gasped for air; his face began turning a light shade of red.

David snapped and the seatbelt loosened. Jimmy breathed deeply.

"Lying to me isn't a good thing to do either, Jimmy," David said, still staring out the windshield at the darkening woods as if they were the most beautiful sight he'd ever laid his eyes upon. "I know you used to have a truck just like this. In fact, I know you used to have this exact truck."

Jimmy tensed up like he was expecting another seatbelt retraction or another spin of the shank, but that wasn't his reason for doing so. It was knowing he had been caught in a blatant lie. How this man-this ghost as David had called himself-could know this was beyond Jimmy, but his own curiosity was undeniable. "How could you possibly know that?"

"Oh, I have my ways, Jimmy. I know that just like I know why you don't like to talk about this truck... just like I know about your DUI arrest. Just like I know your truck-well, my truck now-was put up for police auction after your arrest. Just like I know it was purchased at auction by some guy for three hundred books. Just like I know that guy sold it to some feller named David Forsch." David flashed a wan smile.

"Not that I'm not enjoying my history lesson here, David, but what's your point?"

"I'm going to ignore the sarcasm this one time," David said. "I'm getting to the point, but I want you to know everything. I want you to understand the lives you ruined. Does the name Tommy Kline ring a bell?"

Jimmy tensed up once more. He knew the name and all too well. He opened his mouth to speak, but David cut him short.

"I can tell by that slack-jawed expression on your face, the name rings quite a few bells," David said earnestly. "I'm also sensing you're thinking about lying to me again. I hope for your sake, you're not. So to alleviate all of that, allow me to refresh your memory.

"Tommy Kline's life was cut short by a drunk driver driving a black '79 F-100 about eighteen years ago." David rubbed the steering wheel absentmindedly. "The driver spent one month I believe in prison for DUI and vehicle manslaughter. Sound familiar?"

Jimmy nodded. "Accidents happen, David. I made a mental mistake and paid for it... in more ways than you or anyone else could know. I'm still paying for it."

David laughed. "Is this the part where you tell me it haunts your dreams? Where you tell me you did your time in prison for it? That you're a changed man now?"

"Yes, it is actually," Jimmy said. "You honestly believe I don't think about that night, David. I think about it everyday still, and yes, I did my time. I paid my dues."

"First off, thirty days is hardly doing time when the charge should have been murder. Screw vehicular manslaughter. What you did was far worse than that. You were drinking. You murdered a man in cold blood. Accidents may happen but not when alcohol is involved. Secondly, losing your license for a year, court appointed AA meetings, and a few pointless hours of community service is hardly paying your dues, and lastly, three DUIs following Tommy's death hardly classifies as changing your life for the better."

Jimmy swallowed the lump in his throat. Who was he trying to kid? David was right. The thirty-day stint in jail was more like a weekend while he waited for his court date, and the one-year suspension of his license was moot because he was awarded a pass to drive to and from work, but he did think about Tommy. He hadn't been lying about that. There was just one major problem Jimmy had with all of this.

"What does all of this have to do with you?" Jimmy asked, intrigued.

"Well, I bought this truck about nine or ten years ago and got it in the shape it's in now. Two years later-eight years ago-while I was headed to work, I saw a hitchhiker out on Highway 4. I'd never picked up a hitchhiker a day in my life, never even had the urge to, but I stopped that morning. You ever get that feeling you're supposed to be doing something that you know ain't right. Well, that's kind of what it was. I knew no good could possibly come of it, but I still stopped. It was almost like I couldn't do anything but stop.

"The hitcher introduced himself as Tommy Kline. He gave me some sob story about why he was hitching which I would find out later was mostly true.

"Imagine my surprise, Jimmy, after picking him up two mornings in a row and then showing up at his house on the third morning. Imagine my surprise meeting his daughter after he claimed he had no children. Imagine my surprise after her telling me Tommy Kline had been dead for ten years. Imagine my surprise after going to the cemetery and finding a grave marked Tommy Kline with a picture of the same man I'd picked up twice.

"Surprised or not, I saw Tommy once more the very next day. I stopped. I had to.

"Let's just say he wasn't so friendly. I died at the hands of a man you killed. I died because of you. Do you know how difficult it is to watch your own funeral?

"Of course you don't, and if things go accordingly, you never will know. If things go accordingly, this all ends tonight."

An awkward silence filled the cab of the truck. The trees danced and swayed in the wind out in front of them. David stared longingly out at them. Vengeful spirit or not, his mind wandered. Killing would not be easy, but he believed he could pull it off. There were just a few lingering doubts. What if this didn't work? David had never questioned Tommy's honesty. He'd spent eight years tracking down Jimmy and never once thought of Tommy not being truthful. Why now? He supposed it was fear. Not fear of killing or what the afterlife had in store for him, but rather fear of unknowing. He feared he may become even more vengeful and kill just for the pure fun of it. That was not an afterlife David Forsch wanted.

Shrill laughter now filled the cab as Jimmy hunched over holding his stomach. David's train of thought shattered into a million pieces; his anger mounted all over again; this was what he imagined a true vengeful spirit must feel like all of the time; David couldn't handle it; this had to work; this had to be over with tonight.

"That's a great story, David," Jimmy said through spurts of laughter. "It was very entertaining. I needed a good laugh."

"After the things you have seen me do, you still doubt me. You are unbelievable."

"I believe in ghosts. I believe you could be a ghost, but come on. Do you honestly expect me to believe a man that I killed in turn killed you? Do you expect me to believe a ghost drives around picking up random hitchhikers and killing them until he finds the right one? I'm crazy, not stupid."

"None of this is random," David said. "Tommy searched for you for ten years before finding me. I've searched another eight. I wasn't surprised to find you in prison. Do you honestly believe it was only coincidence I was passing through the exact instance you were crossing the road after breaking out?"

Jimmy swallowed the lump in his throat. Things were becoming less and less funny as he found himself running low on logical explanations.

David didn't give him time to answer. "I have been watching you, Jimmy...for quite a while now. I have been inside your head. I have been inside of you. I knew you were planning on escaping. I knew when also. All I had to do was drive through here on the day and at the time that was floating through your head and hope you made it out. I even checked back with you today to make sure you hadn't chickened out, and I came through and there you were. You wouldn't question a Good Samaritan pulling over to give you a ride because you were not in a position to look a gift horse in the mouth. I knew you would get in, and you did. I knew you would try to fight me, and you did. I knew you would not believe me, and you don't, but believe this, I have thought of everything. I have gone over every possible scenario. I have planned for everything. Even if this does not free me, then at the very least, I rid the world of one pathetic excuse for a human being."

The cab fell silent once more. The wind howled outside. Midnight loomed near. It was time.

"Do you have anything to say for yourself, Jimmy?"

Jimmy stared back blankly. A small smile touched the corners of his lips. "Yes," he said rather spryly. "I do actually. I would like to thank you for the ride, David, and for the entertaining story. It was fun, but I think by now the cavalry may be missing me. You say your truck won't take me any further, and that's fine. I'll take my chances on foot. I'd rather die running than be caught sitting here with you. I'm sorry... about everything, David. I truly am."

"You're not going anywhere, Jimmy. I have to end this."

Jimmy reached down for the door handle. He came up empty. Nothing was there. The door panel was smooth as could be. Things were no longer funny. The shank in the leg was one thing. The tightening of the seatbelt hadn't been that scary either. The claustrophobia was a different story. The sense of being trapped became overwhelming rapidly. Jimmy began flailing aimlessly. The seatbelt clicked and clacked as it retracted. Soon Jimmy was breathing erratically as he was one more pinned to the seat, the seatbelt still retracting.

"Did you honestly think it would be that easy, Jimmy?" David snapped his fingers. "You can't leave." The seatbelt loosened but just enough to allow Jimmy to breathe somewhat comfortably. "Not this time." The handle appeared back on the door panel. "This truck is a part of me now, Jimmy. I think it and snap my fingers, and I can make anything happen." David snapped once more. His eyes went entirely black, his skin pale, encrusted blood trailed from his mouth, nose, and eyes. "This is how Tommy Kline left me. This is what I have lived with for eight years."

"I'm sick of this shit, David. Just kill me already if you're going to. Snap your fingers and make me disappear. Do something. I'm sick of hearing all of this foolishness."

"I have something much better planned for you."

David did snap his fingers a final time, and Jimmy did disappear, but only momentarily.

The passenger seat of the old black Ford was empty. The seatbelt lay flat from its hanger like it had never been used. David turned the key over. Black smoke boiled from the exhaust pipes as the Ford roared to life. The headlights clicked on, and in their beams was Jimmy Harris, bound around the waist with both hands bound to each other and both feet bound to one another. His body was secured against the largest oak tree directly in front of the Ford.

David shifted the transmission into Drive. With his left foot still on the brake, he began pressing the gas pedal to the floor over and over again. The engine revved louder and louder to near deafening decibels. Loose gravel slung several feet out from beneath the back tires. Jimmy's mouth moved, but nothing could be heard over the roar of the Ford. A thin smile danced across David's face. His left foot left the brake quickly. The Ford lurched forward.

There was a deafening CRUNCH as the Ford smashed into Jimmy. The big oak bowed over but held firm. Jimmy moved spastically, pinned between the truck and the tree. No sound escaped him. He had died upon impact. The nerves kept him mobile for nearly for a full minute after the initial impact.

The old Ford continued roaring. The tires continued spinning. The truck lurched forward more, nearly splitting Jimmy in half. The tree swayed.

The driver's seat of the Ford became empty. David Forsch was gone. The truck roared more momentarily before falling idle and then disappearing as well. Jimmy Harris was left alone.

Jimmy's body was found the following Sunday by Reverend Martin, the preacher at Old Bethel. It was the most heinous thing the reverend had ever seen. The cause of death was never clearly determined, but there were many contributing factors listed. Blunt force trauma; his internal organs had been crushed; an inverted stab wound near his left thigh; there was inexplicable bruising and lacerations across his chest and waist; and perhaps the biggest mystery of all, maybe the most informative factor, heart failure. The coroner said Jimmy's heart had just stopped beating, almost as if something had just grabbed a hold of it and started squeezing; there was no blockages or imperfections or irregularities. It had just stopped, and then, as if all of that had not been bad enough, there was bruising as if Jimmy's wrists and ankles had been bound together, but there was no evidence of it.

The police conducted a not-so-thorough investigation. Jimmy, after all, was just an escaped convict with one murder under his belt (even if it was just a technicality like vehicular manslaughter). No further evidence was turned up in the case. No suspects ever became apparent.

Jimmy Harris was given a low-grade funeral much like David Forsch's eight years before him. The funeral took place on a rainy, gloomy day. Two people were present: Reverend Martin, who offered to deliver a eulogy when no one else seemed available, and a state worker waiting to fill in the grave. There were no strangers watching in the distance as it had been at David's funeral. The desolate cemetery was empty. Tommy Kline was gone; David Forsch was gone; Jimmy Harris was gone. The business was over, and the souls set free, and although the three of these men had met under the worst of circumstances and would most certainly have still been living if not for their encounters, they were each buried side by side as if they were family.


2014 Jeremy Simons

Bio: Mr. Simons was previously published at carnageconservatory.wordpress.com. This story is a continuation of his last Aphelion appearance, Beware of Hitchikers, in our April 2014 issue.

E-mail: Jeremy Simons

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