As a rule, I don’t pick up hitchhikers.
I’ve always played things safe, not taken chances. It’s probably why I’m an insurance salesman, travelling alone — always alone — along the backroads of Louisiana.
But then I see her standing by the roadside, illuminated in the glare of my headlights.
She’s beautiful, a summer dress draped over a slender figure, hair cut in a cute bob, framing a face with doe-like eyes and dimpled cheeks. The way she stands, one hand on a jutting hip, the other extended with the thumb out… well, it gets the attention. Everything about her says, “Hey, you really wanna stop for me.”
So I do.
As the car comes to a halt, she walks over and leans in the open window. “Can you help a girl out?” she says, smiling.
I hesitate. “You all right, miss? You have car trouble or something?”
“Gotta have a car to have trouble with it.”
“Where’re you headed?”
“Wherever the road takes me, mister.” She’s still smiling, even as she arches an eyebrow. “Just looking for a ride, not the fourth degree. How ‘bout it?”
I take a breath, sigh, and hit the unlock button.
She pulls open the door, slips inside, folding into the seat in an easy, graceful motion. Like she’s had practice.
I pull back onto the road. “Gonna put your seatbelt on?”
“Not if you don’t make me.”
I shrug. You never see a cop on these roads. “There’s a motel just up the road.”
She darts a glance at me. “My, how forward.”
I feel my face warm. “What I mean is, I can drop you there, maybe pay for a room.”
“Not tired yourself?”
I am, bone-tired. “No, I’m good.”
“So you’re trying to get rid of me?”
I grit my teeth. “I’m not saying that, it’s just…”
She laughs, a sudden burst of mirth. “Hey, I’m just kiddin’ with you. A night in a motel would be great. Much appreciated.” She looks out the window, at the night-shrouded landscape. “You drive this way a lot, do you?”
I nod, relieved at this turn in our conversation. “Yeah, I do this route often, trying to drum up clients.”
“Oh, a traveling salesman. How interesting.” Her tone says it’s anything but.
“Well, I didn’t want an interesting life. Interesting lives aren’t safe. And I like selling insurance.”
“Insurance.” She makes it sound like a four-letter word. “No such thing. Far as I’m concerned, peace of mind’s something you can’t sell. There’re no guarantees in this world, except that we’ll all die eventually. And I’m not sure about that one.”
I give her a quick look, turn back to the road. “If you say so.”
“I do.” She fishes into her handbag, pulls out a cigarette and a lighter.
“You know those things’ll kill you.”
“Says who?” She lights up, takes a deep drag. “Somebody who doesn’t smoke, most likely.” She exhales a plume of grey smoke out the window. “Sometimes I think these are all that keep me alive.”
I keep my thoughts on that to myself.
She just stares into the night for a long minute. “Why do you sell insurance?”
“Why sell insurance? Why not do something else, something more… exciting?”
“I don’t need excitement in my life, thank you very much.”
“Really?” She turns to face me. “You don’t like trying new things, maybe taking a chance occasionally?”
“No, I don’t,” I say, frowning and shifting in my seat. “There’s something to be said for living a quiet life, doing a good job and taking care of yourself.”
“That so?” she asks, smirking. “Let me tell you how much good that’ll do you, when your time comes. I knew a nice girl, who lived a quiet life, working in a law office down Baton Rouge way. She was kind, never had a mean word for anyone. But her boss, well, he worked with dangerous men, men who didn’t care how nice you were, or that you just wanted to live your quiet life. So one day, one of those bad men asks that sweet girl for a ride, just a lift home.” Her tone goes flat as her gaze goes to the scenery she isn’t seeing. “She never makes it home.” She looks back at me. “That’s what playing it safe gets you.”
Maybe it’s her tone, or the look in her eyes, but suddenly I don’t feel so safe.
“So tell me,” she says, leaning closer, her voice lowering to a whisper, “why did you stop for me?”
I can smell the smoke on her, mingling with her perfume. “I… I just thought it would be kind?” But that’s not the truth.
“Maybe so, but it wasn’t a safe thing to do.” Her hand comes up swiftly, and I flinch, but all she does is lift her cigarette to her lips, take another pull. “Hey, here’s that motel.”
Heart still hammering, I look out, see the glowing sign, and pull into the parking lot.
“Thanks for the lift, mister,” she says, hitching her purse up on her shoulder. “It was a kind thing to do.”
“You gonna be okay from here?” I ask, as she lights another cigarette.
“Don’t worry yourself about me,” she says, through a cloud of smoke. “I’m just passing through.” Her eyes catch the neon light and seem to glow. “You stay safe now.”
I look away, unwilling suddenly to leave her here. I don’t want to drive on alone. I don’t want her to just pass through my life. I want to take a chance, with her. I turn back toward her.
I didn’t hear her get out. I look around, but there’s no trace of her.
Was she even real, or just a dream? A construct of my imagination, or something else altogether?
I realize it doesn’t matter.
Because I’m done lying to myself, done playing it safe.
I’m done being alone.
I guess some things are worth taking a chance.
Ian E Gonzales is a writer of fiction works, including short stories and novels, in the genres of science fiction, horror, and dark fantasy. He currently resides in the Pacific Northwest, where he strives to live by the simple maxim of never taking anything so seriously that he can’t love it.