I was driving through rural New Jersey when I saw him.
A hitchhiker, standing by the side of the road. Surprisingly well-dressed – black suit, slicked-back hair, narrow briefcase.
Now, I know I shouldn’t pick up hitchhikers. But I’m 6’ 4”, 230 pounds, with all kinds of hunting equipment in the back of my truck. It’s not like this prissy-assed businessman is going to beat me to death and leave me on the side of the road.
Besides, I need gas money.
“Hey, man,” I said, pulling over to the side of the road. “I’ll give you a lift, if you pay me for gas.”
“Of course,” he said in a polite, almost British, accent. He reached for his wallet, and pulled out three crisp, $20 bills. “This enough?”
I grinned. That’s way more than enough. I greedily snatched the money from him and clicked the locks. “Get in, bud.”
He climbed in. His blue eyes shifted from the crumpled Wendy’s wrapper on the dashboard, to the mysterious, sticky goo on the middle console.
“Sorry, the car’s not clean. I’m going hunting,” I said, turning back onto the highway.
“Hunting. Interesting,” he said, in a strangely enthusiastic tone. “Have you always liked to hunt?”
“No, it’s the funniest thing. Never thought I’d ever hunt. Love animals, got three dogs at home. But there are so many deer around these parts, when the winter comes… a lot of ‘em starve to death. Not to mention all the car accidents they cause.” I trailed off, and we fell into uncomfortable silence.
“Just hunting for the day, then?”
“No, my buddy Matt and I will be out there the whole weekend.”
He let out a laugh. “The whole weekend? Your wife’s a saint for letting you go.”
My wife? How did he – But then my eyes fell on the steering wheel, and the silver ring on my finger. “Ah, yeah. Mary’s a doll. She’s actually pregnant, you know. 5 months with a little girl.”
He gave me a crooked smile. “A girl, huh?”
I could feel him staring at me long after we had fallen into silence. It made me feel uncomfortable; I clicked on the radio.
“How did you meet Matt?” he asked, fiddling with the dial. All that came through was static.
That’s a weird question, I thought. “Um. He and Mary were close friends. So when we got married, I got to know him well.”
“Mmm-hmm,” the man said. He stroked his chin thoughtfully, and I was suddenly reminded of a psychiatrist.
“Are you a psychiatrist?” I blurted out.
He laughed. “Definitely not. I work in finance.”
“What type of finance?” It was my turn to ask the questions, now.
“Futures,” he replied, noncommittally.
I glanced over at him. A small smile was on his lips, and I noticed his fingers had gravitated from his lap to the briefcase at his feet.
My heart began to pound.
Click, click. He undid the clasps; the case creaked open.
“What’s in your briefcase?” I asked.
“What kind of –”
His long fingers disappeared into the darkness of the case. He was pulling something out! My body began to seize up; the steering wheel felt like ice under my fingers. “I have a lot of hunting equipment back there,” I said, “so you better not be –”
He was only pulling out a sheet of paper.
For a few minutes, he was quiet. Reading the paper, intently and silently, as if his life depended on it. Scrtch, scrtch – his fingers slid over it, as they traced the text.
Then he slipped it back into the case, and snapped it shut.
What was he reading? I thought. But before I could get the question out, he turned towards me. I could barely see his face in my peripheral vision; but I knew he was staring at me, for minutes on end.
Then he broke the silence.
“Don’t go hunting,” he said, his ice-blue eyes boring into me.
“Turn the car around. Go home to Mary.”
“She needs you.” He paused. “Madeline needs you.”
I never told him we were going to name our baby Madeline.
“How did you –”
“He’s going to make it look like an accident,” he said, his voice gravelly and halting. “Just a simple hunting accident. The most punishment he’ll endure is thirty-five minutes in the police station, writing out his statement.”
“Let me off at that diner, up ahead. I like their Cobb salad very much.”
“Matt’s going to kill me? What are you talking about?”
He turned to me, eyes wide. “What are you talking about?”
“About what you just said!”
“All I said is I’d like you to let me off at the diner, please.” He pointed to the exit, curving off the highway. “You’re going to miss it if you don’t slow down.”
With a shaking hand, I clicked on my blinker. Pulled off the exit, into the parking lot. My heart pounded in time with the click-click-clicks of the cooling engine.
“Thank you for the ride,” he said, pulling his briefcase out with him. “Have a good drive, will you?”
I couldn’t squeak out a reply before the door slammed shut.
I didn’t believe him. But my nerves were too shot to continue the trip, either. I texted Matt that I was sick, turned around, and went home to Mary. Mary was thrilled; Matt was disappointed. A little too disappointed, if you ask me.
A month later, after ignoring most of Matt’s calls and texts (which became increasingly frequent and desperate), I heard a faint thumping noise at the door. When I flicked on the porch light — there was Matt, hunched over our doorknob.
Holding a lockpick.
We called the police. Since then, life has been great. Just a few months later, our wonderful little Madeline was born. And as soon as we got back from the hospital, on our doorstep was a little teddy bear, a pink bow sewed on its head. There wasn’t a return address, or a card of any kind.
But I think I know who it’s from.