BY TARYN NOELLE KLOEDEN
Sweat glued my palms to the steering wheel. It was a hot night, and my Toyota’s air conditioner had given up the ghost long ago. Milky summer fog shrouded the lonely highway, my headlights barely illuminating ten feet ahead of me. Part of me wondered if I should pull over and wait for the fog to lift. But I’d never been one to play it safe. Besides, I was in a mood and when that happened, I had to hit the pavement. Roads meant possibilities, and I was on the hunt for something—I just wasn’t sure what that was yet. Or maybe I did know but hoped I wouldn’t find it.
After about a half-hour without passing a single car, I started to feel like the last man on Earth. It was an oddly comforting thought. No one else meant no one to disappoint, or lie to, and no one left to hurt. God knew I had done my fair share of that. But the illusion of solitude would prove short-lived.
I rounded a tight corner a little too quickly. The car drifted onto the shoulder, scattering gravel with a rocky hiss. As I re-gained control, I saw him.
A lone figure stood on the other side of the road. My headlights illuminated his hooded silhouette. I would have kept driving—I really would have if it hadn’t been for his outstretched thumb. The stranger had not raised it all the way, but rather let his thumb lie at half-mast. Almost as if he were saying, take me or leave me, I really don’t care. It was, somehow, offensive. After all, I was the one with the car—I had all the power. He ought to have been waving his thumb wildly, hoping to catch my merciful eye.
If it had been another night, perhaps I would have left him there, with his rude, lazy thumb his only company. But I was in a mood, sweat trickled down my temples, and I needed the distraction. With no other vehicles in sight, I pulled onto his side of the road and peered through the open window.
“Need a lift?”
A dark hoodie shadowed most of his features. But he was clearly a man down on his luck. Salt-and-pepper bristles speckled his jaw and his jeans were faded and stained.
He did not answer at first. In fact, he was as frozen as well, a deer in headlights. Finally, he shrugged. “Why not?”
I gritted my teeth at his casual acceptance of my generosity. “Well, come on then.”
The hitchhiker shuffled over to the passenger door and let himself in. Once his seatbelt clicked, I pulled back onto the highway. Safety first.
For several minutes, I kept my eyes on the road. He lay back in his seat, hood still pulled low. I couldn’t understand how he could stand the heat. We were halfway between nowhere and no one cares and would have the road to ourselves for another hour at least. When I could no longer stand his arrogant silence, I cleared my throat.
“You never told me where you were headed.”
He stared out his window. “Not sure where that is, but I always know it when I see it.”
“Uh-huh.” Not sure where he got off acting so pretentious given his sorry state, but then losers always have a way of glossing over their own inconsequentiality.
“You never asked, either.” He added. “You pick up a lot of strangers?”
This time, I shrugged. “From time to time, when the mood strikes me.”
“The mood?” I heard the smile in his voice. “And what mood is that, exactly?”
I glanced his way, to make sure he was keeping his hands to himself. “I don’t know. The mood for something interesting, I suppose.”
He nodded. “Life is mostly boring around here.” He scratched his chin. “But come on, isn’t it stupid to go around picking up strays? Aren’t you afraid of ax murderers and psycho killers?”
“Can’t really hide an ax, and what are the chances of one psycho picking up another?” Besides, my pocketed switch blade had always served me well. I wasn’t afraid of strangers.
He laughed and I joined him. There was something familiar about his throaty chuckle. Reminded me of someone, but I could not quite think who it was. The quip did not entirely break the ice, but it weakened it enough for conversation to flow a little less haltingly.
“So, you from around these parts?” he asked.
“Round about. Bounced around a lot as a kid.”
I shook my head. “Foster kid.”
“What? You got a problem with that?”
I was about to remind him who was the moocher in this situation, but he waved me off. “Not at all. I was adopted myself, but by just the one family.”
“Ah. Must have been nice.”
He snorted. “Sure. And Hell is just a sauna.”
I got that well enough. The places I grew up in weren’t exactly picket fenced dream homes, either. We talked for another good ten minutes. We had plenty in common—woodworking, hunting, and a general distaste for humankind. Our words lulled me to a calm stupor, and I almost forgot my mood. But as a cicada hit my windshield with a nasty gack, I felt it rising in me again. I mean, it was almost too perfect, after all.
Despite the easy conversation, he was still an entitled waste of a man. He may have cloaked it in ego and good humor, but he had to have known it too. He hated himself. As surely as I would hate myself tomorrow when it was all done and the rush was over. No one would hitchhike late at night, dressed like a degenerate, if they didn’t have a death wish.
Who was I to deny him that?
We chatted some more, but my mind wandered, depicting what would soon follow with delicious, bloody detail. I knew I’d gone for a drive tonight for a reason.
“Hey, I just realized,” he said. “I never asked your name.”
I hesitated. I considered giving him a false one, but what was the point? My mind was made up and none of them had ever escaped after that. “Thomas.”
“Good to meet you, Thomas. I’m Harry.”
“Happy to know you, Harry.” I swallowed hard. My knife felt suddenly cold in my pocket, like it craved to be held. “Say, do you mind if I pull over for a second? Gotta take a leak.”
“I wouldn’t mind stretching my legs.”
That was a little odd, considering he had only been in the car for a half-hour at most, but then, people rarely made sense to me. At least, not when they could still talk. I steered over to the shoulder.
We hopped out and I made a show of finding a private spot behind a tree. While hidden, I palmed my switchblade. My heartbeat sped to a frenzy. The next part was my favorite: the look of combined terror and disbelief after they felt my blade swing across their unsuspecting throat. It was a quicker death than some, sure, but I’d learned the precise amount of pressure and speed to make the cut just right. Harry wouldn’t die right away, no matter how much he wanted to.
As I returned to the headlights’ illumination, Harry stood with his back to me. That wouldn’t do—it was all about the eyes. He had taken down his hood as well. He had anonymous, muddy brown hair like me, streaked with gray. Though where mine was tightly cut, his fell in a floppy mess.
He must have heard me coming because he started laughing under his breath.
“Something funny?” Good. I could not wait to watch the humor drain from his paling face.
“Thomas.” He said my name slowly, as if in disbelief. “Never thought it would happen like this.”
I stopped in my tracks. Did he know what was coming somehow? And if so, was he even more suicidal than I thought? Or would he run, or fight? Or would he lay his life beneath my blade—and if he did, would I still want it so cheaply?
“Never thought what would happen?” I asked.
In answer, he turned around.
It didn’t make any sense. I rubbed my eyes with my empty hand, wondering if it were a trick of the light. But there was no denying the impossible reality before me.
I stared into my own eyes.
The grinning man before me was my carbon copy. His hair was longer and his faced unshaved, but beneath such superficialities, we were the exact same.
My mirror image pulled a handgun from his sweatshirt’s pocket. Before I could say anything else, he fired.
I doubled over. Pain, so all-consuming it shot stars through my vision, roared from my stomach. I dropped to my knees, and my blade fell from my hand.
“Huh.” Harry picked up my knife. “I had a feeling. But a switchblade, really? So uncivilized.”
I tried to speak, but only blood and darker things eked out of my mouth.
“I guess we know the answer now. Don’t pretend you haven’t always wondered what made you what you are—nature or nurture? Guess it’s not my adopted mom’s fault after all.”
That’s when my fading mind grasped some semblance of explanation.
He knelt in front of me as I continued to bleed out. “It’s like you said, brother. What are the odds?”