I am beginning to experiment with writing memoir, but I’ve decided to write memoir in which I suspend my disbelief in the supernatural. This story is the first in that series.
Of all the hundreds of people who’ve picked me up hitchhiking, of all the hundreds of people I’ve picked up myself, only once did I meet eyes with death.
I’ve met murderers before. I once yelled at a murderer, who I knew had a gun and a bad temper, in the middle of the desert about how stupid he was for having once had a swastika tattoo — not my brightest moment.
Not every murderer is death. Only once have I met death.
It was the summer of 2013, I think, and I was driving north through the woods of western North Carolina. I was driving my van Leviathan, the home I’d had the longest and my constant companion still. The sun was up and bright, and I was lost. I mean, I knew the highway I was on, and where I was going, but that wasn’t a good summer for me. I was lost. Atlanta was behind me, Asheville was ahead of me, and death was hitchhiking down the road.
I saw him from a ways off. A shirtless hippie was hitchhiking on a backwoods highway that didn’t have a shoulder. Years ago, one of the first women I ever traveled with taught me her rule about who to pick up: if a traveler has a pack, pick them up. People without packs are trouble.
This guy didn’t have a pack. Or a shirt. Hell, I was surprised he had shoes.
I pulled over as best as I could and he climbed up into the passenger seat.
Probably in his mid-twenties. Almost handsome, but not remarkably so. Some stupid hippie bracelet around one arm.
“Where are you headed?” I asked.
I paraphrase a lot of this dialogue because it’s always hard to remember specifics, but with that man in particular… his ideas and words were hard to follow.
“Charlotte,” he said.
“I’m heading as far as Asheville,” I said. I was pretty surprised he wasn’t going to Asheville himself.
“How long were you waiting before I picked you up?” I asked. When I was on the other side of that question, the five or eight years I traveled without a vehicle, I sort of hated it. It’s a self-serving question. The longer the wait, the better — a driver asks it so she can feel good about herself for being the one to rescue a hitchhiker. I ask it pretty much every time I pick anyone up now, even though I shouldn’t.
“It’s hard to say,” he answered.
“You know how, sometimes, when you’re hitching, you end up in the same spot you were weeks or months or years before?”
“Yeah,” I ventured. “I’ve hitchhiked a lot, wound up on the same onramps sometimes. Sometimes things even just look the same everywhere and it’s hard to tell them apart.”
“No, see, I know I’d been to the same spot, because my camp was still there, and the same eggs were there.”
The trees flew past as I drove onward, suddenly glad for the daylight.
“The crystal eggs, the colored ones. The same ones were there when I came back, however long later. Like I hadn’t left.”
“Like, you left some of your things at the spot?”
“No,” he said. He started getting agitated. I wasn’t excited for him to be agitated. “No, like, the eggs.”
I drove on in silence for a moment before he continued.
“When you know you’re going to die, time takes on a different meaning,” he said. “It’s harder to keep track of.”
“Like, one time, I gave everything I owned to this girl, because of the people who told me I only had three months left to live.”
“Doctors, or something?” I really, really, felt invested in finding some kind of thread of normalcy in the man’s story.
“No, just… some men. They said they were going to kill me, in three months. So I gave away everything I owned.”
“What happened?” I asked. Normalcy be damned. I was curious.
“You know? I died.”
“I know I died because when I woke up, all my scars and all my tattoos were gone. I had a whole new body.”
“Then the weirdest thing happened. Over the course of six months or so, I realized all my old scars and tattoos came back in the exact same places on my body!”
In all our conversation up to that point, this was the only thing that made sense. I mean, he didn’t think it made sense. He thought it was the only truly confusing thing he’d brought up. But on my end, it helped me to realize that he was simply neurodivergent in a way that I wasn’t really qualified to diagnose. I could handle that. It didn’t make him dangerous.
“What do you do for a living?” I asked. That’s another stupid question to ask anyone, especially the shirtless hitchhiker you picked up in the forest who has been spouting nonsense at you for awhile. I was just still flailing around for normalcy.
“I write books,” he said.
“That’s cool.” I maybe said “Me too,” trying to impress him, which wouldn’t have been my proudest moment, if that happened.
“Yeah, I write science fiction novels.”
“Sometimes when people pick me up hitchhiking, they give me a place to stay and food for a week and then at the end of the week, I give them the novel.”
I think he was fishing for an invite. That was fine: if I hadn’t been homeless myself, I might have taken him up on it. Just for the sheer curiosity to see what crystal egg deadman stories he’d come up with.
What a good hitchhiker.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“I told the cops my name was Jesus once.”
“I told the cops my name was Jesus, because I’d died and come back. The cop didn’t think it was funny.”
“Cops aren’t known for their sense of humor, I guess.”
“I can’t die again, though. That’s the best part. You know how, when you’re playing Russian roulette—” he started.
“I’ve never played Russian roulette.” Never have I ever.
“Oh, it wasn’t by choice. I was tied to a chair and this guy was point a gun at me playing Russian roulette but the gun kept not firing. Finally, he got so angry that he pointed it to the ceiling… hadn’t even spun the barrel… and pulled the trigger. Shot a hole in the damn ceiling!”
By this point, he’d been in my van something like an hour, and Asheville was coming up, and I was glad.
“In fact,” he said, “one time I got picked up hitchhiking, and then, I don’t know, I must have blacked out. The next thing I remember, I was leaving someone else’s house, covered in someone else’s blood.”
The thing is, I’m a gullible sort, and hitchhikers sometimes make shit up. But I’m as certain as I am of anything in this world that that last statement was true. Even if he was a writer, I don’t think he had the presence of mind to lie about everything. I think he believed everything he’d said, up to that point, and it wasn’t a stretch to imagine him blacking out and leaving someone else’s house, covered in someone else’s blood.
When I was hitching myself, it always helped me to remember that the driver is the vulnerable one in the situation. They have to keep their hands on the wheel, their feet on the gas. With Jesus or death or whoever he was in the car with me, that same power dynamic didn’t feel so good.
He probably wasn’t going to kill me, though.
He’d probably only killed some tiny minority of the people who picked him up hitchhiking.
Hell, benefit of the doubt here, maybe the people he killed deserved it.
I kept my emotions to myself and kept driving. I also kept an eye on the traffic around me, in case I needed to pull some bullshit maneuver to get my van to a stop so I could fight for my life.
Just another day as a traveler, for me and for death.
“This is my exit,” I said. I was even telling the truth.
“Oh, hey, I didn’t mean to scare you or nothing.”
“You didn’t,” I lied. “Just, Charlotte’s that way, Asheville’s this way.” I pulled over to a pretty shitty spot to catch a ride from. His problem, not mine. I let him out back into the world, to find some other poor driver. I tossed him out because there was nothing I could do to help him. I tossed him out because there was nothing I could do to help keep him away from the world. I tossed him out because that’s what you do with death. You toss him like a hot potato, hoping he never burns anyone but especially hoping he never burns you.
I think about death’s eggs, sometimes, what they look like, and I think about the shadowy cabal that promised to kill him. I don’t think either exist, not in the way that other things exist where everyone agrees that they exist. To him, those eggs were real. Reality isn’t run by consensus, just a rough majority vote.
Not all who wander are lost, but back then, I was. This other man, he was lost too. He was lost in a different woods, a woods of death and those who serve it. I hope I’m never anywhere near those woods nor its caretakers again.
I made it to Asheville, parked on my friend’s farm, and tried and failed to forget.
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