31 Jul Hitchhiker’s Haven
“Hitchhiker’s Haven”Written by Michael Paige Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 14 minutes
My name is Noah Ryley, and I like to burn things.
It had all started when I was nine, after my parents separated. Custody was granted to my mother since my father had taken the opportunity to jump ship. Probably to start a new family with the tart he had an affair with.
It took my mother less than a year to catch another man’s fancy, one that went from boyfriend to fiancé in record time. My new stepfather had no interest in children. The longer they were together, the more my mother’s focus strayed away from her son to keep her new love plump and happy.
Having no friends at school and no desire to be home, I often wandered aimlessly. I enjoyed finding ant hills and reflecting the sunlight with my chipped magnifying glass, burning them until their little bodies went pop. Sometimes the heads survived.
It was on a day like that, on my way back home, that I found a tiny discarded box at the park. Five little matches were inside. I struck one, just like they do in movies. The small tongue of a flame amused me. It was a nice, tingly feeling.
I used two matches on two separate days that week, burning chunks of printer paper in the backyard. It helped me feel better when the days got hard, as though I were burning that day away. Good riddance! God knows I couldn’t turn to my mother; her thoughts were always somewhere else—a place where I didn’t matter.
Of course, when I used the last match on her new carpet, it caught her attention. She forced me to attend a treatment program for young fire starters. It didn’t come home with me.
It was two, maybe three a.m. on a Tuesday when I cut across the vacant parking lot, every step as furtive as possible. I was eighteen then. My eyes were locked on the target—a large industrial bin situated outside of a construction site. Impregnating its big red body was an overflow of trash that had accumulated over the week. Perfect, I had thought when I spotted it the night before. Simply perfect. Not far from home. Not too close, either.
I ducked behind the bin. A deep exhale seeped out of my lungs. What a thrill, like a buried seed deep inside myself finally cracking open. For years, I’d cultivated that seed. Even as a young boy, I’d burn broken toys, or I’d toss firecrackers in mailboxes. Never once caught, mind you.
The only good that came out of middle school for me was learning how to make a flamethrower. All you needed was a can of aerosol spray and a lighter, a discovery that led to the permanent scar over my left eye and a lack of eyebrows. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Pulling a white container out of my jacket, I squeezed an arc of colorless liquid over the bin’s contents. I circled the red rectangular body four times, soaking as much of the compacted waste as possible. Then, the coup de grace, I pulled a box of matches from my jacket. Igniting one of them on the striker, I couldn’t help but take a moment to appreciate it, how the small flame swayed and danced in the air.
With a sharp flick of my finger, I tossed the flame into the marinated pile. There was a W-H-O-O-S-H followed by a burst of light. The fire erupted out of its throat in a Borealis of orange and yellow. I was in awe, mentally fixated by the growing kindle. The deep crackling sounds. The new scents scarring the air. At that moment, I knew what true pleasure felt like.
Unfortunately for me, the pleasure would be short-lived. While mesmerized by my creation, I had failed to notice a different set of lights pull up behind me. “On the ground! Hands where I can see them!”
Two officers approached, their weapons drawn. I followed their orders; it was too late to run. My head was pressed firmly against the asphalt, my wrists choked with handcuffs. Still, I did not allow the dancing embers to leave my eyes.
I was given six years—four in prison and two on supervised license.
My first cellmate was tall, bald, somewhere in his thirties, and missing an eye. The glass eye he once had was confiscated after he was caught trying to smuggle in illegal substances within the socket. He called it his secret pocket. It was evident that I had never done time before, and he took it upon himself to show me some tricks of the trade. Cellmates I would have down the road were never as eccentric but thankfully, not problematic.
The doors unlocked every morning at a quarter to eight. I was kept from kitchen duty and only given tasks that didn’t include fire—most of the time, laundry service or warehouse duty. The day-to-day jobs were menial and mundane but better than sitting in a cell with the dullness gnawing at your skull.
Nights were the most difficult. Sleep felt like it was an entirely different span of existence. I could only sit there, listening to the echoing footsteps, the awful snoring from the top bunk, and the hysterical wails from the psych units.
But those weren’t what kept my thoughts so active; it was the withdrawal. I’d have killed to see that blaze again, how it swelled like a fiery cloud, how it whipped tendrils of smoke into the air.
Instead, I was trapped, shivering, and dribbling with sweat, begging for that same release.
* * * * * *
On the day I was discharged, they sent me on my way with $75 in my pocket. The sky never looked so blue that day.
Finding a job can be difficult for anyone, but for an ex-con, it was close to impossible unless you had connections. Give that ex-con dark skin, a scar above his eye, and no left eyebrows, they may as well be hiring Freddy-fucking-Kreuger.
I answered countless ads, collected heaps of applications, and rewrote my résumé dozens of times to make it look decent enough. But no amount of polish could soften the blow of the question: Have you ever been convicted of a crime? Check no to be considered. Check yes to be tossed into the furnace. There was the deal-breaker. Don’t call us. We’ll call you.
Freedom is good, but it wasn’t long before I realized that the sentence didn’t end when the gates opened.
Despite the stigmatized cross I was forced to bear, there were always silver linings. When your brain must adapt to years inside of a barred-up box, it finds any hopeful prospect to cling to. My mother had left me her apartment and whining lemon of a car. Every room smelled like musty perfume fused with old candle wax. The bed was painfully hard and springy.
The ever-building worry rolled around inside of me, like a pocket of gas trapped inside a piece of coal. Just one light, only one small piece of charred paper in the parking lot would be enough to get through the week. Still, I resisted the urges. I’d successfully eluded it for years now, thanks to time and a lot of behavioral therapy. Whenever the seed started to burn, I knew how to extinguish the flare.
Miraculously, I was finally able to land an interview. The hiring position was for a graveyard shift at Hitchhiker’s Haven, a family-owned gas station run by a man named Bennett Crawford. I rehearsed the interview dozens of times, drawing up every possible question I’d be asked and a golden answer to counter them.
Hitchhiker’s Haven sat along a rural stretch of road between Redmond and Sisters, the two closest towns for miles. Rolling green hills and farmland pastures surrounded it. The faded blue peaks of the cascades were outlined in the distance like paintings.
I met with Crawford, who insisted on being called Ben. The man was no grease monkey—which is what I had envisioned a gas station owner to be. His deep-set eyes were green and placid. The wide Cheshire grin he wore throughout the meeting didn’t waver.
“I’m sorry for this,” Ben started, which made my heart begin to sink, “But I have to ask you, what landed you in the iron pen?”
The question was inevitable but still startling. I bit the inside of his cheek, “Third-degree arson, sir.”
Ben’s genuine, beatific expression didn’t fade, “Tried to burn your last boss’s house to the ground, eh?”
I rolled my shoulders back, “No sir, I’d never do anything like that, but after what he said to me, I knew I could never work for him again.”
“What did he say?”
Ben suddenly looked surprised, then chuckled at my joke, “I’ll give you a pass on that one, if there is one thing I respect in a man, it’s a sense of humor.”
The interview shortly ended after that, and we both shook hands, “I like you, Noah, you have a nice light to you. Be it the demeanor you carry or that cheeky tongue of yours, I feel you’d be a good fit for us. So, what do you say, want the job?”
I blinked, almost blurting out, Absofuckinglutely, but instead settled on, “Yes, sir!”
Then came the questioned I had spent sleepless nights waiting for, “When can you start?”
“The sooner, the better, boss.”
My first night shift started that evening at 10.
Outside, the metal canopy looming over the pumps bathed the lot in a fluorescent green glow. It was eerie, like a ghostly light guiding you from the dark stretch of road to an isolated gas station. Why Ben chose that color was beyond me. Not a very inviting glow for hitchhikers.
I was given my uniform: a gray short-sleeved shirt with H.H. printed in bold, lining perfectly over the left tit.
Each aisle was four feet wide, arranged in a grid formation across the interior. Not as big as the competitors, but just as convenient. Each of the multi-sided racks was stacked with assorted products from chips and candy to on-the-road vehicle supplies and accessories. LED cooler doors lined the wall across from the register, filled with their assortment of drinks. A plastic mat rested on the counter designed like a map of Deschutes County.
Dominating the counter space was a box of jawbreakers, a small stand of keychains, and a rack of colorful lighters I knew I’d have to ignore.
Ben’s grand tour lasted thirty minutes. We went over the nightly responsibilities: operating the register, restocking shelves and coolers, replacing the bags in the outdoor ice machine, and managing a clean workspace.
“So,” Ben said with a slanted look in his eye, “think you can manage something like this?”
I gestured to my notes, “I’ll be alright.”
“Good,” he smiled, which quickly melted into a ruminating expression. “Given your history, I should hope you aren’t one of the crazies.”
I raised a non-existent eyebrow, “What do you mean?”
“The workers I hire for the night shift are good most of the time—but once in a while, you’ll get one of the crazies. Honestly, you wouldn’t believe some of the tales people try to sell to me here. Either way, here’s to hoping, son.”
His face held the vague nuance that there was more to say, but instead, he nodded goodbye and left for a good night’s sleep.
Hours into my shift, at roughly three in the morning, a set of headlights slid off the road and into the lot. Four young silhouettes sauntered inside. None of them could have been more than seventeen or eighteen. One of the teens, a gauntly looking one who wore his hair like a young Kurt Cobain, led the quartet to the snack aisle. Periodically, a few of them erupted into a distinct high-pitch squeal of laughter, like a pack of hyenas. Each of them grabbed a stash of junk foods and formed a mountain on the counter.
Cobain covered the bill, his pupils as big as hockey pucks. Something about his glazed, absentminded expression filled me with bittersweet nostalgia. I thought about the old days, when life felt so much larger than a box. Then I thought about the industrial bin and the beautiful fire spewing out of its melting gullet. Then I stopped myself.
The other nights that week went as precisely as I had pictured it: slow and dead. A few faces would occasionally pop in and out, but for the rest of the time, Hitchhiker’s Haven was a ghost-lot dipped in green.
I didn’t mind the boredom. The pay here was good, the confinement coldly familiar. I felt like a member of society again, like the word C-O-N-V-I-C-T was no longer seared into my forehead.
But night owl or not, the weight of deprivation fell heavily on me, which is what happens when one fucks with their circadian clock. To counteract the drowsiness, I often retraced all the items on my to-do list just to keep my thoughts occupied. Clean. Check inventory stocks. Clean again.
I scoured online for survival tips, ate healthier meals (sometimes), and dubbed caffeine my new God.
Then during one of those nights, it started to rain.
Despite the forecast never mentioning a late-night shower nor there being a speck of humidity in the air, the rain thrummed harshly against the windows and spilled over the canopy in small waterfalls.
The automatic doors slid open, and a person inched their way inside. They were wearing a faded blue jacket with the hood pulled down, and their hands shoved in their pockets.
They walked with a stiff gait, squeaking their wet shoes along the tiles to the register.
Beneath their hood, a white face stared at me—or rather, the suggestion of a face: a vague nose, no mouth whatsoever, and faint depressions where eyes should be—a creepy, non-distinctive mask. Any minute now, I’m going to have a gun shoved in my face, any minute now, I thought, unable to hide the apprehension in my face.
The person raised one of their equally pale hands from their pockets, dropped change on the plastic mat, and reached for the box of jawbreakers. Their white rigid fingers curved and almost seemed to lock as they lifted it out by the plastic wrapper.
The bundle of wet quarters and pennies he’d left for me glinted from the overhead lights—the exact change for a jawbreaker.
His candy in hand, he turned around and walked stiffly back to the door, retracing every water print.
When the doors slid closed behind him, his vague outline passed between the green-tinged pumps and sank into night’s dark pellicle.
I let out an eased breath, thankful he hadn’t whipped a gun from his pocket and demanded everything from the register. But that didn’t explain the mask. Why wear something like that if you weren’t going to rob the place?
As I sat there and pondered on it, I’d realized then the rain had ceased.
It wasn’t difficult to get my bearings back for the rest of the shift. In prison, you saw all kinds of weird shit and the crazies to go along with it.
Was this what Ben had warned me about?
I shrugged at the thought. Every nocturnal job had its share of freaks waiting for the sun to go down. Why would a lonesome gas station by any different?
Whatever the case, I was confident I could stomach what Hitchhiker’s Haven threw at me—I’d hoped so, anyway.
* * * * * *
During another particularly dead hour with no customers, I busied myself with a second round of cleaning everything in sight. It was either that or watch the coffee dribble into the pot. I moved the plastic mat off the counter, realizing I had never cleared the dust beneath it.
Something was written into the countertop, carved by way of a knife into its surface.
Don t talk to it.
I ran a finger along the deep grooves of the message, or rather, the warning.
* * * * * *
A week of normality passed before the next downpour.
I was ringing up a few items—Advil and Five Hour Energy shots—for a red-eyed trucker.
Together, we both heard the muffled applause of rain on the roof. “Ah shit,” the man whined, scrunching up his lip hair. “You sell umbrellas too?”
I shook my head. “Sorry.”
He huffed and eyed the watery skim that dribbled down the windows. “Bullshit weather, you just can’t predict them, can you?”
He took his things and beelined toward his semi, veering back to the dark stretch of road.
Once he left, the doors glided open once again. A faded blue jacket stepped inside—the same man from before. He approached the front desk, one firm step at a time. A pungent whiff of damp clothes wafted off him, soaking wet again from the rain.
Echoing the first time, his pale hand left his pocket and rested the wet change on the mat. Beneath his hood, the featureless face poked out, a sheen of light on his moist, non-existent expression. The same mask as before.
Water dribbled off his fingers as he dropped the change, plucked out another jawbreaker, and returned to the exit, transparent footmarks trailing behind him.
* * * * * *
After that, the gray haze of boredom that once fogged the nightshift was gone. Whether it was one week or every other week, the man always appeared. He’d saunter inside completely waterlogged, leave the exact change, and take a jawbreaker—always a jawbreaker.
The way he walked was especially strange to me, almost lifeless. Not in the undead sense, but more akin to a sleepwalker.
As bizarre as it all was, the man wasn’t especially difficult to deal with. Strange yes, but not at all a hassle. In a minute, he’d walk in and then back to the heavy rain, returning to God-knows-where.
Congratulations Ben, you found yourself a regular customer.
In addition to the already weird repetition of it all, there was something else I couldn’t explain. Moments before the man arrived, on the dot, it would always rain. No matter how bone-dry it was prior, the storm would come sudden and hard, only stopping after he left. Sometimes in minutes, other times in twenty. Too often for coincidence, but too crazily timed to be sane.
Every so often, I’d lift the mat and stare at the words chiseled into the counter.
Don t talk to it.
Probably left by one of the last graveyard workers here, one of the crazies as Ben put it.
They were no doubt talking about Mr. No-Face, though calling him “it” seemed too dramatic. He must have really got to them.
But a job was a job, and in my position, I was not apt for many preferences. I’d do what it takes to keep it.
* * * * * *
It wasn’t long for the rain to come back harder than ever. The gas stations exterior moaned as the wind howled in an almost-whisper through the slide-doors.
Without fail, the man walked in with his rigid gait, drenched. But when he reached the register, there was no change out of his pocket or jawbreaker picked out of the box. This time was different—a stray from the usual routine.
He balled his rigid white fingers into a tight fist and slammed it against the plastic mat. BAM! The force shook the counter’s flat surface and vibrated the register. The countertop merchandise shivered in their displays. One of the keychains fell from their stand, a grey cat winking at me.
Before I could react, the ashen-toned fist rose again and fiercely dropped. BAM! The stand of lighters toppled onto my side of the counter, their transparent bodies scattering near my feet.
Then, from the still, plaster-wall face, a hollow voice spoke out that left a sharp ringing in the air, as though it were made of glass, “Would you like to see my face?”
“What?” The word blurted out of me, too late to reel back in. I was caught off guard, not expecting a question, let alone a sudden tantrum to come from him. At that moment, I’d broken the golden rule of Hitchhiker’s Haven, carved gravely into its bedrock.
The man stood there only a moment longer before the parts of his blank face began to move. His pale cheeks, the vague nose, both eye depression, extended outward, moving aside like an insect’s plated skin. Beneath them, a gaping space sank inward like a tunnel, its walls layered and glistening with twitching, blackish mold. A never-ending throat, where white fragments of light pulsated like trapped stars.
My eyes went vacant. I couldn’t stop staring at them.
A sense of distress raced down my spine. I could feel the chords of my neck straining to make me turn my head, but it wouldn’t budge.
The lights within its mildewy void gleamed in rich, beckoning textures. A universe of deep colors that wanted me—every thought, every particle of myself, and for a moment, I felt myself starting to sink into its depths.
But something kept me tethered, something starved and soaked in kerosene. I managed to tear my eyes away, grabbed a lighter, and pulled a can of aerosol from one of the cabinets. Without thinking, I flicked on the small flame and pressed a finger on the can.
A bright jet of orange reached out and fluttered over the cavernous pitch of its face. Whatever hellish material it was made out of caught immediately. Fire smothered its head and latched onto the faded jacket. It floundered backward, batting fruitlessly at the spreading flames. No screams came from it, but an awful high-pitched ringing was stabbing my ears.
Thunder bellowed outside in a ululating rumble.
It toppled over one of the aisles, lighting up all the bags and products around it. Acrid burning odors filled the air, and admittedly, the hint of a smile crept up my lips.
The rising smoke reached the fire sprinklers and set them off. Water ejected out of their flower-shaped heads and soaked the whole area.
As the flames dampened, the blackened figure got back to its feet and hobbled through the exit.
I moved to chase after it, but by the time I stepped outside, it was gone, evaporated with the pouring rain.
* * * * * *
Tried as I have, there is no coming to terms what had transpired that night, or whatever demented thing I’d seen. It made my brain feel loose, slowly teetering between total numbness and a manic episode.
Bennett Crawford did not believe me (nor did I expect him to) and did not hesitate to press charges for the damages. In the span of a single night, I’d joined the ranks in his book of crazies.
Given my track record, I was labeled as a repeat offender, a new title for the pyromaniac. The hearing will be sometime next week, and until then, I can only wait until the gavel comes down.
I still dream about those colors sometimes, like they are still imprinted somewhere in my consciousness, beckoning for me to go back there. Whatever it is they wanted from me; they were still calling.
Will the next person Ben hires see the man with no face? Or will it bide its time, waiting for the right stiff to pop the question to: Would you like to see my face?
Yes, show me your face, show me those colors, so that I can burn them all again. Hitchhiker’s Haven will go up in smoke when I’m through with it, then where will you go?
Wherever it is, I’m sure it will be raining.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available