A hitchhiker accepts a ride but not all that comes with it.
The dark and cold had set in before he finally got a ride. It was a snack van. The uniformed man driving had eyes glassy and blood shot. The empty gin bottle stashed in the passenger door pocket was the second clue the man probably wasn’t sober. Jerry climbed in anyway and shoved his backpack behind the seat. “I’m going just up the road, maybe five miles,” said the driver, “so don’t get too comfy.
“Much obliged,” said Jerry. “I'm glad to be out of the wind and snow.”
The van had seen better days. Its cracked pleather seats belched out the stench of cigarettes as Jerry shifted to buckle himself. Shiny, bare metal gleaned up between his boots through rotted, dirt-crusted floor mats.
The man turned his eyes to Jerry’s backpack. “You got any food stashed in there, boy? I’m hungry.” Jerry pulled out an orange and offered it. “Peel it first,” the man said.
“It’s my last one,” Jerry said. “I’m hungry, too.” He peeled the orange quickly and handed it to the man.
“Hungry, huh?” The man looked straight ahead as he bit into the orange.
“Yeah, but I’m not picky.” Jerry looked to the rear of the van. Racks to his left and right bulged with bagged chips, boxed pies, cookies, and candy, and cans of soft drinks. “You got anything expired back there? Like I said, I’m not picky. I'll eat anything.”
“You got money, boy?”
“Mister, I wouldn’t be hitchhiking or hungry if I did.”
The man grumbled something unintelligible under his breath and then laughed quietly as he shifted the van into drive. He laughed again before finally quieting, his face souring to a sullen stare at the blur of snow in his headlights.
Two miles up the road, they picked up another hitchhiker. She was bundled under a thick coat and fur-lined hood. "I didn't think I'd get a ride in this weather," said the girl. "Thank you so much."
Jerry could tell by the sound of her high-pitched and nasally voice she was young, probably no older than fifteen. She was carrying a backpack, like his but smaller. He put it on top of his and made room for her in the seat by unbuckling and stretching the safety belt out, which wasn’t much. The girl, even with her thick coat, was small and fit comfortably in the seat with Jerry.
“Two’s my limit and I really shouldn’t have passengers.” The man said. “I could get fired.”
“Or a hero’s medal,” the girl said, removing her hood. She beamed a smile up at the man. She was grateful and kept thanking him. Jerry wished she’d quiet down. “I’m so appreciative,” she kept saying.
“Where you from, girl? What’s your name?” the man asked.
“Charleston, West Virginia, sir. My daddy calls me Precious. That’s where I’m wanting to go, to see him. He’s sick with a bad heart. How far you driving?”
“Not far. I drive local only, but the bus station is along my route. I’ll drop you there.” The man scratched at his chin. He glanced back and forth between the road and the girl bundled next to Jerry. “Like I said, I’ll drop you off at the bus station. What’s your real name, girl?”
“I’m penniless, sir. Bus station ain’t no help without a ticket to go with it.”
“Your real name?”
The girl looked sad. “I can’t tell you that.”
The man raised his eyebrows. “You a runaway, girl?” The girl did not answer. The man cleared his throat. “Alright, Precious it is. Nuff asked, nuff said.”
They continued on through the blowing snow, stopping at the man’s first delivery, a truck stop. Jerry bought two cups of coffee and had the cook fry up a bologna sandwich with egg. He gave the girl a coffee and half the sandwich. She reminded him of his sister with her light blonde hair and skin glowing pale white between the many freckles bridging her nose and flushed cheeks. They sat in a corner booth and ate and watched the man swap the old snacks out with the new.
The man was no fool. He’d noticed Jerry and the girl eating. His eyes met theirs, just for a second, and then he looked away. The man had no tolerance for Jerry’s lying to him about having no money. He said nothing about it as he finished replenishing the racks and shelves with fresh snacks. Neither did Jerry as he and the girl followed the man back to the van. The girl, unaware of the deceit between the two men, thanked them for the comfort of the food, and drink, and van as she climbed in it. The man could no longer hold his tongue or anger.
“Who’s got money, huh? I don’t need thanks. I need money. And don’t lie to me anymore!”
The girl looked frightened. “Sir, I told you I don’t have a penny to my name. If I did, I’d help you out.”
The man made no attempt to start the van. He leaned forward, looked past the girl, and wagged a finger at Jerry. “The girl’s truthful, I’m sure of her. But of you, boy, I’m not.”
“I was hungry, mister,” Jerry said, “and so was the girl.”
“I don’t care.” The man turned away and looked impassively out the window.
“Tell you what,” said the girl, “I’ll send you money when I make it home. I promise. Yes sir, just give me your address and I’ll pay you for all your trouble. Just let me out at the interstate.”
The man chuckled. “That right, huh? You gonna send me money?” He began to laugh.
“Yes, sir. I sure will. You can count on it.”
“Get out,” the man said.
It pained Jerry to hear the girl beg. “You should let her ride. I’ll pay for both of us.”
“I’m not running a taxi service, boy.”
“Like I said, I’ll pay for both of us.”
“So you do have money. Why’d you lie to me?”
“I wasn’t about to tell a stranger I had money. I didn’t know you.”
The man laughed again, only this time it was rowdy and loud. He slapped both hands on the steering wheel. The girl moved closer, squeezed herself tight to Jerry. “And you still don’t know me. Get out, boy. The girl can stay.”
“I’ll only get out if she does,” Jerry said. He grabbed and squeezed the girl’s hand. “Come on, I wouldn’t trust him.” He slid the van door open and stepped out. The girl pulled her hand free from his.
“I’m going nowhere but home,” she said, turning to the man, “and you’re gonna get me there.” The look on her face was one of confidence and assurance. She seemed to have no more fright of the man. “I watched you lift that bottle of wine from the truck stop.”
“You trying to blackmail me, girl, Precious, whatever the hell your name really is?” The man looked angry and menacing with his eyes narrowed. “I ought turn your runaway ass over to the police, but I won’t. I’ll take you to the interstate and no further.”
“You’ll take me further.”
“What! How much further?”
“Home, to Charleston.”
“You gotta be kidding, you crazy little bitch. That’s over fifty miles through ice and snow-covered mountain roads. No way in hell! I’ll call the cops before I give in to you!”
“Go ahead, be my guest and call ’em, you perverted old man.”
Jerry was tiring of the fussing. “Leave her alone, mister.”
The man shook a finger again at Jerry. “And your pissy attitude and lack of honesty stink, boy, you hear me? I hope you have to walk all the way to wherever you’re going. Better yet, I hope you freeze ‘fore you get there.”
“Won’t happen ‘cause there’s gotta be nicer people than you, you old fart.”
“Close the goddamn door and move on, boy.”
“Not without the girl. I’ll find a way to get her to her folks.” Jerry held his hand out to the girl. “Please, don’t stay. I wouldn’t risk staying alone with him if I were you.”
The girl smiled at Jerry, but dropped it from her face as she turned back to the man. “You wanna call the cops, huh? Be my guest. You driving drunk, stealing, and saying improper things to a minor won’t set well with them, will it?”
“I ain’t said an improper word to you, girl, not a word.” The man looked up to Jerry. “Now have I, boy? She’s talking ‘bout me like I’m some pervert.”
Jerry raised his hands as if in surrender. He shook his head in disgust. “Don’t look to me for help. I’m outta here, folks. I won’t no more part of this.” He looked down at the girl. “I’ll be inside. I hope you change your mind and come in and join me.” He slid the door shut and turned to walk away. Once inside the truck stop, he ordered another bologna and egg sandwich with coffee.
He sat and waited and then watched as the van and the girl named Precious disappeared into the night.