I’m driving along a stretch of road that runs all the way up the coastline. It’s sometime between summer and winter, meaning that the weather here is getting colder, windier, and overall crappier. I tell myself that I was born of summer blood; I crave intense sun, rising heat, and the smell of dog days on thick air. My permanently sun-browned skin is testament to that, and I’m damn proud of it. Perhaps that’s why, on this particular day, a day filled with an overcast sky and worsening weather, I am in a particularly pitying and brooding mood. Maybe that is why I decide to pull over on this span of road to let a complete stranger into the sanctity of my warm vehicle, protected from the outside atrocities that loom above. I can’t attribute anything else to my actions other than this, so I’m happy enough to accept it.
The guy I pull over for is in his twenties, maybe, and has an innocent-looking face spotted with freckles and dotted with two large green eyes. He’s clean enough, I guess, but I can’t tell if he has brown hair or if his hair is blond, dirtied enough to seem darker than it really is. I sigh to myself. Who am I to criticize a hitchhiker? Hell, I’m the one stupid or gracious enough, depending on how you look at it, to actually give him a ride in the first place. Maybe I should be the one under scrutiny here.
“Hey, thanks man,” he says once he’s settled in the backseat. He flashes a toothy grin at me, and I return his with a tiny smile before pulling from the roadside.
“Where’re you headed?” I ask as we come back up to speed.
“Just up north a bit,” he says casually. “How far up you goin’?”
“A ways,” I answer vaguely. “We’ll probably end up coming to your stop before we come to mine. Just tell me when, and I’ll drop you off at a gas station or something.”
The guy grins cheekily again. “Thanks, man.”
I nod and begin to focus on the road. A kind of awkwardness settles between us as the silence grows, but I freely let it smash and rattle against the windows, ignoring it. I’m not one to spark conversations when I don’t want to speak. Small talk has never really been my thing either, I’ll freely admit. If he wants to talk, then he can damn well do it because I won’t. I sigh to myself and squint up at the sky, glaring up at the grey clouds threatening to dump and splatter water droplets all over my windshield. I’m sure the weather is making my mood worse. I blame you, I silently tell the sky.
“Hey, man.” The guy’s voice interrupts my thoughts. I look at him through the rearview mirror. “Have you seen the cats?”
My brow furrows with bewilderment, and my eyes widen. “The… cats?” I stammer.
He nods earnestly. “Yeah, the cats, man. The cats. Have you seen ‘em?”
“No, I can’t say that I have seen the cats,” I answer slowly.
“Oh, man, you’re missin’ out!” he exclaims, throwing up his hands a little. “Me and my friend, we have a bunch of dead cats!”
I’m white-knuckling the steering wheel at this point. Dead cats? What the hell have I gotten myself into now? Screw you, sky.
“Where exactly do you get these cats?” Damn my curiosity.
“Why, the cemetery of course!” He scoffs and grins again. “Where else do you get ‘em?” He stops suddenly, his grin disappearing and his eyebrows lowering seriously. He leans forward in his seat. “Do you get them from somewhere else?” He’s staring right at me.
“No, no!” I say quickly, reeling. I laugh nervously, knuckles still white.
The grin spreads once more across his face, and he leans back into his seat. “Good, man. Good. Yeah, you’re right. The cemetery is the only place to get ‘em.”
“Tell me about it. The cemetery, I mean.”
The guy cocks his head to the side, closes one eye, and purses his lips like he’s trying really hard to remember something. “It’s this place,” he begins. “People go there with their dead animals, and, me and my friend, we take ‘em.”
“Like an animal cemetery?”
The guy taps the end of his nose with the tip of his finger. “Yeah, man! The cemetery!”
I wonder if this guy is playing me. I look back at him, but he’s just twiddling his thumbs together. I do a double-take. One of his fists is completely bandaged except for a thumb that is protruding from the white pieces of cloth. He’s fidgeting the single digit with the thumb on his other hand, which is void of any dressings.
Do I dare ask? Hell, I’ve come this far, why not finish the conversation? “What happened to your hand?”
He looks down at the bandages and his eyebrows shoot up like he’s surprised to see the dressings there. “Oh, you know, man. The firecrackers.”
Your head is full of firecrackers. “Tell me about the firecrackers. How’d you mess up your hand?”
He grins again. “I put them in the dead cats.”
I blink at him. I catch my mouth hanging open slightly, and I quickly close it with a snap. “Wh—What?” I stammer.
“Yeah, yeah, man. We put ‘em full of firecrackers and watch ‘em blow. You seen nothin’ like it! One blasted too early on me though. Caught my hand pretty good. That’s why I have this.” He holds up his wrapped hand for me to see.
The key this man is playing is not on my piano. I make a quick decision and turn the car from the road. I edge the vehicle to the shoulder and bring it to a full stop before turning in my seat. “Hey, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to get out here. My stop’s just right up there,” I nod up the road, “so I can’t take you any farther. I hope that’s not too much of an inconvenience to you.”
The guy smiles good-naturedly. “Not at all, man. Thanks for the ride!” He hops out of the car, closes the door, and waves his bandaged hand at me. As I pull back onto the road, I can see the guy start walking back the way we had just come from. I grip the steering wheel more firmly and take a deep breath, cursing the weather in as many colorful ways as I can imagine.