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Sopping wet chunks of white slush fell from the sky and made a temporary home on our windshield. The light, pretty snowflakes of two hours ago were a fading memory.
“Will they give up our room if we’re not there on time?” I asked, my voice wavering slightly.
“I just don’t know, Jim. I wish I could tell you,” said my mother.
“Do you mind if I turn on the radio?” I inquired rhetorically as I reached from under my blankets to turn the dial, not waiting for an answer. The click of the knob, some fuzzy reports telling us how crazy ski vacationers (like us) were to be driving in such weather, and then static, unintelligible … I switched it off. I sighed, pulled my blankets over my head, put the car seat into a reclining position and closed my eyes.
I woke up half an hour later and looked around. The empty backseat glared at me. The blackness outside the safety of the headlights threatened to swallow me whole. The windshield wipers squeaked with untiring monotony. My mother kept driving – speedometer reading a steady 35 m.p.h., 10:47 in glowing green light … still sleepy.
“How much farther do we have to go?” I mumbled through my dreariness. I squirmed under the covers, trying to work out the kinks in my limbs, and sat up.
“Can’t be more than an hour now,” my mother told me. Our destination always seemed on the horizon.
I shivered. “There’s something up ahead,” I noted aloud. Peering through the storm from between sticky eyelids I saw the large shape of an automobile. Brightly burning emergency flares marked the car’s position. Between the flares, standing like a ghost in a parka, was a man with his right hand out of his pocket, a gloved thumb extended toward the shrouded sky.
“Looks like a hitchhiker,” said my mother.
“Let’s pick him up,” I suggested adventurously. The car pulled to a stop in the breakdown lane, next to the man’s car. The man ambled to my window. He had an obvious limp. The man stood right outside my window, the steam of his breath pulsing from deep in the blackness of his hood, turning the glass milk-white. He tapped on the window; I rolled it down.
My mother leaned over, one hand on the steering wheel. “You need a ride?” she asked. I sank down in my seat, trying to avoid being noticed.
“How far north are you going?” he said, rather kindly actually.
“We’re going as far as Sunday River.”
“Ah, yes,” he said as he looked at our roof where skis were strapped.
“Thanks, I just need to find the first motel. Triple A’ll take care of the car once it stops snowing.” He stood there for an awkward moment.
My mom broke the silence, “Well, hop in.”
“Thanks.” He brushed the latest layer of snow from his jacket before he yanked open the sticky back door, and landed with an audible bounce. He pushed the hood of his parka back so that it sat like a pillow behind his head. He rubbed his hands together and breathed deep, reviving breaths into his cupped palms. A rough grunt and a sniffle cleared his nose and throat. It was when he put his hands into his lap that I first saw his face.
He had a thin, weathered complexion. I guessed that he was about forty. He had wide-set dark brown eyes, but that wasn’t what caught my attention. Running from the top of his cheekbone all the way down to the lip of his muscled jaw was the biggest scar I had ever seen anywhere in my life. When I say anywhere, I mean anywhere. It was bigger than scars in the movies. It was so deep and long it looked as if you could unzip it and take his face off his skull. I observed that no stubble was growing out of the scar when I realized I had been staring at his face for quite a while.
He cleared his throat and pulled his coat collar up, as if he were trying to hide something terrible. I suddenly felt ashamed and settled back into my seat, my eyes closed tight trying to blot out the image of the stranger’s face.
“So, what’s your name?” asked my mother, trying to start a conversation.
“Oh, it’s Jeffrey,” he said, “Jeffrey Rowes, I’m from Rhode Island. I was on my way to Canada when my car died. My brother and his family live up there. We were planning on spending Christmas together.” He sighed and rolled his eyes. “Now with this storm I don’t know if it’s worth it. How much longer is this …” he pointed out the window, “supposed to last?”
“I read that it should continue well into tomorrow. But then somebody told me it could last up to three days,” she sounded confused.
Nothing was making any sense to me. Everything that came out of their mouths turned to jargon before it reached my ears. The only clear image in my mind was that of the monstrosity behind me. I began to fantasize. Jeffrey was a fugitive who had ditched the car he had stolen after breaking out of an institution for the criminally insane. Then he had hitched a ride with some innocent ski vacationers, fed them a bunch of lies about who he was before shooting them and burying them in the snow on the side of the road, while he drove off in their car in the middle of the worst snowstorm in 80 years and made his way safely across the Canadian border, never to be heard from again, and all the while the innocent ski vacationers lay in the snow, shot through the head, the blood in their blue corpses turned to ice, their bodies left undiscovered until the spring when it wouldn’t matter anymore.
And then I saw Jeffrey’s hand reaching between the two front seats. My heart thumped so hard that I felt it press against my throat. I swallowed and with a flurry of motion and sound I slapped that hand and threw my bundle of blankets blindly into the backseat screaming, “He’s a murderer, Mom! Don’t listen to a word he says, he’s lying!! He’s gonna kill us both and leave us at the side of the road! He’s a murderer!!” I swung around and looked frantically behind me where I saw Jeffrey.
He was pressed into the seat, his eyes wide open, staring straight at me. His mouth hung slightly open in a look of surprise, disgust and fear. I looked at his hands, his fingers were dug into the cushion of the seat to the point where it would have taken a crowbar to pry them out. My eyes moved back up to his face. I looked into his wide-set dark brown eyes, and I saw, for the first time, that Jeffrey Rowes, was nothing more than a man.
“I wanted to hear the radio,” he breathed. He swallowed and tried to stop shaking. “I think I’d better get out here,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. Without speaking, my mother slowed the car to a stop. Jeffrey reached for the door handle. Mom started to speak, “Jeffrey, I –” but he silenced her with a wave of his hand. There was nothing more to say.
He slowly opened the door, and stepped out, leaving the night’s happenings behind him. All the while I sat in my seat, my eyes staring at nothing. I rolled up into a ball of guilt and tried to make myself disappear. I knew I wouldn’t fall asleep for a long time.
My mother drove. Jeffrey became a speck and then he was gone, lost in the curtains of snow and darkness. Neither my mom nor I said another word that night.