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Frank was a man of little words. He was sixty-six years old, and his voice was often silenced by his continuously stirred mind. The memories of the past still swirled in his head and haunted his every waking thought like ghosts in the night. His white hair, a reminder of his passed youth, was always combed back to reveal his ever vacant, empty eyes. His eyes were those of a person who had suffered, and hadn’t truly lived in quite some time. Death had plagued his life too early with the sudden loss of a wife and a son. Everyone had vanished, except for him. Frank was alone with a rocking chair and a Swiss Army Knife that he often used for whittling on the porch of a house that served no purpose other than to whistle him to sleep.
The old man spent most days at home, with his record player and his worn out chair remembering the days long gone. He had recently found a stack of his wife’s old records in the basement and had become accustomed to filling the rooms with the sound of Marvin Gaye and Roy Orbison once again. Some days as the music cranked on, it would sweep him up with a familiar feeling of home. He’d often find himself wandering to the kitchen hoping to see Cynthia dancing with a spatula in her pink apron, only to be struck with the reminder that it had been almost eight years since his wife was last there doo-whopping on the black and white tiles.
A stack of his son’s books sat covered in dust near the sill. On the Road, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Franny and Zooey. The stack climbed half way up the window and faced the front yard as if patiently waiting for their owner to return from his motorcycle ride down the street. It had been years since Bradley walked the halls of the house, but the books always lingered in their chosen spot, hopeful to be opened once again.
Frank’s son Bradley died in a motorcycle accident at twenty. He’d come home for a long weekend from college, only to be hit by a drunk driver on his way out to get a gallon of milk. Sometimes Frank dwelled on it: maybe if he hadn’t had that extra bowl of Cheerios maybe his son would’ve missed that truck, maybe if he went out to get the milk maybe his son would be sitting next to him at that moment, and most frequently of all, maybe this would slowly drive him insane. He missed Bradley in a way that could not be described. He missed his carefree nature and the brilliancy of his conversations. He missed all the moments he’d never have with his only child. A lifetime with his son had been taken from him and he was never going to get the back.
It was a warm Tuesday morning, and like every other Tuesday that came before it, the day was started with a bowl of cereal and cup of coffee. He shuffled past his rickety rocking chair on the rundown porch and stared at the faded, peeling paint on the front of the house.
“I’ll fix it eventually,” he grumbled to no one as he continued to the driveway. He stared at the dilapidated VW Golf he dubbed “Charlotte” back in ’94. Rust covered the bottom of the front bumper and there was a considerable dent on the driver’s side but for her old age, he had to admit, Charlotte ran like a champ. He climbed into the ancient Volkswagen and prayed that she would start without a problem. With a twist of the key, the car roared to life as Frank backed out of the driveway towards the hardware store on the edge of town.
The road to the store was the same as it always had been: trees, telephone poles, the occasional piece of trash, tedious and never changing, until a hitch hiker appeared in the distance.
The hitch hiker stood at the side of the road with a beaten green backpack and a pair of high top Converse on his feet. He was lanky with a knit hat covering his unruly light brown hair and he had an infectious smile as he stuck his thumb out towards the nonexistent traffic. Frank was drawn to the young man immediately; he looked just like Bradley. As the beaten up Golf slowly puttered towards the hiker, Frank struggled between keeping his foot on the accelerator and stopping for this boy who resembled the ghost that haunted his thoughts in the dark.
“Ah, what the hell,” he said as he put on his blinker, braked his ramshackle VW and pulled toward the hiker. The boy smiled as Frank waved him over to the car, and he swore he saw him skip on his way off of the curb.
“Thanks a lot, sir. I really appreciate it,” the young man said as he haphazardly scrambled into the passenger seat.
“Where you headin’, kid?” Frank asked as he glanced at his new passenger. He looked like one of those Kerouac wannabes from back in the day, a trust fund kid looking for an adventure to tell the boys back at the country club.
“Nowhere, sir. Nowhere at all,” he replied as he settled into his seat, looking out the window as the trees passed one after another.
“Well, where am I gonna drop you off if you have nowhere to go?” Frank inquired.
“Well sir, go ahead of drop me off anywhere you please, I’ll find a place to be eventually.” The young man tapped his long bony fingers on his knee. Tap. Tap. Tap. It was all Frank could see in his peripheral vision. Tap. Tap. Tap.
“What’s your name kid? You’ve got a name I presume?”
“’Course I have a name, it’s Todd, sir,” he smiled.
“Well, Todd, how about this? Since you’ve got nowhere to be, how about I get you a nice meal before you set off to your next stop to Nowhere.” The boy stared blankly at Frank.
“Really sir?” he sounded unconvinced at the fact that a complete stranger had enough kindness to not only pick up a hitcher, but to feed him as well.
“Of course, kid. There’s a diner up the road that makes a mean chicken sandwich,” he stated nonchalantly as he turned left on the road.
The diner popped up in the distance within minutes, the neon “OPEN” sign flickered sporadically in the window. Frank pulled into the vacant lot and took his keys out of the ignition with a loud jingle. Hopping out of the car he looked back at Todd and with a sigh, poked his head into the open window.
“Are you comin’ or not?” he asked before he walked to the door of the diner.
“Oh. Yes, sir. Thanks, sir,” Todd managed to get out as he jumped out of the vehicle.
“Kid, you gotta stop callin’ me sir. It’s Frank, call me Frank. And stop being so squirrely, you’re makin’ me nervous.”
“I’m sorry,” Todd said as he slid into the cracked leather booth across from the old man. He sat and started to fold and refold his napkin on the counter top as Frank ordered them food. He watched Todd in his peculiar hat and worn jacket, Bradley had one just like it he remembered.
“So where are you from Todd?” Frank inquired as he sipped his water; the condensation from the glass stuck to his enormous, white beard.
“I’m from Ann Arbor… it’s a few hours from Lansing, Michigan,” Todd answered quietly.
“Michigan! Then what are you doing in Louisiana?” The thought flickered through Frank’s mind that maybe picking up this memory-provoking stranger might not have been a good idea. What if he’s an axe murderer? He wondered as he examined his son’s doppelganger, but the boy seemed too innocent for that. Todd sighed and began to explain himself.
“You know, you’re the first person to ever ask me that,” he started as he took a deep breath, tapping his fingers on the table top. Tap. Tap. Tap.
“A few months ago I was at college when I got a phone call saying that my family’s home had burned to the ground. No one got out alive. I had no home to return to, no family, I was on my own. So I finished the last few weeks of school and got my degree in business, I couldn’t not finish, y’know? After all the work I’d done, my dad would’ve been so disappointed. So I started thinkin’ and instead of going home to a pile of ash, I packed everything I cared about into this backpack here,” he nudged it with his foot, “and started hitchhiking, trying to see all I could. We always wanted to take a family road trip cross-country, my parents, littler sister and I, so I figured, why not do it now?” Frank stared from across the table trying to process Todd’s story, remembering his many conversations with Bradley at this very diner, trapped in a déjà vu as the tale unfolded before them.
“It’s hard sometimes. I walk a lot, I’m hungry often, but I wanted to take all the sadness and the pain that I had and use it to embrace the fact that I’m still here and I’m not leaving for quite some time so why not hitchhike to nowhere and sit in a diner and tell an old man who was nice enough to buy me dinner my story? I could be working in a tailored suit and isolate myself with work to deal with the grief, or I could take that grief and turn it into an adventure. So that’s what I’m doin’.”
Frank looked at the man who could not have been older than twenty-five. This was no Kerouac poser, he thought. This kid has seen a lot in his young life already and still has the ability to smile. And it dawned on Frank that maybe he could too, maybe it was his story, maybe it was his eerie likeness to his own son, but this kid was something. They ate in silence after that, until Frank decided he’d drive Todd to the train station in the next town over and buy him a ticket to New Orleans.
“Thanks Frank,” Todd said as he shook the old man’s hand, “I really appreciate this,” he said holding the ticket.
“It’s no problem kid, thank you.” Todd tilted his head to the side.
“For making me realize that there’s more to life than an empty house and some Roy Orbison records,” Frank stated with a weary smile. Todd opened up the front pocket of his backpack and took out of a pen and piece of paper.
“Here, take my number. Maybe if I pass through this way again, we can meet up for another one of those delicious sandwiches,” he grinned as he handed him his neatly written phone number.
“Alright kid,” the old man said as he clapped a hand on the kid’s shoulder, “Maybe I’ll see you around.” And with that Todd walked out toward the tracks.
“Hey Todd!” the old man called out, he had forgotten to tell him something, but Todd had already disappeared, nowhere to be found.
On the drive home, Frank thought about this mysterious boy and how maybe, he’d follow in his footsteps and start living a bit more. He went to bed that night with a smile, thankful that he had decided to pick Todd up and help him on his journey.
He awoke the next day, different, new, and saw the small piece of paper on the table. Frank picked it up, and dialed the carefully written number into the phone. As he dialed, the number seemed familiar in a way, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. The dull ring sounded a few times before Frank was greeted with an automatic voice on the other line:
“We’re sorry to tell you that the number you dialed has been disconnected.”
He hung up the phone and wondered why Todd would give him a number that didn’t work. The pieces hadn’t come together, maybe they never would, but little did he know, Frank had seen that number before. In fact, Frank personally closed the account for that same cell phone number five years ago. A month after his son had died.