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Or Something Stranger Still

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Ryan has to admit it, to himself, admit something that he’s been denying for the past two hours. He’s lost. Not just lost, lost by himself, on a dirt road, in the middle of nowhere, at night. To make things worse, his phone is dead, so no GPS, and no final voicemail to his loved ones before he strands himself or gets mauled by a bear -- whichever happens first. Did this part of the state even have bears? If it did, he found one, hopefully his car could outspeed it. The only direction he can go in is forward. At some point he’ll hit civilisation.

It’s raining a little. Not enough to justify turning on the wipers, but enough to irritate him. The whole situation feels like the set up for a horror movie. He’s either about to find Frank-N-Furter’s castle or run into a satanic cult. He hopes it’s the former -- at least there would be more singing.
The radio’s on low volume, playing some late night talk show. It’s almost white-noise, meant to drown out the sound of wheels hitting dirt road. He winces every time he hears a rock hit the side of the car.

He’s been driving down the same stretch of road for so long, seeing nothing but barbed wire fences separating endless fields - punctuated only by the occasional tree - that what happens next came as a complete shock.

A figure vaults over a fence, landing on crouched feet in the road. Snapping into action, he slams on the brakes, the tyres screeching in protest. He’s thrown forward and caught by the seat belt. It takes him a moment to process the situation: the figure is a man. He’s hunched over a little, blocking the glare of the headlights out with his arms. He’s tall and gangly, and Ryan can make out floppy brown hair.

For a while he sits there, dumbstruck. His mind races for an answer. His thoughts jump from ‘cultist’ to ‘murderer’ to ‘complete fucking moron’ - seriously, did this guy have a fucking death wish? The man is a deer in the headlights, standing a few metres from the car that would have run him over if Ryan hadn’t reacted so fast: if he hadn’t turned on the dazzlers an hour ago, if he wasn’t still jacked up on caffeine from that third cup of coffee. Too many ifs for Ryan’s comfort.
The animal part of his brain screams at him to run, to get away. But where would he go? The road is narrow, so he can’t turn around, and forward isn’t an option. Instead he turns off the dazzlers. The guy puts his arms down, and Ryan can make out a pair of soft, brown, terrified eyes. The clothes he’s wearing are ragged and splashed with mud. The sleeve of his shirt is torn and Ryan can spy a streak or red blood. Dry, he hopes.

He thinks about opening the door and stepping out, then imagines being thrown out of his own car and watching it speed away into the night. He opens a window instead. He can hear crickets in the distance. He stops white-knuckling the wheel and turns the radio off. He sticks his head out of the window. The rain is refreshing against his clammy skin.

He stops white-knuckling the wheel and sticks his head out of the window.
‘Hey, are you OK?’ He calls out. The guys jumps a little. Can he see Ryan? It’s still pretty dark, even with the headlights. Unsure of what else to do, Ryan shifts so his entire head is out of the window, in full view. He waves at the guy, wiggling his fingers a little in what he hopes is a non-threatening gesture. He repeats, ‘Uh, hello. Are you OK?’

No response. It’s likes he’s talking to a child or a scared animal. He can’t tell if the guy is scared or sizing him up or what. A few moments pass, neither man speaking or making a move.

When Ryan can’t take any more - right before he goes to undo the door - the man takes a tentative step forward. Then another. He raises his hand, as Ryan had. With nothing else to go on, Ryan copies, spreading his fingers. Hell, if this went on long enough he might even do the fucking Vulcan greeting thing.
The guy keeps moving forward, movements slow and precise. Ryan pushes back the part of his brain that still telling him to run. Car jackers didn’t move this slow, giving their victims ample time to flee. They didn’t appear out of nowhere, either. Ryan’s foot is still resting on the accelerator. He can high-tail it if he wants. And yet he stays there, doing nothing but maintaining eye-contact and holding out his hands like a fucking moron. He can be a good Samaritan when he wants to, Damnit.

‘You really shouldn’t just stand in the road like that, you know. Do you need help? Are you lo-’ His babbling is cut-off when their hands meet. The guy intertwines their fingers. Before he has time to react, he feels something, like a shift in the atmosphere; the deep, placid calm before a storm. The chirping of crickets is clearer, the rain feels crisper. It’s the same scene, the same night, with the volume turned up. The man himself becomes clearer. There’s still fear in his eyes, but it’s mixed in with trepidation and curiosity. For the first time that night, Ryan is filled with a sense of calm.

The guy is shaking - from nerves or the cold, Ryan can’t tell. Ryan smiles, hoping it masks how fast his heart is beating. The corner of the guy’s mouth twitches by a fraction. Ryan feels a thrum of energy in his chest, like an adrenaline high. He feels alive, like he could do anything. He wonders, briefly, if this is how contact highs work. He swears he feels a twinge of amusement permeating from the guy, though how he knows that, Ryan has no clue.
An embarrassing amount of time passes before Ryan gathers his bearings. ‘Uh, hi.’ The words tumble out of his mouth. He clears his throat. ‘What are you doing?’

The guys eyes light up in recognition, and he finally speaks, ‘I can understand you.’

‘Yeah, same here. Can you tell me your name?’

‘Name,’ the guy repeats. He breaks eye contact, and looks intensely at nothing. ‘I...Shane. My name is Shane.’ And the guy looks so proud of himself that Ryan can’t help but crack up a little. Shane startles but doesn’t move away.

‘My name is Ryan. Do you need help?’

‘I need…’ Shane looks around. There’s nothing in the darkness. Then again, Ryan had thought that five minutes ago, when the only thing on the road was him. He looks back at Ryan, bright eyes pleading. ‘I need to get away from here.’

And well, he couldn’t say no to that.‘OK, Shane. Let me just…’ he moves his hand away and it’s like a tether has been cut. The energy he’d felt saps out of him. He tries not to let it affect him as he leans over to open the passenger side door.

Shane say something unintelligible.

Ryan looks back. ‘What did you say?’

Shane repeats, the same words, the same sounds. To Ryan, it sounds like nonsense, thought he can at least pick up on the emotions behind them: confusion, and a little bit of fear. So they’re both on the same page, then.

He gestures at the empty seat. ‘Come on, dude.’

Shane stands there for a moment, looking like he might cry, before obliging.

Was Ryan really doing this? He’d heard a million times before that you’re never meant to pick up a hitchhiker, in case they’re a serial killer. The inverse was also apparently true, though, and he wasn’t about to off Shane and throw his body into a ditch. He’s too squeamish for that.

Shane gets in and closes the door, his movements slow and deliberate. His eyes scan the console, the lights and dials and what-not. He soaks it all in as if it’s all brand new to him.Ryan drums his fingers against the steering wheel. Shane reaches out and puts his hand over Ryan’s. The energy comes back, and Ryan suppresses a shudder. He feels an inexplicable sense of gratitude from Shane.

‘Thank you, so much’ says Shane, half a second later.

‘You’re welcome,’ Ryan replies, relieved, though for what, he isn’t sure. He’s got the feeling that everything’s going to turn out alright. It took him a second to realise that, despite hearing Shane speak, his lips hadn’t moved.

‘Oh,’ thinks Ryan, and he swears that somewhere, in the back of his head, he can feels Shane’s recognition.
Shane smiles.

Oh.

 

-

 

So. Ryan has a hitchhiker called Shane. Shane, the guy that knows what he’s going to say before he says it, but can only do this - can only understand what he’s saying - when they’re holding hands. (OK, so not literal hand-holding. Shane does it a few more times, once on the shoulder, so he doubts it can only be done with his hands -- whatever it is.) He finds out that this is the only way Shane communicates the hard way.

An hour has passed since Ryan picked up Shane. They’re still on the same fucking road, though by now they’ve passed an isolated farmhouse or two. They’re getting close to a town, Ryan can feel it. He’s tired. Scratch that, he can feel the tiredness seep into his bones. Screw coffee, he needs plain old sleep. He needs a pillow under his head and a soft blanket...he needs to stop driving.

He glances over at Shane: he’s staring out of the window with rapt attention, like he might miss something. He does this despite the fact that it’s still dark out. Without his headlights, Ryan wouldn’t be able to see his hand in front of his face. It’s extremely late, or absurdly early, Ryan doesn’t know. Doesn’t care to know how long he’s been driving.

Shane says...something. The peak and dip in intonation towards the end of his speech implies a question, though it’s meaning is lost on Ryan.

He stifles a yawn before responding, ‘What? I don’t know what you’re saying.’

Shane reaches out, his expressive eyes asking what his words can’t. There’s a crease in his forehead, not quite a frown. Of concentration, perhaps. Or frustration. Ryan takes a hand off the wheel and meets Shane’s own.

‘I said, the sky’s getting lighter. Why is that?’

Ryan steals a glance out of Shane’s window. On the horizon, a sliver of lighter yellows and oranges are mingling with the deep blues of the night. Ryan guesses the sun will be up in about an hour. Shane won’t take his eyes off of the view.

‘It’s almost sunrise,’ he peeks at his watch and winces at the time. He yawns. God, he’s tired. ‘As soon as we find a place to stop, I’m going to sleep.’

‘Oh! Energy. You need to replenish energy.’

‘Yeah.’ And he felt so exhausted, he didn’t question how strange Shane’s choice of words sounded.