The Hitchhiker

 

                                                          by  The Old Wife

 

            Vincent Thatcher pulled off the interstate and turned onto Old Post Road .  Few people traveled that route; they much preferred taking Route 33, a two-lane highway that bisected the commercial area of town.  Route 33 was lined with fast food restaurants, department stores, strip malls, townhouses and small businesses.  Old Post Road , on the other hand, was virtually deserted.  The houses were few and far between, and the only busi­ness—if you could call it that—was the old Woodvale Cemetery . 

            The dark loneliness of Old Post Road didn’t bother Vincent.  He had a good spare tire, was a member of AAA and always carried a fully charged cell phone.  So, potential car trouble presented no serious threat to his peace of mind.  In fact, he preferred taking Old Post Road because he could travel at a steady 60 mph.  There was none of the stop-and-go traffic or red lights that were so common on Route 33.

            Vincent inserted an Eric Clapton CD into his stereo, turned on his high beams and headed south.  He had driven only three miles when he spied a person walking alongside the road.  He slowed the Miata to 35 miles an hour.  As he neared the figure, he saw that it was a young woman and, improbable as it was, she was hitchhiking.  Vincent pulled the car up next to her, stopped and opened the door.

            “Thanks,” the young woman said as she eased her body into the passenger seat.  “I was afraid that I would have to walk all the way home.”

            Upon close inspection, the hitchhiker looked no more than 16 or 17 years old.  “Aren’t you afraid to be out hitch­hiking on this dark, deserted road—especially this late at night?” he asked incredulously.

            “No, why should I be?  I live just up ahead.”

            Hadn’t her parents warned her against the dangers of hitchhiking?  Perhaps she didn’t pay attention.

            Vincent continued along Old Post Road , but kept his speed to the posted limit of 40.  He didn’t want to risk getting into an accident with a passenger in his car. 

            They hadn’t driven far, when Vincent noticed the girl’s clothing.  Hers was not like any outfit he’d seen on the teenagers he encountered during the course of his day.  She wore a dress that looked like a costume out of “The Great Gatsby.”   Even the shoes, jewelry and make-up looked like that of a roaring twenties flapper.  It wasn’t Halloween; why was she dressed like that? 

            Vincent found her strange appearance somewhat disturbing.  He tried making small talk, more to set himself, rather than his passenger, at ease.  “Do you like Clapton?” he asked.

            “Sure,” she said shrugging her shoulders, obviously not too eager to get into a discussion on music.

            “If you don’t mind my asking, where were you walking from?”

            “I was at a party at Abbott Hall over at MSU.”  That explained her odd attire, Vincent thought.  During his days at MSU, following the popularity of the movie Animal House, toga parties were all the rage.  Maybe this year flapper parties were the big thing.  “A friend gave me a ride from the campus as far as Old Post Road .  My name’s Amelia, by the way, Amelia Randall.”

            “Pleased to meet you, Amelia.  My name’s Vincent Thatcher.”

            “Vincent?  That sounds like an old man’s name, so stuffed shirt.  I like Vinnie better.”

            “Most of my friends call me Vince.  I don’t care too much for Vinnie.  It reminds me of a gangster.”

            Amelia laughed.  “You don’t look like a gangster.  You don’t have a big scar on your face like Capone.”

            Vince thought it odd that she would associate the word “gangster” with Al Capone.  Most girls her age would be more familiar with “The Godfather” or “The Sopranos.”  With actors such as Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro and Ray Liotta portraying them, mobsters had taken on a more romantic image in the eyes of moviegoers.

            “Do you go to MSU, Amelia?” Vince asked.

            “Oh no.  I’m only 16.  I go to the Amanda Winthrop Academy for Young Ladies.”

            Vince had heard that name before, but he didn’t remember where.  Perhaps it was one of those new prep schools where his more affluent friends sent their children. 

            “I just saw a good movie over at the Sony Theater in the mall,” Vince said, trying to keep up the conversation.

            “Oh really?” Amelia asked with genuine interest.  “Who starred in it?”

            “John Travolta.”

            “Never heard of him,” she replied. 

            That was odd, Vince thought.  Even his 10-year-old niece knew who John Travolta was.

            “What actors do you like?” he asked.  “Brad Pitt?  Ben Affleck?  Matt Damon?”

            “I really loved Valentino!  He was so dreamy!  What a shame he had to die”

            A sudden chill shot up Vince’s spine.  Valentino died in 1926.  Not many teenagers today had heard of the great Latin lover much less ever watched his silent movies. 

            “I also like Chaplin, but not in the same way.”

            “You must attend a lot of silent film festivals,” Vince said.

            “I go to the matinee at the movie house on Third Street .”

            The chill in Vince’s spine turned to fear.  Third Street had been renamed Kennedy Boulevard right after the former president’s assassination.  Furthermore, the old movie house had been torn down in 1971, and a K-Mart Super­store now stood in its place. 

            Was this a bad joke?  Was this young lady simply pulling his leg?  Or was she a refugee from the local funny farm?

            “I don’t live too much further,” Amelia said. 

            In a matter of moments the wrought iron gates of Woodvale Cemetery appeared on the right.  Vince looked through the darkness on his left where he could see in the distance the lighted windows of a farmhouse.  “Is that where you live, Amelia?” he asked turning toward his passenger.  His words fell on the empty air.  Amelia had vanished.

            Vince hit the brakes hard and pulled the car off the road onto the gravel shoulder.  His heart beat rapidly, and his legs began to shake.  He had often heard tales of ghostly hitchhikers like those of a young woman named Annie who was said to haunt a lonely stretch of Riverview Drive in Totowa , New Jersey , not far from the Laurel Grove Cemetery where she was supposedly buried.  A more famous apparition, Resurrection Mary, was said to have accepted numerous rides to Chicago ’s Resurrection Cemetery , her final resting place.  Vince had always thought such stories were good for entertainment on stormy nights or around a blazing campfire, but that they were just that—stories.  There were no such things as ghosts, or were there?  After having met Amelia Randall, he was no longer so sure.

            Vince waited several minutes for his nerves to calm.  He was about to put the entire episode behind him and drive off, when a movement to his right caught his attention.  Something white seemed to be moving among the headstones of Woodvale Cemetery .  It couldn’t be Amelia, he reasoned, because she had been wearing a red dress.  This thing, whatever it was, appeared to be ducking behind the stones as it moved deeper into the cemetery. 

            Vince’s fear gave way to anger as he became convinced that he was on the receiving end of a practical joke.  That moving flash of white out there was more than likely a second teenager who was in league with Amelia in trying to frighten Vince out of his wits.  Well, they wouldn’t succeed.  In fact, Vince thought with wry amusement, he was capable of turning a good practical joke himself. 

            He turned off the engine, removed the keys from the ignition and got out of his car.  After locking the car doors, Vince opened the trunk.  Inside was his old hunting rifle.  Smiling mischievously, he shouldered the gun and locked the trunk.

            Affecting his best Brooklyn accent, he yelled to the pair of pranksters, “Hey, it’s me Vinnie, and I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse.” 

            This was fun, he thought, as he saw the white figure dive behind another headstone.  Vince pursued it, chang­ing his persona from “The Godfather” to that of Jack Nicholson, “Little pigs, little pigs,” he laughed.  He tried to recite the entire scene from “The Shining”—one of his favorites—but he was too keyed up to repeat it verbatim.  “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down.  Here’s Johnny!” he yelled as he ran toward the direction of the figure in white.

            He saw the jokester move once more as it darted behind a large monument standing guard over a family plot.  As he closed in on his prey, he started singing, “Bad boys, bad boys, what you gonna do?  What you gonna do when they come for you?” 

            Vince was standing only inches away from the huge marble monument.  It was Clint Eastwood who closed in for the kill.  “Are you feeling lucky today, punk?”  Vince, pretending to aim his rifle, ran behind the monument to confront the teenager. 

            “Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Vince said feeling like a horse’s ass.  He reached down and picked up the mysterious figure in white.  “All this time I’ve been chasing a damned newspaper!” 

            The hunt had been so absurd that Vince couldn’t help laughing.  Kneeling on his hands and knees in the damp grass of Woodvale Cemetery , Vincent Thatcher laughed so hard his eyes began to tear and his side began to ache.  If he didn’t stop laughing, he’d surely pee his pants.  Vince need not have worried about spoiling his Dockers, however.  When his eyes focused on the front page of the phantom newspaper, his laughter abruptly stopped. 

            “Local Girl Found Murdered,” the headline proclaimed.  Beneath it was a school photograph of Amelia, his mysteri­ous hitchhiker.  Vince quickly skimmed through the article. 

            “Amelia Randall, a senior at the Amanda Winthrop Academy for Young Ladies, was apparently strangled to death on the evening of May 15, 1928 .  Miss Randall’s body was found on a wooded lot near the campus of MSU.  She had attended a party at Abbot Hall on the night of her murder, and was last seen leaving with one of the male students.”

            The paper in Vince’s hand was crisp and free of wrinkles.  It had definitely not been blowing about the ceme­tery for more than 70 years.  Even so, Vince no longer deluded himself into thinking this was nothing but a practical joke.  Amelia hadn’t simply jumped out of his car while it was going 30 mph.  The door hadn’t even opened.  No, his young hitchhiker had disappeared into thin air. 

            “Amelia,” he whispered, trying to reestablish contact with her spirit.  “It was no coincidence that you were out on the road tonight.  Today’s May 15, the anniversary of your death.” 

            As he spoke, he heard a soft, sweet disembodied laugh—Amelia’s—coming from behind him.  “Where are you?” he called to her.  Again, the soft laughter.  Vince followed the sound of it.

            “You left this newspaper here for me to find, didn’t you?  You were trying to tell me something.  What is it, Amelia?”  The continued laughter was her only reply.

            Vince felt an icy touch on his shoulder.  He spun around, but no one was there.  He looked down at the old, chipped headstone at his feet.  It was nearly hidden by the overgrown grass.  He knelt and pushed the growth away.  Engraved in large block letters were the words, “AMELIA MARIE RANDALL, born 1912 died 1928.”

            “Come on, Amelia, stop playing games.  You didn’t bring me here just to show me your grave.  What do you want?  Do you have a message for someone?” 

            No, Vince thought.  Amelia was killed in 1928; her friends and family must all be dead by now.  “Do you want me to help find your murderer?” 

            That was equally ludicrous.  He was probably dead by now, too.  “Look, Amelia, if you want me to help you, you’re going to have to help me.”

            A car horn suddenly sounded two loud blasts.  Vince reeled around to look at his car.  No one could have gotten inside.  The doors were locked, and he had the keys in his pocket.  As Vince watched, his right headlight came on.  It cut through the darkness of the night, like a flashlight beam illuminating an old headstone about 40 yards from Amelia’s.

            Suddenly, Vince had had enough of ghostbusting.  He wanted to get back into his car and continue along Old Post Road to ... to ...  where?  With a sudden sense of dread, Vince realized he had no clue as to his destination.  He wasn’t even sure where he had been coming from.  Had he really been to a movie out at the Sony Theater in the mall?  He didn’t think so.  Then where had he been?

            The headlight blinked off and on again.  Vince had the inexplicable feeling that the answer to his question would be found at the end of that beam of light.  Now the question was:  did he really want to discover the answer?  Vince knew he had no choice.

            He walked slowly forward, one foot in front of the other like a robot.  It was as though he had taken these steps before, in some form of atonement ritual.  As he had so often in the past 30 years, he stopped at the foot of the grave and stared down at the plain stone monument, at his own name engraved upon it.  “VINCENT THATCHER,” the ornate letters proclaimed, “born 1910, died 1973.” 

            Amelia’s laughter, no longer soft and sweet, could be heard throughout the cemetery.  Her spirit appeared briefly to Vince once more, looking as she had the night of the party at Abbott Hall, wearing the red dress of a flapper—one quite unsuitable for a student of the Amanda Winthrop Academy for Young Ladies.  Amelia’s youthful beauty that had been obliterated by an untimely death had been restored for all eternity.  It was marred now only by her pinched lips and the look of cold hatred in her eyes.

            Vince had once pursued this beautiful creature with a passion that knew no bounds.  After her murder he secretly grieved for her and prayed for her to forgive his evil deed.  Now, however, he sought only peace and an end to her vengeance that had haunted him for nearly 30 years. 

            As the dawn’s sun appeared on the eastern horizon, Vincent Thatcher’s spirit faded into the morning mist.  His soul would rest at peace for another year, until the night of May 15 came again, at which time he would find himself pulling off of the interstate onto Old Post Road , a lonely, deserted thoroughfare that ran past the old Woodvale Cemetery .

  

 

                                                               --END--

 

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