Short Story: Lonely Companion

The open road is a lonely companion. 
Ten miles back, Brianne passed a highway sign of a deer crossing that someone had graffitied over, saying: "Do NOT pick up the hitchhiker in the red coat." She hadn't thought much of the sign, given that she'd seen ones suggesting that she should avoid anal probes with an alien on it and a bigfoot is watching you sign. It seemed out in the middle of the desert where there was little threat of getting caught by the police was the place to let your shitty art skills fly. 
At the moment, there were more pressing concerns than the local urban myths. The gas indicator was getting perilously close to E, and the map showed that the next decent-sized town was on the other side of the mountains that arose in the far distance. 
Keeping a moderate pace with the car to save the gas she had, she continued down the road until she saw the rusted skeleton of an American Oil Company rising above the dusty horizon.
"Thank god," she muttered under her breath. 
Turning the wheel, she pulled her car next to the single gas pump in the middle of the empty lot. It was one of the old gas pumps with rotating numbers and not a digital feature, meaning nowhere to insert a credit card. 
Brianne locked the doors out of habit even though there probably wasn't another soul for over a hundred miles. 
She headed towards the dilapidated shack serving as the storefront for the station. 
Opening the door that squeaked on disused hinges, the store was dark compared to the baking sun outside, and it took a moment for her eyes to adjust. The inside of the store was exactly as she had expected. Rusty magazine spinners with magazines with nearly faded dates on wilting covers, sparsely filled shelves with food that was likely expired, other assorted dusty vehicular necessities, and a vague indiscernible oil and must smell. 
Preparing herself to deal with a clerk who she anticipated would be in as much disrepair as the shop, her breath caught when she saw a young man about her age, long black hair to his shoulders, muscled chest under a tight band shirt, and broken in blue jeans.
"H... hi," she stammered.
"Hi there," he responded with a smile and a voice that conveyed no discernible accent. "What can I do for you."
"I need twenty on pump one."
"Sure thing, miss. I'll help you as those pumps can be finicky."
Stepping from behind the counter, he moved forward and opened the door for her, leading her back into the sun. His dark form was even more in contrast out in the bright daylight. 
The hot air filled her lungs as she realized she'd been holding her breath. 
"You lucked out stopping here; this is the last gas station before Kennewick. A lot of folks die out there, thinking they can make it and then end up sun-bleached on the side of the highway."
"That's awful," she said, looking out at the road disappearing into the horizon. "This whole stretch of highway is odd. All those signs on the drive from the north."
He was silent for a moment, pumping the handle it shuddered in his hand, indicating the twenty dollars was spent. 
"I'd pay heed to those signs, miss. There's a lot of strange things out here on the edge of civilization. As cities grew up and legends faded, all those myths had to go somewhere. What better place than a wide-open desert where no one would see them, and if they did, no one would believe them."
A feeling of unease grew in her stomach.
"Well, thank you," she said. "I really should go and try to make Kennewick before sunset."
"Alright, it's been nice to talk to someone. Remember, be careful. These are lonely roads that are always looking to be less lonely."
"Mhmm," she mumbled in reply, already sliding back into the car. 
Pulling out of the gas station, she watched the boy in the rearview mirror; his black hair hung limply at his shoulders, black tee hugging his body, and unsettling grin as he disappeared behind her. 
Miles under her wheels and signing along to her road trip mix, she had put the entire experience out of her head. She estimated she still had about seventy miles to go until the mountains and pushed the accelerator to the floor with no concern about local law enforcement. The barren landscape passed uninterrupted until she saw a flash of red appear on the horizon. There on the side of the road was a figure in a red hooded coat. 
"It can't be real," she said to herself. "It's got to be a mirage."
Out of curiosity and against better judgment, she slowed down at the outstretched hand in the form of a thumb. 
Just look, don't stop, she screamed to herself. 
Her passenger side window slid down silently as she slowed the car to match the figures walking pace. As she pulled alongside the figure, the red hood pulled low so she couldn't see the face. 
Without turning, it spoke to her—"It's lonely out here in the desert, I could use some company. Want to join me?"
The boy's words came rushing back to her as her foot pressed fully down on the gas pedal. Speeding away, she looked in her mirror and saw the red hood blow open and back, and there was a figure with limp black hair, a black band tee, and a terrible familiar grin smiling at her from a face without flesh. 

Copyright © 2021 TJS Sherman All rights reserved.

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