Route 09 has a reputation for darkness. The trees know this and add to its façade, blanketing the winding roads with devilish shade even on the sunniest of days. Home to wolf packs unafraid of blinding headlights and families of deer who almost purposefully blockade the highway’s exits. Not even road workers bother to light the path, forcing drivers to rely on their navigation systems, if the service doesn’t cut out mid-trip. There’s a single gas station about 17 miles further into the forest’s grasp, but not even the gas jockey would unlock his glass doors to service you. The highwaymen make sure of this. Which makes my job much easier.
I’d wait behind trees with a foldout chair, a flashlight and a bucket of rusted nails to “fertilize” the roadway. Anything to stop a vehicle, not total it, but encourage it to pull over onto my territory. The others would see from the treetops or beneath the shrubs they fashioned into turtle shells, and they would know that this was my prey to taunt. But that’s when I saw the creeping light through the foliage, a petite grey Honda slowly rounding the bend, most likely spooked by a prancing deer or another mirage of Route 09.
I decided to change my plan and adopt the hitchhiker bit that only worked about nine percent of the time. I crept out from behind my tree and waited by the side of the road, preparing myself to take on the role of a lost camper. With my thumb out, my face in shock, and my flashlight waving, I managed to flag down the car. But in truth, I don’t think they needed much convincing. The window rolled down, and amid the gasps of skunky smoke and the low gritting thump of whatever Frank Sinatra song was playing on the radio, there was a red-eyed girl with one hand on the wheel and the other lazily gripping a roll with two fingers.
“You need a ride?” her voice was sweet. Kind. It almost made me feel guilty for taking her offer. It almost made me feel guilty for the dull rusted knife in my pant pocket. But they’re all sweet, all kind, all hopelessly gullible before they’re about to die. So maybe I don’t feel guilty. Maybe I should just enjoy the blasting heat, Sinatra’s scratchy “That’s Life” and the eye-watering secondhand smoke from inside the car.
Her hair was dirty blonde, visibly unwashed, and from the corner of my eye I swore I saw a leaf stuck in her messy bun. She wore a stained white tank top in the dead of October with unbuttoned jean shorts and heavily worn cowboy boots, showcasing the half-finished patchwork on her arms, neck and upper thighs. Her driving hand tapped the steering wheel to the beat, checking and grinning into her rearview mirror as if there wasn’t a strange man beside her.
“You a local?” I asked, my predator senses stumped by my prey’s behavior.
Finally, her giggly eyes found mine, before swaying back towards the slithering roads, “You could say that.” Her smoking hand locked the doors.
I nodded softly, grabbing the handle of my knife in my right-hand pocket. I don’t know what it was, but something felt off about this hunt in particular. Normally, my pulse would be racing by now, hard with anticipation. Normally, by now I could feel the fear fizz on the tip of my tongue. Normally the fly I caught in the web I spun would know they had made a grave mistake. Maybe it’s the contact high, but I couldn’t stop wondering why this girl kept smiling into her rearview mirror.
“You know, it isn’t safe for campers out here.”
I felt like I should be telling her this. Her foot pressed on the gas, and her grip on the wheel tightened as the speedometer inched toward 90 mph.
“You never know who’s just around the corner,” her lips curled into a smirk, but I didn’t understand the joke.
Fun time’s over. I slid the knife out and pressed it against my thigh, letting the light bounce off the blade, just enough for her to see it, “Pull over.”
“Aw, have I missed your exit?” Her laugh morphed with Sinatra’s screeching ballad, her eyes smirking into the rearview mirror once again.
Smoke crawled out from her nose, “You were easier than I thought you’d be.”
But before I could strike, her smoking hand bent backward, and a larger hand stretched from the darkness behind me and accepted the joint, “I’d put that away if I were you.”
The voice was deep, dark and directly behind me. And the knife he held to my neck was shinier, sharper and much larger than mine. But I guess this is the price I pay for victim shopping on Route 09.