The Incident on Highway 2

The Pattery Sisters and I were the first ones to spot him when he appeared.

The Sisters lived on the outskirts of Little Rock, at the edge of the forest in a massive Victorian. The house hadn’t seen repair since the 70s, and I was damned if it hadn’t collapsed on them in their sleep yet. They ran a modest bed-and-breakfast out of the place and had been there as long as anyone in town could remember.

The woods there were thin, and the unkempt dirt road that was supposed to be the 2 highway slogged right past the house, through the forest, and into town. If you were to head the other way, all you’d find was a grass field on either side of the road that ran on into forever, save for the occasional oak. The specter of the old Beaverton County junkyard crowned the sea of grass on the horizon, long abandoned for a newer site with more modern equipment closer to central Beaverton. No one came this far up into the New England sticks unless they had to. Even had he arrived in a less dramatic manner, his presence would still have been cause for discussion and inevitable rumors in town.

That day, the Patteries had invited me over for tea. I’d no idea why they’d invited me. I knew of them like everyone else in town, and we’d once shared a brief conversation at the Spring Solstice carnival about the dangers of rollercoasters. That was the extent of our relationship. But they were known for their peculiarities, and they were sweet enough that the townsfolk forgave them for it. I imagined they were being friendly, and while I appreciated the gesture, I had hoped to spend the weekend alone. Susan had gone to spend the week with her parents up in Bangor and for once I actually had space to myself. Maybe I’d get some writing done. But the Sisters were regarded as celebrities in town, for some reason. You didn’t say “no” to a Pattery invite.

The Sisters kept a small army of stray cats and dogs that lounged around the property. Some were semi-feral, some were pets that had wound up here one way or another. Apparently, their deadbeat owners in Little Rock had never bothered to pick them up.

Why they kept them, that’s another thing I don’t know. Loss, I imagine. Maybe to feel a sense of the motherhood they’d been robbed of. Nobody knew much about the Patteries, but I remember hearing in town rumors of their youth. One Sister had turned out to be infertile. The other had miscarried and divorced. Which Sister suffered which tragedy depended on who you heard the rumor from.

I tapped the glass of my iced tea erratically, half-listening to the Sisters go on about… whatever. The fights with Susan were getting more frequent. The differences between us we used to laugh off and make jokes about, we now argued over. I knew they were mostly my fault. I couldn’t muster the strength to care. And the baby being on the way only made me feel worse about the whole thing. Like every harsh word between Susan and I was a poison seed we were planting in our unborn daughter.

This wasn’t how I’d imagined being forty as a kid, with my career and marriage both running on fumes. But in retrospect it makes sense. My life had been one long series of injustices and mistakes, haunting me with the knowledge of what could have gone right. I’d chosen to become a writer when I should have become a doctor. I’d married my college girlfriend when I should have broken up with her. In both cases I’d wanted the latter, but being a coward resigned myself to the former. What was left of me by forty was bitter and unhappy and sought fault in others to raise my own self-esteem.

Like many people, I’d wanted what I never had all my life. But growing up timid, I never found the discipline or courage to attain any of it. I began to make excuses and blame other people for my unhappiness. Women, success, money. I desired more, did nothing, and inevitably grew miserable.

Still, I was glad for the company of people older than me. It’s always comforting to know that there are those who’ve already experienced what’s happening to you. That way it’s not a mystery you have to face alone.

So, that evening, it was me, Maisie, and Frances. Maisie was in a wicker rocking chair stitching up a pair of blue jeans. Frances was on the porch swing next to me painting the face of a faded old wooden doll. There living room was populated with a handful of the things, most of them girls and a few boys similar to those American Girl dolls. Other than the head and eyes being almost imperceptibly too large, they were incredibly life-like. I asked about the doll and Frances lit up. She’d made them, she said, in imitation of the hōko BJDs. Small, ball-jointed dolls the Japanese traditionally gave to pregnant mothers. The dolls were supposed protect both mother and baby.

“Protect them from what?” I asked.

“Other people, dear,” Maisie answered, stitching away. “What else?”

Frances opened her mouth to speak when we saw him.

He came out of the setting sun, the clouds nothing but feathers of cinders. The tall grasses, the fences, the only two trees in the fields splashed in inky shadow. The sky bled color and threw the black silhouette of the far-off junkyard into stark relief.

He shambled as if only half-alive. Dressed in a ratty pink bath robe and blue slippers that were clearly too small for him. Under all the dirt and matted hair on his face, the guy looked to be in his early twenties. I felt a pang of jealousy upon making out his naturally strong jaw, the full hairline, the clear skin. I’d never been much of a looker, and though I’d never really attempted to change that, there I was, feeling insecure about it.

“Jesus,” I remember Maisie saying. “That road doesn’t reach Auberdine for another forty miles.” And then she and Frances were hobbling down the porch steps as fast as two little old ladies could, because the guy had collapsed on the asphalt. The strays all swarmed after the Sisters, leaving me on the porch to process the scene.

When I carried the guy in, cradling him like a baby, I noticed something through the tatters of his robe. I probably would have missed it if he hadn’t been illuminated in the blaze of the sunset.

In the middle of his chest, there was the faint but definite outline of a square no bigger than my fist.

I processed the peculiar shape as the result of some surgery.

That’s a hell of a patch job, I remember thinking, because for the life of me I couldn’t spot a single suture.

Hitchhiker, as people in town first came to call him, and later on Hitch, ended up staying with the Pattery Sisters after they nursed him back to health. We all just figured he didn’t have anywhere to go, and that the Patteries had adopted him like another of one their strays.

The town christened him with the name Hitchhiker because there was simply no way he’d managed walk all the way to Little Rock from Auberdine. Not when that road was a total void of civilization, save the old junkyard. We figured he’d either watched a whole lot of Man vs. Wild or some well-meaning idiot had driven him a portion of the way and dropped him off in the middle of the New England wilderness. But as to why he wanted to come to Little Rock, we hadn’t a clue.

Little Rock didn’t get many visitors that weren’t friends or relatives of someone in town. Susan had wanted to move here after she became pregnant because it reminded her of her childhood. She thought it’d be a great place to raise the baby after she was born. Me being a struggling novelist, my office was my laptop. I preferred big cities with lots of people, but had no good reason to say no.

It’s not like I’d ever really wanted to be a novelist. Writing just happened to be one of the few things I was good at. I’d never really applied myself to any focus in life. Never chased something with a hunger. I was afraid of failure and rejection. And I guess I pretty much grew up to have the life you’d expect based on that tidbit alone. I married someone who was safe. I had a safe life and never tried changing it, for better or worse. Given that, a cozy, backwater New England town out in the boonies was a predictable place to grow old and die.

Little Rock is a town of less than two thousand people nestled right in between Sebago Lake and the White Mountains. In the fall, the trees blaze with autumn, and if you row out to the middle of the lake and turn around, the town looks exactly like those picturesque sceneries they use for postcards and default computer desktop wallpapers.

It’s such a regular piece of paradise you could just vomit.

A couple days after Hitch appeared, I found myself driving back out to the Patteries; in the confusion of Hitch’s dramatic appearance, I’d forgotten to invite them to dinner with Susan and I as thanks for their invitation to tea. Really, though, I hoped it would break up the monotony and tension at home.

When I was five or six, I read an article about a toddler who had drowned at the Small World water ride at Disneyland. I was horrified at the time, but now I just envy that toddler. It must be nice, dying when the world is still full of magic. Before you grow up and have to grapple with what a shitshow life really is.

“Oh, that would be lovely,” Frances said in the living room after my invitation. The place had a very turn-of-the-century vibe to it, infused with the Sisters’ own personal touches: lots of stained glass, curtains, upholstery, most of it in dark, warm hues. The place was decorated with enough pointless knick-knacks and bowls and candelabras to make you feel claustrophobic. Several of France’s wooden dolls sat perched on bookshelves or end tables around the room. “Let me go find Maisie and make sure we’re free Tuesday night.”

God bless her, I couldn’t imagine what a busy schedule for two old ladies might look like. Off she went upstairs to go find her sister. I was left to entertain myself, and turned my focus to the forest of meaningless doodads around me.

I sat there for a good five minutes pondering the purpose of the glass candy on the coffee table. Why did people buy this crap? Who preferred imitation over the real thing?

That’s when I heard it. In the guest room behind me.

The scratch of something being wound up. Real loud.

It startled me so badly I dropped the piece of candy I was examining and it clattered on the glass of the table. When the clangor subsided, I listened again. But the scratching had stopped.

A few seconds later, Hitch passed the doorway to the living room in more reasonable clothing. He looked at me as he went with a non-committal smile that acknowledged my existence but meant he wasn’t going to stop and chat. I nodded to him.

Then he was gone, and I was alone again.

In the minutes before Frances came back and confirmed our dinner date, I thought of the look Hitch had given me. How it might have just been the dim light of the stained-glass lamps; how it looked like he’d already been wearing that smile before he even realized I was there. Like it was just the way his face was at rest, the same half-dead expression everyone wears when they look at a dresser or a chair or anything of no significance to them.

As Frances walked me to the front door, I asked her about the guest room.

“That’s Hitch’s room, dear,” she said, opening the door and showing me the inside. “We brought out the good linens for him.”

The room wasn’t big. A quick look told me the only thing in it that could be wound up was the porcelain ballerina music box on a shelf above the bed. Much too small to make the noise I’d heard through the wall. What I’d heard was something bigger.

Much bigger.

I thanked Frances and stepped out onto the porch.

“Heavens, I almost forgot,” Frances exclaimed. “Would you mind if we brought Hitch with us to dinner? He’s such a sweet boy, and doesn’t know anyone else in town yet.”

I stopped. I thought of Hitch’s half-dead smile. For some reason, the thought of that kid walking the halls and rooms of my own house wasn’t one I enjoyed. But I didn’t want to be discourteous.

“Sure,” I said, putting on my best smile. “Yeah. Of course. Sure.”

I caught a last glimpse of the living room as I turned away from Frances. I had a moment of confusion, because I didn’t remember the dolls all facing the doorway I was just then passing through.

The next night, I fell asleep on the couch watching history documentaries on Netflix. That way, there was nowhere left for her to sleep but the bed.

A couple days later, I saw Hitch on my way to the coffee shop. A team of construction workers was renovating one of the local bookstores. Hitch stood on the sidewalk with the foreman.

“You’re a gentleman and a scholar, kid,” the foreman was saying, clapping a hand on the kid’s shoulder.

Hitch smiled and said nothing.

“That so?” the man chuckled. “Think I have an old Norton kickin round if’n ya need it. Hey, boys and I are gonna grab some beers at the Blue Bonnet after we’re done here. You wanna come, I’ll make sure Fuzzy doesn’t card ya.”

The way was narrow and I passed close enough to smell them. Sweat and deodorant and a little bit of weed, that was the foreman. But there was also the scent of wood. Good wood, much too close or fresh to be the planks and plywood the workers were cutting.

And then, underneath the racket of everything


was a strange noise. Faint under all the noise of the construction site, but there and indisputable in its clockwork rhythm. Far too loud to be any reasonable size of watch, which neither was wearing to begin with.

What the hell? I thought, leaving them behind.

As I passed out of earshot, the foreman erupted into laughter.

“You got jokes, boy! You got jokes!”

I saw a lot more of Hitch than I expected to in the days that followed. On my morning walk to the coffee shop to get some writing done, on the way back from the grocery store, down by Sebago Lake when I took a stroll with Susan, even at church with the Patteries. And the strange thing was, for a stranger who just appeared out of the sunset and shadows and didn’t know anyone in town, he was almost always accompanied by someone.

When Susan and I saw him at Sebago Lake, he was walking with a raven-haired girl in a flowery, curve-hugging dress.

“You never told me what happened to your chest,” I heard her tell him.

Hitch only looked at her, wearing the same enigmatic smile he’d given me at the Sisters’.

The girl laughed. “You’re such a tease,” she said, and slipped her hand into his. There was no reaction on Hitch’s part. It didn’t even look like he moved his fingers when she curled hers into his.

“Really?” I heard Susan ask.

“What?” I asked, snapped out of my reverie and turning to face her.

“If you’re going to ogle jailbait in front of me, you could at least try to be discreet.”

I started to explain I had actually been watching Hitch. But if I was being honest, my eyes hadn’t just been on him. The sun would catch the girl at odd angles, bringing her thighs into silhouette. Her arms were slender and brown and her face was full of nubile cheer. Just the sort of girl I’d always wanted in college, but never had the courage to talk to.

Susan was attractive in her own way, and we had many of the same interests, but nothing about her had ever really reached out and struck me. She was safe, and enjoyed making her life about embellishing her little daily routines. I realized long ago I had settled. It’s a filthy, ugly thought, and just having it makes you feel like scum. But it’s better than lying to yourself.

Of course, I didn’t have the balls to say anything close resembling that. Instead I mumbled, “Sorry, hon,” and let a tense silence grow between us. If nothing else, I refused to lie to her. Yet by then, telling her the truth had become unthinkable. How do you tell someone you no longer love them?

So I chose to say nothing. Susan dropped my hand. We returned to the house without speaking and she moved out onto the couch that night.

Tuesday night. The Patteries arrived right on time for dinner with Hitch in tow. He’d dressed up in a nice shirt and tie and slicked his hair back with way too much hair gel. I greeted them at the door just as Susan was setting the table and gave hugs to the Sisters like their frail bodies were made of porcelain. Seeing there was no way I could get out of it, I took Hitch’s outstretched hand, gripped, and shook it. Then I blinked.

Something was wrong with his hand. What I grasped felt nothing like what a hand should feel like. It was… hard. Bulky. The flesh didn’t give with pressure, like it was already stretched tight over whatever was under it. Then the kid dropped my hand and I had to be a pleasant host again.

Nobody seemed to care that Hitch didn’t speak the entire meal.

In fact, not only did they carry on normal conversation and include him as if he had spoken, but he swiftly became the focus of the night. My wife and the Sisters spit out their tea at unspoken jokes, sympathized with untold sad stories. I did my best to play along. If anyone noticed the quiver in my voice or the sweat on my brow, they didn’t say anything.

No one seemed to notice his silence. In fact, my wife took a shine to him after he shoveled down four plates of her brisket. She insisted Hitch eat more. The grin on her face reached her eyes, rather than the sorry, polite smile I’d grown so used to. She laughed from her stomach, told stories I’d never heard with vivacity I’d never seen. Her face glowed in a way I’d forgotten and her beauty I’d never been partial to reached out and struck me.

Over the course of that evening, I watched my wife slowly become the woman I’d always wanted. The one I thought I’d married. And it wasn’t me bringing her that joy, but—

I looked at Hitch, and off-handedly wondered if I was capable of murder.

“Oh,” Susan laughed along with the Patteries. Apparently Hitch had cracked another rib-tickler. “Girls, where did you find him?”

Mercifully, ten o’clock rolled around and the Patteries had to go. While the women were busy making a long goodbye even longer out on the front porch, I somehow got left waiting politely in the dining room for Hitch to finish getting his damned coat on. He did.

“Well,” I said, shooting my hand forward, “it was nice seeing—”

Hitch didn’t take my hand. He just looked at me, with the same usual self-amused look. I withdrew my hand and peered at him. “You, uh—you okay, son?”

The only sounds were Susan and the Sisters outside. The slow chatter of the living room clock ticking out my heartbeat. He didn’t move. He didn’t blink. I took a cautious step to the side. The kid just bore a hole into the Matisse knock-off hanging in our foyer. I waited.

The thought he may have been suffering some kind of stroke flitted across my mind and was forgotten. Three minutes must have passed until I collected the courage to tap him on the head. The boy started and jerked back to life. He faced me, and did something he’d never done before. He smiled. Not the self-amused smile always plastered on his face. But a big, knowing, grin. Licking the edges of his teeth.

Then he turned and walked out the door into the night. My wife soon came in and for the sweet life of her could not shut up about him. Soon she asked what was wrong. Instead of answering, I turned to clean off the table. I suggested she go put up her feet.

The light went out of her face, and without a word she walked into the bedroom like a freshly-snuffed candle.

I didn’t sleep that night. I elected to spend my insomnia at the living room window, watching the trees dance in the midnight wind. I lost sense of time.

I was losing my mind. Stress. That was the only explanation here. Seven years of a marriage doomed from the start. Getting pregnant in the belief it will make things better for us. The realization we were wrong. The strange weight of his hand, that weird smile, that stretch of silence with only the clock to fill—

I paused. The clock.

The only clock in earshot of the living room was a digital Kasio we kept on the mantle.

And digital clocks don’t tick.

Next morning I snapped at Susan for leaving the dishes in the sink and made her cry. After that I burned breakfast, inhaled half a pack of Camels on the porch, and nearly knocked down the mailbox with my pickup while leaving for the Blue Bonnet at two in the afternoon.

Two days later– during which Susan hardly spoke to me– I followed Hitch around town. The guy was all over the place. He didn’t seem to have any destination in mind, but was just walking around town “talking” to people. Everyone found a reason to love him, and nothing they said about him matched what anyone else said.

A local novelist I’d come to respect and admire had lunch with Hitch at Green’s Diner. She had read his manuscript, she said, and was floored by his “emotional and shining creative spirit.” I frowned, all too aware she’d never paid my work so much as a compliment. Within the hour, the kid was at the house of a professor I’d had in college. A chemist named Norman Greenberg. I listened from under Mr. Greenberg’s kitchen window as his grainy voice described a scholarship. He’d read Hitch’s chemical breakdown and comparison of leothyronine and the oft-preferred levothyroxine in treating hypothyroidism. My brow furrowed; I’d been rejected by the same scholarship when I was young because I hadn’t been able to find a teacher willing to sponsor me.

“—steadfast and scientific mind!” the old bastard crowed. “Shift the value of the reference range and everything fits together! Magnifi—”

I spat and left.

His handsome features invited many beautiful girls to approach. Opportunities showered him everywhere he went. People bickered amongst themselves over whose Fourth of July barbeque Hitch would attend. Opportunities practically fell on his head out of the sky. The kid didn’t pull a grin all day, not like the one he had done with me.

When the sun began to descend, I saw him heading off from the coffee shop toward the Patteries’. So I hopped in my car and raced ahead of him.

The stretch of the 2 between Little Rock proper and the Sisters’ house is a lonely one through the woods, and on foot it’s about a half-hour walk. I picked a spot on the road a little after the town fell out of sight and well before the Patteries’ came into view, pulled to the side of the road and killed the engine. I got out, leaned against the truck, waited. I had brought a flask of Jim Beam and an entire pack of Camels to keep me company. I was parked under the trees, so he wouldn’t see me until I wanted him to.

By the time the kid came into view, it was well after dark and I had gotten a good buzz going on. Probably a heavier one then I’d meant to. The woods there were thick, but the canopy was thin and the moon brought the road to an otherworldly glow. I was about to step out and confront Hitch when he began to slow, as if running out of juice, until his steps started to sputter and came to a full stop mid-step. He looked around and took off his shirt.

I paused, sweating.

Even from this distance, the unsutured square in his chest was visible in the moonlight. He pushed on the side of it, and click, it popped open like a door. He groped around inside his chest cavity before he found whatever he was looking for.

He twisting his hand as if turning something inside, and a loud noise of gears being wound up scratched through the night.

My cigarette fell to the dirt.

The next thing I know, I’m striding across the blue mist of the pavement.

“I knew it,” I shouted. “You bastard, I knew it.”

The kid paused in winding up whatever the Christ was inside him and looked up. And, horribly, upon seeing me he put on that same grin again, except now in the shadows and moonbeams it looked too toothy, too wide.

“Son of a bitch,” I snarled to ward off my fear, and pushed him back, making him stumble. I was shocked by the surge of joy I felt at the physical control, even disgusted. But I kept walking forward, kept pushing him out of the road. The sensation of control grew. I liked it.

“You think you can screw with me, come into my house and mess with my head, what the hell are you—”

He wasn’t fighting back. He just smiled through my belligerence. His grin grew sicker, wronger the deeper into the shadows we got. I gave him a good, solid sumo-wrestler shove. He flew back, hitting a tree with skull-rattling force.

I stopped.

What was I doing? I’d only meant to scare the kid into some answers. I hadn’t meant to take it this far.

“Aw, geez,” I muttered. “I’m—I’m sorry, kid. I didn’t mean to—”

That’s as far as I got. The kid’s impact with the tree had apparently knocked something loose and his entire torso swung open on a hinge. Even this far into the dark I could see his innards of gears and cogs, hear them churning and whirring the terrible


heartbeat of a clock.

I knew then there wasn’t an ounce of flesh in it. Its face had grown flat, like it had been painted on. The whorls and rings of its wooden skin became visible in the moonlight.

I screamed, all fear. I stumbled back as it approached me, dripping ichor. Maybe oil. Maybe blood. I didn’t really care then. I was busy trying to remember how my legs worked. It reached for me. The front of its body hung open, its mechanical intestines hard at work.

It was too detailed to be a hallucination. On the inside of its body’s door glittered strange words in a language I didn’t know. Symbols I’d never seen before but my mind recoiled from with revulsion.

Somehow through the absurdity, my paralyzed mind managed to squeeze out doll he’s just a doll, so I did the only thing I could think to do, the only thing that made sense then. I threw my flask into its clockwork guts, rammed my burning lighter into the mess of whiskey and metal and wood and


The thing exploded into flame. I shielded my face with my arms, fell stumbling ass over teakettle. I got up on all fours to catch my breath. A second later I looked up, and saw he was still coming. A giant, shambling pyre. Behind the fire wreathing him was that same nightmare grin promising God-knows-what, shadows twisting and jerking all around. His burning torso hung open, and still he approached me.

Ice filled my throat. Each heartbeat became an artillery burst in my ears.

Then a splintering noise. His left leg crumbled in half, and he went down.

I didn’t stick around to watch the fire burn out. I scrambled, fell, got up and lunged for my pickup on the other side of the road, ripped the driver’s door open, started the truck, didn’t hear it in my panic, started it again, almost flooded the engine, and tore into a U-turn in a big swerving fishtail, tires squealing.

And as I wrestled the steering wheel to face the truck in the right direction, the doll burned in the dirt behind me. Except now I couldn’t see the torso-door that had hidden its horrid digestive tract of gears and pipes. And there was no way it had already burned up. Yet the weird torso door was gone, like it had never even been there. For all I could tell, the figure writhing in the flame could have been human.

Then my tires caught the road. The pickup shot forward and I let the haze of my terror fly me home.

But God help me, not even in the craze of my fear could I pretend I didn’t hear the cries for help dying away with the fire behind me.