A LIFE, PART ONE: THE HITCHER
By: Char Chaffin
Category: MSR, third person POV, Vignette Rating: PG
Disclaimer: originals not mine - clones are a different story, though -
STORYLINE, THANKS: See Header Notes, Part 0
Spoilers: Vague, Seasons One through Nine
Dedication: To Donna on her birthday - Happy Birthday, Sweetie!
Summary: Even smart women can be dumb about some things...
You know, I usually don't pick up hitchhikers. Never. It's dangerous for a woman. I know that for every five people in the world, two point five of them are deviant. Statistics. I know that to pick up a hitcher is to just ask for trouble.
I drive a nice car and I'm not bad-looking. I get hit on a lot. I'm not vain but I'm not stupid, either - I know what goes through men's minds when they look at me. They see blonde hair and a big chest, and they think I'm dumb and easy. I know this. And I'm not sure why so many men see that combination and think those things. I have a high IQ and a good job. I own my own home. I am far from stupid - not to mention far from easy.
However, earlier today - I was stupid. I picked up a hitchhiker.
I was driving along Route Nine, mid-point between Saratoga Springs and Ballston Spa. I'd been visiting my mother, who lives in Clifton Park, not that any of this means squat to you. But think of it as setting the scene, if you will.
Well, it was raining and the wind was just howling. Happens like that around here sometimes, this time of year. March never knows whether it wants to be a lion or a lamb - I suppose this time it chose lion.
So I was driving along, the radio playing low and helping me to forget that I really despise driving alone in storms. I nosed my way through Malta, driving slower than the requisite twenty-five through town, mostly because of the weather - thinking of a warm fireplace waiting for me at home in Lake Placid - and I hit a huge puddle at the intersection of Main and Spring, drenching a pedestrian who was standing on the corner with a thumb out, obviously hitching.
I slammed on the brakes and rolled down the passenger side window, prepared to apologize all over myself... and the wet face that bent down and peered in at me just about took my breath away.
Hazel eyes, that's what I saw first. Even in the gloom of a stormy day and the rain pouring down, I could see the color. His hair was soaked and plastered to his head; rainwater ran down his face and dripped from his nose and jawline - a strong, determined jawline. Full, lush lips. Broad shoulders under a soaking wet windbreaker, long legs encased in what appeared to be wet, snug-fitting jeans. He stared at me and I gawked at him - and after a full minute of this surrealism, he opened my car door and climbed inside. Before I could say anything that amounted to, 'Get the hell out of my car,' he'd sat down and fastened the seat belt and was politely thanking me for stopping for him, as he was rolling up the window. MY window...
Yet, that voice of his - it nearly did me in. Low. Raspy yet coated in honey. As he spoke I saw a flash of white teeth when he smiled wearily at me. He shook back his hair and droplets flew about, some of them hitting me. And that's when I woke up and came to my senses, and said, "Get out of my car."
My voice must have been noticeably trembling because the man smiled reassuringly at me, murmuring, "Look, I'm harmless. I've been walking in the rain for hours and I'm exhausted and soaked to the bone and sore and cold. My wallet got stolen back in Jonesville and I've been walking ever since. Believe me if I still had money I'd have bought a bus ticket, or maybe a used car. But it's rather hard to do something like that without any cash." He slicked the wet hair out of his face and turned to me, pinning me with two very sincere-looking eyes. "I really am harmless. And too wiped out to do more than fall asleep. Do you know how many drivers don't stop for hitchhikers, these days? If you're going as far as Saratoga or maybe even Lake George, I'd really appreciate the ride. I need to get to Plattsburgh." He leaned his head against the back of my seat and his eyes never wavered, never looked away.
Did I mention I'm a sucker for hazel eyes and dark hair? Guess not.
Hey, I'm human. I may be smarter than the average female but I am just that - female. And there was something about this man... something that told me I was safe. It was insane, and yes I freely admit, I was stupid - but I merely locked gazes with his a little longer, then I gave a tiny nod, put the car into gear and pulled back out into the street.
As I drove through the last red light and Main Street turned back into Route Nine, I said, "I'm going as far as Lake Placid." I glanced at him; he'd already slumped down in the seat and his eyes were closed, lashes dark and curling against the tired shadows under his eyes. Without opening them he whispered in a weary rumble.
"Thank you - that'll be fine. I really appreciate this, you know." A minute later I could hear his even breathing over the ping of rain on my windshield. He was already asleep.
I drove on through the wet day, catching the Northway outside of Malta. The wind had intensified and the rain was coming down harder, setting the scene for the absolute worst spring storm I had seen in years. At times the downpour was so heavy that I couldn't see a thing, and found myself slowing down to thirty miles per hour, in a sixty mile per hour speed zone. It was one hairy ride. I had my headlights on since the weather had darkened the day into almost twilight.
My damp passenger slept on, completely dead to the world. Briefly I swung my attention from the road to his face, noting that his hair had mostly dried and revealed itself to be a deep chocolate color, thick and silky-looking. His cheeks and chin were stubbled with beard growth. Occasionally he snuffled in his sleep, as if he'd developed a runny nose.
I was so captivated by the way he looked snuggled into the seat next to me that I failed to notice the deer that leapt into the lane from the forest to the right of me, up on the shoulder of the road and springing right across my headlights. I gasped, clutching the wheel, hands frozen in place, seeing the startled doe eyes, knowing I was going to kill the poor creature... and the next second two strong hands were grasping the wheel, right over mine; the car was swerving a hard left and then a right - and we were airborne over the right shoulder and then hitting and shuddering to a stop on the soft berm.
He let go of my hands and I released my frozen fingers, brought them to my face and promptly burst into tears. I pressed my forehead into the wheel and sobbed - and the feel of his hand on my hair should have startled me, but for some reason it didn't. Likewise the soft warmth of his voice should have rung some bells - but it didn't. The hand held comfort, as did the voice - and I latched onto both.
"Hey, it's okay. You didn't hit it. Not even a nick. Just take a few deep breaths; calm down." His hand stroked over my head a few more times, then he turned to look out the window. I lifted my head and followed his gaze; even as shaky as I was I could tell we were tilted, there on the berm.
I groaned out a feeble, "We're stuck in the mud, oh, God..." The man nodded, and sighed as he reached for the door handle and opened it.
He turned to me and once again gave me a reassuring smile.
"You steer. I'll push."
Ten minutes later we were back on the road. And I was in the passenger seat - and my hitchhiker was driving. He had mud coating the bottom of his jeans; I had muck on my shoes. My car was a mess, inside and out. The rain was still pouring down and the wind still howled but I felt safe from the storm.
Looking back on the whole thing I cannot believe I was so... stupid. That word keeps coming to the forefront of what little brain I have left. In the course of an hour I had not only tried driving in a horrible storm instead of waiting it out at my mother's house, but had let a strange man into my car, and now was blithely sitting in the passenger seat while he drove.
Once he got back in I must have been really trembling badly and noticeably, because after looking me over for a moment he got out again, came around to my side, pulled me out and gently walked me around to the passenger side, depositing me into a seat still warm from his body.
I let him take over. I never let men take command; it's simply not acceptable to me. But I let this man drive my car and treat me like some helpless female. And I lay in the warmth he left in the passenger seat as he drove the Northway, toward Lake Placid...
After about twenty miles, he began to talk. I'd been sitting sideways in the seat, watching him drive - watching him, mostly. The way his hands gripped the steering wheel, the elegant strength of long, tanned fingers controlling my car. How his eyes stayed focused on the road and the occasional hum of his voice along with the lowplaying radio. I suppose he could feel my eyes on him, perhaps could sense my strong attraction to him, because when he opened that beautiful mouth of his, and began to speak... he spoke of a woman he adored and a son he hadn't seen since two days after his child's birth. He spoke and I listened - and I have never in my life been jealous or envious of what another woman may have... but I was jealous of the one who had this man locked up in her heart.
I think he badly needed to talk about his loved ones... because once he started he didn't want to stop.
He spoke of the years they'd known each other, of all the time they'd wasted pretending nothing more than a friendship. The way they'd worked together and how it began as a fear of losing their partnership if they became anything more than friends - how they were always too afraid to jeopardize that by taking themselves to a different level. How they almost lost each other more than once; almost died for each other, WOULD have died for each other... came together one lonely night when she was in despair and he found that in wanting to help her he could finally admit to her that all he wanted was her love.
My hitchhiker told me these things, revealed his life to me, while he drove me home. In a low, sometimes hoarse voice, warmed by memories of her - he told me. How they'd despaired of their relationship working out; the way she wanted so badly to have a child, and the black day when they thought for certain she would never conceive. The miracle of coming back to her after months and months of enforced separation and discovering he was going to be a father - of almost losing her and the baby, only to find them, at last find them both. Finding them, loving them so briefly, the way he'd always dreamed of loving his family... Two days of having them in his arms. Forty-eight hours, and then although he never said why he lost them, I understood they somehow became lost to him, and in these subsequent months he'd been on the move, leaving them farther and farther behind. Unwillingly. Heartbreakingly.
He spoke and I cried silent tears for all that he'd taken so long to accept, everything he'd been given a magical taste of, only to lose it in the most desolate way. In the darkening gloom of the car's interior I let my tears fall quietly and I doubt he knew his story had affected me that way. His voice petered out and he cleared his throat as one hand fiddled with the radio. He flicked a glance my way and I was glad the darkness hid my puffy eyes. He smiled a little and sighed.
"I probably bored you to tears... sorry. It felt good to talk about it, though. I needed to talk about it -" A tiny self-depreciating chuckle, and suddenly I knew why he'd told me. Maybe I'd suspected all along... It was more than needing to tell someone.
It was a warning. A gentle warning - that he was taken. That someone owned his heart and took careful care of his soul. A woman who was very, very lucky to have his love - a little boy who no doubt had his wonderful hazel eyes. These two people belonged to him and he was theirs, forever. Maybe he'd been gone for months. Maybe he would never go home again. He never really said and by the time his story was revealed to me I had already accepted the fact of this man remaining in my life for hours, at the most.
Besides, I knew because of the way I'd been ogling him all during the silent ride north, that his tactful way of setting me straight was by far the kindest let-down I had ever been given. No false hope - no lies. No pretense... this was an honorable man. I knew it - though I never knew his name. I didn't think to ask and he never volunteered it.
But somehow I knew this man's honor.
It was late and dark when we got to Lake Placid. The bus station was only eight miles from my house, and I gave him enough money for a ticket to Plattsburgh. He didn't want to take it. And I didn't want him out in the driving rain any longer. I pushed the bills into his hand and he finally accepted them.
We stood just inside the bus station where it was warm and dry. I stuck out a hand to shake, and he took my fingers gently, turned my hand over and pressed a kiss into my palm. He held my hand - and my gaze - and while my heart melted down into my wet shoes, he spoke a few words that meant so much more to me than a goodbye.
"Thanks for everything - mostly, thanks for listening to me. I'm going back to my family... I think it's time."
I smiled at him through tears blurring my eyes, and this time I was glad for him and his family though I still felt that envy. With one last smile that lit up his eyes and flooded his tired face, the man turned and walked away. He boarded the bus and I watched it drive away - and I stood rooted to the spot for a long time after its taillights winked out of sight.
I said I was an intelligent woman. I said that I never did anything stupid, such as pick up hitchers. You never know what they could do to you, in the confines of your car, barreling down the road in a rainstorm. You never know. It could be something that could alter your life forever... like make you care for them.
Well, in this instance, I did a very stupid thing. I let a hitcher into my car. And I fell in love with a man who can never love anyone except a very lucky woman who bore his child and owns his soul.
"A Life" will be continued in "Far From the Madding Crowd"
If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to Char Chaffin
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