The promise of some gas money had bought a ride with friends, though they could take him only as far as Sturbridge. And so it was just after eleven o'clock in the evening that they dropped him off at a Burger King on the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Stepping out of the car and into the cool night air, he waved goodbye to his friends, inwardly relieved to escape the cramped back seat, the too loud music, and the ever-present cloud of blue smoke.
Walking toward the restaurant, he assured himself again it wouldn't be too hard to find a ride home. It was only another twenty miles. He had always just assumed it would be close enough.
Through the darkness of the night, a black Lincoln Continental cruised along the Turnpike heading east at a steady hundred miles an hour. Behind its tinted windows, bass notes thumped percussively, while inside, the driver pounded spasmodically on the wheel.
In a greenish blur, he passed highway signs bearing the logo of the Turnpike, a cartoonish Pilgrim's hat. He smiled to recall that when he was a kid, the logo had been different. Same hat, but back then it had an Indian arrow running through it.
He cackled at the memory, while throughout the vehicle, George Thorogood's smoky rasp kept shouting out a question that in this car had no answer.
"Who do you love?
Who do you love?"
Hefting his duffel bag, the young man walked through the dining area and began tentatively approaching people. The first was a bespectacled man with a combover, seated in a booth against the window, drinking coffee and eating the last of his Whopper.
"Excuse me, sir," the boy said, putting on his friendliest and most non-threatening smile. "I'm trying to get to Dutton. You going anywhere near there?"
The man froze mid-chew before looking down at his lap, then out the window, looking anywhere except at the young man. The kid was polite, though. He'd gotten his answer. The next man he approached continued reading his newspaper while pretending he hadn't heard.
Sighing, the young man looked around the almost empty restaurant then down at his watch. It was after 11:30. He really should've expected this.
He glanced toward the counter and thought he caught the manager eying him suspiciously. He'd bought nothing since entering the restaurant and remembered suddenly he was famished.
The man in the black car reached beside him into a now almost empty box of Ho-Ho's. Drawing out the last of them, he threw the empty box into the back seat along with the rest of the garbage that had accumulated along the way.
The vehicle had been pristine when liberated from its owner, smelling then of leather and ArmorAll with just the barest hint of cherry. The car smelled now of its new owner, a sickly sweet scent of decaying Hostess treats along with a coppery, sanguineous undertone.
Scarfing down the last of the sweet cake, one hunger sated for the moment, the driver stole a glance into his rearview. He pulled his dark sunglasses down the end of his nose and stared a moment into his own yellowish wolves eyes, smiling to think he'd be home soon.
The young man sat in the booth recently vacated by combover mute guy, finishing off the last of his fries and sucking down what was left of his Coke.
A few older men and a couple of drunk fratboy types had come and gone in the few minutes it had taken him to eat. He had approached all of them, all with the same result.
There was this one man, a truck driver who'd overheard him asking for a ride. He seemed interested to help. A little too interested for the young man's liking. After declining politely, he hefted the duffelbag across his shoulder and hurriedly exited the restaurant.
He walked across the barren parking lot, past the gas pumps and toward the long curving exit. At the end of the ramp, he began walking along the breakdown lane of the dark highway where he started having second thoughts.
It wasn't too late to go back, he thought. Not too late to call someone for a ride.
But his parents would be asleep by now. And besides, this visit home was a surprise. Tomorrow was his mother's birthday.
Glancing up, he saw a bright halogen lamp a few hundred feet away. It looked as good a place as any to camp out a while and stick out his thumb. It was also a good place to be seen, giving potential drivers a chance to size him up.
Feeling better about things, he started walking in that direction. Halfway there, he heard a car coming from behind and stuck out his thumb half-heartedly, thinking he'd never be so lucky. A moment later he heard the loud screeching of brakes.
Still braking as it passed him by, the car swerved dangerously across the high-speed and passing lanes before finally coming to a stop in the travel lane about a hundred feet away. Curious and hopeful, the young man began walking toward the vehicle.
He heard the driver rev the powerful engine a few times. Moving closer, he heard pounding bass from a massive sub-woofer. When close enough to notice the car had Arizona plates, he looked up and saw the passenger window sliding open.
"I walked forty-seven miles of barbed wire,
I got a cobra snake for a necktie"
The young man walked over and put on his friendly smile. Bending over to peer in the window, he had to step backward against the powerful odor that wafted from within the vehicle. It was a sickly-sweet kind of smell along with a hint of something he remembered from the time he and his buddies snuck into a porno theater in Worcester.
Garbage was strewn throughout the vehicle. Empty boxes and plastic packaging along with the unmistakable white cardboard leftover from Hostess treats. He turned his head and took in a deep breath before bending over once again to peer in at the driver.
"A brand new house on the road side,
and it's made out of rattlesnake hide"
The driver was just a kid. A young teenager anyway. The young man kept the smile on his face while trying not to recoil from the vicious scars on the driver's face, leftover from what appeared to be third degree burns.
Pale and wan looking, he wore a khaki army jacket and jeans. His dirty blond hair was long and parted on the side, in a style the young man had seen only in movies from the eighties.
In another salute to the eighties, the driver was wearing Wayfarer sunglasses. Probably to hide the burns, the young man thought just before he spoke.
"Hey," he said, his voice friendly. "Thanks for stopping. How far you going?"
The driver did not glance his way when he answered in a voice the monotone of a longtime stoner.
"Got a brand new chimney put on top,
and it's made out of human skull"
The young man froze a moment, puzzled for some reason. It was another moment before he realized what it was. He could have sworn the kid's mouth hadn't moved at all.
But it took only another second for him to decide. Grantham was the next town over from Dutton. It was just too good to pass up. Anyway, he had a good thirty pounds on the scrawny kid. What's the worst that could happen?
Reaching down, he opened up the door. "I'm going to Dutton," he said getting into the car. He didn't notice the dome light hadn't gone on when he opened the door.
"Come on take a little walk with me child,
tell me who do you love?"
He had to stop a moment to push a few Hostess backings off the passenger seat, some with chocolate or pinkish coconut still clinging to them. As he pushed them to the floor with his gloved hand, the young man realized the kid must have some sweet tooth. Most of them looked like they'd been licked clean.
"Who do you love?
Who do you love?"