I have authored a novel for Amazon's self-publishing program. It's called The Suit in the Backpack.
On Being Indistinguishable - A Short Story
On Being Indistinguishable - A Short Story
I lost my resort-town job in Jasper, Alberta in late October of 2010. However, since I knew in advance of my termination date that the layoff was coming, I had planned well ahead. As I left town, I had high hopes that I would enjoy a long and scenic drive between the Canadian Rockies and the west coast, my home. It was only when I decided to stop for a hitchhiker that I opened the door for some unwanted drama in what otherwise could have been a relaxing day.
I left Jasper via the Yellowhead Highway just after dawn on a Wednesday. About 30 kilometers out of town, I spotted a hitchhiker in the distance on my side of the road. As I neared this person, I realized that the individual was a young woman. That fact and her location in a remote area both got me thinking.
I couldn't help but wonder how she had arrived at such a desolate point on the highway, especially at such an early hour. She couldn't, I thought, have walked there from the nearest hotel and, in my mind, that meant that she must have exited a vehicle near where she stood.
With that assumed, I considered it relevant that there wasn't an intersection near this stretch of highway. It meant that the hitchhiker's former driver could not have executed a turn, one that could have terminated the two parties' shared route. Whoever her previous driver was seemed to carry on west while simply leaving this west-traveling passenger behind.
As I neared the roadside woman, I speculated that maybe the hitchhiker and her former driver had parted in an unfriendly manner. It even crossed my mind that perhaps she had just fended off an attack of some sort, maybe from an overly amorous male. It was this thought that was heavy on my conscience when I asked myself: "Should I stop or should I drive on?"
When I answered that question, I felt a touch of annoyance. I wanted an uneventful day as I drove and, to that end, ignoring a stranded traveler seemed like the right thing to do. Yet, at the moment of truth, I found that I wasn't able to abdicate my conscience. Instead, I half-heartedly eased off of the gas pedal when I neared the lone woman. I slowly passed her, I gave her a glance, and then I came to a complete stop about ten meters after her.
She was slender, she appeared to be about 21 years old, she carried a large red backpack, and she had a scared look on her flushed face. Despite some annoyance with the situation, I resolved that I would act extra nice to her given that I was a stocky man in my late twenties. I felt like she could only be feeling vulnerable given her predicament.
When I leaned over to the passenger-side window to lower it, I looked at her reflection in the side-door mirror. At this point, I saw her pause as she approached my car. Then, in a few fleeting seconds, the young woman both took a picture of my vehicle's rear with her cell phone's camera and then carried on walking.
"So where ya headed?" I asked her with a forced smile when she reached the open window.
"Where you headed?" she countered with a slight scowl.
After a short pause, I replied, "Vancouver Island."
With her lips pressed together, she opened the car door as though to enter. However, instead of getting in immediately, she first inspected the interior of the passenger-side door. With it swung open, she pushed the lock down and then tugged on the inside handle. After the lock popped back up, she began to remove her large backpack.
"Wudder you doing?" she asked curtly, her eyes wide like an owl's, as I reached down and pulled the trunk-release lever.
I paused, a bit stunned by what I interpreted as suspicion.
"Well I thought ya might put yer bag in the trunk," I replied.
She then pointed to the leg space in front of the seat.
"I'll keep it up here," she asserted while scrutinizing me.
I expected that she'd change her mind given how squashed the inside of the car would be. Regardless, before I could carry on down the highway I had to exit my vehicle to close the trunk.
After lifting it up and then slamming it shut I caught a glare from the hitchhiker, a paralyzing look that lasered through the back window of my car. Whatever she was thinking, she definitely meant business as her wide eyes focused on me. As a matter of instinct, I flashed my bare hands at my new passenger to make sure she could see that I wasn't holding anything. She did not reciprocate, as I could see that she had her left hand deep in her backpack.
I'd only known the hitchhiker for a minute, but it was clear that she wasn't sure whether or not I was helping her out of the goodness of my heart. Firstly, she'd snapped my license plate, perhaps to identify me if I assaulted her. Secondly, she'd assured herself that the door handle worked from the inside, possibly protecting herself against a planned trap. Lastly, she had carefully watched me as I'd closed my trunk, maybe out of fear that I was getting a weapon. If I wasn't mistaken, then the hitchhiker was concerned that I might have been out to harm her.
At first, my perception of what I considered overt suspicion was hard to accept: she was the one that had effectively asked for my help with the thumb-up signal on the side of the highway. Yet, I did realize that I had suspected, with basically no evidence, that her former driver had treated her poorly. It seemed that we, the hitchhiker and I, both had a prejudice against people that picked up hitchhikers.
I knew that many had associated the Yellowhead Highway with several cases of missing and/or murdered women, women that were last seen hitchhiking somewhere between the Rocky Mountains and Prince Rupert. Such were the numbers of these cases that writers, locals, and news agencies often referred to this stretch of the Yellowhead Highway as the "Highway of Tears." That I viewed myself as 'Mr. Nice Guy' while picking up a hitchhiker in this stretch of the highway without reflecting on how other people might see me was a mistake. In an attempt to appear friendly, I tried to initiate some small talk.
"Odd spot t' be at this time," I commented as I shoulder checked, "with not much traffic."
"I had a ride earlier," the young woman quietly replied, confirming what I'd suspected.
I would have asked what ended her earlier ride but did not feel welcomed to do so. In fact, the hitchhiker and I barely spoke on the road ahead, and I didn't even ask her name. Furthermore, since I figured she would know where she needed to get out, I did not pester her about her destination.
As I drove, I maintained a speed that was slower than the limit to avoid any chance of a fine. As a result, a few speeding vehicles passed us on the Yellowhead before I turned south toward Valemount.
I noticed when these cars passed, that the hitchhiker paid close attention to them. It was only in these moments that the unpleasant vibe around her changed.
In one instance, the hitchhiker reached across the space between my chest and the steering wheel and gave the driver of a passing car a friendly peace sign. She behaved in a similar manner when two other vehicles passed us. The behavior would have seemed odd except that it lined up with my belief that she'd regarded me as a man who had questionable intentions.
"She wants to be seen," I thought to myself.
I decided that her hitchhiking method involved making sure her drivers knew that others had seen her in their cars. In this way, perhaps she probably thought that she could deter criminal acts by any so-inclined person that picked her up. Although her fears of me were unwarranted, I still felt that the young woman was being smart. Based on her knowledge of how dangerous hitchhiking could be, she'd evidently developed a method that, as far as I could see, would generally increase her survival chances as she took part in an often dangerous activity.
She might have been interesting to talk to if she hadn't been so quiet. However, her nervousness started to bother me. As we drove toward Valemount, I hoped that her journey in my vehicle would end in the short term. On that matter, I'd already resolved not to kick her out as I assumed her previous driver had. The same conscience that compelled me to stop for her would prevent me from sticking her roadside without serious merit.
"I need a bathroom break really bad," she remarked when we were in the midst of Valemount's businesses.
I guessed from that admission that she would not be ending her trip with me in the small British Columbian town but would instead carry on. I further surmised that she was selling the urgency of her need for the bathroom so as to put the maximum pressure on me to cooperate.
I stopped at a gas station that had an adjoined restaurant, parked in one of the outer-fueling stalls, and then rolled down my window to enjoy the breeze. On her way to the restroom, the hitchhiker, despite her claim that her need for the restroom pressed, interacted with three people.
As she spoke amidst the refueling vehicles, she again made her interpersonal interactions clear to me. For a few moments, she would face the person she was conversing with but, in the next few moments, she would turn her head a little and talk while looking at me.
With each of the three people she spoke to, the young woman communicated three points. To each, she stated that her name was Danielle; to each, she claimed that she was a hitchhiker heading to Vernon; and with each, she pointed at me, made judgemental eye contact with me, and stated that I was a driver that had picked her up.
The surface messages, I thought, were meant for the people she spoke to: her words contained clear information about her identity. While this information would help locate her if she went missing, I thought that there was a deeper message for me. After all, no one actually wants to end up on a missing person's website.
"I'm telling these people to remember your face," she seemed to be saying to me, "to remember your car. They know you might be the guy, that guy, and they know you were with me -- that you picked me up. If you dare harm me one of them will remember you."
When each person she spoke to glanced my way, I vouched for myself with a smile. But a feeling of horror grew in my throat when one bearded and middle-aged man in a blue cap returned both a grimace and rolled eyeballs that I felt reflected skeptical thought.
Moments later, with Danielle in the station, I observed this man's reflection in my mirrors. He walked around the rear of my car and casually glanced in the direction of my plate. He kept his back turned to me, but it looked like he entered some information into a cell phone.
In the context of my accidentally suspicious behavior, I could only wonder if the guy was hell-bent on heroism. I feared that, with an anonymous tip to the police, he might allege that he knew of a creep who had lured a helpless woman into his car near The Highway of Tears. That 'tip' could make someone with power and egregious discretion think that I might have been the man that lurked invisible to all -- all, except for the women that disappeared while hitchhiking.
Next, a sturdy 40-something-year-old woman walked out of the gas station's restaurant and approached my car. Her stride had such a determination to it that I prepared to be treated like Ted Bundy himself.
"So is Danielle rude to you too?" the woman asked with a smile that surprised me.
After a moment of confusion, I conjectured that this was the person that had dropped Danielle off on the side of the highway before I'd arrived on the scene back near Jasper. That she was a middle-aged woman refuted my earlier assumption of an overly amorous male motorist.
"She behaves a bit oddly," I confirmed. "How d'ya know 'er?"
"Well," she huffed, "I picked 'er up coming out of Jasper this mornin.' Bu' she almost pepper-sprayed me when I reached into the armrest compartment for a piece of a gum! After that, I kicked her out straight away!"
She gave a nod that validated her decision and then left me alone with a wave of her hand. A moment later, I glanced at Danielle's backpack and noticed a bulge near the top of it.
When I ran my hand over this bulge it felt like it could have been a can of mosquito repellent. But I also knew that it must have been this object that her left hand was near when I'd returned from the trunk -- and I wasn't a mosquito.
Five minutes later, my ever-so-favourite person returned.
"Sorry fer taking so long, but I'm getting such a great connection here that I decided to touch base with some friends," she said while holding up her cell phone. "Can we pose fer a pic?"
I knew that declining would be tantamount to an admission of intent to kill.
"Sure," I said unenthusiastically.
She then held her camera aloft while we both faced it, me through the driver-side window and her just outside of it. A few moments later she held the phone square to my face. This action showed me with absolute clarity that the picture of us was online at a popular social media website.
I could have left things alone, however, I had petty revenge on my mind. All of her unwarranted suspicions, even as I tried to do her a favor that she'd effectively asked for, had affronted me. I thought that I would burst her bubble with a reference to the picture of the back of my car, a picture she probably thought that she took on the lowdown as she approached my vehicle.
"I'm sure you already posted the pic of my plate," I snipped.
I stared at Danielle with the left side of my mouth turned downward. With bewildered eyes and clenched teeth, her head nodded a few millimeters, a minuscule confirmation that she had posted my plate online.
I shrugged my shoulders and chuckled.
"Rats!" I said sarcastically as I snapped my fingers in the air in front of me.
I thought that she would sense my sarcasm and just get back in the car but Danielle instead glared at me for a few moments more. Next, she took a quick look at the highway and strode a few paces from me. During the next several moments, she kept her back turned and her arms folded across the top of her abdomen.
I was of the opinion that part of her wanted to try her hitchhiking skills with another driver. When she retrieved her bag from the front seat, I took it as confirmation that she would in fact do that.
But, before I changed from 'Park' to 'Drive', she opened the back door and placed her bag on the passenger-side backseat. It was an action that could only mean that she wanted leg space more than she wanted to be near her aerosol can.
"Hey thanks," I said sarcastically.
After we started traveling again, we were both silent for a long time. But it was more of a comfortable silence than an awkward or tense one. In fact, my hitchhiker was so relaxed that she actually fell asleep for a bit.
When she woke up, Danielle acted softly toward me for the first time. She spoke openly about some of her fears when it came to people -- men and women alike -- that picked up hitchhikers. After she addressed this topic, I felt a little less insulted: part of what had bothered me must have been an incorrect belief that she'd treated me with suspicion only because I was a male.
During the balance of our time together, I learned that Danielle lived off of the small earnings of a coffee-shop barista. Her romantic interest, a woman named Cara, worked in Jasper at a hotel that stayed open year-round. They both took turns hitchhiking the route between Jasper and Vernon on their days off in hopes of keeping their relationship alive.
"Thanks pal," Danielle said pleasantly when she exited my car at a major junction in Kamloops.
That ended my direct association with her.
But, unfortunately, even after Danielle left, the maladjusted invisible lurker remained where he'd been since shortly after Jasper. I realized this and sped away in hopes of making an early-evening ferry bound for Vancouver Island. I had to be fast just in case his visible form picked Danielle up next and mutilated her.
For those that don't watch the crime shows...
If she started to decompose that Wednesday in a drainpipe, then there would be pencil-behind-the-ear half-scientists later on who would try to determine the time of her death. Well before she would be found -- by an individual who would have to be interrogated even if he had only stopped to take a pee -- the smarty-pants people would already have looked into who saw her last. One of these self-professed geniuses would raise his or her pointer-finger into the air and say "Aha!" when he or she viewed Danielle's falsely incriminating social media posts.
"Why on Earth," he or she would say to another with quizzical eyebrows, "I say to you good fellow 'Why on Earth!' would the decedent -- as the last thing she ever did online -- have been so determined to post this man's license plate for all her friends and family to see?"
And then the man from the gas station, regarding the photo of Danielle and me together...
"Oh yes! I saw her in Valemount with that creep! I'll say this about her for sure: she was behaving really oddly! I'll testify to that if you want!"
But -- and this was key -- if I got to the ferry quickly, then the time-stamped ferry receipt could prove exculpatory. There was a chance that it could establish that I couldn't have been at the scene of the carrion feast at a time relevant to the investigation.
Some would hate me anyway but I knew there were some people with power that at least partly cared about justice. With such a person in mind, I contentedly risked a high fine to get that receipt stamped as quickly as possible.
"NO HITCH-HIKING PICKUP IS ILLEGAL," the roadside signs often said en route.
That seemed to give the police the authority to search the cars of Good Samaritans and serial killers alike. I left small pieces of my concern for the well-being of hitchhikers beside those signs until it, my concern for others, was all gone.
"You shouldn't help anyone anymore," a very quiet and resigned voice said.
I figured that since it could be difficult, at times, to differentiate between someone who was trying to help another person and someone who was the scum of humanity, that I shouldn't be either. Whether this conclusion came from a voice of reason or from a whispering devil on my shoulder -- one that was placed there by the man I invited into my life when I stopped to pick Danielle up -- remains a valid question.
© 2021 Shane Lambert