Stranger in the Night
The old Nissan Micra trundled through the night, swiping at the gobbets of rain that pounded its windscreen. Hemmed in by two tall, hunched hedges, it followed the thin stretch of road, the surrounding fields silent save for the soft rustle of disturbed undergrowth. Only its headlights illuminated the way through the darkness.
Then its engine spluttered, chugged a few feet, and died. The driver looked down at his warning lights: they were all dead. He raised his head, and was startled to see a black silhouette in the glare of the headlights.
‘H-hello?’ he called.
The silhouette moved forward. The driver could make out his features now: his hair was long and straggled, and his frame short and bent, as if he’d been raised hiding in the shadows; the clothes he wore were unironed and uncared for.
The man leaned forward, and rapped twice on the side-window. Keeping his gaze fixed on him, the driver lowered it.
‘Can I help you?’ the driver inquired.
‘Help me?’ the stranger said, obscured in the shadow. He shook his head. ‘No no no. I’m here to help you. Gots me a car over that way,’ he said, pointing across the field. ‘Seems yoos be needin’ a lift.’ A grin flashed over his eager face, but whether it was malicious or friendly, the driver couldn’t say.
‘Are you sure?’ the driver asked, unsure which response he desired. ‘I’m headed to the coast.’
‘The coast? Tha’s no problem. Dropped many folk off at the coast,’ the man said. Then, when neither moved, ‘Come on, this way,’ as he turned and walked down the gravelled path. Grabbing his flashlight from its compartment box, the driver hurried after him.
The field was rough and overgrown. Weeds choked the soil, and tall, thickly clumped meadow-grass often snagged the driver’s shoes, sending him stumbling and his torchlight wobbling. Rainwater drenched his body, and in concordance with the wind, blurred and distorted the way ahead. He trailed the stranger in silence, like a dog being pulled on a leash.
‘Here we are,’ the stranger announced as he descended a small bank that fell back on to the road. He pulled out the key to the central locking system, and several clicks followed, then walked around and entered the Ford Mondeo. Its model was clearly long past, but its coating and framework were pristine; stark against the stranger’s dishevelled appearance. His head was visible through the side-window, watching. The driver felt as though the mud had turned to quicksand, cementing his feet to the spot. It didn’t feel scary; it felt safe.
‘You comin’?’ the stranger called. ‘You c’n send someone to pick yer stuff up in the mornin’.’ His eyes were like magnets, cold and fixed, drawing the driver towards him.
‘Uh, yes yes, sure, just thinking about something,’ the driver said, and his feet crossed the threshold, into the thrumming car below.
The journey was long, and a stiff silence clogged the air, thick with the smell of cheap whiskey and wasted years. Out of the corner of his eye, the driver could see the stranger: gaunt, yet not malnourished, concealed in a shaggy mask of hair. ‘Ah, what’s your name?’
The doors locked. The stranger told him. ‘An’ yours?’
‘…Sid. Sid Blackwell.’
‘Wha’s yer profession?’
‘I’m a salesman. You know, door-to-door stuff mainly. Just going up to see the kids, first time in months. The wife, well, ex-wife, works a lot, so it’s difficult to arrange anything. You?’
‘No.’ The stranger maintained his gaze dead ahead. Sid decided to let the conversation lie.
Time passed incrementally, or not at all. The road and country seemed to repeat itself, like the background of a cartoon, the characters getting nowhere. Sid had no idea where he was.
The man turned his head; that grin still cracked his lips. ‘Jus’ gonna pull in up here.’ Sid looked ahead and saw the familiar glow of an Esso station, like a pale, seductive lantern. ‘Okay.’ The Ford Mondeo stopped at the far petrol pump, and the stranger exited to fill his car, then left to pay at the nearby store.
Sid sat, listening to the drumming of the rain. Absently, he dropped the torch from one hand to the other, and back. It occurred to him he hadn’t let go of it. He reached forward, and opened the glove compartment, clearing items to one side to make room for his torch. A silver gleam caught his eye. Staring at the source, he saw a wooden hilt, its attachment blanketed in a fine white wool. He withdrew it.
The item was light, well balanced and smooth. In the light, Sid saw that blotches of red dotted the white. Lump in his throat, he unfurled the wool. A shining blade was revealed, cold and sharp. Crimson seemed to ooze from its shell.
Sid’s eyes were blank, as if he’d just seen someone killed in a hit and run. He’d told this man about his children. Peering over his shoulder, he shoved the re-wrapped knife in the glove compartment, and bolted out of the door.
The man was coming back now; steady, head bowed. Sid positioned himself under the nearest security camera, his footfalls alerting the stranger. The man looked up. They were only eight feet apart.
‘I-I’m not coming with you.’
‘I-I’ll be fine now, don’t worry, you can head home. I’ve called for a taxi. It’ll be here any minute.’
The stranger’s lips curled into a pursed, inane grin. It appeared to be carved from granite. Neither moved.
Then the stranger walked forward. Sid darted back, but the stranger carried on, oblivious. He unlocked the door, and settled into the car. The ignition grumbled. Gently, the Ford Mondeo rolled away; out of the station, out of the light, on to the wide, soulless grin of a road.