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The Hitchhiker

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It was the 8th of October and Jacob was driving home after visiting his cousins some miles away. It had been a dull, drizzly kind of a day and, as he drove through the misty countryside, occasional splatters of rain fell on the windscreen, held their position for a brief moment before cascading down the glass surface.

Jacob didn’t mind the depressing weather, he had his driving license, his car and his independence! He smiled, shifted slightly in the leather seat, flicked on the windscreen wipers and slapped his hands tight on the wheel, as if to reinforce his ownership of the vehicle, his very first car.

The dark had closed in and the monotonous journey was broken only by the occasional flash of headlights from motor vehicles travelling in the opposite direction. It was the sort of road where you could easily lose concentration and the young man found himself drifting deep into his own smug thoughts. The comfortable interior of the car added to his warm, cosy stupor as he whizzed along the road.

The radio that had been playing tracks from a local station crackled and died as he headed across the moorland towards the small town in which he lived. He was about ten miles from home, approaching a crossroads, when suddenly he was jolted from his stupor.

Straight ahead, standing in the road was a young woman. Oh my god, I can’t miss her! The horror of it seared through him.

His throat tightened and every muscle in Jacob’s body strained as he jammed on the brakes with all his might. The car kept going, tyres screeching along the wet surface. He closed his eyes anticipating the awful thud…

It seemed an age before Jacob dared to look. The car had shuddered to a halt just inches from the young woman. Jacob could see her dazed expression.

He prised his trembling hands away from the wheel. Perspiration glistened on his forehead and his heart thumped wildly as he got out of the car and approached the girl.

“Are you stupid!” he shouted, “You could have been killed! What do you think you’re doing, wandering in the road on a night like this?”

The young girl was dressed in the sheerest of silk evening gowns, now soaked and clinging to her legs. Her arms were crossed over a book, held close to her chest as if it were armour against his aggression. Her pale blue eyes were hazed with the hint of tears and her lovely features stood out clear against the drizzle of the night.

She turned her gaze upon Jacob. He felt that she could see though his bluster and irritation to his guilt at the speed he had been driving, and the lack of attention he had been paying to his surroundings. Despite the rain that plastered her hair around her face, he realised that everything about her was simple but classic. Not one to bend to the whims of modern fashion, thought Jacob.

The rain had picked up and Jacob was chilled to the bone. He reached inside his car for his jacket but instead of putting it around his own shoulders, he slipped it around the girl’s. At times he could be a bit arrogant, sometimes even thoughtless, but could never suppress the kindness that was central to his character.

“Are you heading for town?” he asked. She nodded.

“Need a lift?” She nodded again.

“I have to get some petrol at the station,” he said, “and then you can give me directions.” Once again the girl nodded in agreement and climbed into the back of the car.
“Look, I’m sorry,” said Jacob, “I must have scared you - driving that fast.”
She’s certainly stunning, he thought, unable to resist the occasional glance in the mirror. He had so many questions: why was she alone on such a night, where had she been, where was she going?

Instead he decided to bide his time and concentrate on his driving.

The rain was now a thick shimmering sheet engulfing the car with such ferocity that the wiper blades seemed almost overwhelmed, trying to keep open a small portal of vision.
They soon arrived at the petrol station. As Jacob pulled up, the young girl spoke. “You must take care, Jacob, this is a very dangerous road”. Startled by the mellow tone of her voice, he turned to answer but the girl had gone.

Jacob rushed to the passenger side of the car. He was too late, she was nowhere to be seen. The sadness in her eyes had disturbed him; he had wanted find out what had happened and why she was out in such flimsy clothes on such a terrible night. He felt a little disappointed. Did she not trust me to drive her home? he thought. Did I frighten her or say something wrong? Where did she go? Who was she anyway?

Then it struck him. My jacket, she’s got my jacket! He scrambled in the glove compartment and was relieved to see his wallet and credit cards.

Unable to do any more, he filled up with petrol and set off home. A thought occurred to him. Jacob, she called me Jacob. I don’t remember telling her my name. He decided that he must have done but, in the heat of the moment, he had forgotten.

The next two days were very busy for Jacob but, despite the whirl of activity, he could still hear that soft mellow voice speaking his name and he just couldn’t get out of his head the girl’s sad eyes that seemed to beg for his attention whilst remaining so aloof.

Two nights later, he once again found himself driving down the same road. This time the rain was relentless, lightning flashed and thunder roared.

As Jacob approached the intersection, he couldn’t help thinking of the beautiful young girl and the words she had said to him “Take care, Jacob, this is a very dangerous road.” Instinctively he slowed the car.
He was just wondering if he would see her again when, looming out of the darkness of the torrential downpour, came a huge grey silhouette. It was a wall of steel, straight in front of him.

Jacob gasped. He hit the brakes, nothing seemed to happen. He was sliding closer and closer towards oblivion. Please don’t let me die, please: he begged.

The tyres finally found enough friction to slow the car but impact was inevitable. There was a crunch of metal on metal and a sharp jolt. A book came flying from the back seat and hit Jacob squarely on the head. He was sweating profusely, unable to stop shaking.

He wiggled his toes and felt his legs with his hand. Everything still in working order, he thought, although a bit bruised. Tears of relief rolled uncontrollably down his face. “I’m alive”, he gasped aloud, “I’m alive”.

A flashlight was shining in the window and voices checking if he was alright, people dragging open his door and urging him to get out of the car and to safety.

Jacob staggered out to the roadside, ushered by a fatherly policeman who told him that an articulated lorry carrying fuel had lost control on the wet road and collided with another, spilling part of its content. The police had just arrived on the scene to cordon it off. The rain and petrol on the road made for lethal conditions. “You’re very lucky,” said the constable,“if you had been driving any faster, you’d not be here talking to us!”

The road was sealed off and the ambulance soon arrived. Jacob asked if he could retrieve his belongings before going off to hospital. He didn’t see the point but they were insisting that he was checked over. He was bending over the car to look for his wallet, when he saw on the front seat of the car a book, the one that had hit him on the head. It was a book of poetry, the one the girl had been clasping. Jacob grabbed it up with his wallet.

Later that night, when he was finally home and safe in his room, free from the police, the doctors and his parents’ anxious attentions, he took the book out of his pocket. The cover was faded and water marked and some of the pages had stuck together but inside he could just make out the words. “To my darling Emily on your special birthday – all my love Pa.”

Towards the centre of the book, half stuck to a page, was a faded envelope, the address on the envelope was still clear: 45 West Street. Now the young man thought he had a chance to see the girl once more. “What a lucky escape”, he murmured to himself, “I must return this and let Emily know how her words saved me tonight”.

It had taken a lot of persuasion for Jacobs’ dad to lend him his car, but now Jacob was walking up the garden of a slightly faded house.

It wasn’t exactly messy but everything had seen better days. It was 45 West Street. The air of decay seemed at odds with the beautiful girl Jacob had met just two nights ago. He clutched tightly a bunch of yellow roses, their brightness contrasting with the heavy grey sky above. There hadn’t been much choice to be honest - the dahlias had been too wilted, the chrysanthemums too ordinary, the red roses too presumptuous and the large daisy like flowers too obviously petrol station.

He was nervous with anticipation when he knocked on the paint-peeled door. There was some shuffling, the door opened and a slightly stooped, elderly gentleman was staring into Jacob’s eyes. His blue eyes were faded, a little yellowed and surrounded by lines. The man was unknown to Jacob but there was still something familiar about his careworn features.

Jacob hesitated. Finally he spoke with all the confidence he could muster. “Is Emily here? I’ve come to return her book.”

He placed the book in the thin-skinned hands. The old man froze, he looked at the young man with a mix of distrust and Jacob thought antipathy. “Emily?”
“Yes, Emily. I gave her a lift the other day and she left this book in my car.”

“No, no you didn’t. He said gruffly, it must have been someone else who found my Emily’s book.”

Just then the young man glimpsed a photograph on the wall, a picture of the beautiful young woman who accepted his lift.

“Yes, Emily,” he said pointing, “the girl in the photograph on your wall.”

Why was the old man lying? What trouble was Emily in? Did he think Jacob an unsuitable caller?

“You’re mistaken. This was my Emily’s book. I gave it to her on her 18th birthday … October 8th. I’ve not seen it since that day. I should like to keep it.” He held the book close to his chest, just as Emily had done.

“Of course, but can I talk to her?” said the young man, the frustration telling a little in his voice.

“I'm sorry,” the old man said, “but it couldn't have been my Emily you saw. She died forty years ago.

He continued, as if talking from a distant place. It was on her birthday… a terrible crash, just up on the crossroads on the moor. His eyes were alive with pain and his voice resonated with deep sadness

She went out with her friends. The boy driving was going way too fast, they couldn’t stop. The others were badly injured but my Emily, my beautiful girl, she died. Yet there was not a mark on her lovely face.

We buried her in the cemetery just down the road. Look, you can see the church steeple from here.” He was rambling now. “She loved poetry, my Emily. I gave her this book as a gift, and she was reading it as she left the house.”

Jacob was stunned. A cold shiver raced up his spine. “Look, I’m so sorry to have caused you pain,” was all he could think of to say!

Sitting in his car, the rational part of his mind came to the fore. It must have been someone who looked like Emily, he thought, or a distant relative; after all her father had seemed familiar. Yet he knew where he had to go.

Jacob didn’t have to spend long looking for Emily’s grave. For one stood out amongst all the others, not because it is was so well tended, or even because of the words still sharply caved on the greening stone – For Emily May - Beloved Daughter of John and Ruth … but because, folded neatly over the gravestone, was the coat that Jacob had given the girl to ward off the drizzle and chill of the night!

With shaking hands Jacob retrieved the coat and, as a shaft of sunlight burst through the murky sky, he laid with care a single yellow rose on the grave. A rose to say thank you for the life he still had and for the future stretching out before him.

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