Summer short story: Hitch by Catherine Ryan Howard

‘If she steps back now, pushes the door closed and says, thank you but I think I’ll walk, it’ll seem rude’

This will be Claire’s story.

Town was busy. Not a taxi to be had. After waiting for an hour on the street, she spent a second one hailing phantom cabs via an app, a dozen or more tiny cars that flickered on screen and then disappeared on her. Resigned, she pushed her way on to a packed night bus going not far enough in the right direction. She was planning to call someone at its terminus, wake them up and ask them to come get her, but her phone died before she could. By then it was almost four in the morning and beginning to drizzle. Only two other passengers had stayed on the bus for as long and they’d already disappeared up the main street in the other direction. So she started walking. What other choice did she have?

An ex-boyfriend had told her that his favourite part of a night out was the walk home. Just him and his thoughts on deserted streets, the evening’s fun still warm in his chest. She’d thought about the tense wait for a taxi, walking to her front door with her keys positioned to scratch, texting a thumbs-up emoji to the WhatsApp group before she went to sleep so everyone else could go to sleep too. The part of the night he loved was the part she had to survive. When she told him this, he pulled her close and kissed her face and whispered, “I’m so sorry that you think that’s the world you live in.” It was like a drive-by shooting. At the time she’d felt a strange, hot pinch. It was only later, after the shock wore off, that she discovered the bleeding bullet hole.

Her high heels clop on the path as she leaves the outskirts of the village and enters the solid dark its street lights had been holding back. The footpath runs out. For a while there’s a watery moonlight inviting forms to take on a shape and step out of the night — a telephone pole, a hedgerow, a pothole — but then the road twists into a tunnel of overhanging trees and the dark solidifies. Claire can’t see her own legs below the hem of her dress. She’s already disappearing, getting eaten up by the night. It starts to lash rain.

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And then.

A low, mechanical whine. An engine, she thinks, turning just in time to be blinded by a pair of sweeping high beams as a car comes around the bend. Twin orbs are still floating across her vision when it jerks to a stop alongside her. Silver, some make of saloon. The passenger window descends in a smooth, electronic motion and a voice says, “You all right there?”

She dips her head so she can see inside. There’s a pair of legs in the driver’s seat, lit by the blue glow of the dashboard display. They’re wearing jeans. She bends lower again to align her face with the open window just as the driver switches on the ceiling light.

He is a man in his 30s, with short red hair and a splotchy pink face of irritated skin. His T-shirt is on inside-out; she can see the seams and, at the back of his neck, the tag. There are various discarded items in the passenger side footwell: fast-food wrappers, a tabloid newspaper, a single muddy hiking boot. In the back, there’s a baby seat with a little stuffed ... frog? Yes, a frog, sitting inside it.

“I’m grand,” she says, pushing wet hair out of her face. “I was planning to ring for a lift from the village, but my phone died.” She pulls the device from her pocket, a dead black mirror, and shows it to him.

“Feck it,” he says. “And I came out without mine. Although maybe ...” He starts rooting around, checking the cubbyholes in the driver’s door, the cup-holders between the front seats, inside the glovebox. There seems to be a lot of stuff in the car, but not whatever he’s looking for. “I thought I might have a charger but, no. Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she says automatically.

“And this weather ...” He hesitates. “Look, I’m only going as far as the Circle K, but they’re open 24 hours and they have that little seating area at the back. Maybe you could borrow a charger off someone there? Or they might even let you use their phone? It’d be a better place to wait ...”

She looks down the road, into the solid black.

“Is it far?”

“I’d say it’s a ...” He frowns, calculating. “Like a five-minute drive?” He’s already reaching to push open the passenger door. She takes a step back to make room for its arc. “Hop in.”

The last moment in which she could have decided not to do this has, somehow, passed her by. If she steps back now, pushes the door closed and says, thank you but I think I’ll walk, it’ll seem rude. She might as well say, thank you for stopping to check I was all right, providing me with helpful information and offering me a lift, but I suspect you’re a terrible person who’s capable of rape so please leave now. If he is a terrible person, he won’t need to hide it then. And she won’t be able to outrun him, not out here, not in these shoes, and anyway where is there to run to? And if he’s not a terrible person, well then, it’s safe to get in the car.

She gets in the car.

There’s a clunk sound as she pulls the passenger door closed. The ceiling light switches off, leaving only the dashboard’s eerie glow and whatever’s managed to reach them from this wrong end of the headlights. At the right end, the surface of the road is already dashing beneath the wheels. Her window ascends. The seat belt sensor sounds and she fumbles in the shadows, first for the belt itself and then for its buckle. Both feel sticky. As she clicks the two pieces into place, she thinks she hears another click: the central locking system.

“So,” he says. “Was it a good night at least?”

“It was all right. If I knew how much trouble I’d have getting home, I might have just stayed there.”

“Ah, well.”

“What about you? What are you doing out and about at this hour?”

“I’m on a Rennies run,” he says. “My wife is expecting our third, and she can’t eat a thing now without getting heartburn. I was fast asleep when I got the nudge.”

“How far along is she?”

“Eight months.”

“Not long to go now so.”

“No.” He glances at her. “You got kids?”

She says, “God no,” before she can think to be a bit less aghast at the idea of doing the thing this man and his wife already have twice.

But he just laughs and says, “Ah, there’s plenty of time for all that.”

The wipers slash back and forth across the windscreen. In the blinks of clarity, there’s nothing to see except a few feet of unmarked road surface. No lights in the distance. No other cars.

“Where are you living?” he asks.

She provides the name of the townland, purposefully avoiding specifics.

“You there by yourself or…?”

She wants to say no and leave it at that, but saying no and not providing any further information risks coming across as unfriendly, mistrustful or suspicious of him. But telling him she lives with her boyfriend is telling him she has a boyfriend, and that could sound pointed, like she’d trying to stop him from getting any ideas, which would also be accusing him of having ideas, and offending him might anger him, this man she doesn’t know who’s driving the locked car she’s in. But saying yes would be telling him that the young woman with the dead phone he plucked off a country road has no one waiting up for her, no one wondering where she is, and if she doesn’t come home tonight it could be hours or even days before anyone realises.

“I live with my sister,” she lies.

“That’s who’ll come and get you?”

“If I can find a way to call her, yeah.”

“They’re a curse, those bloody phones. Always dead when you need them.”

He came out without his, he said. Would you though, with a very pregnant wife at home? Maybe you would for a quick run to the local shop.

Still.

He jerks the gearstick with more force than he has before and she feels his warm fingers graze the cold, damp skin of her bare knee. The touch is right on the line between Accidental Graze and Creepy Lingering. He doesn’t apologise. She gives him the benefit of the doubt.

“Is it much further?” she asks.

“Nearly there.”

The rain is heavier now, a constant roar on the roof.

“Awful night,” he says. “Isn’t it?”

“Terrible, yeah.”

“And you’re not exactly dressed for it.”

He turns and openly appraises her, his gaze crawling across her lap, combing over the thin cotton of her dress which is wet enough to cling to the outline of her thighs. She moves her hands to her knees in an attempt to cover up and waits for his eyes to return to the road. Something stirs in the pit of her stomach: a cold dread. But then, she isn’t dressed for this weather. That’s a statement of fact. Jesus Christ, the men mutter, you really can’t say anything these days.

“You’d think they’d do something about the taxi situation,” he says. “Especially with the missing women. Did you hear the latest?” He nods towards the mess at her feet. “It’s on the paper, there.”

She reaches for the tabloid, picks it up with two fingers. Its front-page headline screams GARDA SEARCH IN WICKLOW WOODS FOR TRAGIC TANA.

“They got new information,” he says. “Although they’re always at that, aren’t they? Conducting searches. They never find anything. I bet it’s just some crank. Or the guy who killed her, toying with them.”

There are two pictures: a large one showing people in white coveralls picking through a wild landscape and a passport photo of a redhead in her 20s. It’s too dark in the car to read any of the text below the headline, but Claire doesn’t need to. She knows it’s Tana Gold, missing woman two of five, vanished 18 months ago.

“You know,” he says, “you have the look of one of them. The one from Kilternan. The first. What was her name again? Susan something?”

“Sally Kearns.” The name feels dry and dusty in her mouth.

“That’s the one.”

Claire lets the paper drop.

“My sister will be freaking out,” she says.

“At this time of night? Ah, I doubt it. I bet she’s dead to the world.”

This was a mistake. She can see that now. But how can she stop it from turning into two? She’s fairly sure the doors are locked. Keeping her eyes on the road, she puts her left hand under her left thigh, waits a beat and then starts exploring the door panel with her fingers. Nothing feels like a button that will reverse the lock. Even if she gets the door open, what then? She’s strapped in and releasing her seat belt will trip the sensor, alerting him. She’s wearing a small crossbody bag. It has a strap. She could take it off and loop the strap around his head, but it’s a cheap, fast-fashion item, it could snap, and even if it doesn’t, what’s her plan exactly? To choke him, she’d really have to be behind him, but once she makes a move there won’t be time to climb into the back seat of the car. And he’s driving. If she does anything, the car will crash. She has a flash of his face inches above hers, one hand around her neck and the other in her underwear as he prepares to force his body into the depths of hers, and she thinks that maybe a crash is the better option. She could easily reach over and yank on the steering wheel, forcing them off the road, or pull on the handbrake which she thinks might send them skidding. But what if there’s no need? What if she’s overreacting? What if she risks killing them both, and he’s just a man and not a monster?

Lights.

Lots of them, suddenly. Changing everything.

The high beams have punched a hole in the night big enough for a garage to get through. She sees a floodlit forecourt. A canopy in colours she recognises, the Circle K logo illuminated by a spotlight. A convenience shop with a neat bundle of peat briquettes stacked outside its glass facade, glowing white fluorescent from within. There’s other people, even. At least two inside the store and another one filling up at the pumps.

It’s so bright now it feels like daytime, and when he parks by the shop’s entrance she has no trouble unlocking the door or finding the handle that will open it. She climbs out, unsteady on jelly legs, and sees a sign pointing around the corner, promising “Toilets”. Her body has vaporised its adrenaline, leaving a sour, acrid taste in her mouth and a cold sweat on her skin. “I’m just going to ...” she mumbles, then points at the sign by way of explanation. “Thanks ... Thanks for the lift.”

If he says anything in response, she doesn’t hear it.

The bathroom has two toilets, two sinks and no windows. The air in there is warm and smells of decaying things. She pushes her way into the nearest cubicle and heaves over the toilet bowl, but nothing will come up.

He was a man then, not a monster.

And so, not the man she thought she wanted to find.

Claire makes a bundle of paper towels big enough to muffle the sound she makes when she presses her face into it and screams. She really thought this one could be him. A Samaritan who just happened to be on a lonely road at an ungodly hour, dispatched to the shop by his heavily pregnant wife. Without his phone, conveniently, and a reassuring baby seat in the back. He’d even had that newspaper. He’d talked about the missing women. He’d said her sister was dead to the world.

Which she is.

Sally Kearns hasn’t been seen for 914 days, not since she left a friend’s house to smoke a cigarette in the front garden. After 15 minutes, her friends assumed she was chain-smoking two or three. After 20, they went to check and found her gone. Since then, four other women have vanished too, all of them missing, presumed dead. The last one was only six weeks ago.

It’s hard to say which is worse: the grief, waiting patiently on the sidelines, or the torment that never lets up. Where is Sally? What happened to her? Where did she wake up this morning or has she never woken up since I saw her last? Sometimes Claire sees things on TV, people describing the moment they learned a loved one had met a violent end — a knock on the door, a phone ringing, a gruesome discovery — and she feels her insides bubble with hot jealousy. If she can’t find her sister, she’ll settle for answers, even if the only way to find out is to suffer the same fate. So she walks lonely country roads in the dead of night, dressed for the city, pretending to be a girl who hasn’t managed to get home.

There’s a splintered version of Claire in the cracked mirror above one of the sinks. She watches her power up her phone and use it to summon a taxi. There’s no problem securing one, although it’ll take a while to get all the way out here. The mirror that should be over the other sink is missing, the rectangle of paler paint its ghostly mark.

Catherine Ryan Howard is the best-selling author of 56 Days, a New York Times and Washington Post Best Thriller of 2021 and winner of Irish Crime Novel of the Year. Her previous work has been shortlisted for the Edgar Award for Best Novel and the CWA New Blood and Ian Fleming Steel Daggers. She is published in 18 languages and a number of her titles have been optioned for screen. Her latest thriller, Run Time, is published on August 11th