);

THE PASSENGER by Anthony Dragonetti

When I can’t think of what to do, I have no choice but to go fast. I grab my car keys from under a pile of crumpled receipts by the door. I’d throw them out, but what if I need them someday? I could be audited. I could need an alibi. I focus back on the keys. It’s important to avoid rabbit holes. I can feel my tongue in my mouth. It’s time to go.

I get in my car and fly out of my condo development’s parking lot in reverse and swing forward towards the ramp to I-295. It’s a little after midnight, 25 degrees out, and I love New Jersey. I should open the windows. The cold air might straighten me out a bit. My instincts are taking me to the Turnpike. Okay, I tell my instincts, that is where we will go.

I’m cruising up 295, but not too fast, not yet. The cops have nothing to do and they like to sit on the median. I think I see a cop car up ahead and glide over into the right lane, slowing down, signal on like I’m preparing to exit. Good evening, officer. I’m on my way home from work. Late shift, you know how it is. Newborn at home. Me and the little lady haven’t been sleeping much, as you can imagine. You got kids? I’m still working out the script when I roll by the shadow that I thought was a cruiser. I say goodbye to my new wife and child.

Fate is funny. I mean like a joke. The shadow cop sends me towards the offramp where my headlights catch a stoned looking teenager on the side of the road with a thumb sticking out half-assed. He isn’t even looking in the direction of traffic. For a second, I think this is part two of my imagining things, but he is quite real as he jumps out of the way after I almost bump him with my fender. I roll to a stop alongside him.

He vaguely looks pissed, more confused. I lean over towards the passenger side window to talk to him.

Man, what are you doing out here? Who even hitchhikes anymore? It’s the middle of the night.

He tries to focus on my face and process my words. He says he got into a fight with his girlfriend and she kicked him out. He’s seriously fucked up and can’t get himself home. His phone is dead, and he’s broke. I tell him to get in before he freezes to death or someone decides to chop him up.

We’re riding up 295 in awkward silence for a bit. I realize I forgot to ask him where he’s headed, and it doesn’t seem to dawn on him he should be asking where I’m going.

Uh, where should I be taking you? Your parents live nearby or something?

“No, I don’t live with my parents. I’ve got a friend a few miles up the road I can crash with, if he’s home. Got to get off at 36.”

Providing that information seems to have used up his brain reserves and he slips back into half-consciousness. We’ve got a little time together and sitting in silence with another person in close quarters makes me nervous. I turn on a playlist of classic hardcore to keep my energy up. GBH kicks on and my mood stabilizes while the opening chords of Sick Boy scream out of dying speakers. I feel electric again, licking my lips.

My passenger rouses out of his stupor, agitated by the metallic noise. He’s looking closer to being part of this universe.

“Come on, dude. Can’t you put on something chill? I’m dying here.”

Hey, I’m the one giving you a ride out of the goodness of my own heart. You’d still be standing out there in the cold or a cop would have picked you up by now. Then where would you be?

“I’ve been arrested before. Who cares? They throw you in rehab. Juvenile records are sealed. At least I could sleep there.”

I lower the music as a compromise because now I feel bad, but I need to keep it on to maintain. My cortisol is on a steady drip. The road is empty ahead, so I take the kid in all sullen, skinny, and hooded. Painfully typical and therefore someone I want to protect. I ask him what his name is, and he says Tommy.

Tommy, Tommy, I say.

“Yeah, man. What’s yours?”

So, I tell him.

Then we sit quietly again until he blurts out that he wants to die. I turn the music off completely and ask him what he said. He repeats his wish. My brain is white lightning.

I say Tommy. Tommy, you can’t think like that. You’re just a kid. Shit isn’t even bad, yet.

“You don’t know anything about me. My parents are fucked up. I don’t talk to them. School sucks. I’m failing. I just ruined things with my girlfriend, who is basically the only thing in my life that isn’t trash. I make things worse for everybody. Seriously. Who would want to deal with me? I don’t blame her.”

“Okay, that sounds bad. But that doesn’t mean things will stay bad. You can turn it around. You seem like a smart guy.”

“Dude, I’m stupid. Smart guy. I wish I was dead. I’m so sick of this.”

You don’t.

“I do.”

Are you absolutely sure of this, says the heat rising in my chest.

He nods at me.

If you say so, man. And then I floor it.

We’re hurtling down a dark 295. There are a few cars on the road, but they stay away from the left lane when they see me coming. I look briefly over at the kid and notice traces of concern. I decide to commit. The engine is trying to kick back but forget it. The machine will hold up because I need it to. I’ve never needed anything so badly. Tommy squeaks.

“36 is coming up!”

I peel over across 2 lanes and brake tightly to make the offramp. The kid’s holding onto the dashboard.

“What are you doing!”

I know this whole area. I know every backroad. This entire state is mine. Everything you see is mine. We’re flying through the streets. I’m getting lucky with the lights. No one is out around here at this hour and I know where the cops usually wait. The elementary school isn’t too far now.

“Please, stop! We’re going to crash. Jesus Christ. Oh, Jesus fucking Christ. Please, dude.”

I ignore him. It’s hard, I won’t lie. I must stay the course now. We reach the school. It’s one of those long straightaways into a parking lot deep in the property. The lot is empty. Perfect. The car hits the entrance and we’re flying straight towards the school building.

“No! You’re going to kill us! Stop the car!”

 Yes. That’s the idea.

“No stop stop please don’t kill me please don’t. I don’t want to die.”

I slam on the brakes and spin the wheel. The tires scream loud enough to shatter glass, I would think, but nothing seems to explode. We’re spinning. I’ve done all I can. It’s luck now, so I close my eyes.

The car stops maybe three feet from the building, facing away from it. I’m so wired I can’t feel my arms. I turn to Tommy and give him a triumphant grin. He starts screaming what aren’t even words. Well, they might be words, but they aren’t forming meaning for me right now. I speak calmly, but loudly, to try to get through to him.

Tommy, you have to understand what I did was for your own good. I believe fate brought us together on this night. You reached a crisis point and I was guided to you by forces that I, frankly, can’t explain. I was brought into your life the moment you needed me most. What are the chances? What are the odds? I did what I had to do. I had to show you that you didn’t really want to die. If I could, I’d show you how your death would affect the world. Unfortunately, my powers are limited. I hope you understand. You have to keep living, Tommy. There is so much more to do. I hope you wake up tomorrow with a new lease on life and cherish this second chance that you have been given.

He’s already left the car by this point, disappearing into the night, a speck that I can still make out at the edges of my headlights. When I crash later, for real, I don’t know if I’ll remember every detail of this. My only hope is that Tommy knows, deep down, I am his friend and I honestly meant everything I said.

Read Next: FORAGERS by Jaime Fountaine