Nobody should be out this far without a car, Sam Ellisen thought. The sun beat down on the long stretch from Mesquite to North Las Vegas. Cars ran hot, and even newer cars with their fancy electronics had to turn up the heat to suck the hot air out of their engine. At least, that's what the smart drivers did. Nowadays, kids don’t know to turn on the heat and crank their windows down. And now the godforsaken idiot is walking. Sam pulled to the shoulder and waited for the kid to catch up.
The small breeze that blew through the open windows was nothing compared to the forceful wind that came from driving, and Sam heated faster because of it. He sat in the baking desert, sweating, and watched the figure come closer in his side mirror.
The stranger huffed out of breath for a bit before speaking. “Thanks, man.”
Sam didn’t like the way the kid called him ‘man’ but reached across the seat to unlock the passenger door. As he shifted his body, he felt the perspiration on his back. Sam’s shirt clung to him in an awful way.
The truck doors stuck for a second, as usual, but the hitchhiker pulled again and climbed in.
“Your car break down?” Sam asked while looking over his shoulder to merge back on the highway. Cars barreled past, none of them slowing for the old truck with the old man and the stranger in it. Then, a break in the pack of cars appeared and Sam pulled into the lane.
“Nah man, I’m hitchhiking my way across America.” The kid said it like that was something to be proud of. Hitchhiking, in Sam’s mind, was dumber than letting an engine overheat. “Somebody let me off a couple miles back. Said I was stinking up their car.”
“Hmmgh,” Sam grunted. He didn’t think the kid smelled all that bad, but the rushing air from the open window prevented him from smelling much of anything. Once he was back to cruising, he gave the kid a good look over. The white boy with ruddy cheeks and dark brown hair looked out the window and then at Sam. The kid ran his hands, rough from the beating sun and hard work, though his pompadour hair as if he knew what hard work was but didn’t like it. Sam turned his judgment back to the road.
“I’m Conner,” the kid said.
The kid laughed, but then shut up when he saw Sam’s scowl.
“Man, it’s hot,” Conner said. He rubbed his face with his shirt. “Is your heat on?” he asked, and then without pausing for Sam to answer, he said, “I guess you do have an older truck. Dad always said in these older cars you need to crank the heat to prevent it from overheating.”
Sam found himself surprised at his desire to commend the boy for knowing that, but when he opened his mouth to compliment his companion, Conner had moved on. Sam decided to let Conner fill the silence.
“I started in El Paso, so you’d think I’d be used to the heat. Though, out here in the west, it’s mad hotter. I stayed in Arizona for a while. Met a guy who just got out of jail for some misdemeanor. Something about putting a pervert in a cast—said it was worth it.”
I’m inclined to agree, Sam thought, merging around a slow sedan.
Conner kept talking and talking about the people he met and the things he learned. Sam nodded along, letting him speak, listening to the secondhand tales, enjoying the company despite his initial evaluation. He even said a quiet ‘Thank you’ when Conner pointed out a motorcyclist in the truck's blind spot.
For the better part of an hour and fifteen, the boy spoke, Sam listened, and they both sweated. As Conner told him about mopping floors for a meal at a rest stop and doing an oil change for a ride out of Colorado Springs, Sam’s heart seemed to melt. I guess—I guess he ain’t so bad, he thought, everybody makes their own way.
They entered North Las Vegas while Conner went on about a mom of six trying to convince him hitchhiking could be deadly.
“She told me the same story three or four other people have told me: the urban legend about a serial killer picking hitchhikers up and driving them into the woods to kill them. Can you believe that four people all said the same thing, with the same emphasis on the woods?” Conner asked. “We’re nowhere near the woods.”
Sam supposed that the tale might be true or at least based in reality, but he figured there was no talking Conner out of his pilgrimage across the states. Besides, I ain’t his momma.
After a moment of silence, Conner continued, “That’s when she said, ‘Honey, go home.’ But I just gotta do this. I wanna see things and—oh—” He pointed to a sign. “You could let me off on Flamingo, Mr. Ellisen.”
Sam knew his route from Salt Lake to San Diego, and Flamingo was gonna be ten minutes away. He looked at the kid and blinked. I ain’t never gonna see him again.
“I, uh, wanna tell you something kid.”
“Don’t interrupt.” Sam saw in his peripheral that Conner raised his hand up like he was agreeing or something.
Sam sighed, like something cumbersome was leaving his body. “I was offered a million dollars when I was a kid, about your age. This was back when a million dollars was closer to a billion nowadays. I got this fancy letter in the mail, inviting me to a game at some casino along the California coast. I was living there those days. It said to take my letter and show it to a floor manager. I was adventurous back then. They took me up something like six flights of stairs into a big gold room. The walls were gilded and they reflected off each other except a darkened window. A big fat man sat in a ring. Sweat dripped off his face. He looked like he was nodding off, sleeping even though the room was loud. They were playing some big band jazz—I can’t remember the song.”
Sam paused and looked at a passing sign for a personal lawyer. Conner said nothing. Another sign for Flamingo flew by.
Sam continued. “The floor manager walked me around the man and to a table with a big bag on it. He told me to look inside, and so I did. It was full of money. ‘It's a million, if you want it,’ he said. Well, my gran was dying and my parents were getting evicted and loads of other stuff. I started spending it in my head, thinking of all the ways I’d fix up my life. I went to grab the bag. ‘You gotta kill him,’ the floor manager said. Then he pointed to the black window in the far corner of the room. He said something about how his employer was a strange man.” Sam paused, “‘Eclectic and superior’ was the words he used, wanted to watch rats squirm.”
He shifted in his seat and felt the sweat on his back as he did.
“He took out a gun and pointed it at the fat man. Well, I was shaking then, sweating like the room was boiling. My hands were craving that money. So I took the gun. I walked around to see the man’s face cause shooting a man in the back felt cowardly. He was doped or something cause he couldn’t say anything, just moaning and crying. He was the saddest, most pathetic thing ever, looking at me with half-closed eyes. I wanted to. I held the gun up and everything. I was shaking so bad I couldn’t hardly hold it.”
A drop of sweat rolled into Sam’s eye. When he took his hand to rub away the sting, his fingers shook. “But I couldn’t do it. I saw myself in those gold mirrors, all distorted and mangled. He, the manager, took the gun after a while and shoved me in an elevator. I was crying and praying some god-forgive-me nonsense. I ran outta that casino and got in my car. It was raining pretty bad, and I couldn’t see out my eyes. I peeled out of the lot—I couldn’t stop—and slid into the crosswalk. I hit a lady walking. She died.” Sam’s voice caught on the last word, choking him.
“They gave me four years for manslaughter. Never served it though; the judge was accused of doping. So they let me out after seven months on account of an unfair trial. My parents had this new house, too, and I asked them how they got it. ‘A check came in the mail,’ they said. ‘A million dollars.’”
With obscured vision and a racing heart, Sam took the exit for Flamingo. He pulled into a lot. The truck shook to a stop. Without the rushing wind, the truck began to bake like an oven. Sam felt the sweat and tears mix on his cheeks and could taste the salt when he licked his lips.
Sam finally looked over at the boy with sad eyes, pleading, in silence, for him to say something. Conner opened the door. Before he stepped out of the truck, he said “Ya know, most people tell me, when I get out, to go home.” He slammed the door shut and leaned into the car through the open window. “What’s your point, Mr. Ellisen?”
Sam looked into the young man’s face, looking into youth—wanting to be forgiven, validated, and loved—and said, “Confession.”
When Claire Bernay is not writing, she is reading. When she is not reading, she is writing. She also loves to crochet and cook. Her work has been published in The Southern Quill, Kaleidoscope, and Poems of Summer.