You Know How the Story Goes

By Thomas Olde Heuvelt

It’s the same old story. Take a chance and pick up a hitchhiker. But only after midnight and only when you need some company. Of course, the hitchhiker will disappear. That’s the way the story goes, right? But this time you are the hitchhiker. And there’s a tunnel up ahead.

You know how the story goes. One night, you pick up a hitchhiker on a country road. A young lady. It’s always a lady. This lady, she’s paler than the moonlight and doesn’t talk a lot. You see, there’s something about her that stops you from making your move, even though you’re single and she’s pretty. Instead you ask if she’s all right.

“No,” she says. “I’m sorry, but I’m not all right at all. Something very bad is going to happen. Something terrible.”

You ask her what and she says she’s cold. So cold. A single drop of blood is dripping from her nose.

You’ve got to admit at this stage you’re wondering what on earth possessed you to pick up a hitchhiker in the dead of night. We all know this is going to end badly for at least one or both parties. Abortion. Divorce. An autopsy. But you don’t want to be a jerk like that. This lady, she might need help, and it’s you she ran into.

You wriggle your coat off—such a gentleman you are. You offer it to her. After she’s put it on she leans in and kisses you on the cheek. It’s a kiss as cursory as it is unexpected, and the immediate impression it leaves is how cold her lips are.

When you look again, she’s gone.

You know how the story goes.

Next day, there’s a strange phone call. They found your coat. The man on the line says he traced you through the membership card for the gym in the inner pocket. And you, you’re just relieved you’re not crazy after all. You’re relieved it was probably just a blackout and the only thing you can’t remember is where or when you let the lady with the nosebleed out. “We both must have forgotten,” you say, after you tell him what happened. “The coat. She really didn’t need to leave it for me. Some folks have a good heart.”

There’s a long silence. Then the guy, you hear him say, “Some hearts are bitch’n black.” The man on the phone is a caretaker at a graveyard. Not far from where you passed last night. This is the third time he’s found a coat, he says. A month ago, it was a scarf.

And he always finds them on the grave of the young lady who was found a year earlier, naked and dead in a ditch along the road. Hooked a ride with a black heart.

This story has been told a million times. The deets differ, but it’s always the same: A nocturnal hitchhiker mysteriously vanishes from a moving vehicle. Often with a piece of clothing taken and later found draped around a gravestone. In another version, the hitchhiker foretells seven years of deficiency before she vanishes. Look it up on Wikipedia. Urban legends, modern myths, they’re always the same.

I don’t believe in urban legends. Definitely not in ghost stories. That’s why I waited so long to tell mine. Tell you the truth, I tried to forget. But I can’t. At night, when I wake up alone, the memory cuts like a razor. And each time I remember, it seems worse, more sinister. I lie wide awake and cannot seem to move. I’m telling myself I won’t be thinking about it anymore in the morning. But the nights are long and pitch black.

Then, last night, the tables turned. There was this story on NewsOnline that told me I cannot way around it any longer. Someone had shared it on Reddit, otherwise I’d probably never have seen it.

So I’m telling it now, and like all urban legends, I’m telling it as a warning.

I can’t say jack about picking up hitchhikers, as I’m not a driver like the person in the story. I don’t even have my license. But wherever you are, do not try and get a ride after midnight.

Stay away from tunnels.

And beware of the Tall Lady.

There’s no good story as to why I ended up hitchhiking that night. Nothing to grant what happened some sort of poetic justice. You’ll have to cut me some slack here. I’d gone out in town, had drunk a shitload of beer, and skipped my ride home because I had my eyes set on this really pretty girl. I’d say smoking hot, but I don’t want to come across as out-and-out superficial.

I’m from Croatia, and the town in question is Opatija, a worn-out party town on the Adriatic Sea. This happened some Saturday night last March, at least two months before the tourist fuckfest. We locals still owned the pubs and nightclubs. All the girls seemed pretty that night, with crystal faces shimmering in the dim light, but my pet project had an irregular quality. An expression of melancholy that provided her with a flawed yet highly attractive beauty.

This girl, her name was Tamara. In Croatian, the rhythm is like Pamela. She came from one of the towns in the hills. I circled her all night, trying to grab her in an eye-lock. Yet her calm self-assurance and the hint of mockery on her lips instantly downsized me to a schoolboy. While I felt the Ožujsko crawling to my head, she was drinking biska, seemingly without getting drunk. I imagined her lips tasted like alcohol and mistletoe. That and her navel piercing when she was dancing and her top crawled up a tat, and I was a million sparkles exploding in my stomach. So by the time my ride home told me he was ready to leave, I took a considered gamble and said I wasn’t planning to sleep in my own bed that night. My face all Romeo bedroom smirk, I deliberately passed on the opportunity to get home.

You probably guessed it from the get-go: I crashed and burned. When we finally left the pub she rose to her toes and kissed me on the cheek. I figured I’d sway my arms around her and press our bodies close. But before I could, Tamara freed herself and lifted the hood of her bright red coat with the tips of two fingers. “I had a wonderful night,” she said, putting it over her head. Covering that hint of mockery around her lips in shadows. “I’ll send you a WhatsApp message.”

She turned around and off she went, her coat fluttering around her ankles like a cloak. And me, there I was. Watching my good luck walk away. Bewildered so much that I remembered we never gave out digits first when she was out of sight.

Smiling, I walked uphill, away from the town center. I didn’t know where I was headed. I had no money for a hostel. I appreciated the fresh air, but after a while it began to feel frigid, not fresh or crisp. My hands were numb and I slid them into my pockets. I watched my breath vaporize in alcohol-scented clouds that should instead have blown a little bit of soul in Tamara’s lungs. Such a waste. Loaded up, I was probably capable of walking all the way home—that is, until I’d sober up at wee a.m. out in the williwags, realizing I had a problem. I’d be trapped. I wasn’t dressed for the occasion and would suffer the consequences. Like, severe hypothermic consequences. Pneumonia. Paradoxical undressing. Now wouldn’t that be ironic. Anyway, it’d be sunrise before I’d make it to Istria. Before me awaited the long traffic tunnel underneath the Učka mountain.

I felt foolish for getting so far away from town. It was quiet. Quieter than expected. A little unsettling. So when I heard a car, I put out my thumb. It was an impulse. It’s a universal gesture and I’d never used it before, and it surprised me a little that it immediately did the trick. The car stopped. I was drunk enough not to hesitate when I got in.

The driver, this guy, he was a student from Jušići who had treated himself to a night out. Just like I had. He gave a low whistle when I told him where I was heading and took me to the Euro Petrol at the A8 turnoff. “It shouldn’t be too hard to hook a ride here,” he said. “A ride underneath Učka.”

I said thanks and raised my hand when he took off. I wondered if he too had hoped for something bigger that night.

The gas station was closed. I climbed up the entry ramp and reached the traffic lights. Here, beneath the halo of a streetlamp (I turned my collar to the cold and damp, right), I figured my odds were best. My phone said it was one-o-seven. Every now and then, a car rushed by in either direction. Pushing my shadow ahead in quarter-circles like a runaway sweep–second hand. Time flies when you’re having zero luck hitching a ride. As it did, there were fewer cars and the stretches in between grew longer. Sometimes the A8 was quiet for minutes at a time. I’d listen to the wind or search for a glow on the horizon. On the ramp, no living soul had passed.

My breathing seemed loud, because it was so quiet. I felt misplaced. Like I didn’t belong here. Like I was a brand-new swing set in the yard of a burned-down farmhouse. It had textbook creepiness written all over it. I wiggled my hands in my pockets, jogged up and down the road divider, couldn’t keep warm. Couldn’t ditch that sense of unease, too. Suddenly I understood why: I wasn’t alone at all. There was somebody close. Across the motorway. Just outside the yellow light of the street lamp. It was a terrible feeling. This had never happened to me before. Something irrational like that. For a second or two it felt as if someone was standing right there on the rocky shoulder. Very close. Watching me. It was very real and very frightening. My heart was pounding. I was sweating heavily, despite the cold.

The sound of a car snapped me out of my dread. It came up the ramp, blinding me with its headlights, and here’s me, forgetting to wave my thumb. Fuckwit. The car rolled past me and stopped in the lane to Istria. The traffic light automatically turned green. Only when the window rolled down and a hand waved languidly did I realize the driver was waiting for me.

Quickly, I ran around the back of the car. A Toyota Prius in Blue Crush Metallic. License plate from Rijeka. That alone, I don’t know why it didn’t flash any alarms in my head. It should have, of course, considering what everybody had read in the papers. Considering the photograph everybody had seen. Maybe it was because the yellow streetlight changes that kind of clear blue. Yellow light has a sickening quality. Ever noticed that? It can tap the life out of a color until nothing remains but an indefinable and unwholesome complexion. The waving hand I had seen had been indefinable in that light as well. Unwholesome. Too late, I realized that its gesture could have meant literally anything. Be welcome, I’ll take you where you need to go. But also: I see you now. You’ll never be fully unseen anymore, even when I’m not there.

I opened the car door and said, “Gee, thanks, I thought I’d never get a ride.”

Only a few seconds elapsed before I bent down to get inside the car, but in those few seconds I saw an image that for some reason is imprinted in my memory. There was a lady behind the wheel. This lady, I couldn’t see her face. It was hidden by the Prius’s roof. I could see everything below her face. Pale hands holding a black leather steering wheel. A coat so thick her body seemed to disappear in its folds. I don’t know why I remember this image so vividly. There was something completely run-of-the-mill about it and yet it seemed wrong in all sorts of ways.

Maybe it’s because I remember so few of her facial features. None, actually. Since the night this happened, my mind has constantly been on overload trying to picture exactly what this lady looked like. Whether she was old or young. The weird thing is that I cannot answer those questions. Weird, as the next thing, I sat down in the shotgun seat and could clearly see her. But no matter how hard I try to recap, the only thing I can say for sure is that she looked drained and bleak, with her breath visibly rising around her face. It was as cold inside the car as outside. The heater wasn’t on. That I noticed right away.

She gave me a quick glance. Didn’t shake hands, though. I wanted to reach out mine, but changed my mind. What’s common when someone offers you a ride? Is there such a thing as hitchhiker’s etiquette? Not to be rude, I repeated, “Thanks, for real. I appreciate you stoppin’.”

“I do not like driving alone at night,” said my driver. The silence she dropped was too long. So long that I felt obliged to fill it in. But then she added, as an afterthought: “Especially when it rains.”

“Well, at least it isn’t raining,” I said. It was a stupid thing to say. I knew that, but I was caught off guard. “I take it there are no streetlights higher up the road. Must get pretty dark out there.”

“Yes, very dark. I can hear the rain before it falls.”

The traffic light had switched back to red. We were waiting for nobody.

“It’s a hearing disorder. I hear a buzzing in my ears. First I thought it was just from earwax, but it’s not. It’s as if there’s a steady rain in the back of my head. It’s not very nice. Not very nice at all.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. And added, because I didn’t know what else to say, “Must be a pain to drive alone with that.”

“I drive alone every night. I was going to see Udur. Where you going?”

“Me? To Vranja.”

I was hearing myself say this. Not having any control over it. Vranja was directly on the other side of the Učka car tunnel, you see. I didn’t want the lady to know I was going all the way to Pazin, more than thirty kilometers beyond. That seemed very important. The less she knew about me, the better off I would be.

“Vranja. That sounds familiar. Udur must’ve been there, I think. I was going to see Udur.”

“Cool,” I said. Trying to keep my voice casual. Not succeeding. “Who’s Udur?”

And another long silence. I didn’t think the lady would answer me. But she did, right as the light switched to green and she piloted the Prius onto the motorway. “Udur,” she said, “Udur is not a good man.”

I didn’t know how to process that information. Or why she had said it to me. It made me feel uncomfortable. Perhaps I could tell her maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to see Udur, if he was a bad man. What kind of name was Udur anyway? But I didn’t. I didn’t feel it was my place to poke my nose in her business. Plus she hadn’t said he was a bad man. She’d said Udur is not a good man. There’s a crucial difference.

The lady was fixated on the road ahead, pale-faced in the dashboard glare. I turned away, rolled my head against the window. Our speed was blurring the outside. The details of the peninsula were black. The Adriatic Sea an empty abyss. A lifeless dark chewing up the world around us. My seat cushion wasn’t comfy at all, giving me that quicksand sense as I sank in it. I moved my legs, but it was too cold to relax. I tried to focus on the glass vibrating against my forehead. It was strangely hypnotic. Like a brain massage.

I shouldn’t be here. At all.

“You really don’t mind the cold, do you?” I said, rubbing my hands to emphasize my words.

“The problem with Udur is that he lets things fall apart,” the lady said. Me, I was weighing the likelihood that she’d deliberately ignored what I’d said. “Udur had a dog. A sheepdog. But not anymore. If you look at him now you’d never think he had a dog.”

We were driving fast.

“What happened to it?”

“In the end it was very old. One eye was all milky from a cataract. We had to put it down.”

“Aww,” I said. “Such a loss when you need to put your dog to sleep.”

The lady didn’t look at me as she was speaking. “They’re a real handful and expensive to keep. Especially a sheepdog. Udur is not a dog man.”

Dog man, is what she said. Not dog person. I should probably have known better, but curiosity got the upper hand. “Did he get sick or somethin’? The dog, I mean.”

“At that time, Udur had the baby. It’s not easy, you see, especially at night. The nights were worst. Sometimes it didn’t stop raining all night, and we could hear the baby cry in the barn. Anyway, Udur hadn’t checked on the dog for a few days. We’d left it on a leash. We used to just toss the meat in the pig trough, but the dog hadn’t touched it for days. When Udur finally went into the barn he said it was just lying there. The barn was old and there was a big hole in the roof. Even though the rain came pouring in and made the dog all muddy and wet, it wouldn’t move. Udur said the dog wasn’t looking well. Not well at all. Said it was staring back at him with one good eye, smelling all sweet and acrid. So he thought he better get it rinsed and inside. It was a big dog, a sheepdog, but still Udur wanted to try and lift it up. I told him, you shouldn’t. But he did anyway. When he turned it around, he found its belly was open and swarming with larvae. They were everywhere, roving the stains in its fur and the wet spots in its flesh and up and down its silly limbs like some flood of living disease. The dog was being eaten alive. From the inside out. And we never would have known if Udur hadn’t gone and checked on it. If it hadn’t been for the baby, crying.”

These words, this lady, that’s exactly what she said.

“I think it got infected with something. Began to rot. Udur tried to suture the hole back together but it didn’t work. In the end he had to hit it in the head with a hammer until it was dead. To put the dog out of its misery, give it peace. It was a most merciful thing to do.”

But I found nothing merciful or peaceful in the image the lady had cooked up. Besides, we’d been picking up speed all along as we were talking. I don’t think the lady realized how fast we were going. This was plain irresponsible on a two-lane road. It was too curvy. Too dark.

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