Tomas awoke with a start. His head hurt
and his muscles ached as he sat up and stretched. He felt like he’d just been
in a train wreck. His foot brushed against a mound of dirty clothes after
swinging his legs to the side of the bed. He kicked them aside in disgust and headed
straight for the medicine cabinet. He needed aspirin, and quick. Once there, he
shook the medicine bottle. He breathed a sigh of relief when he heard at least
one or two pills clanging around inside it. He then swiftly unscrewed the lid
and popped it in his mouth, swallowing it whole. That should do it, he thought and gazed at himself in the mirror. With
his pasty white skin and bloodshot eyes, he looked like death warmed over. He bent over the sink, splashed cold water on
his face and then went back to his room. He stopped in front of his closet. He ran
his hands through his hair as he stared at a nearly empty row of hangers. He
reached for a black short-sleeve collared shirt with white stripes and picked
up a pair of jeans off the floor. He raised the latter to his nose and took a
sniff. Good enough, he thought and
put it on.
The kitchen was also a mess. Dirty
dishes were piled high in the sink while containers of Chinese food and pizza
boxes were strewn along the countertop. He opened a few cabinets and the
refrigerator door. Empty. He cursed as he slammed them shut, one by one. He closed
his eyes and counted to ten. It didn’t help.
“Fuck it,” he said and eyed the front
door. He swept up his car keys and wallet off the folding table he used to work
and dine on and kicked the trash can on the way out.
A cold gust of wind greeted him as he
stepped outside the front door of his apartment. He shivered and looked up at
the sky, which was gloomy and gray. The neighborhood was eerily quiet and
deserted. He looked to his right and saw that a dense curtain of fog was slowly
beginning to envelope his apartment complex. He quickened his pace. After
hopping into his car, he locked the doors and peeled out of his designated
He had no idea where he wanted to go or
why. Just drive, he thought as he sped
through rows of empty streets and shuttered businesses. When he got to the last
stop sign in town, he spotted a girl in her twenties standing by the side of
the road with her thumb up. Although he had been warned of the perils of picking
up hitchhikers, he thought that she looked harmless enough. He pulled his car
“Where are you headed?” Tomas asked as
he rolled down the passenger side window.
The girl was wearing a white t-shirt and
shorts and had wavy, brown hair and hazel-colored eyes. She bent down and
leaned her arms against the window frame. “Anywhere but here. Can you give me a
“Sure. Hop in,” he replied. “My name’s
Tomas. What’s yours?”
“Julia,” she said with an outstretched
hand. He responded in kind. Strangely enough, the sensation of her hand in his
felt oddly familiar.
“Have we met before?” Tomas asked. Julia smiled
and looked away as she withdrew her hand and then placed her purse at her feet.
I guess that means no.
They sat in companionable silence for
the next few minutes as the windy two-lane road stretched out before them. The
clouds above them were dark and murky. Tomas found himself wondering if it was
going to rain.
Just then, two cars, one red and one
black, zipped past them. The red car had a license plate which read “CATCHME.” He
snorted in amusement and then glanced at Julia, who had a visibly strained look
on her face and was clenching her fists as she watched the cars pull away and
disappear into the mist.
Tomas tried to think of a way to put
Julia’s mind at ease. “It’s probably just a bunch of teenagers out for cheap
thrills. Don’t worry. I’ll keep my eye out for them.” He then knocked on the
top of his dashboard, adding, “I’m a very safe driver. No accidents or tickets.
Ever. We’ll be fine. Promise.”
Julia glanced in his direction and seemed
to visibly relax. “I trust you.”
At that moment, light rain began to fall
on the windshield. Tomas turned on the wipers, defroster and was about to
switch on the lights for better visibility when a large semi-truck came
barreling around a blind curve into his lane. He honked his horn and gave the
middle-aged truck driver who was wearing a black and red plaid shirt and white baseball
cap the finger. He then pulled his car to the shoulder of the road to avoid
being stricken, hit the brakes and brought the car to a dead stop.
Meanwhile, the other driver rolled down
his window as he drove by and yelled, “Fuck you too asshole.”
Tomas scowled as he slammed the palm of
his hand against the steering wheel and watched the semi fade from view in his
rear-view mirror. After taking a long, slow breath to calm his nerves, he turned
to Julia, who was white as a sheet, and asked, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Julia said in a tremulous
voice. “How about you?”
Tomas sighed. “Have you ever had one of
those days when you wish you’d never gotten out of bed?”
“That bad, eh?”
“So far, meeting you has been the only
bright spot in what’s been a totally crappy day so far.”
“Have you heard the saying ‘Misery loves
company’?” Tomas nodded. Julia continued. “Then I guess we were destined to
“What’s your story?” Tomas asked,
Julia pursed her lips and shook her head.
“It’s complicated. You sure you want to hear it?”
Tomas glanced at the digital clock on
the dashboard and said, “I’ve got time. At the rate we’re going, we won’t hit
the next nearest town for at least another half hour.” Truth be told, he was in
dire need of a distraction and thought that listening to Julia’s troubles would
take his mind off his own issues. Still, he didn’t want to make her feel like
he was putting her on the spot or trying to stick his nose into her business, and
so he said, “It’s totally up to you. We could just…”
Before he could finish his sentence,
Julia replied, “Where’d you like me to start?”
Tomas shrugged. “Wherever you want to,”
he said, then paused. “How about telling me how you ended up where I found you.”
Julia nodded. “I moved here for my
boyfriend. He got a teaching job at the local high school here in town after we
graduated from college.”
“I see,” Tomas replied. A boyfriend, huh? I should’ve known.
“We rented a one-bedroom apartment in the
Whispering Palms complex just off State Street.”
“You did? I’ve got a place there too.” Maybe that’s why she seems so familiar.
For a moment, Julia looked like she was
unsure of what to say next. Finally, she said, “We had things all planned out,
you know. We came here thinking we could start digging our way out of all the school
debt we’d accumulated and build up a little nest egg before we got married. Neither
of us was making much but we got by, and we had each other. That was the
“Sounds like the two of you were a match
made in heaven.”
Julia shook her head. “It didn’t start
out that way. I was kind of seeing someone else the first time he asked me out
and so I said no. And then I saw him again a few weeks later. By that time, I’d
broken things off with the other guy I’d been dating and so I invited him out
for a cup of coffee.”
“I assume he said yes.”
Julia snorted. “No. Not at all. He
turned me down flat.”
Tomas smiled. “Good on him. I probably
would’ve done the same thing.”
“Luckily for me, he eventually came
around and decided to take a chance on me. After that, we never looked back. At
first, some of my closest friends and even my mom was concerned that we were
getting too serious too fast. I told them all that I knew what I was doing and
not to worry.”
“So, what happened?” Tony asked. If everything between her and her boyfriend
was as perfect as she’s making it sound, what was she doing standing alone by
the road trying to hitch her way out of town?
Julia’s lips quivered and her breath
hitched as she rested her head in her hand and stared out the window. And then
a single tear ran down her cheek. She wiped it away and said, “He doesn’t
remember who I am. There was an accident and…”
Tomas reached out and touched Julia’s
hand. “It’s okay. You don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to.”
When she turned to him with a faint smile, he added, “We’d better get back on
the road. I have a feeling that the weather’s going to get a lot worse tonight
before it gets better.”
As the car’s lights illuminated the
surrounding area, Tomas looked to his left and then glanced into the rear-view
mirror to make sure that the coast was clear before he merged onto the road. He
nearly jumped out of his seat when he caught sight of the truck driver who had
just ran him off the road minutes before standing and waving at him from behind
his car. He swung around to make sure that he wasn’t hallucinating and saw nothing
there but blackness and weeds.
Relieved, he turned back around and
slowly re-entered the road. In the ensuing silence, he took the time to gather
his thoughts. Everything about this day seemed wrong. From the moment he’d
opened his eyes to the second he’d nearly been run off the road, he’d felt like
he’d been cast adrift in a world which didn’t make sense with only the beautiful
and troubled stranger sitting next to him to keep him anchored to reality.
Soon enough, the stretch of road that
Tomas and Julia were on began to ascend into a mountainous area with monstrous
sized trees and steep embankments. For a second or two, he pictured his car
veering off the road to his death and then batted the thought away. But it wasn’t
long before it became apparent to him that he wasn’t the only one in the car
dealing with troubling thoughts.
As the minutes passed, Tomas sensed a
growing unease in Julia. He could see it in her face and hear it in her
breathing as she began to rock back and forth in her seat. What’s going on with her? he thought as he debated whether to re-engage
her in some more conversation. But just when he’d screwed up the nerve to open
his mouth and speak, the sound of screeching tires and roaring engines coming
up from behind made him pause and glance into his rear-view mirror. From what
he could see, it looked like there were two cars driving nearly parallel to
each other at breakneck speed. Absent a miracle, he was sure that the car in
his lane was going to rear end him. He looked to the right to see if he could
pull off the road once more to avoid a collision but saw, to his dismay, that
there was no shoulder this time to pull off onto. What other, if any, options
did he have? Knowing that time was running short, he gripped the steering
wheel, stepped on the gas and prayed.
Tomas looked again into the rear-view
mirror. This time, the car directly behind his was moving over into the
opposite lane of traffic. He said a prayer of thanks as he watched them pass.
But as they began to disappear into the night, he caught sight of the license
plate of the car that had been in his lane and froze. “CATCHME,” it read. That can’t be right, he thought as he
struggled to convince himself that he wasn’t losing his mind. In the meantime,
he spotted a lookout point and immediately pulled over.
Tomas felt Julia’s hand on his arm as
soon as he turned off the engine. He looked into her eyes and wanted to cry.
She reached over and touched his cheek with the back of her hand and said,
“It’s okay Tomas. I’m here.” He kissed her. She kissed him back. He pulled her
close. They made love.
A little while later, Tomas started up
the car and crept back onto the road. He stole glances in Julia’s direction while
working though the jumble of thoughts and feelings that were running through
his mind and heart. He was in love with her, of that he had absolutely no doubt.
And even though she hadn’t said it outright, the way she’d kissed and held him made
it patently obvious that she felt the same way about him too. But what about her boyfriend? The
thought of this nameless and faceless person in Julia’s arms filled him with
jealously and guilt.
After a long period of silence, Tomas
finally spoke up. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me…I hope this doesn’t
screw things up between you and your boyfriend.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m not,” Julia
replied matter-of-factly. “I was a perfectly willing participant. You have
nothing to apologize for.”
After careful consideration, Tomas said,
“I like you. I like you a lot. I felt a real connection to you from the first minute
I saw you.”
“I felt it too,” Julia said as she
placed her hand over his.
“So, what are we going to do about it?”
Tomas asked. He didn’t want to let Julia go or give her up without a fight. Whatever it takes, baby. Just say the word.
As if she had read his thoughts, Julia
replied, “I promised myself a long time ago that I’d do whatever it took to make
my relationship with my boyfriend work. I mean to keep that promise. I owe him
Tomas nodded and said no more. Time to move on buddy. And don’t even think
about trying to argue with her.
It was raining harder now. It was difficult
to see, even with the windshield wipers at their highest setting. He stepped
off the gas and watched as the speedometer needle dropped from 25 mph to 20 and
And then, out of nowhere, Julia shouted,
“Stop the car. Stop it NOW!”
Tomas glanced at her and then looked
forward. He blinked again and again. What
the fuck? his mind screamed as he tried to wrap his brain around the notion
that the man in the red and black plaid shirt and white baseball cap was standing
there in the middle of the road. He jammed on the brakes, veered to the left
and prayed that no oncoming cars were near. We’re
too close, he thought and braced himself for impact. But when his vehicle
finally came to a complete stop, the man was nowhere to be seen.
With his heart thundering in his ears,
Tomas looked at Julia and asked, “Where did he go?”
“I have to go now,” Julia replied and
placed her hand on the door handle. “I can’t go any farther with you than
Tomas grabbed her arm and said, “That’s
crazy. You can’t leave now. We’re out in the middle of nowhere and…and it’s
pouring outside. You’re going to get drenched out there.”
“Let me go.” Julia was crying now. She yanked
her arm away and picked up her purse as she stepped out of the car.
For a moment or two, Tomas was too
stunned to move or speak. What do I do
now? He raked his hands through his hair and tried to think. He looked down
and saw Julia’s cell phone lying on the car floor. He picked it up and accidently
pressed the Home button. The lock screen appeared. What he saw shook him to his
core. It was a picture of Julia…and him.
In an instant, it all came flooding back
to him: two cars speeding past his in the pouring rain, the red car with the
license plate “CATCHME” swerving out of control on the slippery, wet red road, and
the semi-truck veering into his lane and hitting his car head-on. Worst of all,
Julia’s screams. Oh God!
Tomas got out of the car and screamed
Julia’s name over and over again until his voice was hoarse. “Where are you? I
remember now. Please come back.” He dropped to his knees and buried his face in
his hands. He started to cry.
Suddenly, the rain stopped and the
howling wind ceased to blow. All was still, save for the sound of a wolf
howling in the distance. It was then that Tomas felt the gentle pressure of
Julia’s hands on his shoulders. He turned and looked up at her.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Tomas’ tone
was neither accusatory nor angry.
“Would you have believed me if I did?”
Tomas paused, then asked, “So are we…”
Julia nodded and knelt down beside him.
“It happened so fast. There was nothing you could’ve done to avoid it.”
“Do you know where we are? It doesn’t
feel like heaven or hell.”
Julia sighed. “I think we’re somewhere
in between. I saw a light right after it happened and heard a voice calling out
to me. I started to walk toward it and then realized that you weren’t with me.
I looked around and saw you walking away. You seemed so lost, and so when the
voice beckoned me again to the light, I begged for more time. I couldn’t move on,
not without you.”
Grabbing hold of both her arms, Tomas
asked, “How many times have you had to live through this nightmare?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Julia replied and
wept. “You would’ve done the same thing for me.”
Tomas hung his head in shame. “I’m so sorry
“It’s okay. We’re going to be alright
now. We’re together. That’s all that matters. It’s all I’ve ever cared about.”
Tomas nodded and buried his face in
Julia’s shoulder. Moments later, he began to feel something warm and bright
envelope them both. He looked up and gazed in wonder at the sight unfolding
before his eyes.
Julia smiled and rose to her feet. She
looked over at the light and held her hand out to Tomas. “It’s time. Are you
Tomas nodded as he stood up and placed
his hand in hers. “Yeah. Let’s go.”
And so they went, hand in hand, into