Hot, dry wind blew through the pale green plains and whipped the tall grasses the way a candle flame would flick and snap in an almost dark and empty room. Tumbleweed skittered across the empty stretch of country road that roasted beneath the summer sun. Watery waves of heat slithered off the old and poorly maintained asphalt and melted into the bright blue sky, an open ocean, evicted of clouds days, maybe weeks ago.
A crow belched out a caw!-caw!-caw! off the side of the weathered road as it claimed its prize: a rattle snake that had been pancaked at its midline only hours ago. Its guts squirmed from the busted scales and ripped muscle, and the crow sloppily jabbed its beak into the pulp like a heroine junky’s one millionth high.
The crow looked up with an open beak as it panted in the suffocating heat. Blood was smeared along the top, and it cast a slight shimmer beneath the afternoon sun. The crow huffed and puffed as it stared down the stretch of road. Something in the distance was moving, a red blur that bounced and shook as it traveled down the road.
A truck. A pickup truck, old and worn, much unlike the driver who sat in its seat. Rust spots and battle wounds decorated the vehicle’s pale exterior, drained by the light of the sun. The exhausted suspension rocked the truck as it fought with the potholes and cracks of the asphalt. The engine rumbled with old, experienced gurgles, but sounded strong and mighty, an engine that would be reliable in even the worst of times.
The young driver took on a different appearance, one with few wrinkles and a body that hadn’t shown its wears and tears yet. Scratchy scruff hid whatever baby face that was beneath it, and short, messy hair lay on the top of his head that looked like he had just gotten out of bed (which he had). His eyes were such a deep blue that you could swear you would be looking through his head and at the sky itself.
He gripped the steering wheel with controlled ease as he bounced in his seat with every pothole that the truck dominated. The windows were rolled down and allowed a breeze, albeit warm, to wisp through the air. The driver grabbed a small, flat tin canister and twisted the cap off. With one scoop of his index finger, he tucked a glob of chewing tobacco behind his bottom lip.
The radio emitted a shower of static as the driver tuned through station after station. The voice of a radio newscaster faded in through the fizz. A Waco woman was in tears this morning when she discovered that she had won the $16.3 million lottery win…
The crow craned its head around as it observed the horizon, and expressed one more caw! as it scooped the snake into its mouth and flew off into the rolling plains of the countryside.
The truck slowed as it approached a three-way intersection. Dirt and dust collected behind the truck and spiraled through the air. It was a very bland intersection, occupied by only cracked road, weathered signs, slanted telephone poles and sprinkled with anthills.
And a man. He was a slender, tall gentleman, and he was dressed in a blue-gray suit, almost rough to the touch but not quite, a fedora of the same color, and a navy blue tie. He looked to be in about his forties, where his age was starting to show, but his youth had still persisted. The man lifted his hat as the truck approached the intersection, and he exposed his thick, milky-white hair, combed neatly and protected with the perfect product. This man was sharp.
And now our top story: tragedy struck Hillsboro as an expecting couple perished while they were sleeping inside their newly purchased home when it went up in flames overnight—
The driver shut the radio off. As the truck crawled to a stop, he studied the man in the suit. He put the car in park, and the man walked up to the passenger window. He casually rested his arms on the bottom of the window and leaned against the side of the truck without a worry of getting his suit dirty.
“Afternoon,” the man said in a voice just as sharp as he looked. He stared at the driver with warm, green eyes and a smile of white teeth that looked a little too long to be natural.
“Afternoon, sir,” the driver nodded, “Where’ya headed?”
“Isn’t that what I’m supposed to be asking you?”
“No, I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”
“You don’t look like you belong around here,” the driver said. He pantomimed adjusting the knot of a tie.
The man chuckled, “I suppose you’re right. I don’t exactly look the type to be in these parts. Or hitchhiking for that matter.”
The driver nodded slightly as he scooped the chewing tobacco from one side of his lip to the other and said, “So, where’ya headed?”
“Sorry, buddy,” the driver said before he spat a concoction of saliva and tobacco out his window, “But I’m headed the other direction towards town.”
The man gave a warm smile and stared at the driver’s sky blue eyes. “Then I guess I won’t be wasting any more of your time,” he said as he tilted his hat toward the driver.
“You sure? Town isn’t too far a ways, I’m sure there’s someone there who’s headed toward Moira that can give ya a lift.” The driver leaned across the passenger seat to open the door for the man.
“What would you do if I told you that if you go in the direction of town, you’ll die?” asked the man abruptly, his smile nothing more than a smirk now, his green eyes a shade darker, colder.
The driver froze with his eyes locked on the man’s, his mouth parted with the chewing tobacco in mid toss by his tongue. “The hell did you just say?” He asked quietly, almost calmly.
The man’s smile reappeared as it crept slowly across his face. “Answer the question…Danny.”
Danny. He’d always hated that name. It always sounded so boyish to him, and he felt as though people didn’t take him seriously whenever someone referred to him as so. But this man, this stranger who Daniel met not even five minutes ago, delivered something too serious for him to even bother with the fact that not only did he know his name, but he used it in such a way that was so personal that shivers electrified through his body. Every inch of skin turned bumpy as the hairs on his arms and neck stood straight on end, and he could feel sweat begin to bead up on his forehead. He couldn’t tell if it were the heat finally getting to him, or if it was the sudden terror that built up within him.
“Who the hell are you?” Daniel asked again. He found himself pressed up against the driver side door, and the movement of backing away from the man was nothing more than a mystery to him.
The man remained at the window, his smile still split across his cheeks. He pulled out a handkerchief from the outside pocket of his suit and whipped it unfolded. “Whew! It sure is a doozy out here today, isn’t it?” The man removed his hat, his milky-white hair almost blinding from the sun, and wiped the sweat off his face. “Now, Danny, I want you to think about it, okay?” He said has he carefully folded the moist handkerchief back up. “What would you do if I told you that if you go in the direction of town, you’ll die?”
“Yeah well what if,” Daniel replied almost immediately.
The man chuckled as he looked down at his shoes, powdered with dirt. He looked back up at Daniel and shrugged ever so slightly. “I’d just like to know.” The driver only stared at the man. “I’ve asked several people this question before. What’s another one gonna hurt?”
Daniel stared at the man a moment longer, and he had now noticed for the first time that the man had not blinked once since the two had met. His smile stretched his skin in a way that made his face almost skeletal, and his lips curled back to reveal the unnaturally long teeth that sprouted from his pink gums.
“First tell me who you are.”
“Answer the question, and you’ll find out.”
The man’s cryptic retorts made Daniel wish he had his shotgun with him this time. Normally he wouldn’t have the need to take it with him wherever he traveled. The sleepy town he resided in was so quiet that it remained under most radar. However, every once in a blue moon, some whack-job drifter like Mr. Rogers here shows up, and it’s people like him that wake the town up from its blissful slumber.
Daniel thought for a moment and wondered whether he should entertain the idea of answering the man’s question, or put the pedal to the metal and get the hell out of there, pronto. Finally, he said, “’Kay. I would pick ya up and take ya to Moira. And then I would drive back home, wait out the day, go to sleep, and get to town tomorrow.”
The man stared at him for what seemed like minutes. “And if you died if you went in the direction of Moira?”
“I have a gun,” the driver said instantly.
“No you don’t.”
“Who are you?”
“Answer the question.”
“Shit!” Daniel hissed. “I ain’t answerin’ some stupid question from someone I don’t even know. You’re wastin’ my time.”
“I said I didn’t want to,” the man replied. “You didn’t have to answer the question, Danny. You didn’t even have to stop and say anything to me.” He was right: Daniel knew he had the power to continue toward his destination, but he felt a heavy energy that weighed him down, and almost glued him to his seat. Something about the man’s eyes kept him frozen, like Medusa’s stare that turned her victims into stone.
“You could have just moseyed on with where you were headed,” the man continued, “and left me behind and hope, for even just a little, that someone else would stop and give me a lift. You have the power to make the decisions of what happens to you in your life.
“Every day we test fate; a man deciding whether he needs to go right or left at a stop sign; a couple that moves into a house for expansion, to only have it burn down a week later in the middle of the night; a woman choosing the right numbers to a winning lottery ticket; a snake deciding when to cross the road in hopes that it will get to the other side. Everywhere we go, there’s a decision to be made. It’s that decision that tests fate, and one false move is a matter of life and death.
“Be careful tempting fate, Danny. Like I mentioned before, you and I were supposed to meet here. Take heed to what I am about to tell you, as most people will never have this opportunity presented to them in such a…grandiose manner:
“You will die today. You will die if you decide to go into town. You will die if you decide to pick me up and take me to Moira. You will die if you decide to turn around and head back home. This intersection was a meeting place for you and I, and we are in a moment in time where it no longer exists. This is your chance to foresee what lies ahead, and I suggest that you take it as an opportunity, or, more of a privilege, as most who tempt fate do not know or expect what is to come from the thousands of decisions we make every day.”
Daniel stared at the man with intense, blue eyes. A deathly silence hovered over the intersection like a raincloud. The ghostly moan of the hot wind had finally been released from its limbo; the dry, crackling squawk! of some vultures nearby fell deaf on all ears; he looked at his radio: the clock read 00:00. His engine’s old, hardy grumble was dead, gone without a rattle.
Daniel cautiously asked, “Where am I going to die?”
“That is not of any importance.”
“But what if I try and avoid it? Say I was s’pposed to die on my way to town, like ya said. So I take a different way. There’s more than one way there, I’ll just take some detours.” The man said not a word, and Daniel contemplated. “Or time. You tell me a time, and I’ll just go earlier or later.”
The man stared at Daniel with a calm demeanor. And then he tilted his head back, and he laughed. It was a laugh so dry that it rattled, a hiss that sounded like sand blowing against a concrete wall, a rush of raspy desert wind. Every nerve in Daniel’s body told him to slam the truck into drive and get away from the man as quickly as he possibly could, but the man’s laugh held him captive.
“That gets me every time,” the man said. “You can’t escape fate, Danny. It was set in stone from the moment the universe was created. Think of all the things that had to happen to get you right here! Do you really think that if you take a detour, or miss your appointment, you’ll postpone your death for another time? No, no, it doesn’t work out that way. No matter what you do, no matter where you go, or what time you decide to, you’ll always end up at the right place at the right time. You can sit in your home all day if you wanted to, but fate is strong, and it’s a force that is very persistent, and patient, and you will at one point leave your home before the day is over, and you, Daniel, will die.”
The driver’s heart thumped against his ribcage, and his entire body was glistened in sweat from fear and adrenaline, ready to fight the moment the man attempted to open the passenger door. His mouth was full of dirty saliva as he forgot to spit, entranced by the speech of the stranger. He turned his head cautiously and a squirt of brown was expelled from his lips, out the window, and onto the ground where it sizzled beneath the hanging sun.
The man unfolded his handkerchief and removed his hat. Daniel almost squinted at the sight. The man cleaned his forehead of sweat before tucking the small cloth back into his front pocket.
“What’s the point of all this if I ain’t got a chance?” Daniel asked.
“It’s not chance,” the man retorted. “Whether you believe in a higher power or not, there is a plan for everyone, from the very moment of the big bang in the sky, to the very moment all of this ends in a blink of an eye. It doesn’t matter who dealt the cards. It just matters how they are played. You’ve been playing the wrong hand, Danny. And now it’s time for your final decision: will you fold with dignity? Or will you say, ‘Hit me,’ again and again until you reach the bottom of the deck in hope of finding a better outcome? There’s only one way for this to end, and it all depends on the decisions you make.”
He lifted his wrist up and pushed his suit sleeve back to reveal a very nice silver watch. The sun’s glare shivered against his right eye. “I better start making my way to Moira if I want to get there in time.” He slid his sleeve back over the watch.
“Would you like to know anything else?” The man added.
Daniel was speechless. He wanted to know more, he had a thousand more questions to ask, but something forced his mouth shut.
“Would you still like to know who I am?”
Daniel had a lump in his throat. “I don’t think I actually answered the question, yet.”
The man tapped the side of his nose, and with a tilt of his hat and a flash of his smile, he said, “I’ll see you soon.”
The man turned to walk away, and Daniel’s heart nearly leapt out of his chest when his truck suddenly rumbled to life and hummed in the quiet, hot breeze. Time once again existed, and life continued forward as Daniel watched the man walk in the direction of Moira.
“Hey,” Daniel started. The man turned to face the driver, his eyes greener than the grass on the other side, his smile wide enough that it could cut his head in half. “You’d look better in black.”
The man let a quick, dry laugh escape from his lungs. “I’m told that every time.” And with that, he turned and never looked back. He whistled an unfamiliar tune and moved at a leisurely pace, a man with all the time in the world but had places to be. Daniel had a million thoughts buzzing around his brain, and he sat there for what felt like an eternity as he watched the man stroll away, his blue-gray suit a shivering blur as his figure became distorted in the distance by the rising heat of the asphalt.
He put the truck in drive, and he began to turn.